Archive for the ‘NCAA’ Category

Elite Eight — Sunday Games

Posted: 03/25/2018 by levcohen in NCAA

Given the alternatives, I think we should be pretty happy about the Final Four matchup we’re getting on the left side of the bracket. Florida State and Kansas State were great March stories, but at the end of the day they were mediocre teams all season and didn’t really belong in San Antonio next weekend. Instead, we get a Michigan team that’s won 13 straight games against the best type of Cinderella — one that’s clearly much better than its 11-seed would indicate. The way that Loyola (Chicago) disposed of K-State was extremely impressive. They tore apart the Wildcats’ stingy defense and thoroughly outclassed Kansas State. Michigan will be a moderate favorite come Saturday, but it seems much more likely that Loyola can move on than K-State had they knocked off the Ramblers. And from a narrative standpoint, this is the best we could have gotten. Michigan is a public favorite with alums everywhere who will turn out in droves in San Antonio. Loyola is the lovable underdog with a 99-year-old sensation of a chaplain. It should be fun. Now to see what the other Final Four matchup will be.

#3 Texas Tech vs. #1 Villanova:
Spread: Villanova favored by 6.5

West Virginia was a good test for Villanova. Texas Tech will be another one as the Wildcats try to continue to tear through the Big 12. The Red Raiders are easily the best defensive team Villanova has played on the year. They’re fourth in the country in defensive efficiency after Michigan edged ahead following their performance last night. They’re not as physical as West Virginia, and they don’t press, but they have a bunch of long, quick defenders. Texas Tech held Purdue — one of the best offenses in the country, although granted they were without Isaac Haas — to 65 points. They forced the Boilermakers, normally not a turnover-prone team, to turn the ball over 17 times. Given that a few of Villanova’s secondary ball-handlers — Donte DiVincenzo and Collin Gillespie — had real turnover issues against West Virginia, turnovers could be an issue. And Texas Tech has also proven that it can score the ball. Keenan Evans has been a killer in the second half of tournament games. He’s been dealing with a toe injury but has scored 61 points on 32 shots (and 22-of-25 shooting from the line) in three tournament games. He’s a handful. The problem is that the Red Raiders just don’t have the firepower to keep up with Villanova. They’re going to have to hope that their defense is good enough to derail the Wildcats’ scalding offense. Villanova scored 90 points against West Virginia and is shooting 47.8% from three through three tournament games. The Wildcats were in tight battles throughout the first half of the Alabama game and most of the West Virginia game, but both times they reached an offensive level that the opponent couldn’t come close to matching. I expect the same type of thing to happen here. Texas Tech has a great defense, but Jalen Brunson, Mikal Bridges, and Villanova’s offense will do enough to advance to the Final Four against the tough Red Raiders. Villanova wins 76-67.

#2 Duke vs. #1 Kansas:
Spread: Duke favored by 3

I hinted at this in my Kansas-Clemson prediction, but I’m still not convinced that the Jayhawks are GREAT. I know they’re going to be a tough out. They’re a tremendously talented offensive team. But they still lack depth, as evidenced by their performance down the stretch against Clemson when Udoka Azubuike and Devonte’ Graham were saddled with foul trouble. Duke’s going to be able to score against them. We know how talented they are offensively, and I think it’s fair to ignore their offensive struggles against Syracuse, because Syracuse’s defense is unlike any other. The Blue Devils now face a more normal and pedestrian defense, and it’ll show. The most interesting part of this game will be seeing how Kansas fares against Duke’s zone defense, which is what’s turned around the Duke defense this season. Kansas has the talent — and, crucially, the three point shooting — to exploit the zone. Both of these teams like to push the pace, but I’m not sure Kansas should want to get into a track meet with Duke. Marvin Bagley is a terror in transition and holds a big speed advantage over Azubuike. Udoka got fatigued pretty early against Clemson, and Duke will surely try to tire him out again given how effective he was against the Tigers. Bagley and Wendell Carter are handfuls and shot a combined 19 free throws against Syracuse, so foul trouble could again be a factor for Kansas. This is a compelling matchup between two high-powered offenses, but I think Duke has a real edge thanks to their interior strength. Graham needs to have a big game here after struggling mightily with his shot (14-of-43 from the floor) in his first three tournament games. But Graham’s a sub-40% shooter for the season, so I don’t think it’s fair to expect a super efficient performance against Duke’s top-10 defense. Graham’s a great distributor, and I think he’ll lead his team to a pretty solid offensive effort, but Duke will take this game 85-79.

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Elite Eight — Saturday Games

Posted: 03/24/2018 by levcohen in NCAA

Now that was… A lot more reasonable. Yesterday’s games went pretty much as I expected. The Villanova-West Virginia game was physical and close, with the Mountaineers racking up 16 offensive rebounders and 16 more shot attempts than the Wildcats. But West Virginia couldn’t match Villanova’s shot-making ability down the stretch. Kansas led Clemson throughout and failed to cover because they struggled to overcome the loss of Udoka Azubuike (fouled out). Purdue led Texas Tech early but looked overwhelmed by the Red Raiders’ athleticism down the stretch in a game that was very similar to the Gonzaga-Florida State game the night before. The Duke-Syracuse game was the most surprising to me, but I guess it shouldn’t have been; Syracuse is clearly a different team in the tournament. The Blue Devils ended up winning, but 5-of-26 three point shooting kept them from pulling away. So Kansas and Duke will face off in what’ll be the most anticipated game of the weekend, while Villanova-Texas Tech is a marquee game in its own right.

We’re back to the unpredictable side of the bracket tonight. The fact that Kansas State, Loyola (Chicago), and Florida State are all still alive is flabbergasting. FSU and K-State both flew under the radar all season despite playing in major conferences simply because they just weren’t that good. Even after three straight wins, they rank 27th and 36th respectively in adjusted efficiency per KenPom. Loyola was the class of the MVC all season — and is 31-5 with a win at Florida — but they were an 11-seed coming in and couldn’t have been expected to beat Miami, Tennessee, and Nevada to get to the Elite Eight. Michigan’s the fourth team playing tonight, and they’re the Big 10 Tournament champs and a #3 seed, so their presence is less surprising. But it took a miraculous buzzer-beater for them to even reach the second weekend. It’s an Elite Eight Saturday that doesn’t really feel like an Elite Eight Saturday. We know a #9 or #11 seed will make the Final Four. Could Florida State make it two?

