Welcome to the place where all of the “surprises” of the season are evaluated and re-evaluated. Where all of those “exceeding” and “falling short” of our collective expectations are analyzed, broken down and re-assessed. The landscape of college basketball is as fluid and unpredictable as any sport and the questions generated by it linger in the minds of all fans and gamblers alike. Here we’ll take those questions head on. Address why those teams ranked top-15 pre-season are scratching and clawing to stay above .500 while others who were projected to finish in the middle and/or at the bottom of a Power-5 Conference currently lay legitimate claim to a 1 or 2 seed in bracketology projections. And are those teams exceeding legitimate threats to-be come March? And what about those tumbling programs, will we see them put the talent together and rear their ugly heads with an improbable March run? And considering the very nature of college basketball just mentioned, this will be ongoing analysis, as teams rise and fall we will try and parse the frauds from the elite, to answer whether the momentum behind a rising program is merely a wave destined to crash down or the foundational blocks building toward legitimate contention. I think you get the point, so without further ado, let’s dive into it.
What is happening in Ann Arbor?
The Michigan Wolverines have been an unmitigated disaster thus far, sitting at 6-4 (1-1) after entering the season with a top-10 ranking and picked by many to win the Big Ten (not by 5-Star Bets of course, but still well below my 2nd place expectations). Much of the hype was surrounding their talented Freshmen and the return of star big man Hunter Dickinson, which on paper gave Michigan what looked like the most talent in the Big Ten. So what’s the deal? In part, it’s early and they’re a young team, but it’s also that the losses from last year seem to extend beyond talent and production, as this Wolverines team looks far less inspired than in years past. They’ve lost their identity, the gritty defense and first to the floor mentality seem to have left with the group that moved on after last season. They have gone from a top-5 defensive team to now outside the top-25 and dropping, fast. In their last disappointing outing they gave up 43 2nd half points to Minnesota (picked last in the Big Ten by many) to lose the game by 10 after being up 4 at half (at home no less). Inexcusable. Coach Howard knows it. The players know it. But can it be salvaged? Nobody was wrong about the talent level here, as Houston and Diabate continue to improve and Dickinson and Brooks continue to be 2 of the better scorers in the Conference. To me it’s about identity and consistent effort, both things that are completely in the players’ control. It’s likely a maturation process for young players and guys who haven’t been accustomed to leading needing to step up (looking at you Hunter and Eli). This is a huge test for Howard, because if this were a Jon Beilein coached team I’d have complete confidence, but Howard will have to prove his ability to maximize potential. With that being said, at this point my answer to Michigan’s questions is one of optimism. I see them as Jack-Jack from the Incredibles, full of ability and power, yet to understand how to harness and put it all together, but they will. And when they do, look out. Michigan = Sleeping Giant.
Are the Ducks cooked?
Dana Altman is one of my favorite coaches in the Country, as he was way ahead of the transfer phenomenon and has turned this Oregon program into a perennial power in the Pac-12. With that said, this Oregon team is a train wreck. They entered the season in most pre-season top-25’s and on the short list of Pac-12 teams that had a shot at preventing UCLA from winning the Conference. What’s transpired thus far is one of the few times that Altman has been unable to integrate a collection of talented kids into a team. They are 5 individuals all playing a separate game. No cohesion, no togetherness. And moreover, when they get punched in the face they roll over quicker than a fat dog begging for a treat. See their losses to BYU and Houston by a combined 61 points. From a micro perspective, they lack a legitimate playmaker. The thing about Altman is he’s always relied on guys who can create in ball-screen/iso situations (See Joe Young, Dillon Brooks/Tyler Dorsey, Peyton Pritchard, Chris Duarte). This team has nobody close to that level. To his detriment, Altman hasn’t adjusted and if you watch Oregon play you’ll see guys ill-equipped to being playmakers attempting to do so, and it’s a disaster to watch. There’s no movement, it’s simply 4 guys watching 1. Need data to back it up? They’re currently 247th in assists p/g. Unlike with Michigan I don’t see this ship turning around. With no playmakers, no heart, no identity and certainly no collective vision this ship is sinking and they will be drowning with no way out very soon. In the past, specifically 2019, Altman has gotten sputtering teams to turn it on late and go on a run. That 2019 team was led, and I mean LED, by Payton Pritchard, but this team doesn’t have that guy. Ducks = battered, fried and fed to the hogs.
