At this point in the regular season, college basketball fans are looking forward to the action leading up to Selection Sunday. But this season, organized during the pandemic, most hope we will qualify on Sunday.
The delays and cancellations caused by the coronavirus cast an undeniable shadow over the 2020-21 campaign, but the action of the first six weeks of the season still helped set the stage for an entertaining conference game, followed by the NCAA tournament scheduled for Monday in Indiana, according to the NCAA announcement.
Something to look out for… but carefully.
As we begin to dream about the possibilities in March, it’s time to take stock of the best surprises and disappointments in college basketball since the game was played on the 25th. November has begun.
State of Minnesota vs. University Basketball
At one point in your first interview with Minnesota, you’re asked what your favorite Prince album is. This year, they may also ask if you know of any local products that have made an impact on the college basketball scene this season – both men’s and women’s. New freshman Paige Buchers (Hopkins, Minn.) averaged 18.0 points per game this week for UConn’s undefeated women’s basketball team. Gonzaga’s Jalen Suggs (St. Paul) could be a first-time American consensus team and a top-five pick for the NBA project. The future number one high school player, Chet Holmgren (Minneapolis), is also from Minnesota. And the Minnesota Golden Gophers may be the best men’s basketball team this season.
Error! The file name is not specified. Jalen Suggs is one of Minnesota’s top basketball players this season. Kim Clement/USA TODAY Sports
Minnesota coach Richard Pitino, who has been the subject of constant rumors, led his team to a 10-2 strong start with wins over Iowa, Michigan and Ohio that placed his team in the top 25. Marcus Carr (22.1 PPG) is one of four players with a double-digit average for the Gophers. This all came after the unofficial pre-season Big Ten poll ranked Minnesota 11th, a year after star Daniel Oturu turned pro. Hockey? It’s an old hat. Minnesota looks to be a serious threat in the race for the Big Ten title, and for now everything is purple in this state, with rain and basketball.
SEC Intrigue on Race
Although the focus is on Kentucky’s problems, this competition could be the most exciting Power 5 race outside of the Big Ten in the country. A handful of SEC teams were competitive and added spice to the league title race. Cuonzo Martin and the Missouri team, ranked 10th in the SEC preseason poll, are tied 7-1 with wins over Illinois and Oregon. The Tigers are holding their opponents to a 45% pace in the bow. NBA prospect Rookie Moses Moody (16.9 PPG) led Arkansas to a 9-0 start before Saturday’s loss to Missouri, and Alabama just dominated a Tennessee team that can win a national championship.
Mark Few’s team, Gonzaga, looked deadly only once, in a five-point win over West Virginia, where Jalen Suggs was sent off early due to an ankle injury, before returning to help his team secure the victory. The Suggs five-star was great, but it was the six-foot senior Kispert who became a surprisingly serious Wooden Award nominee and NBA first-round hopeful. Kispert is averaging 21.6 PPG and has hit 76% of his shots inside the arc and 51% of his 3-pointers. These are Doug McDermott’s numbers, but McDermott didn’t share the ball with two players (Suggs, Drew Timme) also vying for All-American honors. The Corey Kispert Show is about to go viral.
Error! The file name is not specified. Shaka Smart finished in the top five for the first time since 2011. Jay Biggerstaff/USA Sports Today
Before the season, many wondered if the Texas coach would embark on a career-changing campaign, his sixth with the Longhorns, a program that has yet to finish third in the Big 12 during his tenure. Smart answered the questions in surprising fashion and entered the week with a top 5 team that had just beaten Kansas 84-59 … This despite the fact that NBA hopeful Greg Brown scored just five points in 16 minutes. Bill Self suffered the worst loss of his career at Allen Fieldhouse. Although its first win at the NCAA Tournament in Austin will be a long time coming, the Longhorns Smart will position themselves for much more if they can keep that momentum going.
Luca Garza Woodworking Award Campaign
Just listen to me: Yes, we all knew Garza would enter the season as the favorite to win all national awards, a season after struggling with the lottery pick of Obi Topping for the wooden award. But who could have predicted that Garza – already an elite college player – would make the significant improvements we’ve seen so far? It is more accurate from the 3-point line (49% vs. 36% last season) and the free throw line (74% vs. 65%). He has five games on 30 points this season, which is already last year’s total. The offensive rebounding is increasing and the turnover rate is falling. Of course, everyone knew that Garza was going to dominate. But he took his game to another level.
But seriously. Brad Brownell left the field 5-6 in the final 11 games of the 2019-20 season, sparking an ongoing discussion about his work. But after an 8-1 start that included wins over Purdue, Florida, Maryland and Alabama, he has already won half of last season. The team’s early reward? Clemson finished in an impressive 15th place. He was ranked first in the NET rankings released by the NCAA on Monday.