#11 Loyola vs. #9 Kansas State:
Spread: Kansas State favored by 1.5

This game is very likely to be tight and played in the upper 50s or lower 60s. Both teams rely on their defenses and play at glacial paces. That’s especially true for Kansas State without leading scorer Dean Wade, who scored four points in eight first half minutes in his return to action against Kentucky before sitting out the second half. We don’t know how much Wade will play, but I assume the answer is not much (if at all). Both of these teams have been resilient. K-State made the Elite Eight almost entirely without the help of their leading scorer. They beat Kentucky despite shooting just 35% from the floor. And Loyola has won its three games by a total of four points. Neither team was expected to get here, but thanks to a combination of good play and circumstances, they both have about a 50-50 chance to make the Final Four. I think Kansas State’s win over Kentucky was more impressive than any other win either of these teams had. K-State was tremendous defensively, completely holding in check a super talented Kentucky team that had its way last weekend. Kentucky made 16 field goals overall. Kansas State won despite a rough night from top remaining scorer Barry Brown, who shot 4-of-15 from the floor. With all of that being said, their offense is really not very good. They scored 61 points against Kentucky, but that was only because Xavier Sneed, a swingman shooting 33% from three on the season, got hot and hit five threes. As a team, Kansas State, a 34.5% three point shooting team, hit nine of their 22 three point attempts. I don’t think that’s going to happen against a Loyola team that held Nevada’s talented offense to 7-of-27 shooting from beyond the arc. And I think that, with Wade still out, the Ramblers just have more offensive firepower than the Wildcats. They shot 56% from the floor against Nevada. They hit their first 13 shots of the second half. Clayton Custer, the Iowa State transfer, scored effortlessly. Fellow starting guards Aundre Jackson and Marques Townes were almost as efficient. Loyola’s not going to rack up big point totals — and the Ramblers can get into offensive ruts — but I have more faith in their offense than I do in Kansas State’s. This is a true coin-flip game. Loyola’s probably going to be more efficient from the floor, but K-State will likely get to the line more and is a better free throw shooting team. I’m going to pick Loyola to win 63-58.

#9 Florida State vs. #3 Michigan:
Spread: Michigan favored by 4

Michigan beat the breaks off of Texas A&M. That’s what happens when a defensive team as good as Michigan also hits 14 threes and shoots 62% from the field. The Wolverines had 52 points at halftime and ended up winning 99-72. If they have another offensive performance like that, Florida State has no chance. But there’s little chance that Michigan will be able to sustain that kind of offense against a Florida State team that has dismissed Xavier (eighth in offensive efficiency) and Gonzaga (15th) in consecutive games. The Seminoles absolutely manhandled the Zags — the 15-point final margin flatters Gonzaga’s effort. Florida State doesn’t have a single go-to scorer. Terance Mann is the leading scorer and was the only guy in double figures against Gonzaga, but he averages just 12.9 points per game. This team is deep. Ten guys play double-digit minutes every game. Five players had between seven and nine points against Gonzaga (after six had between nine and 15 against Xavier). Trent Forrest is probably the team’s most impactful all-around player, and he comes off the bench. It’s a fast, physical team, one that seems really hard to play against. Just ask Mark Few.

With all of that said, I don’t want to fall into the recency bias trap again. I picked Texas A&M to beat Michigan because of their talent and because of their exceptional all-around performance against North Carolina. It turned out that they finished way down in the SEC for a reason. Florida State went 9-9 in the ACC for a reason. They’re an inconsistent team on both sides of the court. When they don’t force turnovers and get out in transition, they’re a much different team. And Michigan turns the ball over just 9.2 times per game, second fewest in the country (behind Virginia). A slow, half-court game favors Michigan. And I’m going to give the edge to the Wolverines and their body of work over the entire season. Michigan win 74-66.

Sweet 16 Preview — Friday Games

Posted: 03/23/2018 by levcohen in NCAA

Well, that didn’t go particularly well. I went 0-for-4 on the first set of games, picking the three favorites that lost and the one underdog that did too. I’m hoping that I’ll do better with the right side of the bracket, which has featured much more rational results thus far. But this is March Madness, so you never know.

#5 West Virginia vs. #1 Villanova:
Spread: Villanova favored by 5.5

After four matchups yesterday that I can best describe as bizarre, this is a return to what a Sweet 16 game is supposed to look like. It’s a game between one of the best teams in the country and a dangerous team one tier down that only needs a few things to go its way in order to win. In a lot of ways, West Virginia is the same type of team as the others that Bob Huggins has brought to the Sweet 16 in recent years. It’s a deep, physical bunch. Huggins regularly goes 10 or 11 deep. The Mountaineers still commit a lot of fouls, still run their press, still crash the offensive glass. That’s Huggins’s style. But unlike past good West Virginia teams (and make no mistake about it, the Mountaineers have been consistently good. They’ve been between a #3 and #5 seed for four years running), this one is a lot better offensively than it is defensively. In 2016, WVU finished 27th in offensive efficiency and 6th defensively. Last year, they were 26th and 4th. This season, they’re 10th in offensive efficiency but 41st defensively. I’m sure some of that has to do with the fact that they’ve dialed back the pressure a bit and slowed things down. But still, it’s weird that a team with senior guard Jevon Carter, one of the best on-ball defenders in the history of college basketball, and Sagaba Konate, a dominant rim protector, has had relative struggles defensively. Now, 41st isn’t a death sentence against most teams. But I bring it up here because it may be against this Villanova team. Adjusted for opponent, they’re scoring 127.6 points per 100 possessions. That’s easily the best number in college basketball this year and also happens to be the best since the Frank Kaminsky-Sam Dekker-Nigel Hayes Wisconsin team that knocked off undefeated Kentucky. We saw what this offense could do against Alabama last week, when the Wildcats turned a tight game into a blowout in just a few minutes. And Alabama was a better defensive team than West Virginia. Matchup-wise, it may seem nice that the Mountaineers can just put Carter on Jalen Brunson, Villanova’s “best player.” And I have no doubt that, should West Virginia decide to blanket Brunson with Carter, the first-team All-America will have trouble scoring. But the problem is that Brunson isn’t actually Villanova’s best player; Mikal Bridges is, and I have no idea how West Virginia is going to defend Bridges. To be fair, I don’t think many college teams can guard Bridges when he’s hot. He’s an inconsistent player, and I hope for West Virginia’s sake that he has an off game. The problem with Villanova is that they have so many offensive weapons. Brunson and Bridges are the two headliners. In the Alabama game, Donte DiVincenzo single-handedly kept the Wildcats in it in the first half when the rest of the team went cold. He can stroke it from three and is also a great driver. Phil Booth and Eric Paschall are probably more important to Villanova defensively than offensively, but they average 10.6 and 10.2 points per game and are liable to go off for 15+ if left alone. Omari Spellman is a big who shoots 44% from beyond the arc and could be a defensive nightmare for Konate. Even freshmen Collin Gillespie and Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree are efficient scorers off the bench. If Villanova gets hot, West Virginia doesn’t stand much of a chance.

