Thirty-one of Division I’s 32 conferences will have at least one league game in the books by this weekend (we’re just waiting on you, Big West), and conferences including the ACC, Big Ten and Mountain West have already played multiple league games. With that in mind, ESPN.com’s college basketball experts offered their early impressions of league play, making their picks for this week’s top games and attempting to identify the leaders in a crowded Wooden Award race.
We are about to be fully immersed in conference season. What was your biggest early surprise in the conference standings?
Myron Medcalf, senior college basketball writer: For me, it’s the new perspective we have on the Big Ten. We started with Michigan State at the top before a series of losses changed projections. Then, Michigan looked like it would emerge as its rival’s top contender and never miss another 3-pointer, but the Wolverines are 3-3 in their past six games. Ohio State looked great in a win over Kentucky before falling to West Virginia a week later. Maryland has a tough road loss to a good Penn State team that could shake up the race.
The Big Ten reflects the rest of college basketball, with a number of teams capable of competing for the league’s championship. Twelve Big Ten teams split their first two conference games. That could be the norm over the course of the season in this competitive league.
John Gasaway, college basketball writer: It’s early, but I’m surprised that the three-way tie in the loss column at the top of the Mountain West standings does not include Utah State. The Aggies were the unanimous choice of the media in the preseason to win the league, but Neemias Queta has been limited due to injuries, and this week Craig Smith’s men were hammered at UNLV. This is a team that made just 18% of its 3s in its first three conference games, and in Vegas, USU went 2-of-19 from beyond the arc. Again, there’s a lot of basketball left to be played, but it has been a struggle early in Logan.
Jeff Borzello, college basketball insider: Some leagues haven’t started conference play yet, so we have a limited sample for surprises, but one of the recent results that caught my eye was Northern Iowa going down at Illinois State in the Missouri Valley opener for both teams.
UNI entered league play as the favorite after going 11-1 in nonconference, including wins over Colorado and South Carolina and a narrow loss to West Virginia. Meanwhile, Illinois State was 4-7 against Division I teams and lost by 19 to a UTSA team with two Division I wins. But conference play is a different animal, especially in the Valley. Dan Muller’s team erased a 10-point halftime deficit to get the win. It’s results such as this that are part of the reason the Missouri Valley hasn’t received multiple NCAA tournament bids since 2016.
Jordan Schultz, insider/analyst: Has anyone seen the Big 12? It’s loaded. Kansas might well be its top title contender, but there are upward of eight tournament teams in this league. Baylor has quietly gotten off to an excellent start behind sophomore guard Jared Butler. Its only loss came in Alaska to an extremely talented Washington team. The biggest surprise for me, however, is West Virginia. Don’t sleep on Bob Huggins because his 11-1 Mountaineers already boast wins over Northern Iowa, Wichita State, Rhode Island and Ohio State.
We haven’t even touched on Texas Tech, which, after a sluggish start, looks every bit like a classic, nasty Chris Beard team. Every team in the league has an overall winning record.
As foggy as the national picture is, we also have a wide-open race for the Wooden Award. If you were to cast a Wooden ballot right now, what would your top three look like?
Borzello: I wouldn’t be shocked if the four of us had 10 different names in our individual top-three ballots.
I think it’s hard to put Louisville’s Jordan Nwora at No. 1, given how much he has struggled to shoot the ball in the Cardinals’ biggest games. But I think he deserves to be in the mix for top three. Duke’s Vernon Carey Jr. might be the most dominant player in the country right now, routinely notching 20-10 outings after a slow first couple of games of his college career. I also think Dayton’s Obi Toppin and Iowa’s Luka Garza would garner midseason All-American honors. But my No. 1 at this point would be Payton Pritchard.
The Oregon point guard has changed his role entirely in his fourth season in Eugene, becoming the go-to guy on a team filled with transfers and freshmen. Plus, he has balled out while doing so. Pritchard was terrific in the Ducks’ biggest win thus far, at Michigan, and he has remained highly efficient — and is distributing the ball to teammates at a high clip — despite the increased usage rate.
Gasaway: I’m going with Toppin at No. 1 because I suspect if we sat down with the preseason versions of ourselves and said, oh, by the way, Dayton might earn a top-four seed, we would be amazed. Yet it’s happening, and there’s zero doubt that Toppin is the reason for it. (Well, Anthony Grant has helped this amazing development, too.)
For second place, I’ll add my heartfelt amen to Jeff’s tribute to Pritchard. Watching the senior take control of the game down the stretch against Zavier Simpson in Ann Arbor was one of the best viewing experiences I’ve had this season.
