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Saturday, February 22, 2020

Stories by ShaneMcNichol:

5 leading candidates for college basketball’s National Player of the Year

Obi Toppin

As we careen towards March, one word will be ever-present in every college basketball broadcast, discussion, debate, and prediction this season: parity.

This season lacks a depth of great teams, with few, if any, surefire Elite Eight or Final Four clubs scattering the landscape. Instead, there are plausibly 35 teams that could make a deep run in the Big Dance, and at least a dozen teams with real hopes to cut down the nets in Atlanta.

Despite the excitement that parity might create, it has led to fewer blockbuster, must-see match-ups. Without those big games on the calendar each week, the National Player of the Year race has been quieted to an extent. Without a chance to impress in front of the brightest lights, this year’s top players haven’t been able to separate themselves and become household names.

These five players lead the race for the year end honors, though there is plenty of time for that to change down the stretch:

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5 biggest games left in the college basketball’s regular season

Scott Drew

With football in the rearview mirror and the NBA about to hit the All-Star break, the nation’s eyes turn to college hoops. Even though the sport is just getting its first attention of the season, the action and storylines are far closer to a conclusion than you might think.

It’s a tad jarring to see how few games remain on the college basketball calendar, yet what we lack in quantity, we find in quality. So many of the games left yet to play have taken on greater significance at the top of conference standings or for bubble teams clawing towards a tournament bid.

With just more than a month left until Selection Sunday, these five games carry the greatest importance in the college basketball landscape.

5. Dayton at Rhode Island, March 4

Dayton has earned a reputation as a top-ten team and national title contender by starting the season 22-2. The Flyers entered the national conversation by outperforming expectations at the Maui Invitational in November. In hindsight, however, Dayton’s wins that week over Virginia Tech and Georgia have proven to be less impressive. In conference play, the Flyers have started with 11 straight victories, of varying degrees of difficulty. A home win over VCU is nice and wins at Richmond and Duquesne can’t be ignored, yet you can’t blame the national media or the Selection Committee if they want to see a bit more from Dayton.

March 4 offers that chance, with a road date against the Atlantic-10’s second best team. Fatts Russell and the Rams should be in March’s NCAA Tournament but can really help their resumé with a victory over the Flyers. Seeding and bragging rights are on the line, and this game should be heated as soon as the ball is tipped.

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5 biggest questions remaining in the college basketball season

Brian Dutcher

February marks a key moment in the college basketball calendar. There is just enough time for teams on each side of the bubble to make their move in either direction. Good teams can get hot, turn into great teams, and earn top seeds. Discussion about awards, conferences, tournament bids, and draft prospects all reach their peak with March nearing.

At the same time, there isn’t that much season left. Most teams have fewer than seven games remaining. The majority of tournament resumés are solidified. The rope will run out soon.

With that in mind, let’s sort through the questions that we still have enough games to sort out and see if we can’t find an answer.

5. Will any of the premier draft prospects set themselves apart in the conversation to be the top pick in the NBA Draft?

There is currently no clear consensus player atop the draft boards of NBA teams. There is no Zion Williamson or Luka Doncic in this class. In fact, the more scouts see from this year’s crop of draft-worthy talent, the more they sour on the list of prospects.

Even though two of the year’s top prospects chose to play overseas rather than in NCAA competition, with LaMelo Ball and RJ Hampton heading to Australia, there are still a handful of collegiate players with a chance to impress scouts down the stretch this season. Cole Anthony has returned from injury and will need to carry his North Carolina club. Anthony Edwards has been boom and bust for Georgia. Tyrese Maxey of Kentucky and Obi Toppin of Dayton likely have a lot of work to do to be factors in the discussion for the top pick, yet will be under a bright spotlight as they play deep into March.