I expect each teams to shoot a lot of threes in this game, because that’s what these teams do. And in that type of game, Villanova should have the advantage. They shoot 40% from beyond the arc, four ticks better than West Virginia. But WVU’s recipe for success is clear: they need to attempt way more shots than Villanova does. They must crash the offensive glass, get the shallower Wildcats in foul trouble, and hound Brunson and Co. in the backcourt. In other words, they must become vintage Press Virginia. That, combined with the offensive firepower provided by Carter and Daxter Miles Jr., who’s 19-of-36 from beyond the arc since the Big 12 Tournament started, may be enough. But I’ve seen enough from West Virginia in close games this season to be worried about their shot-making ability down the stretch. I’m going to take Villanova to win 81-74.

#5 Clemson vs. #1 Kansas:
Spread: Kansas favored by 5

I’ve been a Kansas doubter for pretty much the entire season. It’s not that I don’t believe they’re a good team — they clearly are. The three point shooting they have up and down the roster rivals Villanova’s. Their four starting guards — Devonte’ Graham, Svi Mykhailiuk, Malik Newman, and LaGerald Vick — are all great shooters (40%, 46%, 41%, and 38% from beyond the arc). Graham may well be the National Player of the Year thanks to his ability to create for himself and others. And yet I’m still a Kansas doubter, because they’re not a great defensive team and because they don’t have much depth. According to Kenpom, Kansas is actually the worst defensive team left in the field. They gave up 79 points — including 53 in the second half — to Seton Hall in the second round. They don’t force many turnovers, their guards can get beaten off the bounce, and Udoka Azubuike can be foul prone. And that’s important, because Azubuike’s backups — Mitch Lightfoot and Silvio De Sousa — have all the talent you would expect from a Kansas big man but are not ready to play good, consistent defense without fouling. These are clear flaws, and I still expect them to come back to haunt the Jayhawks at some point.

Clemson will be eager to be the team that exposes Kansas. They’re coming off of an 84-53 thumping of Auburn in a game they led 70-29. They were barely mentioned leading up to the tournament, and understandably so. They lost Donte Grantham, one of their best players, to an injury during the season and came into the tournament having lost five of their last eight. But they’ve looked tremendous thus far, especially defensively. They held New Mexico St. to 39% shooting and Auburn to 26%. They have the seventh best defense in the country (per Kenpom), with Elijah Thomas anchoring the paint. Clemson’s opponents have shot 40.4% from the field on the season, so it should be interesting to see what happens against Kansas’s high-powered, efficient offense. I’ve been very impressed by Clemson, but I don’t think they have the scoring to upset Kansas. I think they’ll hang tough and keep it close, but Kansas doubters will have to wait one more game for the Jayhawks to lose. Kansas wins 73-69.

#11 Syracuse vs. #2 Duke:
Spread: Duke favored by 11

I’ll say right away that this game has no business being close. Syracuse has nowhere near enough offensive firepower to keep up with Duke EVEN IF the Blue Devils struggle to shoot the ball. In fact, the first time these two teams played, Duke won 60-44 despite going just 2-for-18 from beyond the arc, as Marvin Bagley and Wendell Carter combined for 35 points and 17 rebounds on 13-of-20 shooting. Michigan State fell in love with the three against Syracuse not because they wanted to but because they just couldn’t think of anything else to do against Jim Boeheim’s zone. I don’t like Coach K, but I respect him enough to think that Duke will be better prepared than the Spartans were. And even if they aren’t, they still have Bagley and Carter, and Syracuse’s foul-plagued bigs have little chance of stopping those two. Remember how dominant Michigan State was on the offensive glass against this ‘Cuse team? Imagine what this Duke team — which Notre Dame coach Mike Brey says is one of the most impressive offensive rebounding groups he’s ever seen — will be able to do. Syracuse’s offensive strategy is basically to dribble the ball for 20+ seconds before one of three players — Tyus Battle, Frank Howard, and Oshae Brissett — crashes into the lane and hopes to draw a foul or hit a crazy contested shot. The Orange shot 42% from the floor and 32% from three on the season, and they’ve shot 41%, 37%, and 36% from the floor in their three tournament games. They rely on free throws and their suffocating defense. That defense won’t be good enough to stop Duke’s talented team from putting the ball in the bucket. Duke wins 70-52.

#3 Texas Tech vs. #2 Purdue:
Spread: Purdue favored by 1.5

First of all, no, Isaac Haas will not play on his fractured elbow. The fact that this was even a discussion shows just how tough Haas is, but it would be bad for both player and team for a player with a fractured elbow (his shooting arm, no less!) to play in a Sweet 16 game. Purdue looked pretty good without him in the second round. I know they ended up just holding on against Butler, but Butler’s a really good team (far better than their #10 seed indicates), and I thought the Boilermakers played well offensively. Their offensive strategy obviously changes without Haas, one of the best post players in college basketball, but Matt Haarms gives them a big bonus defensively. And Purdue is still an exceptional shooting team. They shoot 42% from beyond the arc as a team, second best in the country to William & Mary. Five of their six top minute-getters minus Haas shoot 40%+ from beyond the arc. The worry was that good shots would be hard to come by without the threat of playing through Haas in the post. Against Butler at least, that wasn’t the case.

But things could be different against a Texas Tech team that flew under the radar in the Big 12 all season. This is a team whose athleticism is attention-grabbing. And they put it to good use, ranking fourth in the country in defensive efficiency. Keenan Evans is the star. He’s an exceptional player, especially in crunchtime situations. He scored 45 points on 24 shots last weekend and shoots 48% from the field on the season, an exceptional shooting percentage for someone who has to create for himself off the dribble. Texas Tech can get into offensive ruts, because they don’t have a lot of consistent offensive weapons. But Zhaire Smith is a potential future lottery pick who’s become the king of put-back dunks and also shoots 44% from three. Four other rotation players shoot 38%-40% from three.

Even without Haas, Purdue has more offensive firepower than Tech does. Carsen Edwards has struggled so far in the tournament but is usually a killer. Vince Edwards is a tremendous inside-out player. Dakota Mathias is one of the best shooters in college basketball, raining threes in at a 46% clip. The Boilermakers also have a free throw edge on Texas Tech, a team that shoots just shy of 70% from the line. In a close game, that could easily matter. But I keep having flashbacks to the horror show that was Gonzaga’s offense yesterday. Gonzaga’s not as good as Purdue, but it was a similar situation. The Zags were the better offensive team coming in but were playing without a key offensive threat (Killian Tillie for Gonzaga, Haas for Purdue). And they got absolutely physically dominated by Florida State, who steamrolled them 75-60. I’ve also been super impressed by Texas Tech all season, so I’m going to pick them to win this one 68-65 in a game that should come down to the final few possessions.

