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NCAA Men’s Basketball: Top 35

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NCAA Basketball: Western Michigan at Michigan State Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

What is this thing:

Per last year, I am doing a second round of my top teams NCAA men’s basketball teams as we head into the heart of conference play (and with almost all of non-conference play complete). I will aim to do another one of these as we head into post-season play.

The changes:

The first thing I have tried to do is to “shorten the benches” as teams’ depth charts have shifted and as the primary playing groups have tightened up (and as guys have gotten injured or come back from injury, or transferred).

I have cut the number of teams ranked down to 35 as I try to narrow my group of teams considered towards the group that I think will actually have a shot to do things in the NCAA tournament.

What I got wrong (and right) in the preseason rankings:

In my defense, I posted my preseason rankings on October 2, just before we found out about Langford’s injury, so my ranking of MSU was reasonable at the time, but clearly a bit off based on the early returns and in light of the tragic passing of Zachary Winston and the untold and immeasurable effect that his death has had on the team thus far this year.

Apart from MSU being a bit overranked, I also missed on a number of teams either ranking them too high or too low. In case you wanted to see that breakdown, here it is:

Too high, and I was crazy to think they would be that good:
UNC, LSU, NC State, Tennessee, Cincinnati, Miami, Utah State, Syracuse, Iowa State, Georgia, Alabama, Davidson, Arizona St, Georgetown, Texas, Oklahoma

Too high, but I still believe:
Kentucky, Florida, Villanova, UVA, Texas Tech, Purdue, Memphis, Illinois, Washington

Too low, and I was crazy for not loving them more:
Gonzaga, Oregon, Arizona, Baylor, Iowa, St Mary’s, Penn State, Dayton, Wichita State, Butler, West Virginia, SDSU, Houston, BYU

Too low, and I still don’t buy them as legit (or I think they are worse):
Minnesota, Xavier, DePaul, Colorado

Without further ado...

The TRUE depth-charts and rankings of the ACTUAL top-35 NCAA men’s basketball teams at the rough mid-way point
(brief comments per team, if I have something to say):

(Disclaimer: I am not a genius, have no ability to predict the future, a tenuous grasp of reality, and may have completely forgotten, omitted, or mis-depth-charted various players due to transfers I didn’t know about or check on, legal issues, injuries, etc. please DO let me know about factual or obvious omissions and errors)

I view this as a collective exercise in debate and silliness: please offer your thoughts and critiques and don’t be surprised if I change my rankings and depth charts based on your excellent input!

#1 Duke

1 - Jones, Goldwire
2 - Stanley
3 - O’Connell, Baker
4 - Hurt, White
5 - Carey jr, DeLaurier

My thoughts pre-season: “I think this Duke team will probably end up being a better team than last year’s team. This is a curious thing to say, but last year’s team despite having clearly more talent, couldn’t shoot the ball and didn’t have enough balance. This year’s team has more shooting, better spacing, and more star role-players.” This has pretty much all come to pass. Carey jr is an All-American, Jones has been improved on offense, Hurt, Stanley, and Baker have been scoring the ball well from range. While Moore had started to improve his level of play on offense after a torrid start to the year, he will, unfortunately, have to sit out for a while with a broken hand. This is a Final Four team even if Moore never gets fully fit, and should win the ACC comfortably in a very down year for the conference.

#2 Gonzaga

1 - Woolridge
2 - Gilder, Ayayi
3 - Kispert
4 - Tille, Watson
5 - Petrusev, Timme

I under-rated Gonzaga a bit coming into the year - unsure if their back-court would be good enough. But man... this team is good! Aayayi has finally gotten on the court and has been really good, Kispert is just a star, and the front-court has been as good as advertised. Clear Final Four team, who will stroll through their conference.

#3 Kansas

1 - Dotson
2 - Garrett, Moss
3 - Agbaji, Braun
4 - McCormack, Enaruna
5 - Azubuike, De Sousa

Kansas is the best iteration of the “too-many-bigs” teams (see also, Seton Hall, WVU, Purdue, and Illinois). Despite having to play a lot of minutes with two bigs, which eats space on offense, Dotson is a great point guard for getting to the paint and creating, their wings are terrific defensively, and Moss, Agbaji, and Braun add enough shooting for the offense to play around the hub that is Azubuike. This is a Final Four quality team, but if their shooting abandons them or they have a bad turn-over game, then they are in a lot of trouble.

