People sometimes say the majority of folks who watch college basketball don’t really start doing so until after college football ends. I won’t pretend to know whether that’s true. But if it’s true, welcome everybody!
The college football season ended late Monday the way it always seems to end — with Clemson and Alabama playing each other. As you probably know, Clemson won 44-16. Total beatdown.And if you’re one of the aforementioned folks just now turning to college basketball, the rest of this column is designed to catch you up. Here are 10 things to know about this college hoops season.
1. Duke is ranked No. 1 in the AP poll
Duke didn’t return a single player from last season’s team who averaged even 4.0 points per game. Regardless, oddsmakers made the Blue Devils the preseason favorite. And, so far, Mike Krzyzewski’s team has lived up to, and possibly exceeded, the hype. Duke is 12-1 with five wins over top-40 KenPom schools — specifically No. 9 Texas Tech, No. 11 Auburn, No. 12 Kentucky, No. 27 Indiana and No. 36 Clemson. Four of those wins have come by double-digits. Three have come by at least 19 points. And freshman star Zion Williamson is some people’s favorite to win national player of the year because he’s averaging 20.2 points, 9.5 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 2.1 steals and 1.9 blocks in 25.8 minutes per game for the team that’s currently.
Simply put, the Blue Devils are terrific.
They remain the favorites to win the national title.
2. There are three undefeated teams
Though Duke is No. 1 in the AP Top 25 poll, the Blue Devils do not have the sport’s best record. That honor actually belongs to Michigan and Houston — both of which are 15-0 heading into midweek games. The only other undefeated team is Virginia, which is 13-0 with wins over Florida State, Wisconsin and Maryland. So, yes, the same program you watched last March become the first No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16 seed in the NCAA Tournament is on track to earn another No. 1 seed. And, if the Cavaliers do it, my prediction is that they’ll win their first game in the Big Dance by 30 points and, perhaps, then win at least three additional times to make their first Final Four under two-time Naismith National Coach of the Year Tony Bennett.
3. Tennessee is really good for the second straight season
Rick Barnes’ Vols were one of the biggest surprises last season when they won a share of the SEC title after being picked 13th in the preseason SEC poll. Considering all of the important pieces from that team returned, UT wasn’t going to surprise anybody this season; the Vols were on everybody’s radar. But it’s still worth pointing out that they’re just as good as, if not better than, everybody predicted.
Tennessee is 12-1 with the lone loss coming. The biggest win is the neutral-court win over Gonzaga. And the other 11 victories are all double-digit victories that have come by an average of 25.3 points. In other words, UT has been absolutely killing people. And now the first Final Four in school history is very much possible — thanks, in part, to the development of Grant Williams, who entered Tennessee as just a three-star prospect but has blossomed into somebody who is, as a junior, averaging 19.9 points, 8.3 rebounds and 4.1 assists in 30.7 minutes per game. He was the SEC Player of the Year last season — and he’s better in just about every way this season. So, if he and the Vols keep this up, Williams will likely become a two-time SEC Player of the Year in a couple of months.
4. Kentucky has some issues
I had John Calipari’s Wildcats ranked No. 1 in the preseason Top 25 And 1. It made sense at the time but looked way less sensible afteron the opening night of the season. Since then, Kentucky has won 10 times and lost twice — . So it appears the Wildcats are closer to good than great — and, either way, they’re struggling to guard the 3-point line.
UK is allowing its opponents to shoot 38.4 percent from 3-point range, which ranks 329th nationally. And the three teams that have beaten the Wildcats — Duke, Seton Hall and Alabama — have combined to go 33-of-75 from beyond the arc against them. That’s 44.0 percent — which is a higher percentage than literally every other school in the country currently allows opponents to shoot from 3-point range. So if the Wildcats are going to compete with Tennessee, Mississippi State and Auburn at the top of the SEC, they’re probably going to have to figure out how to challenge opponents more consistently at the 3-point line.
5. Kansas lost its starting center
Kansas was No. 1 in the preseason Associated Press Top 25 poll — and the Jayhawks have looked the part for much of this season thanks to wins over Tennessee and Michigan State. But they lost Udoka Azubuike to a; he’s having season-ending surgery. And now KU is less than it otherwise would be.
Azubuike was the Jayhawks’ third-leading scorer and second-leading rebounder. Kansas is 9-0 with him but just 3-2 without him. So, suddenly, the Jayhawks are far from a lock to win a 15th straight Big 12 title.
Can they do it?
Of course they can.
But Texas Tech and Iowa State are legitimate challengers.
6. Texas Tech and Ohio State are surprisingly good again
Texas Tech was picked seventh in the preseason Big 12 poll while Ohio State was picked eighth in the preseason Big Ten poll. And though it’s still obviously too early to know for sure, it seems pretty clear neither will finish that low in their league standings.
Texas Tech is currently 13-1 and ranked No. 8 in the AP Top 25 poll even though Chris Beard lost five of his top six scorers from last season’s NCAA Tournament team. Ohio State is 12-2 and ranked No. 16 in the AP Top 25 poll even though Chris Holtmann lost five of his top seven scorers from last season’s NCAA Tournament team.
Remarkable coaching jobs are being done by both.
They’re two obvious candidates for national coach of the year.
7. Gonzaga is finally healthy
The Zags played their entire non-league schedule without their leading returning scorer, Killian Tillie, and the incredible thing is that it didn’t seem to matter. They still went 13-2 and secured wins over Duke, Creighton and Washington; the lone losses are to Tennessee on a neutral court and at North Carolina.
That’s a solid resume.
And now Tillie is back.
He only played nine minutes in Saturday’s win over Santa Clara — which is evidence that Mark Few will ease the junior forward back into the rotation as he returns from preseason ankle surgery; no need to rush things, after all. But if the Zags were good enough to beat Duke without Tillie, it’s reasonable to suggest they’ll be good enough to beat anybody with Tillie. They’re on the short list of championship contenders.
8. The Pac-12 is terrible
— which has zero teams ranked in the AP Top 25, zero teams ranked in the Coaches Poll and zero teams in the top 40 at KenPom. It became the first power conference in two decades to have a winning percentage below .600 for the month of December. And UCLA was so disappointing, you might’ve heard, that it fired Steve Alford on New Year’s Eve.
The Pac-12 put three teams in the NCAA Tournament last season.
I’m guessing two will be the number this season.
And it could be just one.
9. The reigning champs already have four losses
Villanova only lost four times all of last season on its way to winning the 2018 NCAA Tournament. But this season, despite being ranked in the preseason top 10, the Wildcats lost for the fourth time on Dec. 15.
They’re 11-4 now.
So they’re playing better.
But two of the losses are to sub-100 KenPom teams — specifically Furman and Penn. And did you realize Villanova didn’t lose to any sub-100 KenPom teams in any of the previous five seasons? It’s true. And it’s among the reasons why the Wildcats are unlikely to extend their streak of four consecutive 30-win seasons.
10. Duke is my pick to win the national title
I have Tennessee ranked No. 1 in the Top 25 And 1 right now because I believe the Vols deserve to be there. But when it comes to picking a national champion, I’m leaning toward Coach K’s Blue Devils.
They’re great offensively.
They’re great defensively.
They have more projected lottery picks than anybody.
And they have the greatest college coach in history in charge.
Obviously, that’s a terrific combination. And it’s why I really do believe Krzyzewski is about to win his sixth national championship. Moreover, if he does it, he will become the first coach to ever win a title while starting four freshmen. So that would be yet another accomplishment for the Hall of Fame icon.