How Worried Should Your Team Be About Its March Fate?
It’s getting to be that time. January is saying goodbye this week, and February hello, and around these parts those things signify the approach of college basketball’s most important calendar page: March.
With seven-ish weeks to go before Selection Sunday—this year it comes a bit later than usual, on March 17—now seems a good time to check in on some teams for whom January was a month worth forgetting. So I put out some feed and rounded up the Worry Warthogs, an empirically infallible system that debuted on SI.com last year to measure how worried teams’ fans should be about their season’s prospects, as measured by boar emojis, because boars are the closest the Unicode comes to depicting warthogs.
How it works is simple. Each team is awarded one to five Worry Warthogs, correlating to the levels of concern relative to each team’s situation. If you find your team has more warthogs than you would like, take solace in this: a group of warthogs is called a sounder. See, you probably learned something. That’s what college
basketball is all about.
Yes, there is cause for some worry—the Jayhawks are just 4–3 since Udoka Azubuike went down (and have dropped three of their last four) and are just a few buckets from having fared even worse. They’ll need to get more from Quentin Grimes if this team is going to become a small-ball contender. But Bill Self has earned the benefit of the doubt when it comes to surviving the Big 12 gantlet, and he may get 6’9” sophomore forward Silvio De Sousa back from NCAA eligibility purgatory soon, which would be a boost to restoring lineup balance. February will be a crucial month for Kansas and its Final Four prospects, but I’d hold off on more than tepid worrying for now.
An injury to Devonte Green didn’t help, but the Hoosiers’ 1–6 January goes deeper than losing one sometimes-starter for two games. Indiana has scored below 1.0 point per possession in four straight games, dipping as low as 0.696 against Michigan and 0.792 against Nebraska. The Hoosiers have been abysmal from three (25.2%) and poor from the line (67.4%) in Big Ten play and, according to coach Archie Miller, they’re also soft and scared. If they can’t win Wednesday at Rutgers, there may be bigger concerns than making the NCAA tournament.
The Sooners are hard to peg. Expectations were relatively low entering the year after a team with Trae Young managed just a 10 seed and first-round exit, but Oklahoma picked up a string of nice wins (Florida, Creighton, Wofford, Northwestern) that put them squarely in the NCAA at-large mix. A 4–5 January won’t change that, but the Sooners need to revive their suddenly struggling offense (the Big 12’s worst in conference play, at 0.963 points per possession) and make some shots (28.7% from three, 47.4% from the field vs. the Big 12), beginning with top scorer Christian James. A similar February could make March a longshot.
The Gators have a top-10 defense and are No. 27 in overall adjusted efficiency on KenPom—but at 11–8, are they even a tournament team? The consensus over at the Bracket Matrix has them as one of the first four out, which is understandable given that their best wins have been at home against Butler and... at Georgia, I guess? Florida needs to start building a résumé fast, and upcoming home games against Ole Miss and Kentucky followed by trips to Auburn and Tennessee will provide the opportunity. But can a team with the 104th-ranked offense take it?
The Tigers’ recent three-game skid comes with the asterisk of forward Austin Wiley being injured, but that in itself might be an issue going forward, as Wiley was announced as being out for a “couple of weeks” 11 days ago and has dealt with foot issues before. Though they shot poorly as a team in their loss at South Carolina, more concerning is their defense of late, which ranks 12th among 14 SEC teams during league games. The schedule will be relatively kind, as the Tigers play their next three games at home and don’t face Kentucky again until Feb. 23 or Tennessee at all until the March 9 regular season finale. Still, Wiley can’t get back fast enough.
The Red Storm’s thrashing of Marquette on New Year’s Day appeared to validate them after they spent two months plowing through a noncompetitive nonconference slate. Since then, St. John’s has dropped home games to DePaul and Georgetown and is now 1–4 in its last five games. The truth is that Shamorie Ponds can only carry this offense so far, especially when the Red Storm do themselves no favors on the offensive boards, where they rank 340th nationally in rebounding rate. The Big East is strong and deep enough that there are plenty of opportunities to pick up quality wins, but that also means no wins will come easily. With three straight road challenges on deck—at Creighton, Duke and Marquette—a sudden turnaround will be tough.
