Lukas Harkins dives into nine noteworthy college basketball storylines, including Houston’s potential and BYU’s stumbles.
Nonconference schedules are drawing to a close across the nation. Teams have done their best to develop early-season resumes and there have been plenty of takeaways from the first third of the campaign. The most notable storyline has been the lack of a true No. 1 team in the country.
Each of the last three teams (Gonzaga, Duke, Purdue) to hold the top ranking in the country have promptly suffered losses. Maybe Baylor – the new No. 1 – can maintain the spot for more than a week or two.
That topic has already been discussed at length across the country, though. This week’s edition of the Hark’s Remarks will dive a bit deeper into nine potential trends that could impact the remainder of the season.
These takeaways range from how a pair of potential national title contenders are performing to the breakout season from a mid-major that has struggled for the better part of the past decade.
Without further ado, let’s dive in.
Big East set itself up beautifully
The Big East experienced a down season last year, sending just four teams to the NCAA Tournament. If the opening month of this campaign is any indication, though, the league was not going to be dormant for long. Villanova isn’t operating at the level of a national title contender that many thought it could be in the preseason, but the Big East’s depth is off the charts.
Ten Big East teams have already notched KenPom top-70 wins so far this season, including preseason bottom-tier squads DePaul and Georgetown. It still feels as though every non-Georgetown team in the conference has legitimate hopes of reaching the Big Dance if it can notch enough conference victories.
The Big East has impressed away from its home confines as well. Seton Hall (over Michigan), Providence (over Wisconsin), Butler (over Oklahoma), DePaul (over Louisville), and Xavier (over Oklahoma State) all boast KenPom top-50 true road wins.
There is a lot to like about how the league has performed so far. The Big East and the Big 12 will compete with one another all season for the highest percentage of members to receive NCAA Tournament bids.
Houston is a national title contender
Houston is ranked as the No. 14 team in the nation by the AP poll, and it’s fair to question why — maybe it’s a case of being too invested in a team’s record after just one month of action with teams playing vastly different schedules. The Cougars are 9-2 overall but context needs to be applied to the win-loss record. Their lone losses came against Wisconsin at a neutral site and in a game that they dominated for the second half after a horrid start, and falling to Alabama in Tuscaloosa that was decided on a controversial goaltend.
Houston could realistically be 11-0 and in the conversation as the No. 1 team in the country. Of course, the results still stand, but the two losses may distract from this group’s potential. Houston’s last eight wins are by an average of 31.9 points. Head coach Kelvin Sampson’s team is destroying their competition — with three KenPom top-100 wins during this stretch — and is the overwhelming AAC favorite.
The Cougars reached the Final Four last year and are a reasonable bet to repeat at reaching the sport’s final weekend. They are once again elite defensively, dominate the possession battle consistently, and feature excellent guard play.
Too early to talk multi-bid OVC?
Is it too early to talk about potential mid-major at-large bids? The nonconference slate is where hopeful teams can build the goodwill necessary to be under the committee’s consideration later in the year. There have already been several discussions about the likelihood of the WCC sending multiple teams to the Big Dance, but the Ohio Valley is flying under the radar in that department as well.
Belmont entered this season as one of the nation’s top mid-major darlings. While the Bruins’ record is not particularly pristine (8-3), they have already risen 23 spots on KenPom since the season’s inception and are No. 54 on KenPom and No. 36 in the NET. It’s too early to take either ranking particularly seriously when it comes to the NCAA Tournament, but having such high rankings as a baseline is a great start for at-large contention.
Murray State has quietly risen as the league’s No. 2 team as well. The Racers are 9-1 and ranked at No. 89 on KenPom and No. 44 in the NET. Murray State’s road win over Memphis could be vastly important come March.
The OVC last sent two teams to the NCAA Tournament in 2019 when Belmont and Murray State made appearances. Might the same two teams do it again for the OVC?
BYU isn’t the same without Gavin Baxter
BYU opened the season with a 6-0 record that included wins over San Diego State, Oregon and Utah. Not only have those wins aged poorly, but the loss of Gavin Baxter four minutes into the Utah Valley upset was a critical blow.
The 6-9 big man was an integral part of BYU’s success as a strong shot-blocker on a team that otherwise lacks size. The before-and-after numbers are glaring:
BYU before and after Baxter’s injury
BYU is still in pretty good shape to compete for an at-large bid, but losing Baxter is a massive blow to its frontcourt. The Cougars are not nearly the same team without him and could continue to sputter little by little. Head coach Mark Pope has turned to a multi-guard lineup that includes Seneca Knight and Caleb Lohner as the “frontcourt” in Baxter’s absence.
Colorado State’s insane offensive efficiency
Colorado State is finally nationally ranked in the AP poll, a nod that should have been given weeks ago. The Rams have jumped out to a 10-0 record and boast solid victories over Creighton, Saint Mary’s and Mississippi State. David Roddy and Isaiah Stevens form a stellar duo while John Tonje (59.3 percent) has been lighting it up from the perimeter. He is far from the only efficiency monster on this offense, though.