#4 Kentucky

1 - Hagans
2 - Maxey, Quickley
3 - Brooks jr
4 - Montgomery, Whitney
5 - Richards, Sestina

This UK team is really good, and getting better. Yes they are susceptible, but they defend the perimeter with tenacity (led by Hagans, who is just about the best defensive guard in the country), have just enough shooting, and have found a true post-presence in Richards, who has emerged as a legit player at long last. Maxey, Quickley, and Hagans form a super trio, but Calipari’s inability to find roles for Brooks jr and Whitney is perplexing to me. Down the line the troubles arise when Maxey goes into volume-shooter mode (he is just not a good 3pt shooter, and despite what NBA scouts may tweet out about his percentage improving with more shots he is only going to be around 30% at best for the year). When UK is disciplined in their shot selection (i.e. get it to Richards in the post, to Sestina and Quickley on kick-outs, and to the paint on drives by Hagans and Maxey) they are good, when guys take turns going full hero-ball mode... they are... not good.

#5 Michigan State

1 - Winston, Loyer
2 - Henry, Watts
3 - Brown, Ahrens
4 - Bingham jr, Hall, Marble
5 - Tillman, Kithier

This team has come a LONG way in just a couple of months, and they are picking up momentum in a scary and exciting kind of way. When Cassius Winston plays like himself, and he appears to be doing so more and more as he comes to grips with his grieving process, he lifts the spirit, energy, and execution of his teammates. When Xavier Tillman plays with focus and intensity (his bobbles appear to be behind him), he forms a potent duo with Winston. And when Izzo gets production out of Brown, Henry, Watts, Loyer, and Marthomalik Kithall jr, this team gets nigh-on unbeatable. Game-plan discipline, focus, and competitive fire are starting to percolate. The final touches remain, however: finding some sort of consistently replacement-level minutes out of Kyle Ahrens (who Izzo insists on playing), getting mistake free and good-shot-taking minutes out of Watts and Loyer, minimizing the frequency of the disappearing acts by the uber-talented-but-inconsistent Brown and Henry, and consistently getting rebounding, defense, and a bit of scoring out of the non-Tillman hydra of big-men.

#6 Auburn

1 - McCormick
2 - Doughty, Johnson
3 - Okoro, Flanigan, Cambridge
4 - Purifoy, McLemore
5 - Wiley

Auburn’s shooting issues have not been overly pronounced, which was my concern heading into the season. Everything else has been as I foresaw: Auburns vets have played with toughness and grit, their athletes have out-athleted every team they have faced thus far, and they have defended superbly (blocking shots, forcing turn-overs, and contesting shots). They aren’t as good on offense as they were last year, but this team has a veteran headiness to them that may put them over the top in the SEC that surprisingly looks like a two-horse race between Auburn and UK. This team can make a run in the post-season, regardless of how well they shoot the ball from range because they are so effective in the paint, in transition, and on the offensive glass. Their true achilles heel may be their free throw shooting (they get there a ton, and miss a lot when they get there).

#7 Dayton

1 - Chatman
2 - Crutcher, Cohill
3 - Landers, Watson, Mhatos
4 - Mikesell
5 - Toppin, Tshimanga

I liked Dayton heading into the season, but, like a fool I hedged my bets and only placed them at #43 in my pre-season rankings [hangs head]. This team is everything I thought they could be, and more. Toppin is a lottery pick (and an All-American), everyone who plays other than Tshimanga can shoot it from 3, they pass the ball beautifully, and space the floor on offense. They should win the A10 (though VCU is no push-over), and make a run to at leas the second weekend of the tourney. The concern for them in the post-season is that they don’t defend the 3pt arc well, but if they don’t run into hot-shooting teams, there shouldn’t be many teams that can hang with them. Anthony Grant is still a good coach (even though he couldn’t get Alabama up off the mat), and this team knows that they can hang with the best teams in the country. No fear in them and they don’t blink under pressure.

#8 Maryland

1 - Cowan,
2 - Morsell, Hart
3 - Ayala, Wiggins
4 - Scott, Lindo jr
5 - Smith, Marial, Tomaic

What I said in pre-season: “I really like this UMD team - having them below OSU is more of a statement in my confidence in OSU. Cowan should be super, Smith has tons of talent, and Morsell, Ayala, Smith, Wiggins, and Lindo jr are a terrific fivesome on the wings. I do fear that UMD will suffer from the weight of expectations a bit, and that their group of sophomores may have a bit of a slump. The real question is whether or not the center position will be one of strength or one where UMD will really miss Fernando’s brawn. There are some imposing front-lines in the B1G (be they big, skilled, experienced, etc.) so relying on freshmen to carry the load might be asking for trouble.” One might think that losing the Mitchell twins would hurt UMD, but the Terps have an ace up their sleeve: Chol Marial, 7’2” with like a 7’8” wingspan, who is now healthy and looks to be a terrifying force defensively. Smith has really matured, Cowan is playing like he wants to leave a legacy, and the sophomores have done just fine (although their 3pt shooting has been a real concern). Dark-horse Final Four team here just because of the talent of Smith, Cowan, and Marial.
[MSU plays UMD twice down the stretch of the B1G - vs UMD, Feb 15 and at UMD, Feb 29]

