The Heat Check CBB staff breaks down who could actually beat Gonzaga or Baylor in March, which one-and-done and underrated players could break out, and which mid-major leagues will have multiple bids.
Another Saturday slate of college basketball is here, which means the Heat Check CBB staff is breaking down the biggest topics in the sport. With under four weeks to go until Selection Sunday, the races for at-large bids and conference titles are heating up.
Below you will find our thoughts on which teams could potentially shake up the national title race while also highlighting college hoops’ unheralded players, among other discussions. Enjoy your Saturday!
Q: Which team is most likely to win the national title other than Gonzaga and Baylor?
Eli Boettger: I still like Florida State. Leonard Hamilton, by my estimation, is the best head coach in college basketball who hasn’t reached the Final Four yet. This FSU team is his best offensive squad ever as the ‘Noles can finally hit from the perimeter with some consistency. Mix the improved shooting in with the usual hard-nosed, lengthy rotational guys who defend and rebound, and I think Florida State can run the table if it gets the right draw. Scottie Barnes is electric and MJ Walker has really come around offensively.
Lukas Harkins: Michigan is the clear third-best team, in my opinion. The Wolverines are 15-1, poised to land a No. 1 seed, and have generally been rolling throughout the year. They have laid one egg and have been otherwise dominant. Since returning from pause, they proceeded to show very few signs of rust en route to victories over KenPom Top 25 opponents in Wisconsin and Rutgers. Head coach Juwan Howard’s team is extremely balanced, ranked seventh in both adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency, while holding plenty of star power. Isaiah Livers and Franz Wagner are matchup nightmares while Hunter Dickinson is one of the nation’s best diaper dandies. Mike Smith and Eli Brooks are both very experienced ball-handlers as well. Outside of Michigan, two others that I really like are Illinois and Alabama. The Fighting Illini have an elite duo of Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn; the Crimson Tide have the combination of superb defense and 3-point supremacy that could make a deep run.
Connor Hope: I would like to reiterate that the only teams that can win the national championship this year are those that have the ability to play at their ceiling for extended periods of time, and challenge a fully healthy Gonzaga and Baylor while playing well. For me, that team is Michigan. The Wolverines are well coached on defense and can score at a high level, despite not having a clear top option at times. Illinois, Alabama, and Iowa are also all in the mix when playing at their ceiling, but as we have seen this season, expecting that group to play 4-5 straight games at their ceiling is a futile exercise.
Brian Rauf: Can I answer no one? Because no one else is actually going to. But if we’re picking someone else, I’m going with Illinois. Dosunmu and Cockburn are the best duo in the country and, when this group is engaged, they’re capable of playing with anyone. They haven’t always been the most focused, but I don’t expect that to be a problem in the NCAA Tournament.
Andy Dieckhoff: I agree with Brian. This isn’t going to happen. But hey, let’s get weird. I’ll say Texas. I don’t really feel like it’s worth going into too much detail as to why, since I really don’t think it’s going to happen, so let’s just say that — much like Shaka Smart’s hair — Texas is back. They’ve got big-time shot-makers in Andrew Jones, Matt Coleman, and Courtney Ramey, plus one of the toughest and most exciting frontcourts with Greg Brown, Kai Jones, and Jericho Sims. Why the heck not?
Q: Which team has the most to prove between now and Selection Sunday?
EB: I’m going with UConn. Few teams nationally have dealt with injuries and COVID-19 interruptions quite like the Huskies this season, and that could lead toward Dan Hurley’s group being massively under-seeded come March. UConn is 6-1 this year when James Bouknight is in action and 4-4 when he’s out. Bouknight isn’t a player of the year candidate, but he could very well earn the title as the player who’s most important to his team’s success. Now that Bouknight is back, look for the guard trio of R.J. Cole, Tyrese Martin and Bouknight to lead a successful stretch run into the tournament.
LH: Rather than picking a bubble team that needs to prove it belongs in the field, I will answer this question with a team that needs to prove that it is capable of making a deep run. For me, that team is Wisconsin. The Badgers entered this year as a preseason Top 10 team and have struggled to live up to that hype despite being one of the oldest teams in the country. Seniors Nate Reuvers and Brad Davison, most notably, have seriously struggled this year. Wisconsin is just 3-5 over their last eight games and this stretch has also continued to showcase their struggles against high-quality competition. The Badgers are 1-6 against KenPom Top 20 opponents with their lone win coming over Loyola Chicago in the Ramblers’ third D1 game of the year. Wisconsin’s combination of defense and experience makes it tempting to pick them deep, but they have to prove capable of beating teams better than them — so far, they have failed to do that at all, let alone with consistency. Opportunities against Illinois, Purdue, and Iowa still loom in their final four games.