To round out my top three, I’ll give a shout-out to East Carolina’s Jayden Gardner, who single-handedly traumatized Wichita State before the Pirates fell just short on the road. The sophomore is a bit like the Luka Garza of the American, which is pretty impressive considering that Gardner is 4 inches shorter and 25 pounds lighter than the eminent Hawkeye in question.
Medcalf: If it’s best player in the country right now, I think I’d go with Toppin at No. 1. But these awards tend to go to the best players on top teams, so I like the chances of Filip Petrusev, who is averaging 17.1 PPG and 8.0 RPG for a Gonzaga team that might not lose another game before the NCAA tournament. Petrusev has also had to adjust to the return of Killian Tillie, yet he continues to produce at a high level. He could put up big numbers in the West Coast Conference. I’ll throw Petrusev at No. 2.
For No. 3? Man, you could list a bunch of players, but I like Vernon Carey Jr. And he probably has the best chance to win it. Being the most dominant player at Duke should help. It’s amazing how spoiled we all were when everyone knew Zion Williamson had locked up the award at this point in the season.
Schultz: This is a fun season to anticipate the Wooden Award. I count six, maybe seven legitimate candidates, most notably Nwora (1), Toppin (2) and Michigan State’s Cassius Winston (3). Remember him? I love Toppin and Nwora, but frankly, I have been surprised by how little fanfare Winston has received, especially considering he was the overwhelming favorite before the season. Has Winston been as good as he was in years past? No. But the senior point guard is averaging nearly 18 PPG and 6 APG (with better than a 2-1 assist-TO ratio) on a title-contending team.
Auburn (at Mississippi State) and San Diego State (at Utah State) are your final two unbeatens, and both have tough games Saturday. Who is going down: one, both or neither?
Gasaway: Neither! Let’s run these tables a little longer, shall we? I suspect the Aztecs’ near-loss experience last month at home against San Jose State, of all teams, served to focus the attention of Brian Dutcher’s men. SDSU has pretty much been cruising ever since, and as has been noted in this roundtable, the Aggies aren’t or at least haven’t yet been quite what we expected them to be.
As for Bruce Pearl’s guys, winning in Starkville doesn’t look like too tall an order (even if it is just the second true road game the Tigers have played this season). The Bulldogs have been overly generous to opponents in terms of turnovers, and Auburn will be only too happy to convert those opportunities on the break.
Borzello: I’ll say neither. Mississippi State is a different team now that Nick Weatherspoon is back in the fold, but the Bulldogs don’t defend the 3 particularly well, and Auburn will look to put pressure on from the perimeter. If the Tigers’ shots aren’t falling, it’s a different story.
San Diego State is in more danger, as Utah State lost one home game all of last season and hasn’t lost at home yet in 2019-20. This game depends a lot on Neemias Queta’s availability for Utah State. In the end, I think San Diego State has the guards to go toe-to-toe with Sam Merrill & Co. and will get a huge road win — and start the buzz about a potential unbeaten regular season.
Medcalf: I also think they’ll both remain unbeaten. Utah State, without Queta, lost to UNLV by 17 points in its most recent game. Queta could return in the near future, but I doubt we’ll see him log major minutes against San Diego State even if he’s healthy. Plus, SDSU beat BYU earlier this season in a hostile arena. Utah State’s wild crowd shouldn’t deter the Aztecs, either.
Auburn should preserve its flawless record, too. Mississippi State is glad to have Weatherspoon back, but a struggling defensive team that couldn’t put up 70 points in a loss to Louisiana Tech and registered just 52 in a loss to New Mexico State will likely lose to Auburn.
Schultz: Bruce Pearl’s Tigers look every bit like another Final Four contender. They can score with anyone, and by consistently looking to push tempo and create easy offense, they will win a close game at the Hump. Don’t sleep on State’s duo of Reggie Perry and Tyson Carter, both of whom average more than 15 PPG and will create problems all season in the SEC.
On the other side, you can book it right now: San Diego State will go down at The Spectrum in Logan, Utah, which is consistently one of the trickiest places to play in America. How do I know? Because I’ve played there … and lost by 46. Make no mistake: The Aztecs are very good and very physical. But as mentioned, they tend to endure scoring woes. Utah State is an offensive juggernaut (third nationally in points) that leans on all five to create excellent half-court offense. Preseason Mountain West POY Sam Merrill is averaging more than 17 PPG and is a career 42.5% 3-point shooter. He will be the difference-maker in this one.
ESPN.com expert picks for this weekend’s top games
(Lines, when available, from Caesars Sportsbook. Predictors do not have access to lines when making score predictions.)