#9 Arizona

1 - Mannion
2 - Smith, Hazzard
3 - Green, Baker
4 - Nnaji, Lee, Gettings
5 - Jeter, Koloko

What I said in the pre-season: “This Arizona team should probably be higher. They have a ton of talent in Mannion, Baker (UK transfer who should provide a ton of shooting if he gets his waiver for immediate eligibility), Green, Nnaji, and Jeter all of whom may go pro after this season. If Baker can’t go this season that limits Arizona’s ceiling, but Hazzard (UC Irvine grad transfer) should be terrific as either the first guard off the bench or as a gunning starter. Mannion and Green will be a sublime pairing for a season, but the real question is the front-court. If Nnaji and Jeter (who at times was super at times last year and awol at others) play to their potential then Arizona may just walk away with the conference and cruise into a deep tourney run. But Sean Miller still isn’t that great a coach (not saying he’s “bad,” just that he consistently fails to deliver despite having TONS of talent), so that may end up holding them back.” This all holds. Arizona is really good, really talented, and really fun to watch. But I don’t trust Sean Miller, and basketball-karma just will never be on his side.

#10 Louisville

1 - Perry, Kimble
2 - McMahon, Johnson
3 - Sutton, Williamson
4 - Nwora
5 - Enoch, Williams, Igiehon

I have been a bit disappointed by Louisville, and bemused by Mack’s coaching thus far. Williamson hasn’t gotten out of first gear, Withers is red-shirting, and neither Kimble nor Johnson (at this point - though he has only just come back from his injury) have provided enough of a scoring or creation spark for the offense. Everything is a struggle for them right now - teams load up on Nwora, and Enoch and Sutton haven’t created quite enough gravity yet for McMahon’s off-ball movement to really control and manipulate defenses. As good of a scorer as Nwora has been this year, the key for this team’s long-term future is for Nwora to take fewer shots, and for Sutton and Williamson to get more possessions. The easiest way for this to happen is for the Cardinals to start playing faster - inexplicably desite their stable of wings and guards they are #305 in the nation in pace!!! Speed it up and open up opportunities for the others or risk throwing away the best chance at a Final Four for the foreseeable future Mack...

#11 Ohio State

1 - Walker, Carton
2 - Muhammad
3 - Wesson, Washington
4 - Young, Liddell, Gaffney
5 - Wesson

Don’t be dissuaded by their recent bumps, OSU is legit and a serious threat to win the B1G and make a deep run in the tournament. I am still bemused why Holtmann isn’t starting Carton, who is clearly a far superior lead-guard compared to Walker, and I think OSU needs to find more minutes for Washington. The answer is for Young to play more as a reserve 5 man behind Wesson, and for OSU to go smaller more-often (playing Andre Wesson as a 4). This team has shooting from everyone except Young and Liddell, and is just going to be superb by the end of the season. The B1G will likely be decided in the final regular season game of the year when MSU hosts OSU.

#12 Oregon

1 - Pritchard
2 - Mathis, Richardson
3 - Duarte, Patterson
4 - Lawson, Walker, Juiston
5 - Okoro, Dante

Oregon is good, they do not have the same ceiling that Arizona does, but they do have the heady senior point guard in Pritchard, who will likely win Pac-12 POY. They have four top-level 3pt shooters (particularly Pritchard at 38%, Richardson at 54% (!!!), Duarte at 35%, and Mathis at 48%). What holds them back? Their defense is not great - especially on the glass - and they play a slow tempo, which just invites less-talented teams to stay in the game.

#13 Baylor

1 - Mitchell
2 - Butler, Bandoo
3 - Teague
4 - Vital, Mayer, Clark
5 - Gillespie, Thamba

I was skeptical about Baylor heading into the season, but marked them as a team to possibly move up. They deserve it though, at this point (although I am still not a fan of Scott Drew). Butler, Teague, and Bandoo have shot the leather off the ball, Mitchell has been solid at the point (after a rocky freshman year at Auburn), and Vital, Gillespie, Thamba, and Mayer have performed really well while Tristan Clark tries to get healthy (he may not get there all year, which is concerning for the kid and the fortunes of the team). They are great on the glass, but their insistence on playing slow is not good for their long-term fortunes. Still this team will cause Kansas problems in the league.

#14 Seton Hall

1 - McKnight, Nelson
2 - Powell, Reynolds
3 - Cale
4 - Rhoden, Samuel, Mamukelashvili
5 - Gill, Obiagu

Powell has stopped chucking quite as much and Mamukelashvili is injured. Combine Rhoden’s shift into a starting role (and a smaller team), and increased usage from Cale and McKnight and this Seton Hall team is looking really good. Butler is getting all the pub right now, but Seton Hall will win the Big East, and they are a real threat to make a tournament run assuming Mamukelashvili can find his game a bit when he returns.