BR: UConn and Wisconsin are two excellent picks, but I’ll throw Virginia in the mix as well. They’re highly ranked and are going to get a high seed but haven’t actually beaten anyone of consequence. Opportunities are few and far between in the ACC this year but the Wahoos need to impress in those limited opportunities.
CH: Unfortunately, one of the teams with the most to prove also has the fewest opportunities to prove that they belong, and that is the Stanford Cardinal. Stanford has sitting right on the bubble and has not shown the consistent ability to score at a tournament level. In fact, they are one of three teams in KenPom’s Top 60 without a Top 100 offense, the other two are VCU and Memphis. The Cardinal will need someone other than Oscar Da Silva to step up in their game against Oregon, if the Cardinal aims to get that statement win that puts them back on the right side of the bubble.
AD: I’m not sure if this totally answers the question, because this team really only has one thing to prove, but I’m going with Iowa. The Hawkeyes have been bandied about as a national title contender from the exact moment Luka Garza announced he was coming back; however, all of the high hopes came with a massive caveat — Iowa would need to get better defensively. Unfortunately for Fran McCaffery, his team has yet to prove on any consistent basis that they can stop opposing offenses. Most teams would be content to be a probable Sweet 16 squad with a potential National Player of the Year in the fold, but if this team has any shot at cutting down the nets, they need to start defending better.
Q: Which one-and-done prospect will have the biggest impact in March?
EB: For the sake of variety and an answer other than Gonzaga’s Jalen Suggs, I’ll pick Texas’ Greg Brown. Few players around the country are quite as entertaining to watch as the Longhorns forward, who has thrown down countless jaw-dropping dunks this year while also maneuvering the perimeter and hitting triples like a guard. Shaka Smart and Texas were so scrutinized heading into the year and it’s looking more and more like Brown was the missing piece all along. His versatility could create some mismatches during the tournament and his highlight package under a bigger microscope would only lead to even more headlines and viral clips.
LH: I really want to say Evan Mobley here. The USC big man has been tremendous all year while leading the Trojans to absolutely dominate the paint on both ends of the floor. Cade Cunningham would also be a solid answer as he could help guide Oklahoma State to overachieve compared to their seed. My answer, though, is Gonzaga’s Jalen Suggs. He is the most likely to still be taking the court in April and that is what matters most. Suggs isn’t the Bulldogs’ best player but he is among their best and makes a huge impact for the nation’s best team. Gonzaga is the favorite to win it all and Suggs is a major part of that. If the Bulldogs accomplish their end goal, he’ll be the answer to this question regardless of what Mobley, Cunningham, or others can do.
AD: My dark horse/cheeky answer candidate: Former Dukie Jalen Johnson, insofar as the shaking-up of the Blue Devils’ team chemistry could become a catalyst of sorts for a late run — perhaps even an ACC Tournament win? Much stranger things have happened. And as someone who doesn’t hate Duke, I would love to see the general public go haywire over Duke somehow still making it into the tournament after everything that’s gone down this season.
BR: It’s going to be Suggs with how far Gonzaga is going to go, but Mobley is the clear other option for me. USC has quietly been improving in the Pac-12 and Mobley has blossomed into the kind of two-way force that should make him an All-American. The Trojans will go as far as he can take them.
CH: Suggs and Mobley are probably the right answers, but Scottie Barnes is the best answer. He probably has the most control over his team’s destiny, behind maybe Mobley, and Florida State has a legitimate shot at a Final Four run if they avoid Gonzaga and Baylor. With that said, he is also more likely than Suggs and Mobley to fall flat. As far as X-factors go, Barnes is up there with the best.
Q: Which mid-major conferences still have a chance to get multiple bids in the Big Dance?
