Welcome to College Basketball Season: A 19-Part Guide
Sports seasons’ progressions are often measured by recurring benchmarks—all-star breaks, trade deadlines, the beginning of conference play. That’s true in sports media too, and sometimes it’s other sports’ events that provide the benchmark, as is the case when football season ends in the U.S. You can see this in real time on social media at the end of each Super Bowl, as fans and scribes of various sports race to declare it time for everyone else to pay attention to their chosen game.
Which brings us to this column. If you’ve made it as far as clicking, you’ve shown some inclination toward college hoops, which is a good start. But if you are one of the many Americans who don’t have enough room in your sports diet to follow college basketball closely until football fades and March is on the horizon, this one is especially for you: here, friends, are 19 things you should know to catch up on the 2018–19 college basketball season.
1. There are probably four clear national title contenders, then a couple strong candidates just behind them. That top quartet—Tennessee, Duke, Virginia and Gonzaga—currently lead the AP poll (in that order) and have most clearly separated themselves as the cream of this year’s crop. Just behind them are a resurgent Kentucky, steady North Carolina, and two in-state rivals, Michigan and Michigan State, that have stumbled of late but still could end up in Minneapolis come April.
2. Yes, Tennessee is that good. The 20–1, No. 1-ranked Volunteers are the team that most stands out in that cluster of title contenders, given that they have never even reached a Final Four and only made the Elite Eight once, in 2010. But fourth-year coach Rick Barnes, formerly of Texas (and Clemson and Providence), has assembled a hard-nosed, well-rounded team of veterans led by 6'7" junior forward Grant Williams (20.4 points, 7.5 rebounds, 3.4 assists per game) and 6'6" senior wing Admiral Schofield (16.8 ppg, 39.0% from three), both of whom will be firmly in the All-America conversation.
3. But Duke is probably the favorite to cut down the nets. As you may have heard, the Blue Devils are loaded with talent, starting four freshmen who ranked in the top 15 in their class, including three of the consensus top four, who are all projected to be top-five NBA picks. They are large, athletic, killer in transition, defend with the best of them, and are coached by the best coach of his generation and maybe ever. They also have this guy who might sound familiar named...
4. Zion! As in: Zion Williamson. The 6'7", 285-pound freshman arrived at Duke as a social media phenomenon considered a top-three prospect in his recruiting class and for the NBA draft ... and has actually exceeded the hype, playing himself into the hands-down choice for both the No. 1 pick and national player of the year honors. He is averaging 22.3 points (on 68.7% shooting from the field), 9.0 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 2.1 steals while playing with a confounding combination of thundering power and balletic grace. What Williamson does wows well beyond numbers. Do yourself a favor and watch some of his work here, here and here, and then Google some more.
5. Nobody’s perfect. After Duke throttled highly ranked Kentucky on opening night, there was talk that the loaded Blue Devils might run the table. Alas, Duke fell to Gonzaga just before Thanksgiving, and the Bulldogs in turn lost to Tennessee in early December. The nation’s last two undefeated teams, Michigan and Virginia, lost their first games on the same day, on Jan. 19. No one will be chasing perfection into March this year.
6. Virginia is even better than a year ago. Yes, yes, UMBC, etc. But the current Cavaliers are more balanced than the iteration that was the tournament’s No. 1 overall seed last season, as they again have the nation’s top defense but now pair it with the fifth-most efficient offense, as opposed to last season’s 30th. Sophomore wing De’Andre Hunter, who missed that UMBC loss last March with an injury, has developed into an All-America candidate and is the kind of athlete Virginia has rarely had in recent seasons.
7. The Big 12 is wide open. Conspicuously absent from the above list of clear contenders was preseason No. 1 Kansas, which has won at least a share of the Big 12 regular season title for 14 consecutive seasons. The Jayhawks had been looking strong until early January, when big man Udoka Azubuike suffered a hand injury that ended his season; they thought they might get some relief when forward Silvio De Sousa was cleared by the NCAA, but instead he was suspended through next season. (More on that below.) Meanwhile Baylor (a preseason afterthought) and Kansas State (ranked preseason, but sluggish and injury-plagued in nonconference play) have surged to the league’s upper tier, while Iowa State has been all over the place and defensive-minded Texas Tech looms just behind, putting five teams within a game and a half of each other. Good luck handicapping this race.