The Buckeyes’ 3–6 mark in the Big Ten is aided by two wins picked up at the beginning of December; in their seven conference games since then, their only win was against a Nebraska team that has been reeling in its own right. Their turnover rate has been a whopping 21.4% within the Big Ten, including three games in the last three weeks where it was 28.3% or higher. Giving away possessions that frequently isn’t going to help them get back to .500 in the conference.
The month had started so well for the Cyclones, whose Jan. 5 win over Kansas briefly made them the talk of college hoops... until they went out and lost at Baylor, then at home to Kansas State too. The re-integration of usual starter Lindell Wigginton into the backcourt after his 10-game absence has proven more complicated than anticipated, as he his performance has been up-and-down while coming off the bench. But Wigginton should only improve as he (literally) regains his footing, and though Iowa State has slipped from the top of the Big 12 to its crowded pack, this remains a dangerous team for whom the tourney’s second weekend is within reach.
What happened to the defense that the Huskers rode through November and December? After Tuesday’s home loss to Wisconsin—Nebraska’s third straight defeat in Lincoln—the team ranks 10th among 14 Big Ten teams in defensive efficiency during conference play. And the offense, at seventh, isn’t much better, having failed to top .946 points per possession in four straight outings, after only dipping below 1.000 once in its first 17 games. What makes things even more troubling is that starting forward Isaac Copeland is now out for the rest of the season, compounding the issues and forcing Tim Miles to figure out his lineups anew.
The Seminoles entered the month ranked No. 9 in the AP poll and will end it at No. 25, a change that reflects a 3–4 stretch that includes losses at Pitt and Boston College, who are a combined 3–9 against the rest of the ACC. Florida State’s three wins? Two against 1–6 Miami and one against 2–5 Clemson. Basically, the Seminoles were a top-10 team facing (aside from games against Duke and Virginia) their conference’s lower tier and only put up a .500-ish showing. They could be looking at another mid-level seeding come tournament time, which worked out well last year but more often does not.
The 12–8 Tigers began the year ranked, but as of now their NCAA tournament résumé is pretty barren. Their best non-conference win by far was at home against Lipscomb; after that it was a win at a South Carolina team ranked 110th on kenpom that at 10–10 is not a tournament team itself. Within the ACC, Clemson is 2–5 and has only beaten Pitt and Georgia Tech. If it’s going to earn an NCAA bid, it’s going to be based almost entirely on whatever body of work it can compile in February and March.
It brings no joy to sound the alarm on the Paladins. One of the early season’s most enjoyable stories, Furman and its middling offense has fallen from upsetting the likes of Villanova to dropping three of its last four in Southern Conference play. Now looking up from fourth place at the likes of 9–0 Wofford and 7–2 UNC Greensboro, the Paladins will have to work to position themselves favorably in the SoCon tournament, which will ultimately determine who earns the league’s NCAA tournament auto bid. The good news: all it takes is putting it back together for one four-day weekend to earn the school’s first tourney berth in 39 years.
Washington’s nine-game win streak has given the conference at least one team it can point to as truly tourney-worthy. But because the Pac-12 fared so poorly before January, it’s hard for any of its members to look all that great by beating one another; the Huskies are the only team it has among the top 50 teams on kenpom (37th) or top 60 in the NET rankings (31st). If the Huskies win the conference tournament, will anyone else have done enough to earn an at-large? A hot streak from Arizona or Arizona State might be the Pac-12’s best hope to avoid the indignity of being a one-bid league.
If you are wondering what exactly you are reading, this is the Midweek Rebound, SI.com’s weekly Wednesday column on college hoops. If there’s anything you like or dislike or would want to see more of here, or if you would just like to say hello, you can find me on Twitter @thedangreene. Thanks for reading.
One of the national title picture’s most impactful injury absences ended over the weekend, when freshman point guard Tre Jones returned to Duke’s lineup on Saturday after missing two games with a shoulder separation that was initially feared to be much more serious. Jones said he felt 100% while playing 71 of 80 possible minutes over two games — against Georgia Tech on Saturday and at Notre Dame on Monday — the Blue Devils had no trouble winning. Just as importantly, Jones was effective on the floor, dishing nine assists against just two turnovers and shooting 7-for-13 (53.8%) from the floor, which is particularly encouraging considering the injury came in his shooting shoulder.