EB: The WCC should be represented by at least two teams in Gonzaga and BYU and possibly another if a bid-stealing team comes out of the tournament. San Diego State, Boise State, Colorado State and Utah State are still in the conversation out of the Mountain West as well. Besides the two leagues out West, it’s looking like the Missouri Valley (Loyola Chicago and Drake) and Atlantic 10 (VCU, St. Bonaventure, Saint Louis) are in the mix for multiple bids. I’m especially curious what could happen with some of these mid-major powers like OVC’s Belmont at 23-1 or Big South’s Winthrop at 20-1. Could the selection committee leave out a team with only two losses and upwards of 25 wins? It wouldn’t be shocking but it could be a talking point should the Bruins and Eagles stumble in their league tourneys.
LH: The WCC is basically a lock to get multiple bids with Gonzaga and BYU both in very strong positions. Additionally, Loyola Chicago and Drake are carrying the torch for a multi-bid Missouri Valley and the Mountain West has four teams in the bubble conversation. With St. Bonaventure and VCU both playing fairly well, the Atlantic 10 is also in the mix. Dark-horse answers might include the CUSA and OVC if Western Kentucky and Belmont warrant at-larges if they fail to win their respective auto-bids. WKU is already in the at-large conversation and I think it would be hard to leave out a two-loss Belmont team.
BR: The WCC for sure, and most likely the A-10 and Missouri Valley as well. The OVC and Big South could be in the mix, too, if Belmont and Winthrop opt out of their respective conference tournaments.
CH: Are we calling the MWC and AAC mid-majors for this question? If not, then I will echo the sentiment that it is the WCC for sure, and most likely the A10. The MVC is probably the third most likely, but their path to two bids is a bit narrower with more opportunities for resume ruining bad losses, even in later rounds.
AD: I think the WCC has the best chance at getting multiple bids outside of the “P5+BE+AAC” group (not sure how we’re referring to that cluster, but you know the one), but the Mountain West could end up getting the most. The dream of a four-bid Mountain West is clinging to life out in the Rockies, but things could still break just right for the league. Like many conferences, cancellations and postponements have taken away some opportunities for good wins (see: Colorado State’s nixed series at Nevada), and Boise State’s recent sweep of Utah State may mean the Aggies’ only path is through the MW Tournament. Also, I don’t think it will happen, but I’m really rooting for the CUSA to get its first at-large bid since the Bronze Age.
Q: Who is your favorite player in the country that not enough people are talking about?
EB: Drake’s Roman Penn. I just hope the Bulldogs have enough gas in the tank to reach the field of 68 because the nation needs to watch the Drake guard. Penn is a former Siena Saint who has been a starter since he came to Des Moines before the ‘19-20 season. He’s an excellent passer and has a knack for attacking and finishing at the basket, especially in transition. When it comes to advancing in March, I always look towards guards who can distribute and attack, and Penn fits that mold.
LH: Moses Moody. I was really high on the Arkansas freshman entering this season and he has taken the mantle of being the team’s best scorer right away. Moody is averaging 16.2 pints and 5.6 rebounds per game this season while shooting 37.1 percent from three. The 6-6 first-year has been superb and is helping lead the Razorbacks up the national ranks right now. Arkansas has won seven of its last eight games and is trending up from a bubble team to possibly the No. 5 seed line right now. Coach Musselman has a balanced group and each individual part deserves more attention, but Moody is at the forefront for me. This is a really fun team to watch that might be hitting its stride at the right time.
BR: I’m going to go with Bones Hyland because I think enough people are talking about Miles McBride. He’s VCU’s leader as a sophomore and is one of the best two-way guards in the country. If the Rams win a game in the NCAA Tournament, he’ll be the reason why.
CH: For me it has to be JaQuori McLaughlin. I get that the Big West is one of the most underappreciated conferences in the country, but McLaughlin is playing at a high-major level for UC Santa Barbara. So far this season, he is averaging 16.8 points, 5.3 assists and 1.6 steals. He isn’t a volume shooter, either, posting a .500/.437/.892 shooting line for the Gauchos. It is easy to root for UC Riverside to win the Big West because of the story that it would provide, but McLaughlin would have the ability to be the next Max Hazzard out of the California Bus League (plus Hawaii).
AD: I’ll do something similar to Connor and go outside of the major leagues. I think my favorite player that I’ve gotten to see much more of this season would be KC Ndefo of Saint Peter’s. The reigning MAAC DPOY is up to old tricks, averaging nearly four blocks per game and adding another steal on top of that. He’s also averaging 12 points and six boards for the Peacocks. The junior is simply a delight to watch, and if Saint Peter’s somehow finds its way to the Big Dance, he could generate some huge highlights.