4. Will any of the elite programs having difficult seasons bounce back?

Right now, it is totally plausible that we’ll have an NCAA Tournament that does not include Indiana, Virginia, Georgetown, Syracuse, UCLA, Florida, Texas, and North Carolina. At best, we can probably expect only half of those teams to reach the Big Dance. With the Heels still struggling after Cole Anthony’s return from injury, it is probably too late for North Carolina to rebound.

For the rest of that group, a season outside the tournament can feel like a black mark and has fanbases questioning the direction of the program. For teams like Virginia and Florida, who spent time in the top ten early in the season, there will be a lot of questions about how things fell apart.

3. Will the season end with a clear National Player of the Year?

College basketball’s lack of one true, united National Player of the Year honor leaves some seasons with a murky mess and no clear picture as to who was truly the best of the best. Every media outlet will spend time debating the subject, but if one player wins the Wooden Award, and another wins the Naismith Award, it can feel like there was no true winner.

That has only happened three times since 1990, yet feels possible this year. If votes were due today, I’d argue for Dayton’s Obi Toppin. The junior forward has been dominant for the Flyers, elevating them into the top ten. Others would argue for Myles Powell, Luka Garza, Vernon Carey, Cassius Winston, Jared Butler, Jordan Nwora, or Malachi Flynn. It is remarkable how many viable candidates remain.

2. Can San Diego State complete an undefeated season?

While there are many top players in college basketball, there is only one undefeated team left. San Diego State currently sits at 23-0 this season. The Aztecs will not face a top-75 team in the rest of regular season, with a potential rematch with tournament contender Utah State looming in the Mountain West Conference Tournament.

KenPom currently pegs San Diego State’s chances of remaining unbeaten the rest of the regular season at about a coin flip, giving the Aztecs a 44 percent chance to win their final six games. That would make San Diego State just the fourth team this century to reach the postseason without a loss. They are certainly good enough to pull off that feat and in the discussion to compete for the national title. The Aztecs would be the first team to complete a perfect season in men’s Division I basketball since Bob Knight and Indiana did so in 1976.

1. Who will enter the NCAA Tournament as the favorites to win the championship?

San Diego State may be unbeaten, but due to a mid-major schedule, no signature wins, and a healthy East Coast bias, many will be searching for another team to herald as the favorites to cut down the nets in Atlanta.

Duke and Kansas will certainly attract tons of attention, yet the current most likely champions are two teams that defeated each of those blue bloods on their respective home floors. Louisville has outplayed a young Duke team in ACC play, notably in the Cardinals’ victory at Cameron Indoor Stadium. Jordan Nwora is one of college basketball’s best scorers and he’s surrounded by veteran, valuable role players.

Meanwhile, Kansas was defeated soundly by Big XII rival Baylor at Allen Fieldhouse, one of Baylor’s many impressive wins this year. The Bears have the inside track to the top overall seed in the Big Dance and have shown themselves to be one of the nation’s best teams on both ends of the floor. Scott Drew has a crop of versatile athletes who gel together to form a top-five defense in the country. The Bears have 13 wins over top 100 competition since their last, and only, loss which came all the way back on November 8. If they continue to play that well, they should be the most popular pick to burn through the bracket.

Shane McNichol covers college basketball and the NBA for Larry Brown Sports. He also blogs about basketball at Palestra Back and has contributed to Rush The Court, ESPN.com, and USA Today Sports Weekly. Follow him on Twitter @OnTheShaneTrain.

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8 teams most likely to land a No. 1 seed in March Madness

Bill Self

It’s hard to believe we’re nearing college basketball’s home stretch already. Conference play seemingly just started, but teams are already separating themselves in the standings and making their case for tournament bids and seeds. With the entirety of non-conference play in the rearview mirror, the Selection Committee already has a large portion of the information that will lead to the bracket that is revealed in mid-March.

Even though there are plenty of games left on the schedule and a pile things to be decided, for something as prestigious as a No. 1 seed, the crop of contenders has already whittled down to just a handful of teams. These eight teams have the best chances to secure a spot atop one of March Madness’ four regions.

