Our Valentine’s Day edition of the college basketball picks roundtable starts with a discussion of No. 1 seeds for the NCAA tournament. Are any of the projected No. 1s particularly vulnerable over the next month? ESPN.com’s panel of college hoops experts also talked about the selection committee’s initial top 16 and the best freshmen in the country whom no one is talking about.
In a season that’s been largely billed as being devoid of great teams, it’s worth noting that Baylor, Kansas, Gonzaga and San Diego State have enjoyed an extended run in the past couple of weeks as your presumed No. 1 seeds. Which of these teams are you most worried about not making the top line on Selection Sunday, and why?
Myron Medcalf, senior college basketball writer: It has to be San Diego State. I think the men’s basketball selection committee sent a message to Brian Dutcher’s squad on Saturday when it unveiled the top four seeds in each region. Gonzaga claimed the top spot in the West Region, and if it maintains that slot, the Bulldogs will play in Los Angeles for a shot at the Final Four. The Aztecs? The undefeated program was “rewarded” with the top spot in the East Region, where, in the current bracket, it would potentially have to go through Duke, the No. 2 seed, at Madison Square Garden — often called “Cameron Indoor North” — to reach the Final Four.
Dutcher’s squad boasts a 4-0 record against Quadrant 1 opponents. Still, selection committee chair Kevin White, the athletic director at Duke, said the committee thought Gonzaga (5-1 against Quad 1 opponents) was the better team and deserving of the top spot closer to home. With San Diego State finishing as the fourth No. 1 seed and failing to convince the committee that its undefeated record warranted the top spot in the West, I think one loss in Mountain West play (all four of its upcoming opponents are ranked 86th or worse in the NET rankings) could cost the Aztecs a spot on the top line.
Jeff Borzello, college basketball insider: I actually think all four teams could find themselves on the top line in a month, but I guess I’ll go with Gonzaga. I think an undefeated San Diego State finds itself on the top line regardless, and I don’t think this Aztecs team is losing a game until the NCAA tournament. Kansas has a fairly bulletproof résumé with all its Quad 1 wins and superior metrics, and Baylor is the best team in the country.
So Gonzaga it is, even though the Zags have a better résumé than San Diego State at the moment. I just think they’re more likely to lose one game the rest of the way, since they have to go on the road to BYU, play Saint Mary’s in Spokane, Washington, and then likely play one of them again in the West Coast Conference title game. San Diego State should be heavily favored in every remaining game, including in the Mountain West tournament.
John Gasaway, college basketball writer: These four teams are all looking pretty solid for the top line considering it’s only mid-February. But if I must find some clouds in all this sunshine, I’ll go with Gonzaga as the most likely to fall from a No. 1 seed. The Bulldogs are yet to play at BYU, where Mark Few’s team will find the most accurate shooting offense the WCC has seen in years, rabid fans and 4,551 feet of altitude.
Even a loss in Provo, Utah, probably wouldn’t be enough by itself to drop the Zags off the top line, but that plus a defeat in the WCC tournament might do the trick. Gonzaga won an incredible six automatic bids in a row before finally losing 60-47 to Saint Mary’s in the WCC title game last season. Looking toward the 2020 conference tournament, the Gaels are just as good as they were a year ago, while the Cougars are vastly improved. (Plus Todd Golden’s always coming up with clever coaching tricks at San Francisco.) It won’t be an easy road for the Bulldogs.
Jordan Schultz, insider/analyst: I don’t foresee a scenario where San Diego State and Baylor aren’t 1s. Gonzaga is right there, too. Kansas, however, might be a different story. It’s not that I don’t like the Jayhawks, because quite frankly, there’s not a whole lot to take issue with. The Big 12 has proved to be a gauntlet all season, but what makes things potentially dicey is its lack of scoring. No conference in college basketball has a lower scoring average (64.3 points per game per team through Wednesday’s games) in league play, according to KenPom.
Bill Self has a tremendous defensive team — tops in the land, to be exact — but we’ve seen KU struggle when Devon Dotson isn’t on the floor. The Cousy and Wooden Award candidate is the engine for everything in Lawrence. With a league this rugged and deep, ancillary offense is a concern moving forward. Keep in mind that Kansas has now failed to register 70 points in three consecutive games, including in victories over lowly Texas and TCU.