Sweet 16 Preview — Thursday Games

Posted: 03/22/2018 by levcohen in NCAA

The NCAA Tournament returns tonight, and it returns with the two crazy regions. Of the eight teams playing tonight, just two — Michigan and Gonzaga — were favored to get to this point. And it took Michigan a crazy buzzer-beater to get past Houston while Gonzaga was down with a minute left in their first round game against UNC Greensboro before pulling ahead with a Zach Norvell Jr. three with 20.8 seconds left. In the South, the top four seeds are all out, the first time that’s ever happened before the Sweet 16. And in the West, the top two seeds both lost, although it was highly debatable even heading into the tournament whether they were the two best teams in the region. All of this leads to four compelling, surprising matchups before a return to relative normalcy (that is: well-played games between teams who are supposed to be here, barring Syracuse of course) tomorrow. It starts in Atlanta with what may be the most intriguing game of the night.

#11 Loyola (Chicago) vs. #7 Nevada:
Spread: Nevada favored by 1

I think that these two teams are both significantly better and more dangerous than their seeding indicates. Neither is from a power conference and both have flown under the radar all season — partly because of that, and partly because Nevada faded a little down the stretch while Loyola wasn’t well-regarded heading into the season — but this isn’t a new thing: Nevada’s 29-7 and was easily the best team in the Mountain West Conference, and Loyola is 19-1 in its past 20 games. Both teams have looked like they belonged against more heralded teams. Loyola has needed last-possession scores to see off both Miami and Tennessee, but it’s hard to say that either result was unfair. They were especially impressive against Tennessee, when they slowed the pace down and played efficiently (50% from the floor, 40% from three). Nevada has also played two of the more exciting — and certainly hectic — games of the tournament. First, they fell behind by 14 to Texas in the second half before blitzing the Longhorns with threes (they hit 11) en route to an overtime win. Then, they were behind by 22 points with 11 minutes left against a Cincinnati team that seemed perfectly suited to holding onto such a lead — they play slowly and they play great defense. But Nevada hit a few shots, got out in fastbreak, and put pressure on the Bearcats, and Cincinnati wilted.

Loyola’s obviously a very different team than Cincinnati, but the gameplan for Nevada should be fairly similar. They don’t want to get into a slog or a battle of halfcourt offenses, because they’ll likely lose that kind of game. Like the Bearcats, Loyola wants to slow the game down. They rank 319th in the country in pace, barely ahead of Cincy (331). And from what I saw last weekend, few teams are better than the Ramblers at executing in the halfcourt. Iowa State transfer Clayton Cluster is a tremendous floor general. He’s also an incredibly efficient shooter (53% from the field, 46% from three). And Loyola has a diverse offensive attack — they can play through big freshman Cameron Krutwig, who’s a gifted passer. They can attack off the dribble. And they’re a tremendous passing team. Given how efficient they were against Tennessee, I find it hard to believe that Nevada can get enough stops to win the game if their offense isn’t making the plays it made in the second half of both games. One thing does work in Nevada’s favor defensively: they’re set up to take away Loyola’s most potent weapon, its three point shot. Nevada’s the 19th best defensive team in the country against the three, as they’re holding opponents to 31.6% shooting from beyond the arc. Cincinnati was just 5-17 from three in the second round. So even if Loyola’s stringing together good offensive possessions, it’s unlikely that they’ll start raining threes on the Wolfpack.

Nevada’s only 105th in the country in pace, but they tried to play faster than that against Cincinnati. I expect them to do the same here in an attempt to get their four talented starters — the Martin brothers, Jordan Caroline, and Kendall Stephens — going. Stephens is the knockdown shooter, the guy the Bearcats were most afraid of. He’s hitting 3.5 threes per game and shooting 44% from three and 92% from the line. Caleb Martin is the team’s leading scorer but has been relatively quiet through two games. The same is actually true for Caroline, who’s clearly a handful to defend but whose defining characteristic through two games has been an inability to hit free throws (6-14, 1-2 on his crucial free throws against Texas that sent the game to overtime). In the Cincy game, Cody Martin was the guy who saved Nevada’s bacon. He attacked Cincinnati in transition, played fearlessly, and scored 25, including 11 in the final 11 minutes. The fact that the Wolfpack have gotten here without great performances from Caleb and Caroline, their two best scorers, is excellent news. But it’s worth noting that Nevada plays just six players, while Loyola goes eight or nine deep. That shouldn’t be a big deal… unless Nevada gets into foul trouble. Loyola doesn’t necessarily have the one-on-one scorers to force a team into deep foul trouble, but they did get Admiral Schofield into foul trouble on Saturday.

The spread indicates that this is basically a toss-up. I agree, but I’m going to give the edge to Nevada because I’m more confident in their ability to score down the stretch than I am in the Ramblers. It should be another big test for the sixth best offense in the country, though. Nevada wins 76-70.

#7 Texas A&M vs. #3 Michigan:
Spread: Michigan favored by 2.5

These teams got here in very different fashions. Michigan looked downright lost offensively for most of both of their two games and somehow won both. They definitely shouldn’t be here. Meanwhile, Texas A&M completely dominated North Carolina, basically putting the game away by halftime and outscoring the Tar Heels 73-45 after going down seven early. The Aggies are exactly the type of team that can string together multiple upsets in a row. They were very highly regarded early in the season, opening the season ranked #25 and thumping West Virginia by 23 points on a neutral court in their first game. They were 11-1 and ranked fifth in the country heading into SEC play. But they went just 9-9 in SEC play before losing to Alabama on a buzzer-beater in their first game of SEC Tournament play. They always had the talent, though, and they’re showing that in spades now. This is a physically dominating team with a huge frontline featuring two players who can seemingly always score in the paint. Robert Williams is a future lottery pick who, when engaged, is a tremendous rebounder and rim protector. Boy was he engaged last weekend as he physically dominated one of the best teams in the country. And UNC had absolutely no way to guard 266 pound Tyler Davis, who shot 7-of-9 en route to an easy 18 points. But my favorite player on the team is gifted 6’9″ guard-forward D.J. Hogg. Hogg is sometimes passive and disappears from games (including against Providence in the first round), but when he’s on, there are few better and more versatile players. He’s a great passer and has a beautiful stroke. He’s shooting “just” 38% from three, but based on the way he shoots the ball he seems much better. Hogg is pivotal to the Aggies going forward because nobody else on the team can replicate what he does. He was hot early in the season, then struggled through SEC play just like the team. That’s telling.