#15 Texas Tech

1 - Moretti
2 - Edwards
3 - Ramsey, Benson, McCullar
4 - Shannon, Clarke
5 - Holyfield, Savrasov , Tchewa

What I said in the pre-season: “Beard is an incredible coach, TTU returns Moretti and Edwards, but brings in big-time grad transfers Chris Clarke (Va Tech) and TJ Holyfield (SFA), stud freshman Jahmius Ramsey (reminds me a lot of Marcus Smart), and the talented Terrance Shannon. They shouldn’t be as good as they were last year, but if Kansas slips up, TTU should win the Big XII.” All of this has held so far this year. After losing three in a row to a trio of good teams (Iowa, Creighton OT, DePaul OT) with Ramsey out, “people” got down on the Red Raiders, but not me. This team is savy, firey, has a bit of shooting from Ramsey and Moretti, and plays super defense. They are going to get in a lot of rock-fights with teams, and they are going to out-tough most of them. They don’t have the ceiling they did last year, and I don’t see them getting out of the Sweet-16 at this point, but this is a damn fine team.

#16 Florida State

1 - Forrest, Evans
2 - Polite, Walker, Jack
3 - Vassell, Wilkes
4 - Osborne, Williams
5 - Gray, Olejniczak, Koprivica

I liked this team coming into the season (I had them at #13), and this team has performed approximately as I expected - although I have been a bit underwhelmed by Raiquan Gray and Patrick Williams (though both have been solid-to-great). The exciting thing about this team (other than its awesome athleticism, toughness, and Leonard Hamilton - the John Thompson jr of the ACC, given the way he builds his teams) is its really solid and balanced 3pt shooting. When Hamilton’s teams can shoot the ball from range to go along with their patented athletes and defense and when they reign-in the turnovers, they tend to be very good. This is such a team. They match-up very well with Duke and Louisville (already beat them on the road), so if you want to place a bet on the ACC taking FSU to win would be a solid bet.

#17 Butler

1 - Thompson
2 - Baldwin, Battle
3 - McDermott, David
4 - Tucker, Nze
5 - Golden, Smits

I am still unsure of this Butler team. Their best wins have come against teams that were still finding themselves - Minnesota, Florida, Purdue - or teams that look good in Kenpom, but just aren’t very good - Missouri, Stanford, St John’s, Creighton. To be clear, they are clearly a good team (up to #6 in Kenpom!!!), they have one of the best offensive players in the country in McDermott (144 Ortg, but only a 14% usage rate and only a 17% shot rate???), an awesome vet in point guard Kamar Baldwin, and a bunch of great veteran role-players. Also, their defense is legit. So why am I skeptical? Well... they play really slow (yes, another team I am a bit down on because of pace... there’s a reason folks, and it’s not aesthetic, it’s because slow tempo teams keep lesser opponents in games), they allow plenty of 3’s to be taken, their opponents’ ft% is really low (canard), they don’t get to the line, and they NEED McDermott to have a functioning offense - neutralize him and you are on your way to winning against Butler. They could still win the Big East and make a run in the tourney, but I don’t trust this team at this point. I will be watching them closely, but for now I am dubious.

#18 Villanova

1 - Gillespie
2 - Moore, Antoine
3 - Samuels, Slater
4 - Bey, Swider
5 - Robinson-Earl, Cosby-Roundtree

Villanova has under-performed thus far this year, and they will not win the Big East in all likelihood (again, I am picking Seton Hall at this point), but they have tantalizing talent, a great coach, and shooting that will continue to trend upwards as the season progresses. The biggest key for Nova is redistributing shots. Moore and Samuels are using way too many possessions, and Bey and Swider aren’t getting enough shots. Robinson-Earl is a bit miscast as a center, though the offensive potential is clearly why Wright has put him there, but this choice has really hampered Nova’s defense, and may end up as a fatal flaw. Wright’s best teams have had a true post-player anchoring the defense (Spellman and Oturu), and Cosby-Roundtree may yet be that guy (his fouling issues are really holding him back). In the end I don’t see this team putting it together, but if you see Gillespie, Bey, Swider, and Robinson-Earl as the definitive shot takers down the stretch, then things change.