8. And the Big Ten is getting weird. As mentioned up top, Michigan and Michigan State were looking like two of the top dogs in the country until both suffered a number of recent defeats. Now the Wolverines are only a half-game ahead of Purdue (which started the season 6–5), and one and a half ahead of Wisconsin (which began 11–6 overall and 3–3 in the Big Ten), with the Spartans wedged between them at a full game back. Maryland was earning some buzz after a 7–1 start before losing three of four; Nebraska has gone from a strong at-large case to a free fall; Indiana was in the midst of doing the same until... it beat Michigan State. There was talk of this 14-team league getting as many as 10 teams into the tournament, but it’s beaten itself up so much that those prospects have taken a real hit.
9. This is not a banner year at the Pac-12 house. The league has had some down years in the recent past, but not like this. Pac-12 teams floundered in non-conference play—once-ranked UCLA so badly that it fired Steve Alford midseason, after a home loss to Liberty—and failed to pick up just about any wins of note, with none of them having been in the AP Top 25 since Arizona State slipped from the rankings in late December. The league also took a hit to its public appeal when top prospect Bol Bol, the 7’ 2” son of Manute, suffered a season-ending foot injury. Washington has caught fire of late, going 9–0 so far in Pac-12 play, and giving the conference hope that it may produce a team that can win in the tourney. If the Huskies win the conference tournament and secure the Pac-12’s automatic invitation, however, they could end up the only Pac-12 team there.
10. Villanova has recovered from its own early-season struggles. After being walloped at home by Michigan in November and losing to Furman on the same floor three days later, there was a sense that after losing so much from last year’s title team, maybe this was going to be more of a rebuilding year for Jay Wright than initially expected. But the defending champs have lost just twice since then, at Penn and at Kansas, and while the former of those two is a bit concerning, the Wildcats are 9–0 in the Big East, with 8–2 Marquette the only team even within five games of them. Another Final Four is unlikely, but this could still very well be a second-weekend team.
11. Kentucky has too. If your impression of this year’s Wildcats was formed on the season’s opening night, when they were on the (very) wrong side of Duke’s coming out party, you should know that the current 'Cats are quite different. Different guys are stepping up as scorers each night, Ashton Hagans’s edge has proven contagious, and Kentucky has gelled into the SEC’s best defense so far in league play. This is much more like the team we expected before the season than the one that got blown out on a big stage in November.
12. You should know Ja Morant. The player getting the most attention outside of Durham is a 6’ 3”, 175-pound sophomore guard from Murray State who has played his own way toward the top of NBA draft boards, averaging 24.1 points, 10.2 assists, 5.6 rebounds, and 2.0 steals per game. Morant is an impressive athlete with impressive court vision and IQ who the Racers discovered in part by chance. Murray State will likely need to win the Ohio Valley to ensure a spot in the tourney, which it is more than capable of doing, but Morant is the rare star who could give a double-digit seed the best player on the floor.
13. And Nevada and Buffalo too. If anyone from outside the typical sources—the Power 5, Big East and American, plus Gonzaga—is going to reach the Final Four, the Wolfpack and Bulls are the top candidates. Nevada, an experienced and positionless team coached by onetime NBA prodigy Eric Musselman, began the season with strong buzz, ranked No. 6 nationally, and have lost just once since, in an aberrational blowout against middling New Mexico. The Bulls, who upset Arizona in the first round last March, snuck up on the public more thanks to wins at West Virginia and Syracuse. Though they’ve stumbled a bit in MAC play, they’re still an uptempo, older team that could go on a run. Both of these teams appear on their way to top-six seeds.