We know that the Aggies are going to try to pound the ball inside before kicking out to open shooters. The question then becomes whether the Wolverines can guard the post without sending too much help. This is a massive game for Mo Wagner, who’s Michigan’s only big in a starting lineup that features four guards. Wagner has struggled through two games, scoring a combined 17 points and picking up four fouls in both games. And that was against big men that were far less imposing and skilled than Williams and Davis. If I were a Michigan fan, I’d be worried about the fact that Wagner has gotten into pretty consistent foul trouble last year, because they need him offensively (he’s their leading scorer and easily their best offensive player) and because his backup is Jon Teske, who would have, uh, a notable athleticism disadvantage against Williams and Davis. With Wagner set to have his hands full, Michigan’s going to need to get way more from their supporting cast than they have to this point. Senior guard and leader Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman has been downright terrible offensively through two games. He’s 7-of-29 from the floor and 1-of-12 from three point range, and he missed some bunnies down the stretch against Houston. Guard Zavier Simpson, a non-shooter who gets all of his points around the basket, has been ever quieter, with nine combined points through two games. Michigan needs those two to show up, because otherwise they just don’t have any offensive firepower. Charles Matthews is a nice player, Michigan’s best through two games. Duncan Robinson is a good spot-up shooter, although he provides nothing else. Jordan Poole hit THE SHOT but is still a freshman guard who’s played all of 19 minutes in the tournament. We know that Michigan’s going to play good defense, but I’m not convinced that they have the offense to win another slugfest. Then again, it’s worth remembering that this team won the Big 10 Tournament and has won 11 games in a row. The Wolverines clearly have what it takes to beat the Aggies, but their offense is going to need to be far better than it was last weekend.

So who’s going to win? The team that has been consistently better all season, or the one with more talent that also seems to be coming together at the right time? I have faith in John Beilein and think he’ll come up with a way to at least slow down TAMU’s bigs, but the fact is that the Aggies should win this game if they play anywhere near as well as they did against North Carolina. The sample size of that game obviously isn’t nearly as big as the season’s worth of struggles, but I just have a feeling that Texas A&M is going to show up again. And Michigan hasn’t shown that it can score consistently down the stretch of tight games. Texas A&M wins 68-63.

#9 Kansas State vs. #5 Kentucky:
Spread: Kentucky favored by 5

The fact that this spread is only five points shows how inconsistent Kentucky was this season. Because based on how these two teams looked last weekend and on overall talent, Kentucky should win by double digits. They’re a big, physically dominant team. When they’re rolling, like they were against Buffalo en route to a 95-75 victory, they’re hard to stop. The pair of Kevin Knox and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander have become excellent offensive weapons. A team that early on in the season was searching for an offensive identity now has it. Gilgeous-Alexander is a tremendous college point guard. He’s quick and shifty and seemingly got to the rim and line at ease in the first two rounds of the tournament. Knox is silky smooth and has a seemingly automatic midrange jumper. The Wildcats also have to love what they got from maligned freshman (duh, it’s Kentucky) guard Hamidou Diallo. Once considered one of Kentucky’s best players, Diallo all-but disappeared down the stretch as his lack of shooting and effort came back to bite him. But he dominated Buffalo, scoring 22 points (with some monster jams in there) and putting together a complete defensive performance. If Diallo plays like that next to Shai, Knox, a three point shooter in Wenyen Gabriel and an inside force like PJ Washington, this team can be dominant. They’ve been particularly good defensively recently. On the season, their opponents are shooting under 30% from beyond the arc. Kentucky doesn’t hit a lot of threes, but they don’t give them up either.

That’s not to say we should count K-State out. Kentucky is clearly capable of playing poorly, and the other Wildcats will be more than ready to capitalize. Sure, they struggled in the second round against UMBC, but that was a tough spot. They faced a lot of pressure to win the game, and they were playing without leading scorer Dean Wade (a fact that seems to be going unnoticed). Wade has missed both tournament games with a foot injury that he suffered in Kansas State’s overtime win in their first Big 12 Tournament game. It’s been just two weeks since then, and he has a stress fracture in his foot, so it’s highly unlikely that he’ll be 100%. But all signs point to him playing in this one, and he’s clearly pivotal. The 6’10” power forward gives K-State the two things they sorely need against Kentucky: size and shooting. He’s the team’s leading rebounder and shoots 44% from beyond the arc. His return gives Kansas State a much better chance of winning. The Wildcats also need a lot of minutes from sophomore big Makol Mawien, who averages 3.1 fouls per game in just 20 minutes on the season. Mawien provides size and rim protection for Kansas State and managed to stay out of foul trouble in each of the first two games. This is obviously a much bigger test for him. The three guys playing heavy minutes for Kansas State — Barry Brown, Xavier Sneed, and Kamau Stokes — are all talented but hit-or-miss. The Wildcats need one or two of them to have big games.

Kentucky should win this game, but it won’t be easy. Let’s not forget that Kansas State held their own in the brutal Big 12, going 10-8 in the conference en route to a fourth place finish (behind three teams that are still alive, by the way). K-State is very strong defensively, and Kentucky is prone to offensive ruts. I’m going to take Kentucky to win the game, just because I can’t ignore their clear advantage when it comes to offensive firepower. But I expect it to turn into a bit of a slugfest. Kentucky wins 65-61.

#9 Florida State vs. #4 Gonzaga:
Spread: Gonzaga favored by 6.5

I’d say that Florida State was pretty lucky to rally past Xavier in the second round. Did they show resilience? Sure. Did they hit a couple of big shots? Absolutely. Do they win the game if J.P. Macura doesn’t foul out on a (very) questionable charge call? I don’t think so. I’m no fan of Macura, but he was having an excellent game and providing the scoring punch that Xavier sorely needed down the stretch (and that Trevon Bluiett surprisingly couldn’t provide). Remember that this was supposed to be a down year for Florida State a year after they earned a #3 seed and were a trendy Final Four pick. They lost Jonathan Isaac, Dwayne Bacon, and Xavier Rathan-Mayes, their three best players. All three are now NBA players. They’re now an extremely deep and balanced team. They consistently play 10 or 11 players, with nobody playing as many as 30 minutes or scoring as many as 13 points per game. It worked for them against Xavier, when they looked fresher and more confident down the stretch. They’re a team that loves to get out in transition, largely because they struggle to shoot the three (35%) or score in the halfcourt. And I have to say that I’m surprised how productive they’ve been offensively this season. But they have their work cut out for them against Gonzaga.

