Turning your attention from college football to the hardwood? These are the top storylines you need to know.
College football season is officially in the books! If you’ve been fixated on bowl games until now and are just dipping your toe into the college hoops waters now, welcome. Here’s what you need to know about what has been an exciting season to date and where things stand as conference play hits full swing.
Baylor is back
Baylor won the men’s national championship in 2020–21 … and somehow got more athletic this season? The Bears aren’t the same team that cut down the nets last April; just one starter (center Flo Thamba) returned from that group. But Scott Drew used player development (Matthew Mayer and LJ Cryer have raised their games), recruiting (freshmen Kendall Brown and Jeremy Sochan look like first-round NBA picks) and the transfer portal (James Akinjo has solidified the point guard position) to get Baylor right back into title contention.
Baylor’s backcourt doesn’t have NBA talent like last year’s team did, but it’s made shots and navigated tough Big 12 environments to get out to a 16–0 start until Tuesday’s loss to Texas Tech. Meanwhile, the Bears’ monstrous front line that features big wings like Mayer, Brown and Sochan and imposing centers in Thamba and Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua has made their defense incredibly effective. Until proven otherwise, Baylor should be considered the favorite to be crowned champs on the first Monday of April as it seeks to become the first team to repeat as champs since Florida in 2006 and ‘07.
Battle-tested South Carolina is a worthy No. 1
One of the great things about this season in women’s college hoops has been the number of high-profile matchups between the nation’s elite teams. South Carolina has played the hardest schedule in the sport, per RealTimeRPI.com, including matchups with NC State, UConn, Maryland, Oregon, Duke and Stanford in the nonconference. Going undefeated in that gantlet of a non-league slate is incredibly impressive and why the Gamecocks didn’t budge from No. 1 in the AP poll after their loss at Missouri early in SEC play. Dawn Staley’s team is a terror on the glass and on the defensive end, while star big Aliyah Boston has raised her game in her junior campaign.
The Big East is wide open
In the preseason, the men’s Big East looked like Villanova, then everyone else. Instead, it might be the most competitive conference in the sport. The Wildcats are certainly still in the mix thanks to their experience and shooting ability, but the lack of a go-to scorer and minimal depth has caused Jay Wright’s team to come up short in big games.
Xavier might have the most talent in the league, with a veteran group headlined by PG Paul Scruggs and big man Zach Freemantle. But can Travis Steele get over the hump after a disappointing start to his tenure with the Musketeers? UConn and Seton Hall are monsters on the defensive end and at times have looked like potential elite teams, but at other points have struggled to score in big games. And then there’s Providence, the team that arguably has the best résumé in the sport thanks to road wins at Wisconsin and UConn, plus a home win over Texas Tech. The Friars are the least talented of that bunch, but their experience and toughness should put them in the conversation.
The Big Ten has star power
This year’s men’s Big Ten isn’t as deep top to bottom as it was a season ago. But no conference has more star power than this one, with multiple National Player of the Year contenders (including the favorite in Wisconsin’s Johnny Davis) all suiting up in the Midwest. Davis’s improvement in his sophomore campaign has been remarkable to watch, blossoming into one of the best and most polished scorers in the country to carry Wisconsin into conference contention. Then there’s Kofi Cockburn, who quietly is putting up ridiculous numbers in Champaign for Illinois, which remains undefeated in the Big Ten. Keegan Murray at Iowa is the nation’s leading scorer and is helping the Hawkeyes not miss Luka Garza.
Ohio state’s E.J. Liddell is perhaps the most versatile two-way weapon in the sport and was Sports Illustrated’s top player of the nonconference. And then there’s Trayce Jackson-Davis, the dominating post presence for Mike Woodson and Indiana. Throw in the Purdue trio of Jaden Ivey, Trevion Williams and Zach Edey, and it’s quite possible there will be a Big Ten player that is an All-American but not a first-team all-Big Ten selection. Davis, Murray and Ivey also figure to be lottery picks, which would be the first time since the 2013 draft that three Big Ten players went in the first 14 selections.
Kellie Harper leads Tennessee’s resurgence into the top five
Year 3 under head coach Kellie Harper has been a breakthrough for the Volunteer program, which has returned to the top five of the women’s AP poll for the first time since November 2015. Perhaps most impressively, they’ve gotten out to this remarkable start to the season despite the loss of Rae Burrell, who only recently has been working her way back into the rotation after a knee injury suffered in the team’s season opener. Harper, a Tennessee native who played under Pat Summitt in Knoxville, made the jump to UT after a successful run at Missouri State and has proven to be the perfect person to get this program back on track. February matchups with UConn and South Carolina could prove huge in the Lady Vols’ push for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.
