Just Tuning In? Here Are the 10 College Basketball Storylines You Need to Know.
Catch up on all the big news as we enter the sport’s critical months.
We’ve reached the period around the end of January to the start of February when the college basketball season really begins to heat up. By now, teams are in the thick of conference play, with around 10 games remaining on their regular season schedules. We have a good idea of who the year’s top contenders are and the greater bubble landscape. From this point on, Joe Lunardi will dominate your television screen practically to the degree of Mike Bloomberg ads.
(My personal bracketology will kick off on Thursday and be released on Sundays and Thursdays thereafter.)
It’s also a time when many fans decide to jump on the wagon and really begin to follow the sport closely. There are basically three kinds of college hoops fans: those that follow from day one, those that just tune in for March Madness, and those that pick things up once football seasons winds down.
If you’re in that last group, welcome aboard. Good to see ya! There’s a lot of ball left, but it certainly helps to have an understanding of what’s transpired so far. To help you play catch up, here are 10 storylines from this season thus far.
It’s (Not) Lonely at the Top
Remarkably, in 13 weeks, we’ve already had seven teams claim the #1 spot in the AP Poll this season. Michigan State topped the nation in the preseason poll, but after losing their season opener to Kentucky, the Wildcats jumped to #1. They were stunned by Evansville, paving the way for Duke to jump to the top and subsequently get stunned by Stephen F. Austin. Since, we’ve had Lousiville, Kansas, and Gonzaga hold that top spot, and finally Baylor for the last two weeks.
However, teams like San Diego State, Florida State, and Seton Hall are also ranked in the top 10 and playing like some of the hottest teams in the country. It’s anyone’s guess who’ll finish the regular season at #1.
Year of the Mid-Major?
Through all of the chaos, three mid-majors have risen to the top seven of the AP Poll and the top five of the NET: Gonzaga (hardly a mid-major at this point, but still), San Diego State, and Dayton.
The Zags, who have only fallen to Michigan, are once again cruising through the WCC. Despite more than have of the league having already hit 15 wins, Mark Few’s team have won each of their last five games by more than 20 points. Serbian sophomore Filip Petrusev leads the team in scoring with 16 points per game despite averaging just 25 minutes, but six players score in double figures, including sharpshooter Corey Kispert and senior leader Killian Tillie.
Meanwhile, San Diego State is an undefeated 21–0 and on pace for the best season in school history, or at the very least the best since they had a guy named Kawhi Leonard on their team. The Mountain West has had a tough go of it as of late, so it’s great to see the Aztecs in peak form.
Dayton usually feels like a bubble staple, but the Flyers are flying high in 2019–20, at 18–2 and scoring more than 83 points per game, good for fourth in the nation. Forward Obi Toppin is the name to know here. Toppin is a strong and skilled finisher near the rim who leads the team in scoring and rebounding and is rapidly turning into a top-five prospect in this year’s NBA Draft.
North Carolina Goes South
The Tar Heels have missed the NCAA Tournament just once in Roy Williams’ tenure as head coach, but they’ll almost certainly be doing so again this season. After losing the majority of their rotation to the NBA, North Carolina was unlikely to repeat as a #1 seed this season, but they still looked competitive early until five-star recruit Cole Anthony was forced to undergo knee surgery.
Anthony hasn’t played since December 8th, and the team is just 4–7 in his absence, for an overall 10–10 mark, including the first home loss to Clemson in school history. He should be available to return soon, but by now, it might be too late. The Tar Heels still play Duke twice, and Louisville and Florida State once, but there are few opportunities for quality wins elsewhere on the schedule, and North Carolina is nowhere near the field as it currently stands. They’d need to pull off multiple huge upsets and avoid bad losses to force themselves back into the picture.
A Three-Bid ACC?
The ACC’s struggles go far beyond North Carolina, however. The truth of the matter is that beyond the league’s three top-10 teams (Florida State, Louisville, Duke), there are no other teams guaranteed a spot in the March Madness field. For reference, the ACC has sent an average of eight teams to the Big Dance over the last four seasons.
Defending champions Virginia are just 13–6 and 5–4 in league play. While their defense is still strong as ever (#2 in KenPom), the loss of their starting backcourt of Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy has killed this team offensively, leading to a #257 offensive KenPom ranking. The Cavaliers are a bubble team at best.
Virginia Tech and NC State are the teams outside of the big three best positioned to receive an at-large selection, while Virginia and Syracuse remain possibilities. But I definitely don’t see any more than five teams from the ACC making the cut this season.
A 12(?!)-Bid Big Ten?