The NCAA revealed its top 16 seeds last Saturday, and there were not a ton of surprises. Give us one team in the top 16 you don’t expect to be on the top four lines when all is said and done on Selection Sunday, and give us one team not mentioned in the top 16 reveal that will end up in that select group.
Borzello: A sneaky team that could potentially drop is West Virginia. The Mountaineers are struggling right now, losing two in a row, to Oklahoma and Kansas, and going just 4-4 in their past eight games. They’re finding life really difficult on the offensive end, scoring less than 0.85 points per possession in both losses and now heading to Baylor this weekend. What could add to the chance of a potential drop is their lack of truly marquee wins. They’ve beaten Texas Tech in Morgantown and have solid neutral-court wins over Ohio State, Northern Iowa and Wichita State. None of those really moves the needle, though. If West Virginia loses both remaining games against Baylor, suffers a road loss to a bottom-half Big 12 team and then gets bounced in the conference tournament, it wouldn’t shock me to see it outside the top four lines.
I’m not sure what more Penn State could have done to be included in the top 16. The Nittany Lions have a top-20 NET, seven Quadrant 1 wins and a 12-5 record against Quadrants 1 and 2. They have zero Quad 3 or 4 losses. Sure, the nonconference schedule was atrocious, but the positives outweigh that number in my opinion. They’re second in the Big Ten, one game behind Maryland. What cements them as a top-four seed a month from now is the remaining schedule. Four of the final seven are at home, and the road games are at Indiana, Iowa and Northwestern. A 6-1 finish is possible; combine that with the rest of the profile and it’s surefire top-four.
Gasaway: I’ll second my esteemed colleague, Mr. Borzello, on the first half of the question: West Virginia seems to be leaking oil, relatively speaking. The Mountaineers haven’t defeated a team that will (we think) be in the NCAA tournament since Bob Huggins’ men bested Texas Tech in Morgantown five weeks ago. This team’s shooting has been substandard over the past five games, and WVU has clocked in at well under a point per possession during that span. None of which will matter, naturally, if West Virginia wins at Baylor. Short of pulling off the upset in Waco, Texas, however, the trends are not encouraging for the Mountaineers.
If a spot does open up in the top 16, Creighton might be in the best position to seize that opportunity. Fresh off their win at Seton Hall, the Bluejays are looking like a group that can outscore all comers. Put it this way: If Greg McDermott’s guys can put up 87 points in 76 possessions against the Pirates in Newark, New Jersey, I like their odds against most if not all defenses not named “Kansas.” Creighton plays four of its final six at home, with the road games coming at Marquette and St. John’s.
Schultz: Butler has been trending downward for about a month now, dropping games to unranked DePaul and Providence and, most recently, getting blitzed by 19 at Marquette before beating Xavier on Wednesday. The Bulldogs are a tricky team to figure out. When dialed in offensively, senior guard Kamar Baldwin presents a variety of problems. Well on pace to eclipse 2,000 points for his career, he is a dangerous player who can control a game. But Baldwin doesn’t have a ton of offensive help, and this team becomes vulnerable against high-octane offenses. Butler still has a slate of tough games ahead, including road tilts with Seton Hall, Creighton and Xavier. I’m also willing to bet the Bulldogs have a couple slip-ups along the way against lesser opponents, and would therefore be surprised if they wind up a 4-seed or better.
I like defensive-minded Colorado a lot, but I’ll take a flier on Fran McCaffery’s Iowa Hawkeyes. An elite offensive team with a truly dominant big man in junior Luka Garza (23 points, 10 rebounds per game), Iowa’s slew of quality wins includes victories over Texas Tech, Cincinnati, Illinois, Maryland and Wisconsin. Simply put, you become very dangerous when you can score the ball in college basketball. Only Gonzaga and Dayton have better adjusted offensive efficiency numbers (per KenPom), and with plenty of Quad 1 opportunities still on the table, there’s no reason to think Garza & Co. can’t elevate themselves as high as the third line.
