This week’s marquee game features the Baylor Bears and Kansas Jayhawks (noon ET, Saturday, ESPN), a pair of Final Four hopefuls who are also battling for Big 12 regular-season supremacy. ESPN.com’s panel of college hoops experts talked about their expectations for that game, the notion of Cole Anthony staying for another collegiate season, and the team they’d like to see in the NCAA tournament field that won’t be in the NCAA tournament field.
Baylor and Kansas will square off Saturday in Waco, Texas, in what will be the Jayhawks’ final realistic chance to wrest control of the Big 12 race from the Bears. If the Jayhawks pull off the upset here, what will it tell you about Kansas? Will it make you reconsider Baylor’s national title chances?
Myron Medcalf, senior college basketball writer: It would depend on how Kansas won. If the Jayhawks can somehow put together a dominant offensive effort against a team that has surrendered more than 65 points only five times this season, I think the Jayhawks would be the clear favorites to win the national title. If it’s a back-and-forth affair between two of the best teams in the country and Kansas wins a tight matchup, I think it will become more apparent that the path to the title will go through the Bears and Jayhawks. This feels like a preview of a Final Four game. I’m not sure anything that could happen Saturday would change that.
I won’t reconsider Baylor’s national title chances if Scott Drew’s team loses, even if the Bears suffer a double-digit loss. With that defense, they’re going to challenge any opponent in the country. But are they more like 2017-18 Virginia or 2018-19 Virginia? The latter won the national title because it played great defense but also had three pros on its roster to anchor its run. The former got stopped in the first round by UMBC after hitting an offensive wall. Is a Baylor team that has made less than 47% of its shots inside the arc and less than 33% of its 3-point attempts in Big 12 play vulnerable to the same offensive lapse that cost Virginia a year prior to its national title run? I think that’s a valid question. But the Bears’ résumé is ridiculous. Hard to doubt them.
Jeff Borzello, college basketball insider: I think Baylor and Kansas are the two best teams in the country, and I’m not sure Saturday’s matchup will change my mind — assuming one of them doesn’t get blown out. If Kansas pulls off the upset, it’s a sign that the adjusted efficiency numbers for the Jayhawks are legit, and the talk of “no great team” in college basketball this season could be way off. If you take Kansas’ +31.04 adjusted efficiency margin at KenPom and compare it to previous years, it would rank in the top three in every single season since 2002 but one — the historically good 2015 campaign. It would also rank No. 1 in 2014, 2006 and 2003. Outside of the Baylor loss, Kansas’ other two losses came away from home to Duke and Villanova by a combined three points. Bill Self’s team might indeed be the best team in the country.
However, Baylor is the team I’ve thought to be the best in the country since probably late December — and would be my pick to cut down the nets if the NCAA tournament started tomorrow. Assuming the Bears don’t get blown out by Kansas, and I just don’t foresee that happening, they are still going to be one of the two best teams in the country come Saturday night.
John Gasaway, college basketball writer: Baylor and Kansas are both clear No. 1 seeds in the making, and when that occurs with conference rivals it’s vitally important from an analytics perspective that we just sit back and enjoy the show. You can make a case that these are the best teams both Scott Drew and Bill Self have had in years — in Drew’s case, perhaps ever. Let’s toss bouquets to both sides, shall we?
How cool will it be if everyone keeps revving up their “best defense ever” talk with respect to KU and it turns out the Jayhawks don’t even have the best defense in the conference? Could happen. Baylor’s defense has been superior to this point in Big 12 play, and, if this state of affairs persists to the end of a round-robin conference schedule containing roughly 1,200 possessions balanced between “home” and “road,” please don’t try to tell me your laptop begs to differ. I’ll side with the “actual results” types on that one. However, Kansas has been the better team in Big 12 play thanks to a significantly more productive offense than what BU has shown. Sounds like a mammoth collision in Waco. Don’t tell my editor — I’m paid to watch the bubble — but on Saturday I’m setting aside a couple of hours for two very non-bubble behemoths. Can’t wait.
Jordan Schultz, insider/analyst: Nothing from this game will change what I think of either team. To be clear, that’s not an indictment on Kansas or Baylor, but rather a reality check that both teams are simply that good. In a college basketball season defined by inconsistency, the Jayhawks and Bears have done nothing but win. Buoyed by tremendous guard play in Jared Butler and Devon Dotson, as well as equally stout front-liners in Freddie Gillespie and Udoka Azubuike, you’re hard-pressed to find better inside-out duos anywhere. Defense is the name of the game here, though. Both teams have fielded historic defensive units, relying on discipline, scheme and effort to limit quality looks. It’s the main reason why nobody would bat an eye if either Kansas or Baylor won a title this season — and why this weekend’s tilt in Waco is more for the fans than anything else.
Greg Anthony, father of UNC phenom Cole Anthony, attracted some attention recently when he suggested his presumed one-and-done son could return for his sophomore season with the Tar Heels. Anthony also slipped to No. 11 in ESPN’s most recent mock draft. Can you make a persuasive case for him staying in Chapel Hill? Under what circumstances, if any, would you recommend it?
Borzello: The case is simple: Anthony entered this season as a projected top-five pick and perhaps the best point guard in the NBA draft. He’s entering the final stretch of the season outside the top 10 after an injury-filled season for a 10-16 team. There’s obviously the risk that another season under the microscope of scouts could backfire, but Anthony would be combining with a top-three recruiting class that features four McDonald’s All-Americans. He wouldn’t have to shoulder so much of the load offensively, in theory. North Carolina will be better, Anthony will be healthy and he could climb back up draft boards.
