In a wild season where not much has gone according to plan, ESPN.com’s college basketball experts this week issued some mea culpas for their worst preseason predictions … while taking a bow for a few that have worked out. Our group also made picks for the best games of the weekend, including the Auburn-Kentucky battle on The Plains (Saturday, 6 p.m. ET, ESPN), Duke at Syracuse (Saturday, 8 p.m. ET, ESPN) at the Carrier Dome and a sneaky-good battle of top-25 teams Illinois and Iowa on Sunday.
Our Myron Medcalf took a look this week at the biggest overachievers and underachievers in each of the top leagues, relative to where they were picked in the preseason. What is the one 2019-20 preseason pick you’re the most sheepish to admit you made, and what’s one pick you want some props for?
Jeff Borzello, college basketball insider: I picked Florida to win it all. The best graduate transfer on the market and two McDonald’s All Americans joining up with three returning starters. What could go wrong? Evidently a lot. Let’s just move on.
On the plus side, I picked Louisville to win the ACC and the Cardinals — and the mediocrity of the league as a whole — are making me look smart. They have a 1½-game lead on Duke and Florida State entering the weekend, and already won their lone game against the Blue Devils. They still have to go to Tallahassee, though, and the Seminoles are the one team to beat them in the league so far. They’re starting to round into the form I envisioned when picking them to win the league, with freshmen David Johnson and Samuell Williamson beginning to provide some punch on the offensive end.
Myron Medcalf, senior college basketball writer: I called Georgetown the “surprise” team in the Big East race. But the Hoyas will enter this weekend’s matchup against St. John’s with a 2-6 record in league play. Three players have transferred. And Georgetown is the worst defensive team in the Big East, surrendering 15 more points per 100 possessions in league play than Seton Hall, the best defensive team in the league.
Props? I said MaCio Teague would earn Big 12 newcomer of the year honors with Baylor. And he’s delivered so far. He’s averaging 13.8 points per game and connecting on 85% of his free throw attempts.
John Gasaway, college basketball writer: Well, let’s see, I picked North Carolina to win the ACC. How’s that going, by the way? I haven’t checked the standings recently. No, really, I defy anyone to be more sheepish than I am and should be about that disaster of a pick. Goodness.
On the plus side, I was more bullish on West Virginia than any of my esteemed colleagues in the preseason. True, that means I picked the Mountaineers to finish merely seventh in the Big 12, but at least I was leaning in the correct direction. Last season was a blip, and Bob Huggins has never once posted under-.500 records in conference play two seasons in a row at West Virginia.
Jordan Schultz, insider/analyst: I should know by now not to doubt a coach approaching the 900-win mark. For that, I’m sorry, West Virginia and Bob Huggins! After a dismal 15-21 campaign last season, Huggins’ program rebooted, not behind any one star in particular but behind the same core principles his teams have always been founded upon: defense, rebounding and discipline.
On the other side, I really liked Illinois before the season. Seven-footer Kofi Cockburn is a double-double artist with tangible skills, and there was no question he would adapt to the rugged nature of the Big Ten. I’ve been equally impressed with sophomore guard Ayo Dosunmu, the Fighting Illini’s leading scorer at 16 points per game. We saw his skill package last season and again with last weekend’s winner at Michigan. As a result, Brad Underwood’s Illini — winners of seven straight by almost 10 PPG — stand perched at the top of the league, off to their best start since 2006.
Let’s talk Coach of the Year candidates. Give us one guy you’d pick from the ‘this team could cut down the nets in Atlanta’ category, and one guy you’d pick from the ‘this guy has done a great job and no one saw it coming’ category.
Medcalf: I think you have to put Baylor’s Scott Drew in the first category. The narrative around Drew is that he’s an inconsistent and, at times, underachieving coach. But that’s unfair. Last season, he endured a series of major injuries and still entered the final stretch with a chance to win the Big 12 title. This season, he has the No. 1 team in America without a household name. The Bears are just a deep, defensively disciplined program. That can’t be a coincidence. Feels like Drew, who rebuilt Baylor after the murder of a player by a teammate and the Dave Bliss scandal, will finally get the praise he deserves.
The “no one saw it coming” category belongs to Iowa’s Fran McCaffery, who has helped Luka Garza (23 points, 10.4 rebounds per game) evolve into a Wooden Award candidate. Last month, Iowa lost to Jordan Bohannon to season-ending hip surgery, but the Hawkeyes, who had a five-game win streak snapped against Maryland on Thursday night, continued to grow. Now, McCaffery’s squad is a contender in a tough league after most expected Iowa to finish in the middle of the pack.