#19 Florida

1 - Nembhard
2 - Locke, Glover, Mann
3 - Lewis
4 - Johnson, Payne
5 - Blackshear jr, Jitoboh, Bassett

What a disappointment thus far. Florida’s offense has been stagnant, which has killed ball-movement (an eye-watering 44% assist rate, good for #309 in the nation, is a scarlet-letter). But when you look at the individual players the starting five are all playing pretty well, and scoring efficiently (even on this flawed team Blackshear jr is at a 122 Ortg!), so what gives? Well, Glover and Mann (especially) have been awful in general, and all three freshman guards/wings (Lewis, Glover, and Mann) have been god-awful from 3 (imagine three guys shooting like Watts in your 5-man back-court!?!?!). But there are signs of hope from my vantage point: after two-and-a-half years of playing slow (like a dummy), Mike White is allowing his team to pick up the pace in the last few games (3 wins), which has really gotten Andrew Nembhard going. This is the key to the season: play fast, get Nembhard playing at a high level - the kid is quality, and is now seeing the floor and scoring like he should. Don’t slow down Mike White... seriously.

#20 San Diego State

1 - Flynn, Pulliam
2 - Feagin
3 - Schakel, Seiko
4 - Mitchell, Mensah
5 - Wetzell, Mensah

SDSU plays slow (bad), has beaten some decent-to-good teams (BYU without Childs, Iowa, Creighton, and Utah State), and has a stud point guard in Flynn (121 Ortg, crafty, +40% from 3). They have a couple other good shooters in Mitchell and Schakel, they have legit size in the Mensah twins and Wetzell, and they will stroll through conference play. Their insistence on shooting jump-shots is concerning, and I don’t really have a feel for them yet (gonna need to stay up late a few nights to watch them more). They can win a few games in the tourney though.

#21 Michigan

1 - Simpson, DeJulius
2 - Brooks
3 - Livers, Nunez
4 - Wagner, Johns
5 - Teske, Castleton, Davis

Michigan is good, not as good as they have been, but they are good. They clearly have a ceiling at this point based on their roster limitations - either not enough size or not enough shooting in the right places (Simpson, Johns, Wagner, and Teske don’t have the shooting, and Simpson, DeJulius, and Brooks don’t have the size). This team will struggle a bit in the big (probably still top-5?), but they will do very well in the NCAA tourney because they can cause teams problems with Teske’s size (and Castelton and Davis’ scoring acumen as well) with Livers’ shooting, and with a later-season Wagner and Johns (who both appear to be putting some things together). Possible Sweet-16 team here depending on match-ups.
[MSU plays UM once more, at UM, Feb 8, 12pm, Fox]

#22 West Virginia

1 - McCabe, McBride
2 - Matthews, Sherman, Harler
3 - Haley, McNeil
4 - Tshiebwe, Osabuohien
5 - Culver, Routt

West Virginia has really bounced back this year. Their front-court is brawny and talented in Tshiebwe, Osabuohien, and Culver. And they have a future star in McBride who they turn to to make things happen (remind me why McCabe is still starting, he of the 86 Ortg?), hit shots, and create off the bounce. But this team is HARD-CAPPED about here because their shooting is so anemic. The encouraging thing about WVU is that Huggins (a good coach), knows that if you have a shitty team in terms of offensive talent, then playing fast and crashing the glass is the way to play. If Huggins can get Tshiebwe and Culver to stop hacking and shoving people in the paint (lord knows he’s trying) this team could make noise in the Big XII.

#23 UVA

1 - Clark
2 - Morsell, Woldetensae
3 - Stattman
4 - Key
5 - Diakite, Huff, Caffaro

Ugh. This team should be better than they are. Morsell truly is a good shooter (of course he’s shooting 15% from 3), Woldetensae is a good shooter too (he’s at 29%), Key is better than he has been (24% from 3), and so is Huff (28% thus far). UVA’s defense is predictably excellent, their pace is predictably slow (...), and if they get a bit more shooting out of say Woldetensae and Huff (the two most likely candidates at this point), then they have a real shot to shore up their offense enough to let the defense carry them to a win or two in the tournament.

#24 Penn State

1 - Wheeler, Jones
2 - Jones
3 - Dread, Brockington
4 - Stevens, Lundy
5 - Watkins, Harrar

What I said pre-season: “Penn State lost a lot of close games last year because they couldn’t shoot (#303 in eFG as a team) in a sport that, for the most part, is decided by how well you can shoot. This year will be more of the same unless Wheeler, Jones, Jones (Ok St/IU transfer), Lundy, Dread, and Brockington can rain in more 3’s that the Nittany Lions did last year. The key is Brockington (a St Bon transfer), he needs to be so good that he starts or is the 6th man, if not, then hopes for improvement from the returners and newcomers may never be fulfilled.” Bingo. Bango. Penn State is playing FAST, they are shooting well (52% eFG%, #104 in the nation, is lights out for this team), Stevens is still pacing them, they have enough 3pt shooting (just), and they have a dynamic bench duo in Curtis Jones and Izaiah Brockington. Most of all this team is athletic, aggressive, and playing with a veteran swagger (they need to build Lamar Stevens a statue). They are making the tourney, and they could grit their way to a win or two when they get there.
[MSU plays PSU twice - vs PSU, Feb 4, 8pm, BTN, and at PSU, Mar 3, 7pm, ESPN]

