The Quill College Basketball mid-season review
An analysis of the Top 25 of College Basketball
On Tuesday, January 24th, I got ready to turn in an article with my personal Top 25 college basketball rankings for our The Quill’s print edition. Ironically enough, I ended that article like so:
College basketball is the soap opera of sports. What seems certain one day becomes so fickle the next in the ever changing landscape of college hoops.
Half way through the NCAA basketball season, this is where it all stands, and it could all be different come tomorrow.
I should have taken heed to my own warning. The night I finished my ranking of the top 25, no. 1 Villanova, no. 2 Kansas, and no. 4 Kentucky all fell.
The article was becoming nothing short of a journalistic failure.
Although my rankings were basically tarnished, the end of the article still rang true. The next night, no. 6 Florida State, no. 8 UCLA, and no. 16 Creighton all lost with FSU and Creighton being heavy favorites in losses to Georgia Tech and Georgetown, respectively.
Florida State, who many thought to be the best in the ACC, shifted the landscape of college hoops even more with a loss to a struggling Syracuse team that Saturday. On the same day, four more ranked teams lost to un-ranked teams with Miami beating no. 9 North Carolina, Colorado ending no. 10 Oregon’s 17-game winning streak, and Georgetown (beating no. 11 Butler at Butler), and Georgia Tech (outlasting no. 14 Notre Dame) managed to pull off two more huge upsets. Oh yeah, and no. 20 Purdue went onto lose to a below .500 Nebraska squad on Sunday.
After the most hectic week in college hoops, here is the UPDATED version and mid-season review or college basketball’s best 25 teams.
If you are reading this any later than Tuesday afternoon, I can’t guarantee that the basketball God’s have not ruined yet another perfectly good ranking.
Nonetheless, here is were college basketball tentatively stands with two months down and two more left to go along with commentary from former Quill veteran Zach Fries, basketball fanatic Ryan Ruehl, Game Haus writer Joe Ditullio, and Chat Sports writer Tom Downey.
1. Villanova Wildcats (20-2)
Fries: “Hart is as good as anyone. Nova is a Final Four Front runner.”
Nova earns the top spot in this ranking. Since conference realignment, the Wildcats have become arguably the most prestigious program in the country. Even after losing Ryan Arcidiacono and Daniel Ochefu to graduation, Villanova may have even gotten better this season as they roll through the challenging Big East. It helps having the potential player of the year in Josh Hart and the man who hit the game winner in last year’s Nat’l title game, Kris Jenkins, still on the squad. Look for them to win the Big East regular season and Big East tournament. There loss to Marquette was quickly avenged with a comeback win against a top-15 Virginia team.
2. Baylor Bears (20-1)
Ruehl: “Baylor looks to be very good. They picked up some key wins out of conference to begin their season, and they even earned a #1 ranking at one point. This team is for real.”
Kansas and Baylor are definitely the top two teams in the Big 12. Really, the Bears have the better resume with wins over Oregon, Louisville, and Xavier, and the fact that only have one loss and the second best record in the country behind Gonzaga makes me put them ahead of Kansas right now. Their star player, Jonathan Motley, is a freakish 6-10, and he can play like a small forward. Baylor only gives up a mere 60 points a game right now – with one of the hardest schedules in the country. The biggest story for them and maybe all of college basketball will be whether they or Kansas comes out on top for a 1-seed.
3. Kansas Jayhawks (19-2)
Downey: “The best team in college basketball right now, although a rough slate the next few games could change that. Led by Frank Mason, this team has the talent and guard play to win another National Title.”
After losing the Indiana to start the year, the Jayhawks have been dominating in a top four conference with the Big 12. However, the toughest test is ahead as they play Baylor twice along with West Virginia (who they lost to) and Kansas State one more time. Unlike Nova, I could definitely see them dropping a couple games, and it will be a race to the finish to see if they or Baylor will take home the Big 12 title. The win at Kentucky was convincing; few teams walk out of Rupp Arena with a comeback win.
4. Gonzaga Bulldogs (22-0)
Ruehl: “Gonzaga is tough to interpret. They always seem to have a good team but they don’t play anybody. They have a really weak schedule in conference and out of conference. But nonetheless, they are still undefeated, so they deserve some respect.”
Gonzaga’s conference is bad. They play teams like Portland Pepperdine on the nightly, but they do have a non-conference win against Arizona who has been playing quite well. Like Ruehl, I have to respect their dominance, but we will never really know how good this team is until tournament time.
