Five Questions between now and Selection Sunday
1. Can Villanova repeat?
Without question. Parity is again the dominant theme in college basketball this season and the Wildcats’ balance, depth, and experience make them a legitimate threat to win back-to-back national titles for the first time since Florida in 2006 and 2007. Jay Wright’s squad doesn’t boast great depth with a seven-man rotation, but four of those players — Jalen Brunson, Josh Hart, Kris Jenkins, and Mikal Bridges — had significant roles during last year’s championship run.
2. Does Duke still have college basketball’s highest ceiling?
It certainly feels that way. The Blue Devils have been a much more cohesive team over the past two weeks since they tightened their rotation, and Duke still has more star power than anyone else in the sport. There are three players on this roster — Grayson Allen, Matt Jones, and Amile Jefferson — that have already won a national title in 2015 and another — Luke Kennard — that’s playing like a first-team All-American. Add four future first-round picks in Jayson Tatum, Harry Giles, Frank Jackson, and Marques Bolden and you could see why many were lauding this team at a such a high level in the preseason. With injuries and other off-the-court issues now behind them, Mike Krzyzewski can fully focus on molding this group into the team many thought it would be over the next five weeks. There’s no team in college basketball with as many answers as the one that resides in Durham.
3. Will Gonzaga enter the 2017 NCAA Tournament undefeated?
Next Saturday’s game against Saint Mary’s in Moraga will be an arduous task, but the Bulldogs are still bigger, stronger, and more athletic than the Gaels at every position. Mark Few’s team improved to 24-0 overall after Saturday night’s win over Santa Clara and is giving every indication that it will cruise to Selection Sunday the same way that Wichita State cruised to a perfect record during the 2013-14 season. If Gonzaga survives next Saturday in Northern California then the smart play is that it will begin March Madness with an unblemished record.
4. Can Kentucky get things right?
It doesn’t look too promising. John Calipari was able to pull a rabbit out of his hat in 2014 when he rallied the Wildcats and took them to the national title game despite a disappointing regular season, but this is starting to look like the worst defensive team he’s had since he’s been at Kentucky. The Wildcats have given up 79 or more points in each of their last four games and have shown zero signs that they’re going to be able to right the ship on that end of the floor. All of Calipari’s great teams at either Kentucky or Memphis were known for their ability to get into the opponent defensively, and this team isn’t currently reflecting any of those attributes. It’s hard to see this team advancing to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament with the way they’re currently playing.
5. How many NCAA bids will the ACC wind up with?
Ten seems like a safe bet. No conference in the history of college basketball has been as good from top to bottom as this year’s ACC, and that should bode well for the league’s representation in the NCAA Tournament. With the Atlantic 10, American, Mountain West, Big Ten, and SEC all experiencing down years from a depth perspective, expect the ACC to wind up with a large share of at-large bids on Selection Sunday. Any team with a 9-9 conference mark in this conference should be good enough to hear its name called on March 12th.
Five National Player of the Year Candidates
Josh Hart, Villanova: Hart has done everything except sell popcorn for the 22-2 Wildcats, who have the inside track to be the No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament’s East Region. The 6-6 senior is averaging career highs in points (18.9), assists (3.4), steals (1.5), field-goal percentage (51.8), and three-point field-goal percentage (40.3). Not bad for guy who came off the bench when he was a sophomore.
Frank Mason, Kansas: Mason hasn’t just been productive this year for Kansas — he’s been ridiculously efficient. The former Towson commit is shooting 51.2 percent from the field and 52.5 percent from three-point range while averaging 20.4 points, 4.3 rebounds, and 5.2 assists. If Bill Self’s squad earns a number one seed in the Midwest then Mason is going to be tough to beat for this award.
Luke Kennard, Duke: Another Chris Mullin? There’s certainly a resemblance. The 6-6 lefty may have very well turned around the Blue Devils’ season with his game-winner last week at Wake Forest and he’s already made more field goals (152) and free throws (96) than all of last season with the same amount of three-point shots (55) already made. Kennard wasn’t the first Duke player that people were talking about prior to the start of the season, but he’s cemented himself as the Blue Devils’ most consistent and productive piece by a significant margin.
Caleb Swanigan, Purdue: Burly big man has tallied 20 double-doubles in 24 games this season and is now shooting 50.0 percent from three-point range after shooting 29.7 percent from deep last season as a freshman. Swanigan is a joke; no one fills that box score with as much ease as this guy, who’s clearly separated himself as the best player in the Big Ten. He’s averaging 19.1 points, 12.8 rebounds, and 2.8 assists while shooting 54.7 percent from the field.
Lonzo Ball, UCLA: A transcendent talent, this 6-6 point guard has single-handedly transformed the Bruins from a 15-17 team to a squad that has a legitimate chance to advance to the Final Four. TJ Leaf is the one who’s leading UCLA in both scoring and rebounding, but if Steve Alford’s team was a snake then Ball would be the head. This is a once-in-a-generation type of point guard that has the innate ability to elevate everyone around him. There’s no way that the Bruins are 21-3 and averaging 93.0 points and 23.0 assists if any other floor general is running their offense.