#25 Washington

1 - Green, Hardy
2 - Carter, Bey, Battle
3 - McDaniels
4 - Wright
5 - Stewart, Timmins

What I said pre-season: “This team plays a 2-3 zone perfect for preparing kids to play in the NBA, and they will have the ideal bodies to make it a really good one. A back-line of McDaniels, Stewart, and Wright will have a ton of length, and should be great on the glass. On offense the question is how crowded will the paint be, how consistent can the two 5-star freshmen be (Stewart and McDaniels), and where will the shooting come from? This team should be really tough for the Pac-12 to beat (and they will have a shot at the conference), and a tough out in the NCAA-tourney, but their guard play and half-court consistency will remain an open question unless some guys (Hardy, Green, Bey, Battle, Tsohonis, and Carter) really step up.” Stewart has been the consistent stallwart and Washington’s best player by a mile and McDaniels has been up-and-down, but the shooting from McDaniels, Carter, and Green has been there. This team would be really good if they just played man-to-man, which would shore up their defensive glass. As such...they play zone, they turn it over too much, and they have the wrong guys taking the wrong shots. This ranking is based on talent, and I don’t think that Stewart will allow them to fade.

#26 Wisconsin

1 - Trice, Anderson
2 - Pritzl, King
3 - Davison
4 - Ford, Wahl
5 - Reuvers, Potter, Hedstrom

What I said pre-season: “I know people aren’t high on Wisconsin, but this team returns a ton of minutes and has guys just waiting to explode in higher usage roles now that Happ isn’t wasting countless possessions each game with low-percentage chucks at the rim and missed free throws. Heck, last season’s “middling” Wisconsin team was #16 in Kenpom, and is replacing their least efficient offensive player with higher usage for returners ready to improve with expanded roles. Reuvers will be a stud, Davison and Trice will needle teams all year, and if Ford, Potter, and Pritzl can do enough off the bench to maintain leads, then this team could execute their way into the top-4 of the B1G. The guy to watch for is Kobe King - last year was his first back from a major injury and he was merely solid. I think he will really explode this year and help make Wisconsin one of the more balanced teams in the country.” After a rough start to the season (with major shooting droughts from key guys), this team is starting to come on. The keys to the team remain King and Revers, and both are playing better of late.
[MSU plays Wisconsin twice - vs Wisconsin, Jan 17, FS1 and at Wisconsin, Feb 1, 1pm, Fox]

#27 Iowa

1 - Toussaint, McCaffery, Bohannon (injured maybe all year)
2 - Wieskamp, Fredrick
3 - McCaffery
4 - Nunge, Pemsl (suspended on DUI)
5 - Garza, Kriener

My last thought in the pre-season: “This is a team that will need Wieskamp and Garza (their two best players last year) to take another couple of major leaps forward, and to keep their defensive improvement from last year and, then, to continue heading in the right direction on that end. Iowa always runs great offense, and they will benefit greatly from the improved spacing of the widened 3pt arc, I don’t see this team falling off the pace, and I bet they do enough to dance again.” Iowa have just about accomplished all of the above. They have had a couple of recent, bizarre losses (at PSU - giving up a HUGE lead in the second half and at Nebraska (wtf)), but I still believe in this team. Garza is the best big in the B1G (possibly the country) and would win B1G POY if not for Cassius Winston, and Wieskamp has been solid in a Robin-role. Losing Nunge to a season-ending injury, losing Patrick McCaffrey to ongoing health issues, and having to fare without Bohannon is gutting, but I am freaking delighted by this team and, frankly, proud of them so far. They need Fredrick to play, to get more shots, and to keep drilling them (he didn’t play in the Nebraska loss), and I think he will do all of the above. This is a tournament team. Good on you Fran.
[MSU plays Iowa once - vs Iowa, Feb 25, 7pm, ESPN]

#28 Wichita State

1 - Sherfield
2 - Etienne
3 - Burton, Stevenson
4 - Wade, Gordon, Dennis
5 - Echenique, Udeze, Midtgaard, Bear-Chandler

What I said in the pre-season: “Wichita State lost McDuffie and Haynes-Jones, big-time seniors from last year, but I believe in Greg Marshall in a big way. He is going to get every last ounce out of these kids. Wichita State was #66 last year in Kenpom and was on the wrong side of a lot of close games. All three freshmen in the point-guard rotation will play, and some may play off-ball, and Stevenson, Burton, and Dennis are all sophmores who will stand to improve off of their solid freshmen seasons (yes, in a year or 2 this back-court will be unreal and might just lead Wichita State on another Final Four run). The trick is the front court - none are proven commodities other than the rock-solid Echenique - if Marshall can find another one or two guys to do the dirty-work every night, then this Wichita State team could bloody the noses of the presumptive AAC front-runners in Memphis, Cincinnati, and Houston.” Marshall is the truth (long may he not coach in the B1G), and his super-young back-court is full of future stars (including, and particularly, Tyson Etienne who is already there). At this point, I fully expect Marshall to lead this team to the AAC crown and to a Sweet-16.