5. Arizona Wildcats (20-2)
Downey: “It’ll be Oregon vs. Arizona for the Pac-12 title. Fresh off an impressive road win over UCLA, Arizona is one of the best teams in college basketball. There’s enough talent to make a serious run in March. Get used to the name Lauri Markkanen: he’s a 7-footer hitting 50 percent from 3-point range on just under five per game.”
I think Downey said it well. ‘Zona still needs to face UCLA again and Oregon for the first time. The Pac-12 has not been this good in hoops for quite some time, and the three-way fight for the Pac-12 title among Oregon, UCLA, and Arizona will be legen-wait for it-dairy: Legendary
6. Oregon Ducks (19-3)
Ruehl: “Oregon started the year slow but has picked it up since. They are a balanced team. They can score and defend with any team in the country. This team should be feared come March.”
The Ducks came into the season highly ranked. They got smashed by Baylor and lost to a bad Georgetown team to start 2-2. Since then, they have beaten UCLA and have not looked bad since that loss to the Hoyas. There could very well be three Pac-12 teams that finish in the top 10 this year. They still have to face off with Arizona and UCLA again. The loss to Colorado should not shadow over this team 17- game win streak, so they should still be up in the rankings. Things look interesting out West.
7. Virginia Cavaliers (16-4)
Ditullio: “The Cavaliers have the best defense in the country, but don’t really excel in any other facet of the game. If they get into a shoot-out against good competition, they will lose.”
Ditullio was not exaggerating when he said the Cavaliers have the best defense. They only give up 54 points a game while playing in arguably the best conference in the country. Like all ACC teams, they have a tough road ahead and still have to face Louisville, Duke, and UNC (twice). It is a tough call, but one of these ACC teams going to have to start losing, and Virginia will have to keep up the defensive intensity if they don’t want it to be them. The win against Notre Dame and a close loss to Nova, in which they dominated most of the game, makes me think this team is more legit than we give the credit for.
8. Louisville Cardinals (18-4)
Ditullio: “As always, Louisville’s defense is among the best in the country, but their lack of offense could be their ultimate downfall. The good news is that they rebound the ball well too, making it hard for opponents to get second chance opportunities.”
The Cards do not have a bad loss on the season, and the win over rival Kentucky will be their staple win for the season. However, the ACC is probably the toughest conference in the NCAA, so they could definitely get knocked out early in their conference tourney. We’ll see just how solid this team is with games against Virginia and Notre Dame (two teams they already lost to) along with a match up against UNC.
9. West Virginia Mountaineers (17-4)
Downey: “Back-to-back losses has hurt this team and perhaps eliminated them from the No. 1 seed race. There’s talent, and good coaching, but they won’t finish first in a talented Big 12.”
The win against Baylor made me think we would have a third team competing for the Big 12 title, but conference champions cannot drop back-to-back games against Oklahoma and Kansas State. The mountaineers will have another shot at these two teams, and they bounced back in dramatic fashion when they dominated Kansas. Maybe they just fell asleep for two games because the Mountaineers look to be back on top.
10. UCLA Bruins (19-3)
Fries: “They have a talented Freshmen (Lonzo Ball and TJ Leaf), but the defense is questionable.”
This team started out hot with a win against Kentucky, and Lonzo Ball was all the rave through the first few weeks. However, the Bruins lost a close one to Oregon and one to Arizona– their main competition in the Pac 12. They went and dropped another one to a quality USC team. Those losses do make me worry about the UCLA, but senior Bryce Alford leads the team and scoring, and his maturity gives me reason to believe they can avenge those losses later this season when they play Oregon, UCS, and Arizona again.
11. Kentucky Wildcats (17-4)
Ditullio: “Their backcourt, with De’Aaron Fox, Malik Monk and Isaiah Briscoe, is the fastest in college basketball, but their inside game needs to develop. If it does the Wildcats will be in the Final Four.”
Kentucky has four guys averaging 13 or more points with freshman Malik Monk averaging 21 a game. They average 92 points a game, and share the ball well with 18 assists a game. Like always, Kentucky is extremely freshman heavy, and their sophomore gaud Isaiah Briscoe (averaging 14 points per game) seems more like senior for this Wildcat’s team. If college basketball players had to for more than a year, college hoops would just be Kentucky vs. the field, and I would take Kentucky. However, that is not a reality, but it still looks like UK is going to dominate the SEC. The recent loss to Kansas bumped them back a few spots, but I cannot deny the young talent this Kentucky team has.