Gonzaga hasn’t been overly impressive so far in the tournament, but they have shown that they have six players who can carry them. Against Ohio State, in a game in which they didn’t get much from Johnathan Williams, Killian Tillie, or Josh Perkins (arguably their three best players), underclassmen Zach Norvell Jr. (28 points, second consecutive game with a huge three late) and Rui Hachimura (25 points on 11 shots) showed up big time. They won 90-84 in a very different game than the one against UNC Greensboro (which ended 68-64), when they got 19 points and 13 rebounds from Williams and 16 points from Perkins. So while the Zags haven’t blown anybody out, they’ve shown that they can win different types of games. They have the 12th best offense and the 14th best defense in the country, per KenPom. This could be a big bounce-back game for Williams, who has a tasty matchup against a defense that couldn’t contain Xavier big man Kerem Kanter (younger brother of Enes, 15 points in 22 minutes) in the post.

If Norvell continues to shine, Gonzaga is a serious championship contender. But even if he takes a backseat this time, the Zags should have the experience and leadership to avoid the collapse Xavier suffered in the second round. Florida State’s a better team this year than most (and certainly I) expected, but Gonzaga really has no business losing this game. Gonzaga wins 80-71.

The flurry that is the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament is finally over, which means there’s finally time for us to breathe. It’s a frenetic four days featuring 48 games that whittle the field down from 64 to 16. When you watch so many games over such a short span, they can kind of blend together. Everyone knows the major headlines: a 16 beat a 1 for the first time ever; Sister Jean’s Loyola Ramblers are in the Sweet 16; Jordan Poole hit a remarkable buzzer-beater for Michigan. Instead of going over those moments, I’m going to run through some random thoughts that I have from the weekend as a whole and maybe some of their implications going forward.

Spare me the “best tournament ever” talk: Of course, the leading topic of discussion last night and today has been that this was the wildest and best first weekend of the tournament ever. I agree that it’s been pretty wild, although March Madness has earned its name for a reason (it’s generally pretty wild). Still, I’ll grant you (you being generic college basketball writer) the fact that this has been one of the wilder first weekends. A 16 beat a 1 and a bunch of contenders went down. The South region is bereft of any top-four seeds, the first time that’s ever happened heading into a Sweet 16 in NCAA Tournament history. But I don’t think it’s been one of the best. In fact, I think it’s been pretty ugly to watch. There have been some exceptions, but these games have been bad. Even some of the close ones (like the Michigan-Houston game) are close only because both teams are sloppy and missing shots. You can chalk that up to good defense, but I think more of it is bad offense. It’s telling that Syracuse, a team that, to put it kindly, struggles to score, is still standing while fellow underdogs like Marshall and Buffalo, both of whom played incredibly well in opening-round victories, bowed out meekly in the second round. That doesn’t mean I haven’t enjoyed the tournament — I have, immensely. But to me, “best tournament ever” would imply that the games have been not only close and exciting but also played at a relatively high level. And they haven’t been, even compared to previous first weekends.

We should learn from Virginia, Cincinnati, and Tennessee: The top three seeds in the South have a few things in common. They all had great seasons. They all got upset in the first two rounds of the tournament. Virginia’s loss was obviously most embarrassing, but Cincinnati tried to make it a conversation by blowing a 22-point second half lead against a Nevada team that looked like it had given up. Tennessee’s lost was most forgivable and normal — a one-point loss against a good Loyola team with Sister Jean (and, thus, God) on their side. What I’m getting at, though, is that the three teams all had similar characteristics that made them susceptible to upsets. They play slow, and they play suffocating defense but don’t have much offensive firepower, at least compared to similarly seeded teams like Duke, Villanova, and Purdue (uncoincidentally the three best offenses in the country, per KenPom). Virginia and Cincinnati actually have very different defensive philosophies, but that’s not the point. The point is that all three schools grit-and-grind their way to victories. Here is a mini-chart to attach stats to what I’m saying. The numbers come from KenPom, and there are 351 teams in D-1.

  Offensive Efficiency Defensive Efficiency Overall Efficiency Pace
Virginia 30th 1st 2nd 351st
Cincinnati 49 2 5 333
Tennessee 37 6 12 281

These numbers come after the tournament losses, so it’s clear that all three teams were good enough to justify their seeds. And I’m not saying that it’s impossible to make a Final Four or win an NCAA Tournament with this type of portfolio. It just makes these teams a lot more susceptible to upsets. These teams like to limit the possessions, but guess what goes up as pace goes down? Uncertainty. Virginia’s a better basketball team than UMBC, and it isn’t close. But that superiority is more likely to come through over 70 possessions (that’s the pace that Duke plays at and is just 86th in the country) than over 59 (Virginia’s pace). There’s a clear way to exploit this for an underdog, and it’s an obvious one: hit a bunch of threes and put pressure on a team that’s not used to pushing the pace or scoring in droves. Loyola’s a 40% three point shooting team and shot a typical 8-for-20 from three. They won despite a clear size and athleticism disadvantage. Nevada’s a 40% three point shooting team that caught fire from beyond the arc during a furious second half comeback. UMBC’s a 39% three point shooting team that caught fire against Virginia, hitting 12-of-24 threes. Teams get hot. It happens. But the thing that sealed the fate of all three teams was that none had an offensive response, a guy who could get hot and get his own buckets in a hurry. Over the course of a full season, that’s ok. But in a single-elimination tournament, it can spell doom against a hot team. That doesn’t mean it always will. If Virginia keeps churning out great teams, they’ll eventually break through to a Final Four under Tony Bennett. But the slow pace and lack of offensive answers is what makes teams like these more susceptible to upsets than others, especially given the rate at which many teams jack three pointers.

I’m flabbergasted by Michigan State’s offensive effort: You would think that a coach as experienced and revered as Tom Izzo would know how to prepare his team for Jim Boeheim’s zone defense. Far from it. I was stunned by how listless Michigan State — by most metrics a top-5 team in the country going in — looked against Syracuse. I know the ‘Cuse are tough to play against, but they have 13 losses for a reason. They’re just not that good this year. They haven’t been able to play offense all year, and that didn’t change against Michigan State. You know those other upsets I mentioned that were spurred by great three point shooting? Yeah, that wasn’t the case here. Syracuse shot 15-for-42 and 1-for-8 from three point range. One of the three players on their team who can score, Frank Howard, fouled out with six minutes to go in the game. Michigan State had 29 offensive rebounds and took 24 more shots than Syracuse. And yet they still couldn’t win the game. They were an unconscionable 17-for-66 from the field (25.8%) and hoisted 37 threes (making eight). Sure, they missed a few open looks, but more striking was the fact that they appeared to have no idea how to attack the zone. They put sixth year senior Ben Carter, who had scored all of 13 points on the season entering the game in just 155 total minutes, in the middle of the zone, with the rationale being that he could pass out of it to open teammates. It was worth a shot, I guess, but Michigan State stuck with it long after it became apparent that it wouldn’t work. Carter played 23 minutes and scored two points. He had two rebounds and two assists. Michigan State didn’t even try putting Miles Bridges, their 6’7″ guard/forward who’s a likely lottery pick, in the middle of the zone. Bridges had a terrible game (4-for-18, 3-for-12 from three) and maybe involving him more in the offense would have changed that. Jaren Jackson, a likely top-10 pick in the draft, had foul trouble early and ended up playing just 15 minutes and scoring two points. One would have thought that his 6’11” frame and smooth stroke could have been useful at some point, but alas, the minutes went to Carter, Xavier Tillman (22 minutes, 2.8 points per game, just a big body), and Matt McQuaid (21 minutes, 1-for-7 from three, only make was this). It was just a terrible overall performance by the Spartans and Izzo. They deserve to miss out on the Sweet 16 for the third straight year.

