North Carolina coach Roy Williams made headlines earlier this week when he called his struggling, injured group of Tar Heels “the least gifted team I’ve ever coached.” On Saturday, that UNC team will put the program’s 59-0 home record against Clemson on the line at the Dean E. Smith Center. ESPN.com’s college basketball experts discussed their expectations for that game, several others on this weekend’s ledger, the greatness of the Big Ten and the weakness of this year’s freshman class.
One of college basketball’s most notorious streaks is on the line Saturday in Chapel Hill. The Clemson Tigers, 0-59 all time at UNC, are facing a severely depleted Tar Heels team (4:30 p.m. ET, ACC Network) that already owns home losses to Wofford, Georgia Tech and Pittsburgh. Is this the Clemson team to finally break through at the Dean E. Smith Center?
Myron Medcalf, senior college basketball writer: I’d like to take that bet, especially after North Carolina’s loss Wednesday to Pitt in Chapel Hill, the program’s fourth home loss in its past five games there. Really seems like anything is possible. But I don’t think Clemson will end the streak, mostly because of the way the Tigers play.
They’re a bad 3-point-shooting team that loves to shoot 3-pointers. Nearly 46% of its attempts this season have come from beyond the arc. The Tigers have made less than 32% of those shots. And they don’t grab a lot of offensive rebounds. Bad recipe. North Carolina is not a good team. Clemson is worse. Barely. So Clemson has a chance, but even this disheveled version of the Tar Heels should win Saturday.
Jeff Borzello, college basketball insider: I’ll still say no, but man, it’s crazy we’re even having this conversation. Just like Carolina, Clemson has lost six of its past eight games. The Tigers haven’t won a true road game since last season. So I’ll still lean toward the Tar Heels, but it’s not an overly confident lean. It’s just not a typical Carolina roster right now. Take away the Cole Anthony injury and, to a lesser extent, the Anthony Harris injury, and it’s still very clear last spring’s roster rebuild in Chapel Hill wasn’t what we thought.
There’s only one five-star prospect (Armando Bacot) in the rotation. Part of the reason Carolina entered the season with optimism was the arrival of graduate transfers Justin Pierce and Christian Keeling — but neither has made the expected impact. Pierce was scoreless against Pittsburgh on Wednesday and has finished three of the past seven games with zero points. Keeling is struggling to stay in the rotation. And here’s the biggest sign of bad injury luck: Only four players have seen action in all 15 games for the Tar Heels.
John Gasaway, college basketball writer: I’m with Jeff, the first piece of good luck North Carolina’s had all season is that Clemson’s also “down.” (Tigers fans will also remind us that they, too, have been deprived of key or potentially key contributors like Chase Hunter and Khavon Moore.) Otherwise, this incredible streak would indeed be ending, because Clemson can wait 20 years and not see another opportunity in Chapel Hill like what it’s getting this season.
Just how crazy is it that we’re having this discussion? UNC won by three at home against Yale, and I’m about to cite that game as good news for the Tar Heels. When the Tigers hosted the Bulldogs, conversely, Brad Brownell’s team lost by nine. So, yes, the “Yale test” says North Carolina is about to win its first game in almost two weeks.
Jordan Schultz, insider/analyst: The continued absence of Cole Anthony only spells more trouble for the Heels — we all know that — but this isn’t football and Trevor Lawrence isn’t playing for Clemson. The Tigers enter the Dean Dome as one of the worst offensive teams among schools in Power 5 leagues, and as poorly as Carolina has played, the streak extends to 0-60 as a result of Clemson’s sheer inability to score.
Don’t forget that Garrison Brooks exploded for a career-high 35 points and 11 boards in the loss to Georgia Tech and followed it up with 25 and 10 in Wednesday night’s defeat to Pitt. Senior grad transfer Justin Pierce had played his two best games, going for double digits against both Yale and Tech, although as Jeff mentioned, he was blanked against the Panthers. Assuming Brooks continues to roll and Pierce continues to make shots, UNC wins, and Williams passes Dean Smith on the career wins list to boot.
