Lukas Harkins analyzes six college basketball storylines of the week, including the recent performances from Davidson and North Texas.
It’s the holiday season, and that means conference play is on the horizon for college basketball teams across the country. Leagues have shown what they are capable of during the nonconference portion of the year and now it’s time to return to battling each other.
Preseason biases are finally starting to be cooked out of analytics like reducing a fine wine sauce for Christmas dinner. It truly is the most wonderful time of the year when we can start rewarding teams for what they have done rather than what we thought they would amount to during the season.
This week’s Hark’s Bark will look into a few such teams that have been blossoming as of late. Davidson and North Texas, most notably, are a pair of mid-majors that have been steadily rising after slow starts, proving that the season doesn’t end after just three or four games. West Virginia is also hitting the mark as a high-major that has quietly gone about its business. But enough introduction — let’s dive in.
Davidson is building an at-large resume
Davidson has been the most impressive mid-major in the country over the past couple of weeks. The Wildcats started the campaign at just 1-2 but have since rattled off eight consecutive wins to rise up the national rankings. In fact, they have climbed 31 spots on KenPom over the last month, currently peaking at No. 56. They also sit at No. 44 in the NET. Those are eye-opening numbers because they put the Wildcats in early at-large conversation.
Head coach Bob McKillop’s team also leaped into the national spotlight with an elite resume-boosting win over Alabama at a neutral site this past week. That is the type of win that will age like fine wine throughout the year and bolster Davidson’s resume. The Wildcats will not face another opponent of that caliber all season, so taking advantage will be huge for their at-large hopes.
Davidson will end its nonconference schedule with a 9-2 record against D1 opponents with those losses coming to solid competition in San Francisco and NMSU. The Atlantic 10 might not be an elite league but there are plenty of solid opponents to keep their resume in the at-large conversation as the season progresses. This is an elite offensive team (22nd in adjusted offensive efficiency) that shoots the crap out of the ball. They are going to be exceedingly dangerous.
Hyunjung Lee, Foster Loyer and Michael Jones are shooting a combined 88-for-191 (46.1 percent) from three for the Wildcats so far this season. Good luck defending that trio beyond the arc. Luka Brajkovic is doing excellent work in the paint as well.
Who is the Big East’s best team?
The Big East put forth an excellent effort during the nonconference portion of the year, and I already wrote about what that did for the league’s national profile. However, there does not appear to be a national title contender in the group; the Big East just feels like a collection of very good teams but no great ones. That was made more evident when Villanova dropped back-to-back games by 20-plus points recently. The Wildcats perhaps aren’t the clear-cut No. 1 team in the league.
But who is?
Seton Hall has the best resume to date. The Pirates hold wins over Michigan, Texas and Rutgers while their lone loss came by one possession against Ohio State. They are well-coached, elite defensively, and finally have a healthy Bryce Aiken. Xavier also has an argument for the top spot, though they just lost to a Villanova team that likely isn’t eager to give up its pedestal atop the league. UConn has dealt with injuries of late but their healthiest version deserves to be in the conversation as well.
Providence is the dark horse here. The Friars are not loved by efficiency metrics but hold an 11-1 record and have quietly gone about their business. They lead the country in Q1 wins and have taken down six KenPom top-100 opponents already.
The Big East is deep. Don’t be surprised if the league sends at least seven teams to the NCAA Tournament but none on the top three seed lines.
West Virginia continues to be underrated
High-major teams do not fly under the radar often, and especially not when those programs have strong histories. Yet, not enough people are talking about West Virginia. The Mountaineers didn’t enter the season with super-high expectations but have performed exceedingly well to begin the campaign. They hold a 10-1 overall record with a decent collection of wins and their lone loss to another high-major team in Marquette.
WVU’s victories include Oakland, Pittsburgh, Clemson, UConn and UAB. The Mountaineers are one of just 15 teams with 10 wins and one or zero losses. They have also played the fifth-toughest schedule of that group, according to KenPom.
Coach Huggins is back to leading a tenacious defensive unit that wreaks havoc by causing turnovers. West Virginia ranks fourth nationally in defensive turnover rate as it’s especially difficult to get away with mistakes against Huggins’ group. The Mountaineers are far from a good shooting team offensively but are excellent on D and dominate the offensive glass. They are a dark horse to watch in the Big 12.
North Texas is on the rise
Grant McCasland led North Texas to a CUSA regular-season title in 2020 and then to the NCAA Tournament last season. And even though he lost his best player from those teams this offseason, the Mean Green are once again poised to be one of the top mid-majors.
North Texas’s 2021-22 season did not start the smoothest, winning just one of its first four games against Division-I opposition and opening 2-3 overall. Since then, though, the Mean Green have rattled off five consecutive victories, including away-from-home wins over KenPom top-100 opponents in Drake and Wichita State. UNT is dominating defensively while finding its rhythm. They have held their opponents to an average of just 50.6 points per game during this five-game winning streak. Kansas (71) is the only opponent to score more than 70 on UNT all season.
Thomas Bell has been leading the way offensively of late. The 6-6 senior has scored in double figures in six consecutive games and in nine of 10 total games. He isn’t the most efficient scorer, but running mate Tylor Perry (15-for-33 from three) helps to fill that gap with his perimeter shooting.
North Texas is finding its rhythm.
Can VCU’s offense catch up?
VCU has flown under the radar as one of the best defensive teams in the nation for now the fourth straight year under head coach Mike Rhoades. It’s simply impossible to overlook just how elite the Rams are on that end of the floor this season. Here is a quick overview of some of their national defensive ranks:
The Rams can hang with anyone because their defense is so outstanding. That was evident in their eight-point loss to Baylor and overtime loss to UConn.
Even with their dominance on one end of the floor, though, they are just 7-4. VCU ranks 271st nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency. There is still hope for them to put on a show in A10 play and reach the NCAA Tournament, having won four straight games and recently adding Ace Baldwin back from injury.
Hope remains in Richmond. If the Rams can find any offensive consistency, they are going to be very difficult to handle.
Tavian Dunn-Martin making “Splash City”
There have been several impactful transfers across college basketball to begin this season. Perhaps the most under-the-radar stud transfer, though, has been Tavian Dunn-Martin. The 5-8 point guard transferred to Florida Gulf Coast this offseason from Duquesne and has been an absolute menace. He is averaging 19.5 points and 5.6 assists per game on efficient shooting.
“Dunk City” is now a thing of the past but FGCU is looking like “Splash City” this season. TDM is leading the way with his 38-for-88 shooting from distance, but he is not alone as a strong shooter in Fort Myers. The Eagles are shooting 37.0 percent from three this season (47th-best nationally) on the 10th-highest 3-point attempt rate in the country, holding a strong 10-3 record as a result.
There have not been many incoming transfers as impactful as Dunn-Martin this year. He ranks eighth nationally in assist rate (40.4 percent) and has put up several monster games. He already has three games this season with at least 20 points and 10 assists. It’s a small sample size, but he is averaging 24.7 points and 10.0 assists per game over his last three contests on 18-for-37 from three. The Eagles won all three games.