#29 Illinois

1 - Frazier, Feliz
2 - Dosunmu
3 - Williams, Griffin
4 - Bezhanishvili, Nichols, Jones
5 - Cockburn

Illinois is good - I believe in them more than I did in the pre-season! The big key will be Underwood mastering his pride and STARTING ALAN GRIFFIN. There is zero reason for Griffin not to be starting - his 3pt shooting and gravity are vital for the other four starters to run good offense. If Underwood makes this shift, then Illinois’ ceiling gets a bit higher, but their 3pt shooting issues may dog them throughout the year even if he makes a change to the starting group. This is Underwood’s last shot with Dosunmu (and Frazier), and I don’t see them fading - they will make the tourney, and possibly win a game or two.
[MSU plays Illinois once more at Illinois, Feb 11, 9pm, ESPN]

#30 Houston

1 - Mills, Jarreau
2 - Grimes, Sasser
3 - Hinton, Alley
4 - White, Gorham
5 - Harris, Gresham

Houston is good, but not great. Mills, Sasser, and Hinton provide the shooting, Grimes (whose best 3pt shooting game of his career is STILL his first game of his career vs MSU for Kansas (SMH)) and Jarreau provide the athletic slashing and trips to the ft line. White, Harris, Gorham, and Gresham all play their roles well (rebound, defend a bit, and finish inside), they crash the offensive glass like demons (#1 in the nation), and they contest shots inside the arc really well. But this team hasn’t passed any of their early tests, and I just don’t love this team as much as I have loved other Sampson Houston teams. Their tilts against Memphis and Wichita State will be must-see contests for anyone interested in forecasting Houston’s NCAA tourney potential.

#31 BYU

1 - Haws
2 - Barcello
3 - Toolson, Harding
4 - Nixon, Seljaas
5 - Childs, Lee

Yoeli Childs is back after his completely idiotic and unjustifiable suspension by the NCAA. And BYU hasn’t lost a game since his return. They refuse to crash the glass on offense, they refuse to go the free throw line on offense, but they shoot the rock, and they don’t turn it over. Their starting-5 is awesome - everyone can shoot and score, and they have a great 6th man in Harding (117 Ortg, 45% from 3). This team should be able to beat St Mary’s in the league, and will give Gonzaga a real run for their money because they defend the 3pt line superbly and clean the defensive glass. Their 2pt defense is shoring up with Childs’ return, and this team is a great pick as a tourney sleeper team.

#32 VCU

1 - Evans, Hyland
2 - Jenkins, Curry
3 - Vann
4 - Simms, Williams
5 - Santos-Silva, Douglas, Ward

What I said pre-season: “If Dayton doesn’t win the A-10, it will be VCU again. They return 5 seniors in Evans, Jenkins, Vann, Crowfield, and Simms who will take the bulk of the perimeter minutes... Williams, Santos-Silva, and Douglas also return as veteran front-court members. But VCU’s struggles last year (#332 in 3pt%!!!) will return unless some of these veterans spent all summer learning how to shoot the 3-ball. I think Dayton has a higher ceiling, but VCU’s floor is about as good as it gets.” VCU is doing it so far! Their defense is still good (#23 in Drtg), they play fast (good), and their 3pt shooting is DRAMATICALLY better (36% for the year, #66 in the nation!!!) even without the injured Crowfield (who was 10-20 from 3 before breaking his wrist - he should be back in a few weeks, and hopefully will pick-up where he left off). This team’s major issue right now is the inefficiency of their back-court from inside the arc. If they can start finishing better, their havoc-defense (largely resurrected after a hiatus!) can take them places.

#33 Memphis

1 - Baugh, Lomax
2 - Ellis, Harrs
3 - Quinones, Hardaway
4 - Jeffries, Maurice, Thomas
5 - Achiuwa, Dandridge

Despite losing Wiseman early (for the year - he’s off to the draft), this team is still talented. Their two veteran guards Lomax and Harris have stepped up their level in a big way this year, but still aren’t starting as Penny is rolling with his freshmen. Baugh and Jeffries are great competitors, but they haven’t beaten anyone of note, and I can see them fading in the AAC. This ranking is based on talent because their offense (#103 in Ortg) can’t really justify a top-35 placement.