12. Butler Bulldogs (18-4)
Fries: “Not as talented as other teams, but they are gritty. Watch out for them in March.”
Most thought this would be a rebuilding year for the Bulldogs, but they have proved almost everyone wrong and have helped make the Big East a top four conference in the country. They have wins over Cincinnati, Xavier, Arizona, and Villanova. With such great wins, it is hard to imagine that they lost to Indiana State, Saint Johns, and Georgetown. Butler is not going to roll over anyone, but they are also going to be tough for any team to beat. If someone was going to make a magical tourney run, stun multiple top 10 teams in a row, and go the distance, it would be Butler – the basketball God’s have been on their side ever since those back-to-back Final Fours in 2010 and 2011.
13. North Carolina Tarheels (19-4)
Ditullio: “The Tar Heels have one of the premier offenses in college basketball, which is led by Justin Jackson. North Carolina shares the ball well, but also rebounds the ball better than anyone in the country, making them dangerous in March.”
Their win over Florida State by 13 was commanding, but the Tar Heels tend to have lackluster performances against average teams. They even have a loss against Georgia Tech who is just above .500. They lost by 15 to a good Miami team and have shown inconsistency throughout the season. Yet, I still think Heels are legit and will have a chance to prove it when they play Notre Dame, Virginia (twice), Louisville, and Duke (twice) to close out the regular season
14. Wisconsin Badgers (18-3)
Fries: “Best in the Big 10. Great senior leadership. They have what it takes to make it to the Final Four.”
The Big 10 is nothing special this year, and the best team the Badgers still have to play is Indiana. They showed that they may not be an elite team since they got handled by Creighton and UNC early in the season, but senior Bronson Koenig has been to the Final Four before, and you never know what will happen come March.
15. Cincinnati Bearcats (19-2)
Fries: “Incredible defensively, but do they have enough scorers? We’ll find out.”
The Bearcats have had the same question for years now: can they score? Their offense has been better this year, but it has still been lackluster at times, but the 86 point performance against Xavier could mean UC has finally conquered their scoring woes. Unlike most teams in the top 25, the Bearcats do not have very many opportunities to prove themselves with the American Conference having a down year. UC has a solid team, and it is probably their best in while with sophomore guard Jacob Evans averaging around 14 points a game and transfer Kyle Washington averaging around 13. In time, the Cats will show their worth and be a tough team to beat this March.
16. Florida State Seminoles (18-4)
Fries: “Watch out for Dwayne Bacon. They’ve been arguably the best in the ACC this year.”
They will finish the season with one of the best resumes in basketball. With wins over Minnesota, Florida, Virginia, Virginia Tech, Duke, Notre Dame, and Louisville, they are setting themselves up to be a high seed and they have given me very little reason to doubt until this past week when they got smacked by Georgia Tech and then lost to Syracuse. Duke, Notre Dame, and the heated ACC tournament will be the toughest tests for the ‘Noles later this season. They will be relying on the sophomore, Bacon, averaging around 17 points a game, as they try to make a return to the top of the ACC.
17. Duke Blue Devils (17-5)
Downey: “This should be the best team in college basketball, but the Blue Devils aren’t playing like. They are loaded with talent, so much so that a potential lottery pick (center Marques Bolden) is getting less than nine minutes per game. But Duke has yet to win a road game this year and Grayson Allen’s inability to stop tripping people isn’t helping.”
People are very underwhelmed with Duke’s performance this year. They came into the season as the number one ranked team and junior Grayson Allen was supposed to be front runner for player of year. They have lost five games already (which is not bad in the ACC, but Duke is loaded with talent), and Allen is just their third leading scorer behind sophomore Luke Kennard (who has had a great year) and freshman Jason Tatum. They just lost to a 14-7 NC State team at home, and the schedule just gets tougher with UNC (twice) and Florida State coming to town. Coach K should get this talented squad going come March, and the win against Notre Dame was a step in the right direction. Still things are not going as planned for the Blue Devils.
18. Notre Dame Fighting Irish (17-6)
Downey: “Another year, another stocked ACC. Notre Dame is among the best in the conference, thanks to a four-headed attack on offense. They’ll make some noise in the NCAA Tournament, but I don’t think they have the ability to actually win a title.”