All those lost ACC bids had to go somewhere, and that place is the Big Ten. As absolutely ludicrous as it sounds, a full 12 of the league’s 14 teams have tournament cases, and I currently have 11 in the field. For the record, that’s everyone except for Purdue (that 12th team with a chance), Nebraska, and Northwestern.
The Big Ten has been full of surprises this season, but topping the list are two incredible stories. First, Illinois, who last earned a March Madness bid in 2013, is LEADING the Big Ten, with a 7–2 conference record and 15–5 overall record. It’s great to see the Illini, a regular tournament team for so long, back in the mix, and it’s a testament to second-year head coach Brad Underwood.
But even that pales in comparison to what Rutgers has done this season. Guys, RUTGERS IS RANKED for the first time since 1979. The Scarlet Knights have gone 29 years without a March Madness appearance, but look primed to end that streak this season. If even Rutgers is competitive, you know it’s a special season.
Return of the Pac-12?
Last season was arguably the weakest in Pac-12 history. Just three teams from the conference made March Madness, with the highest being the #9 seed Washington. Had Washington defeated Oregon in the finals of the Pac-12 tournament, in all likelihood, just two Pac-12 teams would have gone dancing.
While it’s not a dominant league quite yet, the Pac-12 has had a nice rebound this year. Oregon, with a 17–4 record and a top-10 strength of schedule, looks like a Final Four contender behind their star guard Payton Pritchard. Alongside Arizona, Colorado, and Stanford, four Pac-12 teams are in the top 20 of the NET while USC, Washington, and Arizona State remain in the bubble conversation.
Wooden Award Watch
This year lacks the must-watch freshman sensations that dominate the news cycle like Zion Williamson, R.J. Barrett, and Trae Young have over the past two seasons. However, there are still some fantastic players from across the nation that will make this year’s Wooden Award race one to watch.
Among those players already mentioned in this article, Oregon’s Payton Pritchard, Dayton’s Obi Toppin, and Gonzaga’s Filip Petrusev are all top contenders for the award. However, two Big East guards — Markus Howard and Myles Garrett — should not be overlooked. The seniors are arguably the most unstoppable scorers in the country when they get the hot hand, and should be feared whenever they touch the ball.
Iowa big man Luka Garza has taken an enormous leap this season, increasing his scoring output by 10 up to 23 per game along with more than 10 rebounds. Alongside Duke’s Vernon Carey, those two are likely the best centers in the country.
Also worth mentioning are Michigan State’s Cassius Winston and Louisville’s Jordan Nwora.
An Expanded Bubble
It’s not an easy year to be a bracketologist. In addition to the mayhem towards the top of the bracket, we have one of the larger bubbles in recent memory, with a plethora of teams still capable of playing their way into (or out of) the NCAA Tournament field. This means that beyond the highly anticipated Top 25 matchups, there will be impactful matchups taking place practically every day between now and Selection Sunday.
Under the Radar
Who are some of the teams that haven’t been drawing as much attention as they perhaps deserve? For me, topping that list is Florida State, the highest-ranked team in the ACC. The Seminoles haven’t lost a game since December 3rd. While other teams in the conference such as Duke, UNC, and Virginia have been the focus of the conversation, Florida State has quietly kept winning with one of the country’s deepest rotations.
West Virginia has bounced back in a huge way, going from last in the Big 12 a season ago to a 16–3 team who has equaled their conference win total from a year ago in just six games. The Mountaineers have yet to drop a game at home and have KenPom’s top-rated defense in the country. Just what Bob Huggins was looking for.
Additional shoutouts go to Butler, Stanford, and Penn State for exceeding expectations this season.
Other Mid-Major At-Large Candidates
If you’re anything like me, what you really want to know is who the mid-majors are to root for this year — those with a real chance of earning an at-large bid. Out of the true one-bid leagues, East Tennessee State out of the SoCon and Northern Iowa in the Missouri Valley are your best bets, but they have little room for error. There’s no one at the same level as Wofford from a year ago.
In traditional mid-major leagues, the aforementioned Gonzaga, San Diego State, and Dayton are locks. VCU, Rhode Island, and Richmond are all Atlantic 10 bubble teams, and both BYU and Saint Mary’s are currently in the field out of the West Coast Conference, although it’ll be tough for them to both stay that way over the next six weeks.
Connor Groel is a writer who studies sport management at the University of Texas at Austin. He also serves as editor of the Top Level Sports publication on Medium, and the host of the Connor Groel Sports podcast. His book, “Sports, Technology, and Madness,” is available now. You can follow Connor on Medium, Facebook, and Twitter, and view his archives at toplevelsports.net.