The Big Ten has been absolutely fantastic in 2019-20, with 12 of the league’s 14 teams looking like serious NCAA tournament contenders (sorry, Nebraska and Northwestern). What’s your most surprising takeaway from the B1G so far?
Medcalf: For me, it’s that we’re watching another brilliant Big Ten season and we’re exactly 20 years removed from the last time the Big Ten ended the year with a national championship (Michigan State). I think the regular-season excellence is admirable, but I’m not sure it’s that surprising. In a year like this, a strong, balanced conference such as the Big Ten will have an advantage on Selection Sunday. But if the league walks away without a national title and the 20-year streak continues, I think the questions will remain about a conference that tends to put on a good show but often falls short in the final stages, largely because it hasn’t produced the same caliber of next-level talent as the Power 5 leagues that have captured crowns within the past 20 years.
This year, Michigan State’s Cassius Winston, per ESPN’s mock draft, might be the only prospect in the league with a shot at the first round. The blue-collar teams that have won titles in recent years (Virginia, Villanova) had multiple pros. Does the Big Ten have enough pro talent to finish with another title? Does it need it? I’m not sure. But the balance feels somewhat normal. The ending? Let’s see what happens.
Borzello: I’ll give a team and a player. The team has to be Rutgers, right? The Scarlet Knights haven’t finished above .500 overall since 2006 or above .500 in conference play since 1991, when they were in the Atlantic 10 and Bob Wenzel was patrolling the sideline. 1991 also was their last NCAA tournament trip. All three of those droughts might be coming to an end this season. Wins over Wisconsin, Seton Hall and Penn State in the past month and a 3-1 record in the Big Ten have Rutgers sitting in a good position heading into the final two months of the season. Tremendous job so far by Steve Pikiell.
For player, it’s Minnesota’s Daniel Oturu. Oturu was a top-60 recruit coming out of high school, so it’s not a surprise that he’s taken a step forward as a sophomore, but he’s averaging 19.3 points, 12.3 boards and 3.1 blocks and is shooting better than 61% from the field. Those are dominant numbers at both ends of the floor. Iowa’s Luka Garza is putting up flat-out ridiculous numbers, but Oturu isn’t far behind; with Garza getting All-American attention, Oturu absolutely deserves more recognition.
Gasaway: I’m going meta here, so bear with me. The surprise is the Big Ten itself, namely that so many of this conference’s teams are better than expected. In addition to the already excluded likes of Northwestern and Nebraska, let’s also exempt Michigan State and Maryland from this discussion because the Spartans and Terrapins are both, one might suggest, about as good as we anticipated in the preseason (i.e., really good). In between those high and low extremes, that leaves 10 teams. Of that group, you can make a case that Minnesota, Penn State, Iowa, Wisconsin, Illinois and, of course, Rutgers are all significantly stronger than we thought they would be. True, this “overperforming expectations” trend has largely bypassed the likes of Purdue and Indiana (so far), but, overall, the league has certainly given future preseason forecasters something to ponder.
Schultz: We know the Big Ten is a gauntlet. As far as the NCAA tournament is concerned, though, I’m far from convinced when it comes to Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, Rutgers and Purdue. (Note: I really like Penn State and Wisconsin.) And until Sparty shows more consistency, there’s no way I feel comfortable labeling MSU the conference title favorite over Maryland. And yet, my most surprising takeaway has been the recent downfall of Chris Holtmann’s club in Columbus.
Sure, the Buckeyes boast a pair of elite wins over Villanova and Kentucky, but we can’t discount their offensive woes over the past three games — all losses — while averaging a measly 57 PPG. Remember too, Ohio State dropped six straight in January 2019, so this stretch of poor play feels that much more significant. I love Kaleb Wesson and I’d love to believe this team will remain a Final Four contender, but the Buckeyes have to start scoring again — which means the much-improved Duane Washington Jr. has to rediscover his shooting stroke, and soon.