14. Some other mid-major teams to keep tabs on: Wofford (who can shoot with anybody), Lipscomb (storming through the Atlantic Sun), and Hofstra (which has a do-everything star in Justin Wright-Foreman). Furman has faded a bit since beating Villanova early, but the Paladins have shown that, should they make it to the dance, they should not be ignored.
15. Speaking of Gonzaga, they might be even better than when they were No. 1 two months ago. Part of what made the Bulldogs’ upset of Duke in Maui so impressive is that they were still somewhat shorthanded, awaiting forward Killian Tillie’s return from injury. In the meantime, 6’ 8” juniors Brandon Clarke and Rui Hachimura blossomed into star roles, and since Tillie returned to the lineup in early January, the Zags’ closest game was a 13-point win—and that was on the road against the WCC’s next-best team, San Francisco. Gonzaga’s two losses came back-to-back in mid-December, on a neutral floor against now-No. 1 Tennessee and at now-No. 8 North Carolina, but that was not the Zags in their current form.
16. It’s been mostly quiet on the recruiting scandal front. Only one trial has been held as a result of the 2017 FBI sting that rocked college hoops, and last October that trial resulted in fraud convictions for two former Adidas employees and an aspiring NBA agent for fraud. (Sentencing is scheduled for spring.) Since then, former Oklahoma State assistant Lamont Evans, former USC assistant Tony Bland, and ex-Arizona assistant Emanuel “Book” Richardson have all reached plea deals to avoid trial; former Auburn assistant Chuck Person is still awaiting trial himself. Those deals will limit the amount of new information revealed about potential NCAA violations stemming from the coaches’ actions, which is particularly significant given that Silvio De Sousa, the Kansas forward recently suspended by the NCAA through next season, is being punished as a result of information revealed during testimony at the trial in October. But the quiet might not last long: Yahoo Sports reported this week that the NCAA has begun investigating Arizona and coach Sean Miller.
17. Louisville is back to making the good kind of headlines. The Cardinals were the team most impacted last season by the FBI investigation, as it resulted in the firing of their coach, Rick Pitino. Chris Mack was hired from Xavier in April as Pitino’s permanent replacement and has hit the ground running, with Louisville currently ranked No. 16, owning wins over Michigan State and North Carolina, and tied for fourth in the ACC.
18. The jury is still out on the NET rankings, but the initial backlash seems like an overreaction. If you don’t remember what the NET is, it’s the NCAA’s new system for ranking teams’ performance for input into the NCAA tournament selection committee’s decisions, replacing the much-maligned RPI. There was a strong backlash at the system’s first rankings in November, but with a larger sample size, things seem to have fallen more in line with what polls and efficiency metrics would suggest about which teams are the country’s best. You can view the rankings here.
19. One of SI’s Magic Eight will win the national title. Hey, this newbie got it right last year. Who will make this year’s cut? Check back next week to find out. (Sorry.)
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 share movie recommendations, you can find me on Twitter @thedangreene. Thanks for reading.
The NCAA dropped the hammer on sophomore Kansas forward Silvio De Sousa on Friday, ruling him ineligible for both the remainder of this season and all of next season as a result of his legal guardian receiving payments from a booster and an Adidas representative in connection with De Sousa playing for the Jayhawks, a violation of NCAA amateurism rules. The payments, which first came to light during former Adidas consultant T.J. Gassnola’s court testimony last fall, had prompted Kansas to keep De Sousa out of action so far this season while the situation was resolved, which the Jayhawks seemed to expect to be done without much incident.
Like so much with this trial, the ruling is a perfect illustration of the absurdities created by the NCAA’s outdated amateurism model. De Sousa himself is not purported to have received money, nor is he accused of orchestrating or participating in the transaction in any way. But there aren’t fingerprints from the Kansas staff either, and no one else involved is under the NCAA’s jurisdiction. So when the NCAA dropped the hammer, it did so on the only person it could hit: the athlete being prevented from receiving his fair-market value in the first place, who is not even alleged to have attempted to circumvent that. What an embarrassment.
