1. Thus far, who has been the best offensive team in the country?
Zach- This has been a year of great offense. Scoring is up from past years, and a lot of that probably has to do with teams adjusting to the 30 second shot clock even more. However, there are some teams that have combined great talent with a well-oiled machine to create some true offensive juggernauts. Creighton is one team that comes to mind, while Villanova is as solid as ever.
However, I’m going to go with the UCLA Bruins as the offense that has impressed me the most so far. They are on the West Coast, so some may not be able to watch them as much. But man, are they fun to see play. Lonzo Ball leads the charge as one of the premier freshman in the country. He brings a mixture of calm and basketball IQ that is rarely seen from a freshman point guard. Along with that, fellow freshman TJ Leaf has found his role perfectly. He works hard on the offensive side of the ball, getting into dangerous positions for Ball and Co. to dish to him. Toss in an improved Bryce Alford and some great role players, and you have an offense that is among, and in my opinion on top, of the nation’s best.
Ryan- The obvious answer here is UCLA, but in the interest of variation, I’ll highlight a team that is deserving of much higher praise than they have received. The Creighton Blue Jays entered Wednesday night averaging 87.5 points per game and concluded the evening with a resounding victory over an impressive Butler squad. Creighton boasts four players averaging double figures in scoring, led by underrated guard Marcus Foster at 18.6 points per game. The Blue Jays are among the nation’s best in three point shooting, making just over 42 percent of their attempts. Another eye-popping statistic: Maurice Watson Jr. is dishing out assists to the tune of 9.1 per game, easily tops in the NCAA. There may be more well-balanced offenses out there, but Creighton can score with the best of them.
2. Thus far, who has been the best defensive team in the country?
Ryan- Plenty of options here, but I’ll take the Virginia Cavaliers, who continue to stifle opponents’ offenses year in and year out despite consistently losing First Team All-ACC defensive players to graduation. The Hoos lead the nation in fewest points allowed at just over 52, and it isn’t particularly close, as the next best team is about five points worse. London Perrantes and Isaiah Wilkins lead the way for the Cavaliers, who are able to consistently drag teams through the mud to earn their victories, especially impressive when considering the scoring explosion in today’s college basketball. Honorable mention to Louisville, but the Cardinals just can’t match Virginia’s tenacity.
Zach- Virginia is a great answer, they have been fantastic defensively for the past few years and has carried into this year. However, I’m going to go on a limb a bit and say Cincinnati. Though they don’t play in the toughest conference, they are one of the grittiest teams around. They have stifled some good offenses this season, and possess some great playmakers on that side of the ball. Kyle Washington and Gary Clark provide a lot of length, and can disrupt passing lanes with the best of them. I am a strong believer that defense is a program mentality, and Mick Cronin has instilled that mentality into the Bearcat program.
3. Which mid-major has the best chance of making the Final Four?
Zach- There are a few mid-majors this year that have impressed me, and as always there will be some that can do some damage in the NCAA Tournament. As for the mid-major that has the best chance to be playing in April, I think that has to be Gonzaga. As always, the Zags are back on top of the mid-major world. They are the last undefeated team standing, and look as complete as they have in recent years. They have their trusty big man Przemek Karnowski back from injury after last year, while Nigel Williams-Goss has been the playmaking guard they need. Another thing the Bulldogs have: balance. Seven players average between 8 and 16 points per game, making them a tough team to lock down defensively. Don’t be surprised if this is the year that Mark Few finally brings his team to the Final Four in Phoenix.
Ryan- The only conceivable answer here is Gonzaga, and I’m not sure there’s another team that could be realistically grouped into this tier. We hear it every year, don’t we? Every season, speculation begins, anticipating that the current year’s Bulldog team could be Mark Few’s best during his tenure in Spokane. Well, this year could be the team that finally leaps over the hump, combining balanced scoring and defensive intensity with excellent coaching. The Zags reached the Elite 8 two years ago before falling to eventual national champion Duke. Can they take one more step in 2017? It will depend largely on the health of Przemek Karnowski and the scoring prowess of Nigel Williams-Goss. Jordan Matthews, a graduate transfer from California, could provide the scoring punch needed for Gonzaga to take the next logical step forward for the program.
4. Which freshman point guard has impressed you the most thus far?
Ryan- Despite all the hype surrounding UCLA prodigy Lonzo Ball, I’ll take De’Aaron Fox of Kentucky, mainly because unlike Ball, Fox shows a consistent interest on the defensive side of the ball. It’s not easy to run John Calipari’s show in Lexington, but Fox has done a superb job directing the Wildcat offense that averages over 93 points per game, good enough for the second highest total in the nation. Fox clearly has yet to find his stroke from three point range, but it’s his collection of other skills that have him among the leaders for National Freshman of the Year. The Kentucky point guard boasts an assist-to-turnover ratio of almost 3, a statistic comparable to nearly any lead guard in college basketball. Combine that with Fox’s ability to accumulate blocks and steals, and we’re looking at one of the best floor generals in all the land, regardless of class. Fox will have ample opportunity to improve still while playing under Calipari’s tutelage.
Zach- Fox has been impressive, you’re right. Leading a fast-paced offense like that isn’t easy, especially as a freshman. And respect to Ball and Dennis Smith Jr., as they are both excellent players. But I am going to go with Washington point guard Markelle Fultz as the one who has impressed me the most so far. Fultz is probably on the worst team of those I listed, as Washington really hasn’t gotten anything going yet. That hasn’t stopped Fultz from putting together a phenomenal freshman campaign. Averaging 22.1 points, 5.9 rebounds and 6.4 assists, he a tremendously well-rounded guard. He is a smooth player on the court, gliding across the floor looking composed as the team leader. Along with that, he also averages 1.7 steals per game. He is 6’4 with a lot of length, and can use that to his advantage on both ends. He never seems lost in the game, something that can easily happen with younger players. He is a candidate to be the number one pick in the NBA Draft this summer, and he is showing why this season.
5. Who is your National Player of the Year right now?
Zach- There are many deserving candidates. Frank Mason has been outstanding for Kansas, while Caleb Swanigan has been putting up double-double after double-double for Purdue. However, I’m going to go with Josh Hart as my current Player of the Year. Last year, Hart was a great player for the champion Wildcats, averaging 15.5 points and 6.8 rebounds per game. He has stepped it up even more this year with averages of 19.8 points and 6.7 rebounds per game. Along with that, he is getting others involved with nearly 4 assists per game. It is rare to find a scorer like Hart that will get others involved so unselfishly. He is a joy to watch for Villanova, and I wouldn’t be surprised at all if he finished the season as the Player of the Year.
Ryan- It’s unbelievable, really, that even while averaging 18 points and 13 rebounds per game, Purdue’s Caleb “Biggie” Swanigan continues to fly somewhat under the radar in the race for National Player of the Year in college basketball. Swanigan’s work ethic and tenacity has aided his transformation from a solid player into a true force of nature built on brutality. What Swanigan lacks on the defensive end of the ball, he makes up for with his rebounding numbers (tops in the nation), three point shooting (42%, impressive for a big man) and ability to abuse opponents in the post. Swanigan has almost willed himself into this conversation due to his willingness to work for his stats, while elevating the level of play of every last teammate. Swanigan may not have the flashy, showy flair that is attractive to voters and casual college basketball fans, but “Biggie” has the numbers comparable to nearly anyone in college hoops.