Roundtable: Who Will Be College Basketball's Last Undefeated Team Standing?
Tuesday Shootaround is back, and after a week of conference play we've got plenty to talk about. The biggest news of the last week was that Kansas center Udoka Azubuike has been lost for the season due to a wrist injury, throwing the Jayhawks' perpetual perch atop the Big 12 into peril. On the court, Iowa State made waves for knocking off Kansas at home, while Nevada's first loss shrunk the number of undefeateds to three. This week's roundtable looks deeper at those topics, plus players that have made the biggest year-to-year improvement.
Between Virginia, Michigan and Houston, which will be the last undefeated team standing?
Dan Greene: Put me down for the Wolverines. The Cavaliers might be the best team, but they have to head to Duke soon and North Carolina a couple weeks after that. The Cougars are facing the weakest gauntlet, but face two of their toughest draws—trips to Temple and SMU—in the next two weeks. Meanwhile, the most difficult road trip Michigan has over the next month is to Madison, where Wisconsin just lost to Minnesota. (And just before that, the Badgers lost at Western Kentucky.) I don't think any of them make it into March unblemished, but the schedule shapes up relatively favorably for Michigan in the short term.
Jeremy Woo: Michigan. I don’t think there’s a better team in college basketball, Virginia has to play Duke in two weeks and Houston has barely been tested by a crappy schedule and is going to eventually run into a close game and have to figure it out. When the Wolverines play their best, I don’t think anyone else in the Big Ten can hang, and it’s just a matter of being able to maintain that peak when necessary. Almost everything Michigan has done has been convincing, and they have the coaching, the talent and the leadership to keep this streak going for a long time.
Max Meyer: Michigan. Every team is good, but it’s always tough to win on the road (Nevada lost as a 15-point favorite at New Mexico), so it’ll come down to schedule. The Wolverines’ next two games are at Illinois and home against Northwestern, and they’ll be favored by double digits in each contest. Then they have a full week of rest before taking on Wisconsin at Madison, where admittedly there’s a decent shot of them suffering their first knock in the loss column. Meanwhile, before that Saturday, Virginia goes to Clemson and has to deal with Virginia Tech at home, while Houston has two tricky road games against Temple and SMU. Even if Virginia survives those two games, it has to go to Cameron Indoor on the same day Michigan faces Wisconsin, and I like Michigan’s odds of pulling out the road victory more of the two.
Michael Shapiro: With road matchups against Duke and NC State and a home battle with Virginia Tech on the calendar before the end of January, I’m skeptical Virginia will roll through January unscathed. Michigan’s schedule is no cupcake, either, but give me the Wolverines to ride their undefeated streak longer than Houston. Michigan defense and battle-tested experience should pay dividends at Wisconsin on Jan. 19 and at Indiana on Jan. 25, and expect Ignas Brazdeikis and Co. to shut down Ohio State on Jan. 29. Houston could fall as early as next week, facing its toughest test of the season at SMU on Jan. 16. Don’t be surprised if the Cougars leave Dallas with their first defeat of the season.
Jake Fischer: Just by process of elimination, I’m going with Houston. The Big Ten and ACC or d-e-e-p this season. The American? It’s a very… decent league. The Cougars are deep and long and have suffocated opponents defensively this season. Houston is 12th in the nation in defensive efficiency, per kenpom.com, stifling rival offenses to just 91.4 points per 100 possessions. Anyone who questioned how Kelvin Sampson’s program would move on from the Rob Gray era must have forgotten this team has consistently been one of the stingier defenses over the past few seasons.
Molly Geary: I’m tempted to take the Cavaliers, but I’m also going to go with Michigan. The schedule works out more favorably for the Wolverines, and while their upcoming road test at Wisconsin will be tough, I think their defense will do enough to take that one. Good as Virginia’s defense has been again this year, it’s yet to face one like Virginia Tech or Duke’s, who the Hoos get back-to-back next week. Winning both is absolutely on the table, but it won’t be easy. As for Houston, the Cougars have to navigate tricky road trips to Temple and SMU very soon, and odds are they drop one of them.
With Udoka Azubuike out for the season, who's the biggest threat to ending Kansas's Big 12 streak?
Greene: Iowa State. I really like Texas Tech thanks to its elite and pesky defense, but its offense is clearly a few steps behind the other Big 12 contenders (currently ranked 96th on kenpom) and I don't think a team that imbalanced is going to win this league. Oklahoma is basically a less extreme version of the same dynamic; TCU still hasn't beaten a likely NCAA tournament team; the jury is still out on Texas. The Cyclones, meanwhile, offer balance on both ends and just put a whooping on the Jayhawks—and given their early-season rash of suspensions and injuries, they might still be getting better.