Arizona is a title contender under Tommy Lloyd
Longtime Gonzaga assistant Tommy Lloyd inherited an incredibly talented roster from Sean Miller, but Lloyd has done a phenomenal job positioning the Wildcats well in Year 1. He has overseen the development of center Christian Koloko into the best rim protector in the country, dominating the paint against Cockburn and Hunter Dickinson to key an excellent Arizona defense. Meanwhile, sophomore wing Bennedict Mathurin has grown into one of the premier scorers in the sport, using his combination of elite athleticism and shooting ability to become the two-way wing every coach wishes they had. Add in a third all-conference type in Azuolas Tubelis, and you have one of the most complete teams in the sport.
UCLA and USC will also have a say in the Pac-12 title race, but I wouldn’t bet against this Arizona roster. It has all the makings of a Final Four team.
Big Ten title race takes shape
Three Big Ten women’s teams sit in the top 11 AP poll right now in what has become annually one of the most entertaining leagues in the sport. After last year’s Elite Eight run, Indiana has earned the top spot in the conference so far after knocking off perennial power Maryland at Assembly Hall earlier this month. The Terrapins are still dangerous though, especially as talented wing Diamond Miller gets back to full health. When things are clicking, there may not be a more dangerous offense than the Terps. The third elite team so far has been Michigan thanks to the dominating interior presence of Naz Hillmon, and Hillmon’s presence down low is good enough to keep them in any game.
Add in a feisty Nebraska team, Caitlin Clark and the explosive Iowa Hawkeyes and other potential NCAA tournament teams like Ohio State and Northwestern, and the Big Ten race should be a thriller yet again.
Watch out for Auburn
The Tigers felt like the forgotten team in the national conversation for much of the season, but may finally be starting to get the attention they deserve after Tuesday’s huge road win at Alabama. Bruce Pearl’s team has, arguably, the best frontcourt in men’s college basketball with uber-skilled stretch forward Jabari Smith and rim-protecting UNC transfer Walker Kessler. Smith is the most unguardable player in the sport because of his size and shooting ability, which allows him to simply elevate over the top of defenders and drill jumper after jumper. Meanwhile, Kessler leads the nation in block rate and had a triple double with blocks earlier this season against LSU. Transfer guards Wendell Green Jr. and K.D. Johnson have been explosive off the bounce and taken care of the ball well. And the scariest part? The Tigers are still working star wing Allen Flanigan back to full health after an offseason Achilles injury. With him back in the fold, there may not be a more talented team in the sport than the Tigers.
Loyola Chicago, Iona, Colorado State headline mid-majors to watch
We have a great crop of men’s mid-majors this year capable of making noise come March, with some familiar names from past tournaments and some new ones bursting onto the scene. Among the familiar, Loyola Chicago’s March runs of the past certainly aren’t easily forgotten, and the Ramblers have a team that can make noise yet again. The transition from Porter Moser to new head coach Drew Valentine has been seamless, and the Ramblers have three wins over high-major teams plus a neutral-court victory over San Francisco. This is a team that can get to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament.
Colorado State’s undefeated season came to an end at San Diego State this past weekend, but the Rams have two stars in David Roddy and Isaiah Stevens and a terrific young coach in Niko Medved. They came up just short of an at-large bid in 2021, but history won’t repeat itself in 2022.
And one other mid-major of the many worth mentioning I’ll highlight: Iona. The Gaels got a needle-moving win over Alabama at the ESPN Events Invitational in November and have no bad losses on their résumé. They’ll have to walk quite the tightrope in conference play to get an at-large bid, but this group is the class of the MAAC and should be a tough out come March. Big man Nelly Junior Joseph could play anywhere in the country and Rick Pitino won’t be out-gameplanned in a tournament setting.
Bueckers stars before injury, could return in February
UConn star Paige Bueckers won National Player of the Year honors as a freshman and appeared well on her way to repeating until she suffered a knee injury in early December against Notre Dame that later required surgery. Her eight-week recovery time could get her back on the court in early to mid-February, just in time for the stretch run. That could be quite a boost for a UConn team that will be as dangerous as anyone once it can get Bueckers back. In six games before her injury, she was averaging over 21 points, five rebounds, six assists and two steals per game for the No. 10 Huskies.
The ACC is DOWN
At Duke’s best, I’m a believer that the Blue Devils are the best team in men’s college basketball. But beyond Duke, the ACC is having its worst season in nearly a decade. Per KenPom, the league’s adjusted efficiency margin is the lowest it has been since the 2012–13 season. That year, the league got just four bids to the NCAA tournament, and four feels like something resembling a best-case scenario for the league after a disastrous nonconference season.
After Saturday’s win at Cameron Indoor Stadium, Miami has the best résumé of the non-Duke teams and is off to a 5–1 start in conference play. But the Canes are still outside the top 75 in the NET rankings, which leaves them vulnerable. Virginia Tech’s NET looks good, but its résumé is lacking and an 0–3 start in the ACC is a significant problem. Even North Carolina isn’t an NCAA tournament lock due to a porous defense and lack of quality wins. I do think the ACC will get to four NCAA bids because, if nothing else, someone has to win enough conference games to impress the committee. But right now, no one other than Duke is guaranteed to hear their name called on Selection Sunday.
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This story was originally published January 12, 2022 12:00 PM.