Is Arizona a legitimate contender?
Tommy Lloyd has to be the frontrunner for COY honors at this point as he’s got this Arizona program looking like they can go toe-to-toe with any team in the Country. Lloyd came from Gonzaga and has taken a program mired in controversy and quickly turned them into an elite team, or so it appears. The win at Illinois cemented them on the 1 seed line in bracketology projections and put them right alongside UCLA as favorites in the Pac-12. So can they sustain it? Sustainability often is found via consistency, and that consistency can be nailed down to two key components, effort and production. Do you compete hard every night? And do you have the depth of production to overcome an off night by 1 or 2 of your better players? The answer to the first question has been a resounding yes, thus far, as Arizona is winning by an average of 27.6 points, absolutely crushing bad teams (2 wins of 50+) and being 10-0 helps the cause as well. The ability to beat great teams is important, but almost more important for March success is to crush weaker opponents, and that ability shown by Arizona gives you great confidence (compared to say Alabama, who has beaten Gonzaga/Houston but lost to Iona/Memphis). Production wise the Wildcats have 4 guys averaging over 12 ppg, something only a handful of teams can claim, and are also leading the Country in apg. They play together and are not reliant on 1 or 2 guys to carry the load, another resounding yes. The fact that Lloyd was under Mark Few for so long makes the style of play and quick success easy to believe, as Lloyd has clearly implemented the Gonzaga style at Arizona (they’re 3rd in tempo along with being first in Assists/game). Arizona was clearly overlooked, and most certainly not a pretender at this stage of the season. I don’t expect them to go undefeated by any stretch, but they have a legitimate shot to win the Pac-12. We’ll find out more about them at the turn of the year, as they go to Tennessee, UCLA and USC from Dec 22-Jan2. Tough slate but I have no reason to believe they lose all 3 of those. The only thing keeping me from making them a true Championship contender is the fact that no player on the roster has every played in an NCAA tournament game, and neither has their Coach. So buyer beware in March but this team will be no lower than a 3 seed, I guarantee it. Arizona = Underappreciated
Can Iowa St win the Big 12 only a year after a 2-22 season?
The surprise of the season is clearly Iowa St, who fired Steve Prohm after a 2-22 season and cleaned house from last year’s roster. TJ Otzelberger came to Aimes after brief stints with both S. Dakota St and UNLV, and was a relatively surprising hire, but no more. Otzelberger has transformed this program with impact transfers, a big time FR recruit in Tyrese Hunter and most importantly a wild culture shift that has resulted in a team that is top-10 defensively. That last point, as you’ve probably noticed by now, is what I’m going to key on. To get a group of transfers and misfits to come together and play this collectively on defense is incredibly difficult (just ask Dana Altman). They hosted Iowa in a game they were the underdog and held a top-10 offense to 53 points and beat their in-state rival by 20 points. Incredible. And they did so by being nasty, mucking it up, and just taking it to the Hawkeyes with a physical style of play that I really have only seen out of 1 other team this year, Houston. The difference between those two teams is on the other end of the floor, as Houston has 2 elite guards in Kyler Edwards and Marcus Sasser, while Iowa St has very inconsistent production (See Jackson St, a game they won scoring 47 points). Now, at 10-0 you can argue it doesn’t matter because of how well they’re playing defensively, but will that really be good enough to beat Baylor, Kansas and Texas? I’m not sold. And while the story thus far is incredible, I just am not sure this group has enough offensively to truly compete at the highest level. 144th in offensive efficiency is just not going to get it done in the gauntlet that is the Big 12, and same goes for the tournament come March. In fact, over the last 16 tournaments, teams with a sub-50 offense and top-10 defense have lost 46% of the time in the 1st round, with only 1 of those archetypal teams making the Final Four (2017 South Carolina, who had Sindarius Thornwell). You love the story, but when you dig a little deeper, there’s a lot to be concerned about. Iowa St = Drunk 9, Sober 6.5 (and right now you’re drunk…go home alone pal).
For now that’s all we will address, but keep on the lookout for the continuation of the measuring stick series, where all your biggest questions will be answered.