#34 Purdue

1 - Hunter jr, Thompson
2 - Stefanovic, Proctor
3 - Eastern
4 - Williams, Wheeler
5 - Haarms, Boudreaux

This team is frustrating. They have a ton of talent in the front-court, but their spacing is disastrous because Eastern, Wheeler, and Proctor can’t shoot for shit. I think the tweak that needs to happen is to make Eastern a small-ball 4, and to play him and Wheeler together as a paint-crashing/posting/slashing big-duo off the bench. Purdue’s lack of a good-shooting AND decently sized wing is killing them this year. And Wheeler just hasn’t become what many (including me) thought he would this year.
[MSU plays Purdue once - at Purdue, Jan 12, CBS]

#35 St Mary’s

1 - Kuhse
2 - Ford, Zoriks, Johnson
3 - Krebs, Ducas
4 - Fotu, Bowen
5 - Fitts, Perry, Menzies

St. Mary’s true to script can shoot (#1 in the nation from 3 at 41% on the season) - especially Ford, Fitts, and Krebs - and they play really slow (painful) offense, which, predictably, has led to bad losses to Winthrop and Pacific (thus far). This team will get an at-large bid, and, depending on match-ups, they could win a game or two, but damnit their pace is fatal given that they don’t also defend like UVA!

Plus 2:

Creighton

1 - Zegarowski
2 - Alexander, Mitchell
3 - Ballock
4 - Jefferson, Mahoney
5 - Bishop, Jones

Zegarowski, Alexander, and Ballock are a great perimeter trio, but this team doesn’t really believe in defense. Despite being a good shooting squad, they are offensively limited because they also refuse to crash the glass or go to the line. Truly a jumpshooting team, they are susceptible to teams with good penetrating guards and quality bigs.

Minnesota

1 - Carr, Greenlee
2 - Kalscheur
3 - Williams, Hurt, Willis
4 - Demir, Omersa, Ihnen
5 - Oturu

What I said pre-season: “Kalscheur and Oturu are good, Hurt is solid, Demir, Willis, Carr, and Greenlee may just turn out to be super additions, but I just don’t see it happening. There is talent, but it has to gel just right and Pitino just isn’t quite good enough to elevate the raw material here into an NCAA tournament team, at least not as far as I can tell at this point. I am always willing to update my priors.” I may have been slightly wrong on this team, but only slightly. The key has been Marcus Carr being efficient-enough as a high-volume lead guard. But if you look at this team’s resume their best win vs OSU required an out-of-body performance from Carr (35 points on 17 shots!!!), and they have lost to every other top-100 Kenpom team they have played (except #96 Clemson - a ranking that flatters this Clemson squad). They just aren’t good enough, and I expect them to fade and possibly be passed by Rutgers and Indiana in the final B1G standings.
[MSU plays Minnesota twice - vs Minn, Jan 9, 9pm, ESPN, and at Minn, Jan 26, 3pm, Fox]

For reference: Teams that are any good - rankings of major conferences (left-to-right)

ACC: Duke, Louisville, FSU, UVA, the rest in some order
Comment: The top 3 are good, and UVA will be if they shooting improves.

B1G: Michigan State, Maryland, Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State, Iowa, Illinois, Wisconsin, Purdue, Rutgers, Indiana, Minnesota, the rest in some order.
Comment: What I said pre-season: “This is the best conference in the country this year, by a pretty wide margin. MSU should win the conference, but OSU, UMD, and Purdue will be dynamite too. I know that everyone else is less-impressed by Wisconsin, but Reuvers will be 1st or 2nd team all-league. Illinois will be good, and UM will be better than “expected.” Iowa, PSU, and Minnesota will be scrapping hard for a tourney bid, so they need to do well in the non-con.” I missed out on PSU, Rutgers, and over-estimated on Purdue. But the B1G should land 10 teams in the NCAA-tourney.

Big East: Seton Hall, Butler, Nova, the rest in some order
Comment: I was wrong on DePaul - they have been good, and Weems seems to be happy (good on ya!). But this conference is down, and outside the top-3 I don’t really trust any of those teams.

Big XII: Kansas, Baylor, Texas Tech, WVU, the rest in some order
Comment: 4 good teams... that’s it.

SEC: Auburn, Kentucky, Florida, the rest in some order
Comment: 3 good teams... that’s it.

Pac-12: Arizona, Oregon, Washington, Colorado, the rest in some order
Comment: ASU burned me again (Hurley’s seat should be heating up, frankly, with their failure to improve despite returning their whole team for all intents and purposes). Two good teams, two decent teams... that’s it.

“Others”: Gonzaga, Dayton, SDSU, Wichita State, Houston, VCU, BYU, St Mary’s, Memphis Comment: Gonzaga, Dayton, SDSU, Wichita State, Houston, VCU, and BYU all have legit tourney-run aspirations.

Discuss...