1. What team has been the biggest surprise so far?
Zach- There are a few good options here. Florida State has put together a great season so far, sitting atop the gauntlet that is the ACC. Also, I personally didn’t think Arizona would look this good at this point, winning 12 in a row since a loss to undefeated Gonzaga. However, I am going to go with the Baylor Bears as the biggest surprise team so far.
Baylor didn’t get a single vote in the preseason Top 25, and most thought they’d be a middle-of-the-pack type team in the Big 12. Despite that sentiment, Baylor has put together maybe the best resume of any team, with wins over Louisville, Oregon and Xavier. Even without the most talented squad, the Bears play as one cohesive unit, something that is underrated in today’s game. They have a stud in the paint in Johnathan Motley, who has grown into a walking double-double machine. If Baylor can avoid tripping up at home, then they very well could challenge Kansas for their Big 12 Title streak.
Ryan- Interesting question, and I was tempted to go the route of a “negative surprise” – that is, disappointment – but I’ll go the more traditional way here and say the Maryland Terrapins have been a pleasant surprise. Look, I know their schedule is a bit squishy and the Terps have yet to record a victory over a ranked opponent, but it’s hard to not be impressed at what Mark Turgeon has done with his team this year. This is a program that lost four starters from a team that finished in the Sweet Sixteen a season ago, and most people expected Maryland to take a significant step backward. Having said all this, is Maryland a legitimate good team? We will find out, and soon, as Purdue and Wisconsin, the class of the Big Ten Conference, are looming in the not-so-distant future for the Terps. Melo Trimble seems to be playing more like himself after a disastrous sophomore campaign last year and Maryland is receiving outstanding production from senior Damonte Dodd and freshman Kevin Huerter. However, consider there to be an asterisk hovering over the Terps until they can bag a marquee win.
2. Who has been the most disappointing team so far?
Ryan- Would it be sacrilegious to officially nominate Duke among this group? “Disappointing” is almost certainly a subjective term in this context, considering the Blue Devils are still ranked in the top 20 and remain in the top half of the ACC, but remember the shape in which Duke began this season: the almost unanimous choice for preseason #1, the also almost unanimous choice for National Player of the Year, a roster considered to be the most talented in college basketball by a wide margin, and a Hall of Fame coach to put it all together. The problems have piled up quickly for the Blue Devils, with much of the team struggling with numerous injuries. Heck, even Mike Krzyzewski can’t stay on the court. For much of this season, we wrote off Duke’s issues, blaming injuries, youth, and a semi-tough schedule. After a home loss this week to North Carolina State, it appears the Blue Devils have finally lost the luxury of time. They’re running out of it, and fast. This is still a very good team, but it might be time to accept that Duke is just that – good, not great, as we once envisioned they could become.
Zach- I agree that Duke hasn’t lived up to expectations, and time could end up being their greatest opponent. However, I was really excited to see what Syracuse could do this year. They had Tyler Lydon coming back, added Nebraska transfer Andrew White III and still ran the stifling zone that they are known for. Everything looked up for them, even after losing Malachi Richardson to the draft. Their record through 21 games? 12-9. They wouldn’t even be in a projected field of 68 right now. There are a few things that have prohibited them from living up to their top 25 billing from the pre-season. The first is that Tyler Lydon just hasn’t quite developed like many thought he would. He impressed many last year, especially in March, and it was thought he could take that next step for this season. He has improved his averages from last season, but he has been inconsistent. That inconsistency has cost Syracuse a few games, especially early in the year. Along with that, their defense has taken a large step back from past years. According to Kenpom, they rank outside the top 100 in defensive efficiency. The cause? I think it’s probably due to the loss of lengthy wings Malachi Richardson and Michael Gbinije. The length of the top two players in the zone is what makes it so tough to penetrate. Without that length there, the defense was bound to struggle more. Add in the horrible defensive rebounding numbers, and it is no surprise that the Orange are on the outside looking in among the ACC elite, and even middle of the pack, right now.
Who is your Coach of the Year right now?
Zach- I think coaching is as good right now as it has been in a while at the division one level. Even some lesser known programs like UNC Wilmington and Akron are having good seasons that are getting some national attention. However, I am going to go with Sean Miller as my Coach of the Year right now.
When I judge coaches, I typically look to see what their teams do over the course of a season. If they tend to improve, usually it is safe to assume they are a solid coach. Tom Izzo’s teams are usually a good example of what I mean. When I saw Arizona early this season in a loss to Butler, they looked like a typical good, not great, team. They had some good pieces in Lauri Markkanen and Kadeem Allen, but didn’t seem to have it all together. This was further confirmed to me when they lost to Gonzaga handily. However, since that point they have solidified defensively while each player has seemed to find his place offensively. Markkanen looks like a beast, and Kobi Simmons provides a great scoring punch. Oh, and they just got their best player, Allonzo Trier, back from a PED suspension. Add him to the mold that Miller has already formed, and this could be the group that Sean Miller finally gets to the Final Four.