8. Louisville

Despite similar talent levels and performance this season, Louisville edges Dayton for the last spot on this list. As good as the Flyers have been, they face the unfortunate reality of playing in a mid-major conference. To reach the top line from a non-power conference, the committee expects near perfection. No Atlantic-10 team has even been a 3-seed in March since Xavier did so all the way back in 2008. The ACC meanwhile has had nine top seeds since expanding to its current size in 2015, with at least one team from the conference earning a No. 1 each of those five years. Louisville has laid the groundwork, with wins over Akron, Michigan, and a crucial victory at Duke. If the Cards can hold serve the rest of the way in conference play, they’ll have a chance to earn a top seed during the ACC Tournament.

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Five teams that could become Cinderella stories in March Madness

The four days between Selection Sunday and the round of 64 games of the NCAA Tournament is one of the most fun periods for sports fans. Brackets are distributed, analyzed and agonized over. Everyone has a common goal: find the Cinderella team.

There are few joys as sweet as predicting an upset, especially when the team you stood up for makes a run past the first weekend.

Finding the teams capable of an upset is certainly easier once the field is set, yet there is some real value to checking in on possible Cinderellas earlier on in the schedule. Let’s take a look at teams with a chance to make waves in March, limiting our search to mid-major teams currently rated no higher than a 11 seed in ESPN’s most recent bracket projection.

5. Duquesne

Before this season, the Dukes would not have figured into a list like this one. The program has been in a nearly permanent downturn, winning more than 20 games in a season just twice in the last 40 years. It came as a surprise then when the Dukes started 10-0, with just three teams left unbeaten when they suffered their first loss on December 22. Duquesne’s early schedule helped. The Dukes played no true road games and didn’t face a KenPom top-100 team in their first 10 games.

Even after losing two games, Duquesne looks like a team to fear in the Atlantic 10. Wins over Davidson and Saint Louis has the Dukes tied atop the conference standings. Defense has been a strong point, as Duquesne leads the nation in block rate. Junior big man Michael Hughes swats 5.2 shots per 40 minutes, and Duquesne only allows a conference-low 60.0 points per game in A-10 play.

The case against Duquesne comes from their competition atop the conference standings. Dayton is a true top-10 team and Final Four contender, meaning Duquesne likely needs to beat the Flyers (or pick up crucial quality wins over Richmond or VCU) or win the A-10 Tournament to reach the Big Dance.

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Five big breakout players this college basketball season

Obi Toppin

The college football season has come to an end, bringing college basketball to the forefront. If you haven’t tuned in yet, you’ve missed an absolutely wild season to-date. Good teams have been upset left and right, leaving the media and fans totally lost when trying to figure out which teams could really advance to the Final Four in Atlanta.

On a more local level, we’ve seen enough games now to believe that some of the hot starts we’ve seen from players are not an aberration, but a real sign of growth. In a college basketball landscape that points tons of attention at the one-and-done freshmen, the development of upperclassmen can be forgotten.

These five players have improved so much this year, it would be impossible not to recognize their newfound success.

5. Daniel Oturu, Minnesota

The Big Ten is an absolute slaughterhouse this season, with every single team offering a tough test in conference play. KenPom is currently projecting 11 of the conferences 14 teams to finish between 11-9 and 9-11 in conference. The battles for conference tournament seeds and bubble superiority will be ruthless. That’s due in part to the emergence of players like Oturu. His elevation from a productive freshman who put up 11 points, 7 rebounds, and a block each game to a game-wrecking big man as a sophomore has changed Minnesota’s outlook.

Oturu is currently posting 20 points, 12 rebounds, and 3 blocks per game. His 29-point, 18-rebound effort on the road at Purdue proved that the Gophers won’t just be tough to beat at home at the Barn. They’ll mean business all over the conference, thanks in part to Oturu.

