NCAA Basketball: Five Things (We Think) We Know
We should know better than to get too caught up in the preseason polls.
But doggonit, who could have foreseen No. 1 Duke falling to an unranked and unheralded team out of Nacogdoches, Texas (Stephen F. Austin State)? Or UNC once again coming up short against Wofford College (1,692 enrollment) and enduring losing streaks of four and five games apiece? Who would have guessed that San Diego State would reel off 22 straight wins (and counting), that a year after facing off in the NCAA final both UVA and Texas Tech would all but drop off the map?
The AP’s D1 basketball rankings sure look a whole lot different than they did back in late October. As we creep ever closer to March Madness, Live by StubHub sets out to make sense of it all.
1 | BATTLE-TESTED BAYLOR IS A LEGITIMATE NO. 1: Thanks to the head-turning play of guys like Jared Butler, MaCio Teague and Freddie Gillespie, Baylor (18-1) is off to its best start in program history. At press time, the Bears had won 17 straight — a streak that included an unmatched five wins over Top-25 teams (Villanova, Arizona, Butler, Texas Tech and Kansas). You’d have to turn back the clock to 1948 to find the last time BU went unbeaten in January. The setback against Washington at the Armed Forces Classic — a game in which the Bears failed to make a field goal over the final five minutes — now seems but a distant memory. “We’ve got a lot of guys that have been through the battles and wars,” said head coach Scott Drew. “They don’t get rattled as easily as someone who hasn’t.” Drew’s defense has held 18 of 19 opponents below 70 points, forcing turnovers and owning the boards.
2 | GONZAGA IS NO LONGER THE LITTLE ENGINE THAT COULD: That the Zags (22-1) continue to hold their own against schools two, three, sometimes four times their size says a lot about longtime head coach Mark Few both as a master recruiter and mentor. The mid-major powerhouse hasn’t missed the NCAA Tournament since the late ‘90s, including a trip to the final under Few in 2017. Gonzaga looks primed for yet another WCC crown in 2020, as well as a deep March Madness run. The only team in the nation with six players averaging double-digits, they certainly have the firepower to do so. “We’re just balanced,” said Few. “We don’t just have one guy we go to.” His global gathering — led by the likes of Serb Filip Petrusev, Frenchman Killian Tillie and home-state product Corey Kispert — is tops in the nation in scoring (89 pts.), scoring margin (22.5 pts.) and total assists (394). GU’s lone slip-up came against Michigan in the Bahamas, but wins over Oregon, UNC and Arizona are scoreboard evidence of what the program is capable of. Half of their remaining eight games will be played at the McCarthey Center, where the Bulldogs have won 35 straight decisions — the longest active home-court win streak in the country.
3 | DON’T WRITE OFF COACH K AND THE BLUE DEVILS JUST YET: Despite the addition of touted recruits Vernon Carey Jr., Matthew Hurt, Cassius Stanley and Wendell Moore, not all has gone according to plan for the Blue Devils (17-3), who were stunned by unranked Stephen F. Austin (the first non-ACC team to beat Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium in nearly 20 years) and dropped back-to-back games (Clemson and Louisville) for the first time since 2018. As a result, the team dropped to No. 9 in the AP Poll and the Cameron Crazies went into panic mode. “I never told you we were great,” asserted Mike Krzyzewski, who’s relatively inexperienced roster includes six freshmen. “Getting beat, we have to learn from it and move on. It’s a long journey.” Coach K hopes what he calls “on-the-job training” will serve his young core well as it gets into the meat of its conference schedule. And you can never count out the winningest coach in college basketball history. The imminent return of Moore should help the team’s slumping defense. The 6-foot-6 wing has been out since Jan. 4, when he broke his hand in the 95-62 dismantling of Miami. Without him, Duke has gone 4-2. With him, they could be right back in the thick of it.
4 | THE JAYHAWKS REMAIN A FORCE DESPITE SUSPENSIONS: The fallout from the Sunflower Showdown fiasco against in-state rival Kansas State — a 12-game suspension for forward Silvio De Sousa, two games for David McCormick — hasn’t done much to stall KU’s winning ways. The Jayhawks (17-3), who rank No. 1 nationally in strength of schedule, have now reeled off five straight road wins. Their only losses on the year came against Villanova and current No. 1 Baylor. If there is one question mark for Bill Self’s squad, it may be the health of point guard Devon Dotson. The team leader has been playing (and performing) with a bruised hip. He’s been in double digits on 18 occasions this season, but you have to wonder if a little rest might benefit the North Carolinian (and the team) in the long run. Kansas entered the 2018-19 season ranked No. 1 in the AP Poll, only to fall short of expectations at 26-10 and see their run of 14 consecutive Big 12 regular-season titles come to a halt. You can bet Self & Co. are focused on regaining their foothold come March.
5 | TEMPER YOUR MARCH MADNESS EXPECTATIONS FOR SAN DIEGO STATE: San Diego State hasn’t looked this good since two-time NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard led the Aztecs to the Sweet 16 in 2011. Off to a program-best 22-0 start, SDSU is the last remaining unbeaten team on the college basketball landscape. Guard Malachi Flynn (16-plus points and five assists per game) continues to set the pace, and the team now ranks fifth in the nation in limiting the opposition to just 36.7 percent shooting from the floor. But the Mountain West Conference isn’t the ACC, the Big 12 or the SEC. (SDSU ranks 75th in strength of schedule.) The fact remains, the Aztecs have yet to face programs the ilk of a Kansas, Duke or Villanova. And until they run up against teams of that caliber in the Big Dance, it’s difficult to know what they’re really capable of.