Woo: I honestly think Iowa State has a powerful case as perhaps being the favorite to win the conference, at least in my eyes. (Author’s note: I have been gushing over Talen Horton-Tucker and Tyrese Haliburton for weeks and am basically a Cyclones blogger now.) These guys move the ball better than any team I’ve seen this season, and as long as they can keep the unselfish tone against some of their individual players’ tendencies, I absolutely think they will have a chance to get it done. More on that in a second.
For proper context, by my estimation, this was never one of Bill Self’s best Kansas teams, and while the Jayhawks may yet cruise, they are even more overreliant on Dedric Lawson now, and will have to double down on defense to try and absolve him of too much responsibility around the rim. Their best guard has been Devon Dotson, who is plucky and fun and a competitor, but they need that guy to be Quentin Grimes, who has begun to play with more visible confidence and is going to have to provide some extra shot-creation on the wing. They’re relying on the in-season growth of two freshmen, and meanwhile, Lagerald Vick has gone back to his frustrating ways. There appears to be no reprieve for the Jayhawks from either the unforgiving schedule or from internal personnel options. If they get it done, it’ll be a big credit to Self.
Anyway, no exaggeration, Iowa State is the most entertaining team to watch in college basketball, and as long as Marial Shayok and Lindell Wigginton can keep letting their points come in the flow off the offense (and fight their own proclivity to hunt shots), they are going to be very difficult for anyone to beat. The key to the entire thing working is how many terrific passers they have on the floor at a given time, and also the fact they can switch defensively and impose small-ball on opponents, rather than having to adjust the other way. Haliburton is much better than people realize and is quietly the player who makes them go (I really can’t say enough). As soon as Horton-Tucker gets comfortable in his role, he will be another X-factor. Nick Weiler-Babb and Shayok have been stellar, and Wigginton is still finding a rhythm. Their only glaring weakness is interior defense, and with Azubuike done for Kansas, who else in the conference is throwing the ball into the post with purpose?
I can see Texas Tech and West Virginia bogging the game down and giving Iowa State trouble, but the Cyclones are right there with Kansas as the most talented team in the conference, and the only reason they weren’t ranked earlier was because they only played one ranked team (Iowa) and didn’t get a great chance to prove themselves in Maui after stumbling against Arizona, then drawing two iffy opponents in Illinois and San Diego State. The hype isn’t only real, but it’s coming an entire month late.
Meyer: Apologies to Texas Tech and Chris Beard, who I think is a top-five in-game coach in the country, but the Cyclones are significantly more talented and therefore should be considered the bigger threat. Last year’s leading scorer on the team, Lindell Wigginton—who has missed most of this season due to injury—shot 2 of 11 from the floor this past Saturday, and Iowa State still beat Kansas by 17. Freshmen guards Talen Horton-Tucker and Tyrese Haliburton have been revelations, while upperclassmen Marial Shayok, Michael Jacobson and Nick Weiler-Babb give this squad a nice blend of experience and offensive firepower. Not only are the Cyclones a top-20 team in offensive efficiency, they’re also elite on the defensive end, ranking 19th there. Iowa State is very well-rounded, and sent a strong message by dismantling Kansas that it is the Big 12 favorite.
Shapiro: Don’t weep for the end of Kansas’s conference-title streak just yet. The Jayhawks still boast the most talented roster in the Big 12, and should see significant growth from five-star recruit Quentin Grimes as conference play continues. But if Kansas does cede the Big 12 crown, expect a banner to be raised in Lubbock, not Ames.
No disrespect to Iowa State and breakout transfer Marial Shayok, but Chris Beard’s squad is a legitimate contender to play deep into March, and the greatest threat to Kansas’s conference supremacy. The Red Raiders lead the NCAA in defensive rating per kenpom, suffocating opposing teams behind defensive anchor Tariq Owens. Jarrett Culver’s leap after a strong freshman year should land him first-team All-Big 12 honors. The Red Raiders win ugly, but they should rack up enough victories to give the Jayhawks a run for their money in the Big 12.
Fischer: I have consistently joked with Jeremy Woo that The Crossover’s Front Office has exclusively become an Iowa State blog. We’re both big on the Cyclones, and I do believe they’re best equipped to claim this conference. There’s a lot to love about the Iowa State program. An incredible home court advantage—Hilton Magic is real—a gorgeous jersey set with terrific colors. This iteration under Steve Prohm is loaded with NBA prospects, switchable defenders and multiple, capable playmakers to withstand even the toughest of defenses—like the nation’s current top dog, and conference rival, Texas Tech. Jarrett Culver will likely run away with the conference player of the year award, and the Red Raiders are talented. I’m just a bit skeptical of Tech’s offensive chops outside of their top dog.