4. Luka Garza, Iowa

Elsewhere in the Big Ten, Iowa is also built around a dominant big man. Garza was a good player in previous seasons, averaging double-figure scoring in both of his seasons in Iowa City. This year, he has started the season on fire. Garza uses his size to overpower opposing big men and has a soft enough touch to finish all kinds of looks in the paint. He’s averaging 22.0 points and 10.8 rebounds per game and is drawing 7.2 fouls per 40 minutes in Big Ten play, the most in the conference.

3. Malachi Flynn, San Diego State

The nation’s most notable breakout team deserves a mention, with Flynn playing the role of breakout player for the undefeated Aztecs. He was a good player at Washington State before transferring, adding 15.8 points per game for the Cougars two years ago. After sitting out the requisite year for transferring, Flynn has returned as a better, more complete player. He’s more aggressive attacking the paint, while also refining his shot. Flynn increased his 3-point percentage from 34 percent as a sophomore to 42 percent this year despite the line being moved back in that time.

2. Jared Butler, Baylor

In a development that no one saw coming, Baylor has grown into one of the best teams in all of college basketball. Butler’s development as a sophomore is a huge reason for the Bears success. He’s increased from 10 points per game as a freshman to over 16 per contest this year, raising every one of his shooting percentages year-over-year. Butler’s development as an offensive playmaker has given the Bears a real go-to option — something they lacked last season as a middling NCAA Tournament team.

1. Obi Toppin, Dayton

No player has had a more eye-popping breakout season than Toppin. I’m not even sure how it would be possible to outdo his rise in his sophomore season. Last season, he was a contributor to a mediocre Dayton team that reached the NIT, pitching in 14 points per game, mostly coming off the bench. This season, Dayton is a bonafide top-10 team, and Toppin is a legitimate National Player of the Year candidate.

The 6-foot-9 power forward plays an inside-out game and has been dominant with the ball in the paint. He shoots the 12th-best 2-point percentage in the nation and the best in the Atlantic 10, at over 82 percent in conference play.

Shane McNichol covers college basketball and the NBA for Larry Brown Sports. He also blogs about basketball at Palestra Back and has contributed to Rush The Court, ESPN.com, and USA Today Sports Weekly. Follow him on Twitter @OnTheShaneTrain.

Early favorites to win college basketball’s power conferences

Coach K

Everything in college basketball changes when conference play begins.

Those in power have done wonders to drum up interest in early-season action, with big name teams being featured in tournaments and showcases for the first few months of the season. But blowout wins over cupcake opponents and sloppy early-season play are littered throughout that part of the schedule.

Conference play brings rivalries, road games with student-sections, and a landslide of upsets. In short, it’s the reason we love college basketball. On top of that, succeeding in one of America’s toughest conferences is the best way to prove yourself before March Madness tips off.

With that in mind, here are the early favorites to win the six biggest conferences in college hoops.

ACC – Duke

The Blue Devils might be the boring and obvious pick, but at this point in the season, they are also the most qualified. Duke’s overtime home loss to Stephen F. Austin was a bad mishap, but it’s their only blemish so far. Aside from that slip-up, Duke has impressed with wins over Michigan State, Kansas, Georgetown and Miami.

The ACC’s other top contender, Louisville, lost at home to Florida State this weekend and only gets to play Duke once this season –- a road game at Cameron Indoor. Advantage to the Blue Devils.

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5 college basketball teams off to troubling starts

Roy Williams

The new year is upon us, giving teams that have come out of the gates slowly are starting to run out of time to make corrections. Conference play for nearly every league in college basketball begins in earnest in the next week or so, with true road games abound and very few sure things left on the schedule.

There are plenty of chances to identify problems and correct them before March, but for some teams, those chances will run out sooner than they might realize. Here are five teams in need of a course correction after a shaky start.

5. Florida

No team that began the year as a title contender has been as soundly disappointing as the Gators so far this season. Mike White and company have already dropped four games and have had more than their fair share of close calls against lesser competition. Florida will enter SEC play with just one win against top 50 KenPom competition and an 0-2 record against the top 25.

