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#pounditThursday, August 6, 2020

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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