Five National Coach of the Year Candidates
Sean Miller, Arizona: Kept his team afloat without Allonzo Trier for two months and Parker Jackson-Cartwright for one. Despite Saturday’s loss at Oregon, the Wildcats are still well positioned win the Pac-12 regular season title and potentially earn a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Scott Drew, Baylor: Despite back-to-back losses, Drew has been sensational this season in Waco. The Bears’ program has had many high points under this man’s watch, but it may not be as well positioned to earn a high seed in the field of 68 as it is right now as long as it can finish the regular season out strong.
Mark Turgeon, Maryland: Lost four starters and still has Maryland at 20-3 overall.
Mark Few, Gonzaga: On the verge of taking the Bulldogs to the NCAA Tournament as an undefeated No. 1 seed.
Jay Wright, Villanova: Has the defending national champions in position to earn a No. 1 seed despite no Phil Booth (knee) and no Omari Spellman (ruled ineligible by the NCAA).
Five coaches who aren’t getting enough credit
Tim Jankovich, SMU: Who says you don’t want to be the guy who follows the guy? Jankovich has the Ponies at 20-4 in their first season post Larry Brown.
Mick Cronin, Cincinnati: On the verge of taking his alma mater to their seventh consecutive NCAA Tournament. The Bearcats haven’t lost since Dec. 10th at Butler.
Andy Enfield, USC: Led the Trojans to a 14-4 record when Bennie Boatwright was sidelined with a knee injury and continues to cement himself as a tactician. “Dunk City” was no fluke.
Frank Martin, South Carolina: The opposite of a self promoter, Martin is pound-for-pound as good of a defensive coach as there is in the sport. The Gamecocks won’t miss the NCAA Tournament this March.
Randy Bennett, Saint Mary’s: The Gaels aren’t getting nearly the attention they would if Gonzaga wasn’t having such a remarkable season. Saint Mary’s is quietly 21-2 overall — a pretty remarkable feat if you’ve ever visited this campus in Moraga.
Five mid-majors to watch
Middle Tennessee: Nine of its 10 conference victories have come by double-figures with Arkansas transfer Jacorey Williams (17.5 points, 7.6 rebounds) leading the way. This team is better than the one that beat Michigan State last March in the NCAA Tournament. Remember the name Giddy Potts — as if you’d ever forget!
Illinois State: The Redbirds lost by 43 at Wichita State on Saturday without starting forward MiKyle McIntosh (13.5 points, 6.4 rebounds), but Dan Muller’s squad is still built for March. Illinois State has only allowed 60 or more points in two of its first 11 conference games and aside from Saturday’s loss against the Shockers, this team has proven that it defends at an exceptionally high level. Once McIntosh returns from a meniscus injury, the Redbirds will have as formidable a mid-major triumvirate as there is in the country with he, Paris Lee, and Deontae Hawkins.
Monmouth: One year after arriving on the national scene, the Hawks look primed to get over the hump and reach the NCAA Tournament. King Rice’s squad is currently on a nine-game winning streak thanks to the back court trio of Justin Robinson, Micah Seaborn, and Je’lon Hornbeak. Monmouth’s depth could be a major factor if it reaches the field of 68, as the Hawks play nine players in double-figure minutes.
Princeton: Mitch Henderson lost two starters to season-ending injuries in Hans Brase and Henry Caruso, but the Tigers are still in sole possession first place in the Ivy League. Patient, poised, and always under control, Princeton doesn’t beat itself and does an outstanding job of controlling the tempo. The Tigers are currently on an eight-game winning streak following Saturday’s win at Harvard.
UNC-Wilmington: The defending CAA champions are again capable under Kevin Keatts and their top three scorers — C.J. Bryce, Chris Flemmings, and Denzel Ingram — were all a part of a team that lost to Duke last March in the Round of 64. UNC-Wilmington has a new weapon in Old Dominion transfer Ambrose Mosley (40.5 percent from three-point range) as well as an improved Devontae Cacok (13.6 points, 10.4 rebounds) in the low post. The Seahawks are also averaging seven more points per game (86) than they did last season (79).
Five off-the-radar teams that could reach the Sweet 16 with the right matchup
Dayton: The Flyers’ four seniors — Scoochie Smith, Kyle Davis, Charles Cooke, and Kendall Pollard — are all 22 years old and Smith, Davis, and Pollard were a part of this program’s run to the 2014 Elite Eight when they were freshmen. Archie Miller’s knack to get his teams to regularly defend and take quality shots makes Dayton a dangerous team. The Flyers are old, tough, and know how to deal with adversity. Another thing to remember? Josh Cunningham — a transfer from Bradley who started the season in the starting lineup — could return to Dayton’s front court in the near future after suffering an ankle injury early in the year.