The Gators’ offense has been hindered by poor shot selection, a lack of motion, and bad shooting so far this season. Florida ranks 301st nationally in assist rate — a putrid sign for a team without a true go-to scorer. Their preseason dreams of a top seed are likely in the dumps, yet there is plenty of time to turn things around and look better by March. Best of all, Florida doesn’t see Kentucky until February 22. If the Gators, a team that starts two freshmen and a transfer, can start to figure things out before then, we’ll feel a lot better about their tournament outlook.

4. Wisconsin

Greg Gard returned six contributors from last year’s Badgers, a team that won 23 games and was a 5-seed in the NCAA Tournament. Expectations were reasonably high in Madison. Instead, it’s been a rocky road thus far for the Wisconsin program, its first season in four years without Ethan Happ reliably roaming the paint. Without Happ, the Badgers have struggled to adjust defensively. On the other end of the floor, Nate Reuvers has emerged as a leading scorer, yet the Wisconsin guards have started the season with cold shooting on questionable shot selection. It’s resulted in a 7-5 record with the absolute gauntlet of Big Ten play, likely the toughest slate of any league in college hoops, on the horizon.

The Badgers most recent game, a 20-point win over Tennessee in which Wisconsin made 11 threes, could be a sign of better days ahead.

3. Vermont

On November 19, Vermont was coming off a win at St. John’s and held a four-point lead deep into the second half against Virginia in Charlottesville. In that very moment, the sky looked like the limit for the Catamounts. Even when Virginia came back to win, the possibilities of a 30-win type season were very much in the works for Vermont. Since that loss, Vermont has hit several road bumps, losing to Rider, Cincinnati, Yale, and UNC-Greensboro. All four are good teams with tournament aspirations, yet for Vermont to reach the heights considered possible preseason, those are the types of teams against whom the Catamounts should collect wins.

Like so many teams at this stage of the season, cold shooting is to blame for so many of Vermont’s problems. More than 44 percent of the Catamounts field goals come from long range (41st most in the nation), but they’ve sunk just 29 percent of those attempts (300th best in the nation). That issue is exemplified by Vermont’s best player, Anthony Lamb, who sunk 7 of 14 from deep against Virginia but has made just 8 of 44 in his last 8 games (just 19 percent).

2. Providence

The Friars had aspirations of contending with the Big East’s elite tier this season, yet have failed to do so in non-conference play. Providence has played the 228th strongest schedule in the nation and struggled to a record of 7-6 so far. That makes the Friars the only Big East team with more than four losses. A three-game skid against Penn, Long Beach State, and Charleston marked a clear low point for Providence. Alpha Diallo, expected to be the Friars’ main playmaker, is shooting just 21 percent from long range and has coughed up 3.3 turnovers per game, eclipsing his nightly assist average of 3.0. If he can’t stay under control, the rest of the Providence offense, which relies on his production, will falter.

1. North Carolina

After a 5-0 start in which Cole Anthony looked like a First Team All-American, things looked great in Chapel Hill. Since then, the Tar Heels’ season has taken a turn for the worst. Anthony is injured and will miss a total of four to six weeks. That news came in the midst of a seven-game stretch in which Carolina lost five times, including twice at home.

With Anthony in the lineup, the Heels lacked a secondary scoring option and relied heavily on players who appear unready for the big stage. With Anthony sidelined, North Carolina has virtually no play-making ability and only finds points in transition or around the rim.

The ACC schedule is kind of North Carolina in light of Anthony’s timetable. The Heels’ tougher match-ups all come down the stretch of the season, with seven of their next eight conference games coming against teams ranked outside the KenPom top 50 (with the exception being 36th ranked NC State).

Shane McNichol covers college basketball and the NBA for Larry Brown Sports. He also blogs about basketball at Palestra Back and has contributed to Rush The Court, ESPN.com, and USA Today Sports Weekly. Follow him on Twitter @OnTheShaneTrain.