Error! The file name is not specified. Kentucky should have been in the Final Four. Now the SEC top four looks like a stretch. Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images
John Calipari and Kentucky
Under Calipari, Kentucky’s young team had the added attraction of water. No team in the United States produced as much NBA talent in the one-and-done era. Neither is any average NBA candidate. John Wall, Anthony Davis, Karl-Anthony Towns, Devin Booker, De’Aaron Fox, Tyler Herro, Bam Adebayo and Jamal Murray have all passed through Lexington in the last decade.
So when the team, led by five-star prospect Brandon Boston Jr. and Wake Forest transfer Olivier Sarr, began the season, big things could be expected. It wasn’t a big deal, though Kentucky won its second game with a double overtime victory over Mississippi State on Saturday – a victory secured by the 23-point performance of Dontay Allen, the new redshirt junior – and lost its first six-game winning streak in nearly a century.
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This victory did not stop the problems of the typically efficient Calipari. Did he go too far by temporarily removing Cam’Ron Fletcher from the team and criticizing him on Twitter? Why isn’t Boston (5 for 33 from the 3-point line), who entered the season as an NBA top 10 legend, improving like other five-star Kentucky players have in the past? Will Calipari ever be able to win another national title if they don’t join their peers in building a modern offense with more shooters capable of expanding the field? (Kentucky shoots 29% from the 3-point line).
We saw other hot rallies in Kentucky falter in November and December before resuming in March. Maybe Saturday’s win will be the catalyst for that in 2021. All we know now is that Calipari is struggling to decipher the code for the first time since the 2012-13 TIN season in Lexington.
Roy Williams and North Carolina
Last season’s record (14-19) was considered an anomaly because of the team’s youth and injuries. But this Tar Heels group is 6-4-10 – the same record the program had a year ago after the first 10 games. That doesn’t mean North Carolina is going to have another disastrous season, but it also doesn’t mean we should bet on UNC’s inevitable comeback in the race for the national title. The defeats at Iowa and Texas are understandable, but one would expect the Tar Heels to beat NC State and Georgia Tech, the two teams they beat last week. Saturday’s win over Notre Dame (66-65) could have gone either way. It’s easy to think of them as the early bumps of the season, but the young backcourt (Caleb Love, R.J. Davis) had a hard time triggering UNC’s offense, and that doesn’t bode well: It’s the same problem Williams had a year ago.
Injuries and unexpected absences
A handful of teams have already suffered significant setbacks that could derail their season. It’s good to see Florida’s Keyontae Johnson coaching the Gators on the sidelines nearly a month after collapsing in a game against his rival, Florida State. But Johnson’s absence from Mike White’s lineup remains a significant loss to the program. Houston announced Sunday that Wood Award nominee Caleb Mills (9.8 PPG) will leave the program for personal reasons. West Virginia recently announced that Oscar Chibwe (8.5 PPG, 7.8 rebounds per game), another Wooden nominee, has left the team. UCLA’s Mick Cronin just lost Chris Smith with a torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), devastating news for the Bruins. That’s four of the top 50 guys we won’t see on the field for the rest of the season.
Error! The file name is not specified. The absence of Chris Smith is a big loss for the UCLA Pac-12 championship team. Jeffrey Brown/Sportswire Icon
Penny Hardaway and Memphis
The only reason the Tigers failed to make a double-double in the American Track and Field Conference and a 5-5 is that Memphis guard Lester Quinones scored a 3-point goal 68 seconds from the end of the game in a 58-57 victory over South Florida. Midway through the second half, the Tigers were down 10 points. Hardaway has another Memphis team that knows how to defend (10 times best efficiency) but can’t score consistently. Memphis ranks 146th in KenPom’s adjusted offensive efficiency rankings and has failed to score 60 points or more in three of 10 games. Landers Nolley II is one of four players with double-digit averages for Memphis, but team rotation issues and a below-arc average (30%) have caused problems so far. The Tigers were picked to finish second in the U.S. pre-season poll, but a spot in the top three is no guarantee for a Memphis team.
Games we haven’t seen yet.
Scheduled for early December, the match between No. 1 Gonzaga and No. 2 Baylor was a chance for college basketball to make the call on a national level. However, about an hour before the start of the game, the game was cancelled due to positive COVID-19 tests on Gonzaga’s outing. Other important games have since been cancelled. No Michigan, no Virginia. No Duke Florida State. Villanova suspended the team for the second time in two weeks. The beauty of this college basketball season is that all indications are that the NCAA Tournament will end well. Challenges until March? We’ll probably miss a few more key games. Yes, the committee will fix everything, but fans will miss some of the fun games everyone is interested in in March and April.
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