Medcalf: I’ll go with Michigan State, which was the No. 4 seed in the Midwest on Saturday. The Spartans have lost three of their past four, and they ended that losing streak only with a breathtaking victory at Illinois on Tuesday. Tom Izzo has a great track record of steadying his teams late in the season, but the Big Ten has been a quagmire for its top squads. And the Spartans still have two matchups against Maryland, a road game against a good Penn State team and a home game against Iowa. A lot of potential to stumble down the stretch and end the season as a Big Ten team with eight or nine losses and lose a spot among the top four.
White, the committee chair, said Iowa, LSU and Kentucky were the three teams outside the top-four seeds that generated the most chatter in the committee’s discussions. Of those three teams, I think Will Wade’s squad has the best chance to secure a top-four slot on Selection Sunday. The Tigers nearly knocked off Auburn last week in overtime. And their toughest remaining game is next week’s home matchup against Kentucky. If LSU finishes strong, the dominoes could work in its favor and push it up a seed line.
It has not been a sensational season for freshmen in college basketball, with only Vernon Carey Jr. and Anthony Edwards being named to the Wooden Watch top 20 last week. Give readers one freshman not named Carey or Edwards whom they should be watching.
Gasaway: After painstaking research and hours of diligent film study, I’m here to shed long-overdue light on, um, a 2019 McDonald’s All American who will be a 2020 first-round NBA draft pick. Isaiah Stewart happens to play for a Washington team that’s not the last word in unstoppable momentum at the moment (the Huskies will always have the Baylor win), but, in a way, that makes what he’s doing all the more impressive. The 6-foot-9 freshman has been a beacon of hope and effectiveness in an otherwise dark night of the U-Dub soul on offense. Stewart is a 2-point-scoring machine who also (take note, NBA general managers) shoots 75% at a high volume from the line and thus hints at untapped potential from the perimeter. Best of all, he’s fun to watch.
Borzello: I’ll give two — one for NBA potential and one for late-season impact. The first is Auburn’s Isaac Okoro. Okoro was a top-50 recruit coming out of high school, but he wasn’t viewed as a can’t-miss, one-and-done prospect. He’s played himself into a potential top-five pick in June’s NBA draft. Okoro is a two-way player with great physical tools who has improved his 3-point shot in conference play. He did leave Auburn’s win over Alabama on Thursday holding his hamstring, so we’ll have to see if that’s an issue moving forward.
I also think we could be talking about Louisville’s David Johnson as someone who makes a huge impact come March. He missed the first four games of the season and was eased into the rotation for most of the next 10-12 games. But over the past month, Johnson has been a difference-maker for the Cardinals offensively. He’s not putting up crazy numbers, but he’s in the game late when it matters, and coach Chris Mack trusts him enough to put the ball in his hands to make plays. Johnson has size, strength and confidence, and he has the ability to consistently get into the lane and make plays. If Louisville makes a Final Four run, I think a lot of it is going to be because of Johnson’s emergence in the second half of the season.
Medcalf: West Virginia’s Oscar Tshiebwe finished with 14 points, nine rebounds, a block and a steal Wednesday against a Kansas squad that’s playing the best defense in America right now. Matched up against Wooden Award candidate Udoka Azubuike, Tshiebwe made 56% of his attempts. The 6-foot-9 big man is a handful for any opposing team. In the Big 12, he’s first in defensive rebounding rate and second in offensive rebounding rate.
Last season, West Virginia finished outside the top 100 in adjusted defensive efficiency following the departure of Jevon Carter. This season? The Mountaineers rank second behind Kansas. Tshiebwe’s effort to date is a crucial part of that reality. He’s not as flashy as some of the other young players in college basketball, but he’s effective and a significant contributor for Bob Huggins’ squad.
Schultz: I’m partial to the Pac-12, and specifically to high-quality bigs who play the right way. Washington’s Isaiah Stewart and USC’s Onyeka Okongwu fit the mold and have been a treat to watch all season. We’ve already discussed Stewart, but Okongwu converts 61% from the field and tracks down rebounds as well as anyone, while flashing a soft touch with either hand. The blue-chipper is a 6-foot-9 jumping jack whose tireless approach has netted him a mounting pile of accolades for the Trojans — hoping to make their first NCAA tournament appearance in three years. Okongwu’s dexterity and shear strength enable him to guard the perimeter while hunting weakside blocks in the paint. Both forwards will be high draft picks in June should they decide to turn pro.
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.)