Gasaway: No one saw it coming, but, as incredible as it sounds, Dayton really could cut down the nets in Atlanta. Therefore Anthony Grant is my guy in both categories. (Is this allowed?) Sure, it doesn’t hurt matters to have Obi Toppin in your lineup, but, when the Flyers are at their best, they are poetry in motion on offense in a way that builds off of but is not limited to Toppin alone. UD is looking very much like the vintage Villanova offenses of the Jalen Brunson era. Dayton just generates high-quality shots, both in transition and in the half court, and it’s no mistake that this group took Kansas to overtime on a neutral floor back in November.
Borzello: I’m most confident in Baylor cutting down the nets, and the Bears were not exactly expected to be a favorite to reach Atlanta, so Drew also gets my nod in the first category. Baylor was a team that, as the offseason progressed, I continued to move up in the preseason rankings — but I still didn’t see this type of season in the cards. Drew has done it with three transfer guards, a couple glue-guy type players and a former walk-on who played at the Division III level. His best player from last season, Tristan Clark, has barely been a factor due to injury. Drew has really done a tremendous job.
As far as guys I didn’t see coming, there is a bunch of good candidates. A few weeks ago, I would’ve said Butler’s LaVall Jordan. Grant is certainly a worthy candidate, as the Flyers look like a legitimate Final Four contender. But he’s received a lot of love for this answer already. So I’ll go with San Diego State’s Brian Dutcher. The Aztecs are the final remaining unbeaten team in college basketball and have a real chance to enter the NCAA tournament without a loss. Dutcher has mixed transfers, both graduate and sit-out, with returning starters and made it work. SDSU is elite defensively and balanced offensively.
Schultz: Drew has won a lot of games over his 17-year tenure in Waco, Texas, but I’m not sure anyone foresaw this type of season for the Bears. The continued development of sophomore guard Jared Butler (10.2 PPG last season to 15.8) has been huge, but more surprising and equally significant has been senior Freddie Gillespie, the aforementioned Division III transfer and former walk-on who’s endured several devastating injuries. Baylor’s sparkling résumé includes victories over Villanova, Arizona, Butler, at Texas Tech, at Kansas, Oklahoma, and at Florida. Barring a late-season collapse, Drew is my guy for Coach of the Year.
We cannot overstate the job Dayton’s Grant has done in Year 3 after replacing Archie Miller. It’s not just the 18-2 record, either. It’s how he’s deployed Toppin, maximizing his skills as a ball handler, creator, point-forward and post weapon. It’s also finding a home for Ibi Watson to score and complement this offense in a way John Beilein couldn’t figure out at Michigan. Grant deserves as much credit nationally as any coach in America.
Take a look at the current Top 25, and give us one team NOT currently listed you feel most confident will be there at the end of the season.
Schultz: I could cheat and give you a few: Ohio State, Arizona and Texas Tech. But let’s focus on the boys from Tucson, Arizona, who are not only one of the youngest teams in the country, but one of the most talented as well. McDonald’s All American Nico Mannion hasn’t been perfect — shot selection and turnovers are an issue — but surely that can be said about any freshman point guard. Mannion remains an electric playmaker, flanked by blue-chip forwards Josh Green and Zeke Nnaji. Green is the X factor, though. Few players can affect a game on both ends the way he does in terms of defense, rebounding, energy, speed and 3-point shooting.
Gasaway: Let’s hear it for Creighton. The Bluejays might just have the best offense in the Big East, and most years that’s going to translate fairly well in terms of membership in the Top 25. Ty-Shon Alexander and Marcus Zegarowski have been excellent in their leading roles on offense, and that has allowed Mitch Ballock to drain 45% of his 3s this season as the team’s third-leading scorer. Doubt this defense if you wish (particularly its rebounding), but Creighton hits its shots, takes care of the ball and never ever fouls. It’s a good way to play.
Borzello: I think Arizona or Texas Tech is the easier answer, but I’m going back to the Florida hill. I still think the Gators have a chance to turn things around despite a three-game losing streak dropping them to 12-8 overall and 4-3 in the SEC. Their next five games are against teams that are sub-100 in the BPI rankings, which gives Mike White’s team a chance to generate some momentum heading down the stretch.
In each of the past four seasons, Florida has been a top-25 team in adjusted defensive efficiency; this season, the Gators are outside the top 75. They’re not forcing turnovers, they’re not pressuring the ball, and they’re letting teams get too many second-chance opportunities. They need to figure things out defensively. But I still believe!
Medcalf: I think it’s Texas Tech. Between Saturday’s road game against Kansas and a season-ending home game against the Jayhawks, Chris Beard’s team will play a bunch of winnable Big 12 contests. The Red Raiders are a top-10 defensive team that just put up 89 points against West Virginia, the top defensive team in the league.
Plus, their 3-4 record over the past seven games is deceptive. Three of those losses came against the potential SEC champion in overtime (Kentucky), the No. 1 team in America (Baylor) and a dangerous West Virginia squad in Morgantown. Things get easier before a Baylor (road)-Kansas (home) stretch in the final two games of the regular season. Beard’s program will crack the Top 25 soon.
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.)