We haven’t gotten exactly what we expected out of college basketball’s freshmen, with James Wiseman gone, Cole Anthony hurt and Anthony Edwards kind of hit-or-miss. So, tell us who your freshman of the year to date is in college basketball, and name another freshman people aren’t talking enough about.
Borzello: Vernon Carey Jr. might be the Wooden Award favorite at this point, so to me he’s the clear-cut Freshman of the Year so far. The Duke big man has been outrageously efficient on the offensive end, averaging 18 points on 63% shooting in fewer than 24 minutes per game — while also grabbing nine boards and blocking two shots a game. After getting acclimated to college basketball for the first two games of the season, Carey has been dominant, notching six 20-10 efforts and nine double-doubles in his past 14 games.
I’m not sure why USC big man Onyeka Okongwu isn’t getting more national attention, but he’s been super productive and is playing himself into a borderline lottery pick. Okongwu was a five-star prospect coming out of high school, and he has produced like one: 17.8 points, 9.2 boards, 2.9 blocks. It’s fair to say Okongwu’s worst games have come against his toughest competition, but if he keeps this up in Pac-12 play, it will be impossible not to pay attention.
Gasaway: Carey is indeed threatening to turn the Freshman of the Year balloting into a landslide. Additionally, like Jeff, I’ve been a little surprised by the relative lack of adulation bestowed upon a certain Pac-12 freshman we were told in advance was going to be a really big deal, but in my case the player in question is Isaiah Stewart of Washington. Notwithstanding his off night at Stanford, he has delivered on the hype and has been arguably the Huskies’ most valuable player. Last weekend, Stewart notched an 18-10 double-double with two blocks in U-Dub’s 32-point dismantling of USC in Seattle.
Medcalf: It’s hard to make a case for Freshman of the Year that doesn’t involve Vernon Carey at this point. What impact has he had for Duke thus far? The Blue Devils have secured 40% of their offensive rebound opportunities and made 55.3% of their shots inside the arc with Carey on the floor, per HoopLens.com. He’s a star.
The overlooked freshman has been Precious Achiuwa. I think it’s fair to wonder whether Memphis is a true contender, considering its schedule to date. But if you lose a potential top-three pick in next summer’s NBA draft and your season doesn’t fall apart the way North Carolina’s did without Cole Anthony, I think you deserve some credit. Achiuwa is a big part of that.
It’s not just the raw numbers: 15.1 PPG, 10.3 RPG and 1.8 BPG. His defensive impact has turned Memphis into a Top 25 squad without Wiseman. Opponents have made just 38% of their shots inside the arc with Achiuwa on the floor. He’s going to make some money next summer, and if the Tigers evolve into an NCAA tournament team with second-weekend ambitions, Achiuwa will be a significant component in that.
Schultz: The guy not getting enough attention is Texas Tech’s Jahm’ius Ramsey, a pure scorer (17.7 PPG) who is lethal from distance (48.3% on 3s) and seems to embrace the big moments. He’s a star and a surefire lottery pick. But for the first part of the question, let’s head back to the Pac-12 and home in on Washington’s Isaiah Stewart. This 6-foot-9, 250-pound man-child has delivered on his blue-chip promise, ranking inside the top five in every key statistic among freshmen. In fact, over the past 15 years, only eight freshmen have averaged at least 19.4 points and 9.1 rebounds per game. The list includes Kevin Durant, Michael Beasley, Marvin Bagley III, Deandre Ayton and Stewart.
The thing you love about Stewart is how hard he plays. He is utterly relentless, running the floor like a gazelle, carving out position for entry feeds and attacking the glass as if his career depended on it. The Rochester, New York, native has a soft touch, though, connecting on a splendid 76% from the free-throw line while finishing everything inside the paint. Stewart is my favorite for Pac-12 Player of the Year at this point, in addition to earning All-American honors.
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.)