Chaotic college basketball teams worth your attention ahead of NCAA Tournament
College football is over, the NFL has one game left and the NBA and NHL have yet to reach their stretch runs. That means one thing for sports fans: It’s time to invest in college basketball, which is less than two months from Selection Sunday.
But, beyond alma mater fandom, it can be difficult to parachute into a season and parse which teams are worth paying attention to. That’s the problem facing Sporting News reporter Dan Bernstein, who has been occupied covering football in recent months. He has enlisted the help of college basketball guru Eli Boettger to figure out where to turn his focus, with a particular emphasis on chaos and fun styles of basketball.
Hopefully this conversation can provide a roadmap for fans diving back into the college game in the coming months:
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Dan Bernstein: So, I assume college basketball is pretty normal this year with Duke, North Carolina, Kentucky and Kansas all locks to be Final Four contenders?
Eli Boettger: Not quite. Ever since North Carolina’s star freshman Cole Anthony went down, the Tar Heels have been one of the nation’s worst power conference teams, and would be lucky to even reach the bubble conversation by March.
The future is much brighter for the other three: Kansas is looking the part of a national contender with star guard-center duo Devon Dotson and Udoka Azubuike. Duke and Kentucky’s freshmen-led groups have rebounded from stunning November losses to Stephen F. Austin and Evansville, respectively.
DB: Well, that should open up at least a little bit of a gap for sleeper teams to make a dent in the national landscape. With Anthony out for much of the year, which of the country’s freshmen have been most fun to watch? Is anyone bringing Ja Morant energy to the table?
EB: Duke big Vernon Carey Jr. probably gets the nod as the country’s top freshman to this point, but Georgia combo guard Anthony Edwards is appointment television. Even though the Bulldogs might not have the chops of an NCAA Tournament team, Edwards dazzles with his impressive offensive arsenal and coach Tom Crean has turned him loose in terms of usage. Edwards’ 37-point explosion against Michigan State in Maui was one of the most impressive individual performances of the season.
DB: You had me at “might not have the chops of an NCAA Tournament team.” Elite players on so-so squads are one ingredient for magical college basketball moments. I assume Georgia will need to win the SEC tournament to make March Madness?
EB: You’ll see several teams looking to make pushes in March behind their top bucket-getters. Edwards is one, and I also have my eyes on Markus Howard of Marquette and Jordan Ford of Saint Mary’s. Howard has met the 30-point benchmark in half of his appearances this year while Ford is tallying more than 22 points a night. Make sure to keep tabs on this pair of elite senior guards moving forward.
DB: From watching him before this year, Howard is definitely someone to enjoy. It’s cool when fans can take in a player in the college ranks for a couple of seasons. So, this Saint Mary’s team: Good enough to be better than a 10-seed? Or is the squad a more questionable bubble team? As always, I’m intrigued by WCC competitors and their potential to shock power conference programs.
EB: Not if the defense continues to struggle. The Gaels remain one of the better offensive teams in the country (largely thanks to Ford), but there are serious questions about whether this team can get enough stops to win their halfcourt-style games. Saint Mary’s might need to split its series with Gonzaga to feel safe about a tournament bid after already suffering losses to Winthrop, Pacific and Santa Clara.
DB: Got it. We’re getting to the good stuff now. Give me two other schools people might be surprised are in the mix for a tournament bid, and why they can bring chaos to late-season college basketball.
EB: Rutgers, Rutgers and more Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights, if you can believe it, are ranked in the AP Top 25 for the first time since the 1970s. Steve Pikiell’s group is led by a solid backcourt duo in Ron Harper Jr. and Geo Baker and a stingy defense.
If Rutgers isn’t your preferred flavor of the month, DePaul is another fun option. The Blue Demons haven’t reached the NCAA Tournament since 2004 and could scratch out an appearance this March if they can navigate the challenging Big East. DePaul already owns wins against Iowa, Texas Tech, Butler and Minnesota.
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DB: Both of those are honestly pretty difficult to believe, having been tuned out of the college game in recent months. But I’m all for that development. After glancing at the polls, I see San Diego State and Dayton are both flying high — before I let you go, do you mind dishing your views on how far those teams could go this March?
EB: Any casual college basketball conversation this season won’t last long until someone mentions San Diego State and Dayton. It’s not often the Mountain West or Atlantic 10 have national title contenders, but that’s legitimately the case so far.
The undefeated Aztecs are led by Washington State transfer Malachi Flynn, a dynamic point guard who can score from all three levels and also dish it out at a high rate. As for Dayton, the Flyers have one of the nation’s top players in forward Obi Toppin. He has skyrocketed up draft boards thanks to his breakout season and has one of the nation’s best offenses to tag along.
DB: I’m going to watch some Aztecs and Flyers over the next couple of weeks — they’re checking the boxes I’m looking for and will for sure be playing postseason basketball. And I’m liking the profiles of Georgia and Saint Mary’s as fringe teams to get into. Anyway, thanks for the primer. It’s going to come in handy.
EB: Any time. Always happy to have more people with whom to discuss late-night games between random teams. It’s a beautiful time of year.
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