1. Kansas State: The Wildcats ended an eight-game losing streak against Kansas to take sole possession of first place in the Big 12—a far cry from just one month ago, when they began conference play 0–2 and were unsure when forward Dean Wade would return.
2. Lipscomb: Only two of the Bisons’ nine Atlantic Sun wins (against zero losses) have been by single digits, and last week they won at second-place Liberty by 20. This is not a team any No. 5 seed will want to see in March.
3. North Carolina: The Tar Heels avenged their season’s worst loss by beating Louisville by 10 on the road and are now tied with Duke and Virginia for the ACC lead. After a relatively quiet stretch, forward Luke Maye scored 51 points over the Heels’ last two wins.
4. Baylor: The Bears just keep winning, mauling TCU over the weekend to move to 6–2 in the Big 12. Duke and Kentucky are the only major-conference teams grabbing a larger share of available offensive rebounds (38.4%) than Baylor is.
5. Cincinnati: The Bearcats have won seven in a row and are currently tied with Houston for the American lead. They play this weekend in Texas, the first of two meetings between the teams that could swing the league’s regular season title.
Top of the Classes
Senior: Makai Mason, Baylor guard
The grad transfer (and former Baylor killer) from Yale has proven a stellar addition to the Bears, and Saturday was his best game yet: 40 points on 14-of-20 shooting (including 9-of-12 from three) and four assists in a rout of TCU.
Junior: Kevon Harris, Stephen F. Austin forward
After 33 points, 16 rebounds and five assists in an overtime win over Central Arkansas, Harris had an ultra-efficient 20 points on nine field goal attempts (boosted by just three free throws) against Sam Houston State.
Sophomore: Jhivvan Jackson and Keaton Wallace, UTSA guards
How often do you have two classmates on the same team score 40 points in consecutive games? Two days after Jackson went for 46 in an overtime loss to Western Kentucky, Wallace scored 45 in an overtime win over Marshall.
Freshman: Zion Williamson, Duke freshman
He scored 45 points on 25 field goal attempts over his last two games, plus totaled 23 rebounds, nine steals, and five blocks. Zion continues to Zion.
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 Kansas forward Dedric Lawson, who is averaging 19.4 points, 10.8 rebounds, and 1.2 blocks for the No. 13 Jayhawks. So, Dedric, tell us about the best...
...place to eat back home in Memphis. “Ooh, that’s a hard one. When I eat wings I go to this place called Just Wings. They have this honey barbecue sauce that’s pretty good. When I want some soul food, I go to Soul Food Cafe—they got salmon, greens, macaroni and cheese, things like that.”
...fruit. “I have to say oranges. I really got into oranges when I was in middle school. We couldn’t really eat in classes. That was the way some of my friends used to sneak food in class, by peeling oranges. So I became a fan of oranges.”
...item of clothing you own. “I have a Moncler jacket. I caught it on sale back in Memphis. It was on sale for $200 but it usually costs like $1,500, so I hurried up and bought it. It’s red. I’ve probably only worn it like three or four times.”
...sports movie. “White Men Can’t Jump. [How many times have you seen it?] A million. I just like the whole approach, how they had the white guy that they thought couldn’t play. That stuff happens a lot when you go and play pickup ball. It’s just something that I could relate to. I’ve always loved Wesley Snipes, like in Blade. It’s a great movie.”
Social Media Post of the Week
One to Watch: Duke at Virginia, Saturday at 6 p.m. ET on ESPN
Do you really have to be sold on this one? Arguably the two best teams in the country, the Blue Devils and Cavaliers will meet for the second time this season, the first game in Durham having been won by Duke without the services of Tre Jones and still standing as Virginia’s only loss so far this season. Now the Hoos will host a rematch that could have implications not only in the ACC title race but also for which of these teams gets the more favorable No. 1 seed positioning in March. This is going to be a Final Four-quality matchup in a rollicking campus environment. Don’t miss it.