That’s the argument, of course, but I don’t see Anthony returning to Chapel Hill for another season. If he gets feedback that he’s falling out of the lottery by the deadline to withdraw, however, it’s something to think about.
Medcalf: Yeah, I agree with Jeff here. Anthony would return only if he wanted to boost his stock back to its preseason positioning or if he’s determined to have a shot at a starting job at the outset of his NBA career. Right now, the 11-15 range for a player coming off knee surgery that disrupted his freshman season at North Carolina could end up with a team that’s already stacked with young talent in its guard rotation. That might be a consideration, too. You get back to top-five and you’re an immediate starter and perhaps the face of a franchise.
But I also think Anthony would return if he wanted to do more than participate in a forgettable campaign with the Tar Heels. North Carolina is a special program with a history of producing some of the greatest athletes in college basketball history. And those athletes competed for titles. Anthony’s team doesn’t even look like an NIT squad at this point. Perhaps that’s something he can’t stomach prior to leaving for the NBA and wants to correct that with an incoming class that features multiple McDonald’s All-Americans. But I also think there is zero chance he returns.
Gasaway: Blake Griffin significantly improved his draft position by playing a second year in college. Finding other clear-cut examples in which (unlike, say, Ja Morant) the player in question was already on the NBA’s first-round radar as a freshman can be difficult. (Cody Zeller? Marcus Smart? Harrison Barnes? Maybe.)
Basically, the draft position of Anthony or any prospect will depend on the player’s performance, their relative youth and on the other players available. I’ll go out on a forecasting limb and predict that Anthony will be one year older next year, and, to listen to the chatter, it seems as if competition from other players could be somewhat more robust in the 2021 draft. If I’m Greg Anthony, I’m suggesting to my son that he go ahead and take the plunge now, but the reality is Cole Anthony probably will be a gainfully employed NBA featured player in a couple of years either way. Good problem to have.
Schultz: There really isn’t a scenario where I’d advise Cole Anthony to return for his sophomore season. Despite an injury and a stockpile of losses, the blue-chip prospect has put together plenty of quality tape to secure a slot inside the top-five. When I speak with NBA talent evaluators about Anthony, they talk of his dynamic scoring ability and capacity to dominate in ball screens. The more spread NBA game will benefit Anthony the same way it has benefited Ja Morant — more transition opportunities, more shooters around him and more space in the half court. We also know this is not a particularly deep draft class, and the Tar Heels’ point guard should take advantage. Could another season in Chapel Hill be beneficial? Sure. But it would also mean more dissection of his game and more potential for another injury.
We are issuing you one captain’s pick, Ryder Cup style, whereby you can select one team for the NCAA tournament that you don’t think is going to make it otherwise. Who’s your pick and why?
Gasaway: I’m unfamiliar with this “captain’s pick” thing and, in fact, it probably is made up to make us look foolish, but it does sound fun. I’m putting on the appropriate cap, brushing up on my nautical terms and picking Davidson.
With a NET ranking all the way down in the 80s and, oh by the way, this week’s loss to 5-21 Saint Joseph’s, there’s no earthly way this team is getting an at-large. Yet the fact remains that the Wildcats have outscored the Atlantic 10 by a significantly wider per-possession margin than what we’ve seen from a bubble darling like VCU. In fact, Bob McKillop’s team has been almost as efficient on offense in league play as Dayton itself. Throw these guys into the field as a No. 14, and watch some poor No. 3 seed squirm. Ahoy there, matey, that’s pure spectating delight! Arrrrr! Wait, that’s a pirate. Oh, well.
Borzello: If you asked this right before Selection Sunday, I would probably answer with a mid-major team that lost a heartbreaker in their conference tournament — but I won’t go that route yet. Minnesota is probably the best team that won’t make the NCAA tournament, but give me Arkansas. The Razorbacks are just 4-9 in the SEC right now, but the last five of those losses came without second-leading scorer Isaiah Joe. Joe is expected to return soon and a full-strength Arkansas team was squarely in the NCAA tournament discussion. When healthy, Joe and teammate Mason Jones form one of the most explosive duos in the SEC.
Medcalf: I like this concept. I’d love to invite Clemson. Is there a better 13-12 team in the country right now? The Tigers have wins over Louisville, Syracuse, Duke and NC State. They held the great Jacksonville Dolphins, the Atlantic Sun’s best offensive rebounding team, to 39 points. OK, that doesn’t justify anything. But let’s find a way to guarantee a spot for Clemson, which is ranked among the top-five teams in defensive efficiency in the ACC right now.
The overall résumé isn’t Teflon. Clearly. The Tigers are 4-5 since that Jan. 14 victory over Duke. But their highlights this season have been impressive.
Schultz: Give me Richmond! Chris Mooney is a great coach, and the 20-6 Spiders have been causing severe headaches all season in the A-10, in large part because of their offensive balance. The key is Wagner transfer Blake Francis, a diminutive scorer who would be a ton of fun in the tournament. Because really, who doesn’t love a sub-6-foot guard who can go off in March? Save for a brutal pre-Christmas affair with Radford, Richmond has otherwise been a model of consistency, boasting wins over Wisconsin, Vanderbilt, Boston College, the College of Charleston, Rhode Island and VCU. Better yet, the Spiders played Auburn very close back in November — which included a halftime lead — showcasing enough speed and quickness against an SEC elite to give pretty much any team problems in a one-game format.
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.)