The top of the ACC is so even at this point. The Irish, like all the other teams in their conference, have a tough road ahead as they look to play (or replay) the top teams in the conference. Interestingly enough, Notre Dame has lost to Villanova and Purdue earlier this season. Recent losses to Virginia (by 17), Georgia Tech, and Duke have surrounded the Irish with many questions.
19. Maryland Terrapins (19-2)
Ditullio: “The Terrapin’s hopes are totally reliant on Melo Trimble, who is averaging 17.4 points per game. If a team is able to shut him down, they will be able to beat Maryland.”
Maryland was not supposed to be very good this year, but they have only dropped a two games half way through the season. The heavily rely on guard Melo Trimble and will have the chance to show that they are legit when they face Purdue and Wisconsin later in the season.
20. Creighton Blue Jays (19-3)
Ruehl: “Creighton was one of the best teams in the country until their best player Maurice Watson Jr. was sidelined with a torn ACL. This team is not what it once was, but they are still a solid team. Without Mo Watson, they most likely wouldn’t be able to make a deep run.”
Mo Watson was the senior point guard for the Blue Jays. After tearing his ACL against Xavier, they lost to a decent Marquette team. Then they fell to Georgetown by 20 in an ugly game. Luckily, they showed that they have not completely lost their way with a commanding win over a a below average Depaul team. They will definitely struggle without a floor general like Watson, but they are a deep team and still have their leading scorer, Marcus Foster, who averages around 18 points per game. They may not be in my Final Four without Mo, but they could have a shot at a deep tourney run if they regroup.
21. Purdue Boilermakers (17-5)
Ditullio: “Purdue’s front court of Isaac Haas and Caleb Swanigan will be tough for any team to match up with. They will lose in the tournament because of their guard play.”
Purdue is a tough team play, and they just got a signature win against Wisconsin but showed fell to a sub .500 Nebraska team. Like Ditullio pointed out, Haas and Swanigan are their leading scorers, and both are forwards. It is rare to see a team make a deep tournament run without elite guards
22. South Carolina Gamecocks (17-4)
Ruehl: “South Carolina is a mixed bag. Some games they come out strong and other games they play flat. They play in the SEC, so it should be interesting to see what they do against Kentucky.”
I don’t have a whole lot of confidence in South Carolina, but their recent win against Florida gives keeps them in the top 25. They have lost to average teams in Clemson, Memphis, and Seton Hall. They should still finish right behind Kentucky in the SEC.
23. USC Trojans (18-4)
Downey: “The Trojans win over UCLA is huge for their tourney chances. They took a huge risks by hiring Andy Enfield (of FGCU/ Dunk City in 2013), and it should pay off with back-to-back tourney berths.
USC has shown signs of struggle with lopsided losses against Oregon and Utah, but they only have 4 L’s on the season, and the recent win against UCLA nudges them into this ever-fluctuating top 25.
24. Northwestern Wildcats (18-4)
Downey: “I think this is the yeat the Wildcats actually make the NCAA Tournament. They’re playing well, beating teams they are supposed to and even a few they aren’t.”
The Wildcats also have 4 losses halfway through the year. They have shown they can play with the big dogs when they only lost to Butler by two and Notre Dame by four early in the season. Still, recent losses to Minnesota and Michigan State prevent them from moving up any further in this ranking. Are they legit or is the Big 10 just an easy conference to win in this year? We will have to see come March.
25. Xavier Musketeers (15-6)
Ruehl: “Xavier has been hot and cold this year. I believe they have a great team, but they aren’t very deep. They only have about 7 good players. With Davis no longer on the squad, this team might struggle in postseason play.”
Coach Mack had the deepest squad in college basketball last year. Now, depth is an issue for the Muskies. They are a few made free throws from knocking off Butler and Creighton but instead find themselves in trouble. The “little things” such as free throws, defensive communication, and turnovers has been hurting Xavier. However, they have the talent to beat anyone in this ranking. With Creighton, Butler, and Nova to play again, the Musketeers will have plenty of chances to prove their worth. However, they still have to make some major adjustments, or this March may not be too fun for Xavier especially when their future NBA draft pick, Edmund Sumner, is out for the season with a torn ACL.
The only certainty for NCAAMB is uncertainty, so I have to mention it again.
College basketball is the soap opera of sports. What seems certain one day becomes so fickle the next in the ever changing landscape of college hoops.
Half way through the NCAA hoops season, this is where it all stands, and it could all be different come tomorrow.