And so, just two weeks after his injury caused many (present company included) to suddenly doubt Duke’s ACC title prospects, it appears all is right in Durham once again. Opponents and Duke-haters beware.
1. Kentucky: The Wildcats kept their momentum going on their brief departure from SEC play, taking care of Kansas at home with a strong second half and PJ Washington’s 20-point, 13-board showing. One area where they could have performed better: none of their bench players scored a point in that game.
2. Baylor: Who had the Bears ending January tied for the Big 12 lead? Baylor edged Alabama in the Big 12/SEC Challenge and then rocked a quality Oklahoma team two days later, beating the Sooners by 30 in Norman. Mississippi State transfer Mario Kegler and Yale transfer Makai Mason are becoming an inside-outside scoring duo to know.
3. Purdue: In a victory for efficiency metric proponents, the Boilermakers have gone from starting the season 6–5 to winning five straight in the Big Ten, putting them one back in the loss column from the conference lead. Carsen Edwards has been acclimating well to his leading man role, while Ryan Cline has emerged as a solid secondary scoring option.
4. Washington: They may have been among the Pac-12’s many disappointments in November and December, but the Huskies have emerged as the class of the conference, sweeping a road trip through Oregon and Oregon state to improve to 7–0 in league play.
5. Hofstra: With star guard Justin Wright-Foreman doing a little to a lot of everything, the Pride are undefeated within the CAA, posting the league’s best efficiency rates on both end of the floor. Junior forward Eli Pemberton has scored 20-plus points in four straight games.
Top of the Classes
Senior: Mike Daum, South Dakota State forward
The Jackrabbits star stretched his streak of 30-point games to four by putting up 30 points on just 15 shots against North Dakota State and then 33 points against Nebraska Omaha. He also had 33 rebounds, five assists, three blocks, and three steals over those two games. Pretty good.
Junior: Grant Williams, Tennessee forward
Williams was good in all four of the Vols’ three games over the last seven days, but it was the overtime win at Vanderbilt, in which the junior scored 43 points while making 23 of 23 free throws, that earned him top honors.
Sophomore: P.J. Washington, Kentucky forward
The second-year Wildcat averaged 23.0 points, 12.5 rebounds, and 2.0 steals in wins over Kansas and Vanderbilt. He’s been perhaps Kentucky’s best player of late, a development that has helped the team draw Final Four chatter again.
Freshman: Zion Williamson, Duke forward
The country’s best player averaged 24.0 points, 8.0 rebounds, 3.5 blocks, and 2.0 assists while making 19 of 24 shots from the field. He is good.
Bests of the Best
Each week, we’ll get to know one of the country’s best players a little better by asking them what they consider to be the best in various subjects. This week we welcome Michigan State guard Cassius Winston, who is averaging 18.5 points and 7.3 assists for the No. 6 Spartans. So, Cassius, tell us about the best...
...animal to have as a pet. “Definitely a dog. They’re a lot of work, but they’re the most fun. My roommate, Nick Ward, had one for a bit—a pitbull. It got too big, so it’s back at his house in Columbus. His name is Sosa.”
...holiday. “July 4th. We go to my grandma’s house. My uncle grills barbecue ribs—he makes the best ribs—and hamburgers and hot dogs and stuff. We chill and play spades and listen to music.”
...decoration in your room. “I got a Batman action figure. He’s sweet. He’s big, probably about a foot tall. It was a gift from my mom. He’s just chillin’ on the dresser. He’s in the costume from The Dark Knight. His cape comes out if you press a button. He’s lit.”
Social Media Post of the Week
One to Watch: North Carolina at Louisville, Saturday at 2 p.m. ET on ESPN
Who’s the best ACC team not named Duke or Virginia? The Cardinals and Tar Heels are tied for third at 6–1, but the Cards went into Chapel Hill a few weeks ago and won by 21, giving them the upper hand on making that claim for now. To avenge that loss North Carolina will have to win in Louisville, something only Kentucky has done this season, and to do that it will have to shoot better than the paltry 3 for 22 from three it did in these teams’ first meeting. The Heels have shot 47.5% from beyond the arc over their last two games, so don’t expect a repeat in that regard. And don’t expect another blowout either—this has the makings of one of this weekend’s tightest contests.