No lead is safe: I touched on this earlier with the three point shooting, but it really seems like it’s easier than ever to come back from big deficits in short periods of time. This is especially true in college basketball, where the players are more fragile and more susceptible to wilt to pressure. Nevada used its three point shooting to get back into (and eventually win) a game that Cincinnati had all-but locked up. Xavier looked like it had handled Florida State, but the Seminoles used their transition game (they rank 37th in the country in pace, making them the quickest team left) and some good fortune (more in that in a second) to shock X. That combination — fastbreak offense and three point shooting — is the way to overcome huge deficits. Of course, it doesn’t usually happen. I thought North Carolina, a great shooting and transition team, may have a comeback in them against Texas A&M. They never made it interesting. But it is striking to see how often it happens at the college level.

College coaches are shaky: This isn’t breaking news, but a lot of college coaches are not all that good at in-game adjustments or strategy. I touched on Izzo before, but the most glaring thing I saw this weekend was Seton Hall coach Kevin Willard’s refusal to intentionally foul Udoka Azubuike. Down the stretch of Saturday’s game, Seton Hall had no trouble scoring. But they also couldn’t stop Kansas. Why not send a 42% free throw shooter to the line? I just don’t understand why this isn’t a strategy used more by college coaches, especially given the struggles that even competent free throw shooters seem to be having in the tournament (free throw shooting is down across the board from the regular season). I know it’s not a glamorous way to win basketball games, but it’s hands-down the best mathematical play Willard could have made. I also am usually in favor of teams that are down a few points beginning to foul earlier rather than later, especially if a mediocre free throw shooter gets the ball. Don’t let the clock run and leave yourself little time to come back and score. Bet on your opponent missing free throws — as long as it isn’t Malik Newman, apparently.

Last night, I watched what may have been the first game of Pac-12 basketball I’ve seen all year. Actually, I only saw the second half of the Pac-12 tournament final. You can call it East Coast bias or just an aversion to what’s been a really disappointing conference this season. It’s probably a combination of two. But the one half of Pac-12 basketball I did see was pretty freaking great. And one half of one game of Arizona basketball was enough to convince me that DeAndre Ayton is a total stud who will also be a stud in the NBA.

The first thing I noticed — the first thing to notice, really — was that Ayton looked like a man amongst boys. He’s a legit 7’0″ (or maybe even 7’1″) and 250 pounds, but that’s the least of it. He’s also sculpted, something we don’t always see when it comes to big men prospect (and even elite ones). Rarely do you see a 19-year-old basketball player who looks as physically ready for the NBA as Ayton does. But it’s not just his size and physique. Ayton also looks like he belongs on a basketball court, unlike a lot of 7’0″+ players who are just thrown into a gym because they’re tall. He runs smoothly up and down the court and never looked tired in a game in which he sat out for a total of one minute (this one night after he played 40 minutes in an overtime win).

But there have been a lot of physically dominant big men prospects who have ended up being busts in the NBA. Remember Hasheem Thabeet? People were saying the same things about his physical attributes, which is why the Grizzlies took him #2 in his draft behind just Blake Griffin and ahead of James Harden, Stephen Curry, and DeMar DeRozan (among others). That’s why what really impressed me about Ayton — and what really sets him apart from the other draft prospects currently in college — is his skill and intelligence.

Ayton’s an exceptionally skilled player. He was a terror last night on lobs, flushing down three or four in just the last 10 minutes of the game. He had six dunks overall in the game, and most of them were contested. But that’s not the only way he scored points. He scored out of post-ups, and he scored on spot-up long twos. He hasn’t shot many threes this year, largely because he’s so dominant that he has no need to. But he’s 12-of-33 on the year from beyond the arc, has a decent stroke, and shoots 74% from the line. There’s no guarantee that he’ll ever be a real threat from beyond the arc, but the fact that he is already comfortable with his jumper and his free throw shooting indicates that he’ll likely be able to develop a consistent three point shot if he wants to.

Ayton also showed off his intelligence, poise, and footwork against the Trojans. You could really see it on his post-ups. USC obviously tried to double-team him, but it rarely worked. A few times, he calmly passed out of the double-team, finding an open Allonzo Trier or Rawle Alkins. Other times, he used his footwork to evade the double-team and finish through contact. Once, he pulled up before the double came and sunk a midrange jumper. He doesn’t have the bag of tricks from the post that, say, Jahlil Okafor had at Duke, but I’m not worried about that. There’s a reason that Okafor has been a terrible NBA player despite his post-up tricks, and it’s that posting up is one of the least efficient offensive plays in basketball. Ayton’s not going to be at his most valuable in the NBA when he’s posting up. I just think that his response last night to getting doubled in the post was instructive. Most college bigs — particularly freshmen — lack the skill and poise to stay calm and make the right decisions when double teamed. Ayton has it in spades.

I also have been very interested to see Ayton’s response to being in the news for the wrong reason. A few weeks ago, ESPN published what became a very controversial report saying that Arizona coach Sean Miller was caught on a wiretap discussing sending $100,000 to Ayton in exchange for his enrollment at Arizona. It’s become controversial because it’s been refuted strongly by Miller, Ayton, and the University of Arizona and has gone uncorroborated. But I don’t care about that. More interesting to me has been Ayton’s response to the controversy. In the six games since, he’s averaged 23.3 points, 14.3 rebounds, and 2 blocks per game on 66.3% shooting. I haven’t watched most of those games, but I can tell you that in the USC game he also played with passion, as if he had something to prove. Given that that — his focus — was one of the potential concerns about Ayton earlier on in the season, I think this has been a crucial part of Ayton’s cementing of his status as the top prospect in the draft. Another intangible concern people have with Ayton is his motor. After watching the second half of the USC game, I’m starting to think that people just threw that in as a weakness simply because Ayton has so few discernible tangible weaknesses. His motor was not a problem. He grabbed 18 rebounds and was close to many more. He looked like a star, but he also looked like he cared.