Ryan- One final thought about Sean MIller’s Arizona Wildcats: now that they finally have Trier back, can you imagine if Arizona had Ray Smith AND Terrance Ferguson? We’re talking about a major problem for the Pac-12, and a serious NCAA title contender. But I digress.
I realize this could be talking more with my heart than my head, but I absolutely love what Chris Collins is doing with his Northwestern Wildcats. Hear me out a little on this one. Northwestern has NEVER been to the NCAA Tournament. Not once in program history have the Wildcats participated in March Madness.This is a major, major elephant in the room in Evanston. Now, imagine the mental hurdle this team has to play with game in and game out. Every contest could make or break the season for what may be Northwestern’s most talented squad in program history. It hasn’t seemed to hinder the Wildcats this season, as they currently sit comfortably at fourth in the Big Ten Conference standings. Northwestern boasts three elite scorers in Scottie Lindsey, Vic Law, and Bryant McIntosh. If the regular season ended right now, Northwestern would be an NCAA Tournament participant. So, to review what Chris Collins has done this year in Evanston: he has taken a somewhat underwhelming roster and turned it into a legitimate team in the top third of the Big Ten. At the same time, the Wildcats coach is dealing with the pressure that comes with the aspirations around the program of finally reaching the big dance. Coach Collins is deserving of all the credit in the world, because it surely wasn’t easy to elevate his program into a tourney team.
What coach’s seat is hottest right now?
Ryan – The nature of today’s world of college athletics demands immediate results, and, fair or not, coach success hinges on this production. With this in mind, an overabundance of coaches should be feeling the heat right about now.
I’ll nominate John Groce of Illinois, who remains incapable of putting a respectable team on the floor. Groce is in his fifth season in Champaign and has yet to return to the NCAA Tournament since his first go-round. Well, the fan base is growing rather impatient, and without a serious turnaround in what’s left of this season, Groce could be the first Big Ten coach to lose his job at the conclusion of the season. The Illini currently reside near the cellar of the Big Ten, with a record of 2-5 in the conference. Put simply, Groce just hasn’t delivered the way many thought he would at Illinois, and his seat is getting warmer by the game as a result. Groce absolutely has some nice pieces on the roster with the likes of Malcolm Hill and Jalen Coleman-Lands filling up the basket, and Groce has formulated a nice recruiting class for next season. But will he be around to coach it? That remains to be seen, and the prospects of that happening don’t appear to be in his favor.
Zach- It is certainly tough to argue in Groce’s favor right now. The Illini program has been down in recent years from its height under Bill Self, and Groce could very well be gone. I’m going to go another route and say Lorenzo Romar’s seat is the hottest in college basketball right now. Romar does a great job recruiting, with superstar freshman Markelle Fultz on the team now and number one recruit Michael Porter Jr. slated to attend the university next year. However, Romar simply cannot translate these recruits into a quality product on the floor. Washington currently sits at 2-5 in a somewhat weak Pac-12, and doesn’t have anything close to a quality win at this point. Along with that, Washington has one of the worst defenses of any Power 5 team in the country. A coach that gets top recruits, achieves mediocrity and cannot a defensive effort out of his team does not deserve to be coaching for long, and Lorenzo Romar’s time in Seattle could be ending soon.
What are your thoughts on the NCAA saying they will announce the top 16 seeds in a hypothetical tournament on February 11th?
Zach- For those of you that missed it, the NCAA has announced that they will announce the top 16 seeds in a “if the tournament started today” format on February 11th. Personally, I am not a fan of this move. One of my favorite aspects of the NCAA Tournament is the surprise factor. Selection Sunday comes along, and only a handful of teams know where they are slated. With this announcement, some of that suspense will be taken away. Obviously things will change between February 11th and Selection Sunday, but some important questions (how will each conference be rated, etc.) will be answered before the fact now. I also don’t like this move because it opens the NCAA up to criticism another time. People always have gripes about the bracket on Selection Sunday. Now, the NCAA opens themselves up to more criticism earlier in the season. Overall, it just feels like the NCAA is trying to extend March Madness even more, even after the disaster that was their selection show last year.
Ryan- I don’t really have a strong opinion about this, but it seems like this could be fun and drive excitement if it’s done with the right intentions. TV ratings drive college athletics today, and the NCAA knows this. By doing this, the NCAA hopes releasing the top sixteen seeds will get people talking about the upcoming NCAA Tournament at an even earlier date. This is a very similar idea to the College Football Playoff selection committee releasing the top four teams every week after the sixth week of the season. It won’t change the way we watch the games very much, and it certainly won’t change the way the games are played. And you can bet that the top sixteen teams on February 11th will be drastically different from the top sixteen teams when the official bracket is released in mid-March. The bottom line is this is much ado about nothing, and really is just a new way to get people talking more about college basketball as the season moves along.