Virginia Tech: Buzz Williams’ squad isn’t the first, second, or third ACC team that most people think of, but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t capable of being a nuisance to play against in the field of 68. The Hokies are a difficult matchup for opponents who aren’t familiar with their style because they play smaller with more versatile players like Zach LeDay or Chris Clarke masquerading as power forwards or centers at 6-6. That versatility combined with Williams’ knack for building toughness and a bevy of capable guards in Justin Robinson, Seth Allen, Ahmed Hill, and Justin Bibbs makes Virginia Tech a potential thorn for certain teams to watch out for in the NCAA Tournament.
SMU: The best one-two punch in college basketball that nobody knows about is the Ponies’ combo of Shake Milton and Semi Ojeleye. Milton — a former top-40 recruit — and Ojeleye — a transfer from Duke — each have the star power to take over a game in the NCAA Tournament and immediately become a national name. SMU has only seven scholarship players in its rotation, but the Ponies are a unique matchup because every player in their rotation essentially stands between 6-4 and 6-8 and can switch every ball screen on defense. The Ponies’ interchangeable pieces and commitment to stopping the opponent make them an intriguing unit to track.
USC: You need high-level players to advance in the NCAA Tournament and that’s what the Trojans have on their roster. USC has two potential pros on the baseline in sophomores Bennie Boatwright and Chimezie Metu while Elijah Stewart, Jordan McLaughlin, and Shaqquan Aaron are all legitimate collegiate players who can take over a game. McLaughlin’s growth and maturity at point guard, makes Andy Enfield’s squad much more polished than a year ago when they lost to Providence in the Round of 64.
South Carolina: Frank Martin’s squad still hasn’t lost a game at full strength this season and is only giving up an average of 64.3 points in 10 SEC games. The Gamecocks aren’t flashy, but they’re an elite defensive team that could stifle a high-scoring opponent by dragging a game into the mud and forcing them to play at a snail’s pace. South Carolina also has two experienced guards in seniors Sindarius Thornwell and Duane Notice.
Five bold predictions
Louisville will reach the Final Four: This team’s last four ACC wins have come by a combined 135 points and the Cards’ best player and starting point guard — Quentin Snider — didn’t play a single minute during that span due to a hip injury. Think about that for a second! Louisville has always gotten better over the course of a season under Rick Pitino, and this year is no different. This team seems destined to play in Glendale in early April.
The Big East will only have one team in the Sweet 16: The season-ending knee injuries to both Creighton’s Mo Watson and Xavier’s Edmond Sumner make it hard to have faith in anyone from this conference other than Villanova beyond the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament. Butler has had several impressive wins this season, but the Bulldogs have recently suffered back-to-back home losses at Hinkle Fieldhouse. The Big East feels like it’s again going to be dependent on Villanova to make major noise in March.
The SEC will only have three teams in the NCAA Tournament: This conference has struggled with its basketball perception for years and not much has changed this season. Kentucky, Florida, and South Carolina all look like near locks for the field of 68, but beyond that is an unknown. Arkansas and Tennessee were in position to earn to be in the at-large picture, but each lost road games at Mississippi State and Missouri, respectively, on Saturday. Those are the types of losses that leave teams out of the bracket on Selection Sunday.
The ACC will again shine during March Madness: 11 of the 32 teams that have reached the Sweet 16 over the past two NCAA Tournaments have come from the ACC and the league is positioned yet again to be put its stamp on the greatest event in sports. The depth of the conference is better than it’s ever been and that should pay major dividends in the field of 68. How deep in the ACC? Duke — who this writer said above still has the highest ceiling in college basketball — would be a six seed if the ACC Tournament began today.
UConn will heavily explore joining another league in the offseason: The Huskies have battled injuries this season en route to a 10-12 record, but their overall cache as a program also isn’t quite what it was when they were operating in the old Big East. Kevin Ollie led UConn to a national title in 2014, but the Huskies’ brand still belongs on a bigger stage. Sources have told FanRag Sports that UConn has consistently looked into joining the Big East as a basketball only member as long as it could find another home for its football program. Other sources have stated that members of the Big East currently like the league’s double round-robin format in basketball where everyone plays each other twice and adding an 11th team could change that. A big thing to remember? The ACC will go to 20 league games during the 2019-20 season and the Big East could opt to do the same if it added the Huskies as an 11th team while keeping the double round-robin format. UConn will be better next season when it gets back Alterique Gilbert (shoulder) and Terry Larrier (ACL), but to truly return to the national scene on a high level this program may have to make a move to a more high profile league.
Jon Rothstein has been a college basketball insider for CBS Sports since 2010 and is the lead college basketball columnist for the FanRag Sports Network. He is also the host of the College Hoops Today Podcast via Compass Media Networks, which is available via iTunes. Rothstein is also a regular in-studio correspondent for both WFAN and CBS Sports Radio. He currently lives in Manhattan.