It’s for all of these reasons that Ayton will in all likelihood rank #1 on my board among prospects coming from college. The only other player who could make a run at the overall #1 spot is Luka Doncic, who’s been historically good as a teenager for Real Madrid in the second best basketball league in the world. I haven’t seen enough of Doncic to be able to make a head-to-head comparison with Ayton, but I don’t think Ayton’s grip on the #1 spot in unassailable. I’d be remiss not to mention my biggest concern about Ayton, which is his defensive impact. Based on his physical attributes and his intelligence, he should have no problem being a good or even great defensive player at the next level. But it’s worth noting that he has struggled to anchor Arizona’s defense. He’s averaged 1.9 blocks per game (3.3 per 100 possessions), which seems like a nice number but pales in comparison to the block rate of top big men prospects of the past like Anthony Davis (8.8 per 100 possessions) and Karl-Anthony Towns (6.7) and also compared to the block rates of other top bigs in this year’s draft class including Mohamed Bamba (7.2) and Jaren Jackson Jr. (8.3). It’s actually more in line with Okafor’s college block numbers. It should be noted that Ayton blocks way more shots than Marvin Bagley.

The blocks aren’t the main issue, though. Ayton should be anchoring a great college defense. But Arizona’s defense has been far from great. It ranks 70th in defensive efficiency according to KenPom. That’s right between Maryland and Stanford, two not good teams. Arizona’s defense has been a problem. It’s impossible to say how much of the blame should go to Ayton, but the answer probably has to be: “at least some.” And given that he plays at the most important defensive position in basketball, that’s definitely something to keep in mind.

But the low block rate and the overall lack of a defensive impact are not deal-breakers. Ayton’s still the best and most well-rounded college prospect in the draft, and I don’t think it’s particularly close.

About this time every year (give or take a few weeks), the dominant questions in college basketball become: who can we pencil in to the Final Four? Who’s this year’s dominant team? Can anyone go undefeated? You may remember the 2014-15 Kentucky team that was absolutely stacked, good enough to allow coach John Calipari to play two completely different lineups, both of which were dominant. That team had Devin Booker, Aaron Harrison, Tyler Ulis, Andrew Harrison, Karl-Anthony Towns, Willie Cauley-Stein, Alex Poythress, Trey Lyles, Dakari Johnson, and Marcus Lee, among others. They were the main focus of attention in college basketball all season long, and for good reason: they rolled through the season, going 38-0 before losing a shocker to Wisconsin in the Final Four. That Kentucky team was an outlier, but it wasn’t the only one to be deemed *dominant* early in a season. Almost every year, some team (generally Kentucky, Duke, North Carolina, or Kansas) is supposed to be by far the best team, and that becomes a central storyline of that season. Duke was touted as the dominant team early this year, and probably will be against next season after they became the first school ever to nab the top three players (R.J. Barrett, Zion Williamson, and Cameron Reddish) in a recruiting class. And that need to seek out dominance — whether it’s really there or not — makes sense, because for the most part people want to see exceptional performances. For all the talk about whether the Golden State Warriors are hurting the NBA, ratings have never been higher, because people are fascinated by the Warriors and by the intrigue of whether they can keep winning. People want to find a team to hate, which is why the NFL probably doesn’t mind that the Patriots keep winning. But I think men’s college basketball is best when it’s wide open, as it seems to be this year. There’s a reason March Madness is called March Madness. It’s the reason that it’s one of the most anticipated sporting events every year and that people are sorely disappointed when things go as expected. The people that want complete dominance should simply watch the women’s NCAA Tournament. This year, there’s already been a lot of madness, and there’s a lot more to come.

It became clear that this was going to be a good year when Duke lost games at Boston College (ranked 73rd in Kenpom) and NC State (67th) in a span of four games. Whatever you think of court-stormings, it’s really fun when unranked teams knock off powerhouses at home. There wasn’t a single undefeated team heading into the new year, the first time that’s happened since the 1948-49 season. North Carolina lost a home game to Wofford. Arizona lost on three consecutive days in the same tournament that now-#3 Purdue lost to Tennessee and Western Kentucky. The last-place game in that tournament was Arizona-Purdue. Kansas has lost three times at home, which is unheard of. Wichita State, the #7 team in the country, lost at home to unranked SMU this week before losing at Houston (they won’t be #7 after this week). Florida went from being a top-five team to losing back-to-back home games to Florida State and Loyola-Chicago. Across all of the top conferences (ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, SEC, Pac-12, Big East), just three teams are undefeated in conference play: Purdue, Ohio State, and Virginia. For a while, it even looked likely that the craziest possible thing in college basketball — Kansas failing to win at least a share of its conference title — might happen this year. But that may be asking too much. They’ve won five straight games, including a big comeback win at West Virginia, and now lead the conference at 6-1.

I really like the way things are shaping up. So far, both the rankings and advanced stats websites like Kenpom agree that Villanova, Purdue, and Virginia have been the three best teams in college basketball in some order. I’ve already mentioned that Purdue’s only two losses came on back-to-back days in an early season tournament. They’ve rattled off 15 straight wins since, against largely mediocre competition. Advanced metrics are in love with the Boilermakers, but I must say that I’m a bit skeptical about their Final Four potential, largely because I’m not sure their guard play is good enough (so far, it definitely has been). Virginia and Villanova have both managed to do what has in this crazy season been improbable: avoid bad losses (the fact that they only have one loss apiece certainly helps). Virginia’s lone loss came by seven points at West Virginia, while Villanova lost at Butler by eight points in a game during which the Bulldogs could not miss from three (15-23). If anyone can be penciled into the Final Four this year, it’s one of those two teams. But nobody’s saying that Villanova or Virginia is dominant and likely to run away from the pack, largely because neither school has the individual talent that other programs have. Indeed, the most talented teams in the nation (actually, Villanova is probably one of the most talented, but other than Villanova) are lurking behind the three frontrunners. Nobody will be sleeping on Michigan State, Duke, or Arizona (the top three teams in the preseason) come tournament time. Then there are bluebloods like North Carolina, Kansas, and Kentucky, all of whom seem to be in the midst of off years but have enough talent to be extremely dangerous if they put it all (or even most of it) together. Of course, I haven’t yet mentioned Trae Young, the top story in college basketball this season, or his fourth-ranked (but set to tumble after consecutive losses) Oklahoma team. I haven’t mentioned a ton of other teams that could also conceivably make a run deep into the NCAA Tournament. There may not be a single dominant team this year, but that makes this college basketball season that much more interesting and exciting.