Geary: There’s been a lot of words already said by my colleagues about Iowa State, so I won’t repeat them. I've been high on the Cyclones all season though and do think they’re the biggest challenger to Kansas—and not just because they just beat them. While they don’t have the No. 1 defense, they’re far more balanced and have more offensive weapons than Texas Tech, which may leave them a bit less vulnerable to upsets in a rigorous conference.
Which returning player's year-over-year improvement has impressed you most halfway through the season?
Greene: Jarrett Culver. Expectations were reasonably down for Texas Tech after it lost so much from last year's Elite Eight squad, but Culver's breakout from solid complementary piece as a freshman to All-America-level focal point as a sophomore has been a huge part of the Red Raiders' strong season and continued place in the national conversation. And if Texas Tech is going to have the offense needed for a conference title or deep run this season, Culver is going to be the driving force behind it.
Woo: This is probably an obvious choice, but I’m still wowed by what Rui Hachimura has done for Gonzaga, and how vastly he’s improved over the course of the past year or so. There’s always a huge learning curve for kids who pick the game up late, and while last season’s hype failed to account for Hachimura’s continued language barrier and ongoing adjustment process, he’s really hit his stride and matured into a dangerous player. He’s not close to a finished product, and as long as he continues doing what he’s been doing, who’s to say there can’t be another exponential step forward? It will probably come in the NBA, if so, but Hachimura starting to realize his potential has been an entertaining watch.
Meyer: I’m sure there will be several major conference players suggested here, so let’s give some love to a player who might not be as well-known nationally: St. Mary’s guard Jordan Ford. The Gaels were supposed to take a step back this season, and their 10–7 record might not be impressive at first glance, but they’re ranked No. 38 on kenpom.com, just six spots behind last year’s team. Ford is the big reason why, upping his scoring production from 11.1 points per game last year as a sophomore to 22.8 in this campaign. I know it’s dangerous to compare someone to Steph Curry, but Ford is fearless shooting from the outside and is knocking down threes at a 44.6% clip. He has a lightning-quick release, and can burn you inside with a lethal floater and crafty finishes on layups. Don’t be afraid to stay up late to watch him play—it’s worth it.
Shapiro: Let’s turn away from the Power 5 conferences here and dish out some praise for Murray State sophomore Ja Morant. A likely lottery selection in June’s NBA draft, Morant has evolved from an exciting freshman to the fulcrum of the Racers’ attack in 2018–19, leading the way as Murray State seeks a second-straight NCAA tournament appearance for the first time since 1998–99. Morant is averaging 23.3 points per game after scoring 12.7 per game as a freshman, leading the NCAA in assist rate in the process. He’s ferocious at the tin and a menace in transition, an elite leaper at the point guard position. If Morant can carry the Racers to the Ohio Valley title, don’t be surprised if they reach the second weekend of the tournament.
Fischer: Even before last March’s game-winner, Jordan Poole was a youngster I tabbed as a potential lottery pick and he’s taken massive strides toward achieving that ceiling this season. He’s not quite there yet, but another stellar NCAA tournament performance could push him into the first round in June. For now, Poole has morphed into a legitimate playmaker off the bounce and is coupling a lethal shooting stroke with a consistent attack-the-rim mentality. I’d like to see a greater free throw rate. Perhaps he’ll get to the line a bit more as we progress deeper into conference play, defenses get tighter and the whistles become even more important. But for now, Michigan is largely undefeated due to its three-headed wing monster of Poole, Iggy Brazdeikis and Charles Matthews. And Poole has been the key floor spacer (47.4% from deep!) to open up the Wolverines’ attack.
Geary: Maryland sophomore Bruno Fernando has to be up there when it comes to players who have benefitted the most from withdrawing from the NBA draft and returning to school. The 6’10” big man has improved almost across the board—not only is he averaging a double double, but his effective field goal percentage is up 10% and his block, steal and free throw rates have all grown as well. His most impressive area of development may be his passing, however, as his assist rate has nearly doubled, from 6.9 to 12.3 (he does need to clean up a nagging turnover tendency, though). Fernando, who is usually good for at least one thunderous dunk per game, has also showcased an increasing array of post moves and is quickly starting to jell down low with freshman big Jalen Smith. He's doing a better job this year at staying out of foul trouble too, something that will be crucial for the Terps going forward.