In fact, head coach Niko Medved is leading arguably the nation’s most potent offense this season. The Rams have already leaped to 14th in the country in adjusted offensive efficiency. CSU ranks best in the country in 3-point percentage (43.8 percent), 11th in 2-point percentage (58.0 percent), and fourth in free-throw percentage (81.8 percent). All of these numbers add up to the nation’s best effective field-goal percentage team. Combining that with the 17th-lowest offensive turnover rate makes for a dominant offensive attack.
The Rams rank near the bottom of the country in offensive rebounding rate, but how many second chance opportunities are available when the first chance is such a high percentage? Colorado State has emerged as the clear favorite in the Mountain West and has the offensive firepower to compete with anyone in the country.
Breakthrough year for Western Illinois?
Western Illinois has averaged just 8.8 wins per season (70-150; .318) over the last eight years and has not finished higher than No. 230 on KenPom since the 2013 season. It’s no secret that the program has struggled for the better part of the last decade. Much of the same was projected heading into this year as well, with the Leathernecks at No. 240 in the preseason KenPom rankings. The season is only a month complete, but head coach Rob Jeter is already exceeding expectations in his second season at the helm.
Western Illinois is 8-2 and has risen 75 spots on KenPom since the preseason release — the seventh-biggest jump in the entire country. The Leathernecks’ eight wins to date already outperform their win totals from both of the last two seasons. They haven’t played a complete cupcake schedule, either; the Leathernecks rank 268th nationally in strength of schedule and own wins over Nebraska, Northern Kentucky and Miami (OH).
South Dakota State is the overwhelming favorite to win the Summit League heading into conference play, but Western Illinois has earned some respect. The Leathernecks are shooting the lights out from three (40.7 percent on the 56th-highest attempt rate) and it has led to strong results. Three different players are shooting over 44 percent with at least 18 makes so far this season.
When Adam Flagler starts hitting…
…the No. 1 team in the country will be all the more dangerous. Baylor has leaped out to a 9-0 record to this point in the season behind a tremendous defense, impressive underclassmen, and the playmaking of transfer addition James Akinjo. Lost in the shuffle of the Bears’ hot start have been the shooting struggles of senior Adam Flagler.
The former sixth man was expected to fill a starring offensive role this season but it hasn’t been the case yet. He is averaging just 8.6 points per game and is yet to find his rhythm from beyond the arc. Flagler entered this campaign as a career 40-percent shooter on 386 total 3-point attempts, commonly the high-volume perimeter threat. He is just 10-for-40 (25.0 percent) to begin this year, though.
Baylor has still been a decent 3-point shooting team, ranking 158th nationally at 33.6 percent, due in large part to sophomore LJ Cryer splashing with elite efficiency off the bench. Once Flagler rediscovers his range, the Bears will be up another notch offensively.
How spacing is turning around Illinois’ season
Illinois lost a home game to Arizona this past weekend, but it doesn’t take away from the team’s obvious recent improvement. The Illini had won five straight games before losing to the Wildcats, a streak included wins over Kansas State, Notre Dame, Rutgers and Iowa. They are also 4-1 over their five games without star guard Andre Curbelo.
Illinois isn’t better without Curbelo. However, his absence the past few games has ignited aggression from the shooters that needed to be unleashed. They are supplying spacing around Kofi Cockburn thanks to a heavier perimeter attack:
Once Curbelo returns, there should be less pressure on his shoulders to be a scoring manufacturer. Scorers have emerged in his absence – namely Alfonso Plummer – and that can allow Curbelo to do what he does best, which is set the table for others.
Porter Moser will have Oklahoma rolling
Oklahoma blew a double-digit lead at home to Butler last week, but don’t let that fool you: Porter Moser will have the Sooners rolling, and possibly sooner than most imagined. Oklahoma has impressed of late despite the Butler loss, securing strong wins over UCF and Florida before the defeat and then regrouped with a 22-point romping of Arkansas.
The Sooners hold an 8-2 record overall with three wins over the KenPom top 60. Coach Moser was fortunate to land Tanner Groves to fill a Cameron Krutwig-like role this season. Oklahoma is dominating the paint offensively (60.3 percent on 2-point attempts; second nationally) in a similar way to how Loyola Chicago did under his leadership. The Sooners aren’t a great 3-point shooting team this season, which limits the ceiling, but are still rock-solid in multiple facets and should contend for another NCAA Tournament bid.
Many pundits praised the Moser hire this offseason and he already seems to be up to the difficult challenge of replacing Lon Kruger. Don’t be surprised if Oklahoma cracks the Top 25 as early as this season before becoming a consistent national presence with Moser walking the sidelines.