Just weeks from Selection Sunday, it’s easy to get caught up in the pre-NCAA tournament predictions. We tend to assume we know it all as March approaches. But we’re often wrong.
And in a season that has featured more parity than any in recent memory, it’s especially important to separate truth from fiction.
Here’s our latest edition of Real vs. Fake:
Real: You should jump on the Creighton bandwagon now
Marcus Zegarowski absorbs contact from Marquette’s Markus Howard as they both hit the hardwood, but not before Zegarowski is able to sink a tough layup.
How many teams would beat Creighton on a neutral floor right now? Kansas? Baylor? You would have a difficult time rounding up more than a handful of squads for that list.
The Bluejays are real. Here are some of their significant wins (9-1 over their past 10 games) since they suffered an 83-80 loss at Georgetown on Jan. 15: 15-point win at Villanova (Feb. 1), 5-point win at Seton Hall (Feb. 12), 8-point win at Marquette (Feb. 18) and a 22-point win over Butler on Sunday.
Ty-Shon Alexander (16.9 PPG) and Marcus Zegarowski (16.1 PPG) lead a team that has made 39.5 percent of its 3-point attempts in Big East play. The Bluejays have hit the 90-point mark five times this season. They’re the best offensive team in the Big East by a healthy margin.
Now would be a good time to start paying attention to the Bluejays, a serious threat to win it all.
Real: Udoka Azubuike deserves Wooden Award consideration
Udoka Azubuike scores 19 points while collecting 16 rebounds in Kansas’ 83-58 win vs. Oklahoma State.
Over the past decade, many have acknowledged the value of analytics in the assessment of college athletes. But that recent trend also correlates with the emergence of the one-and-done era. Within that chapter, players who fail to attract attention as NBA prospects are often overlooked.
Azubuike’s case for national player of the year could be affected by that. The Kansas senior is the most important player on the best team in America, yet he could get overlooked in the player of the year conversation.
“I’m so emotional right now,” Azubuike said after his 23-point, 19-rebound, 3-block effort in Saturday’s win at Baylor. “I give it everything I got over there. A lot of people, they look down on me. They think that I can’t. But I’ve been through so much.”
He’s not ahead of Dayton’s Obi Toppin and Iowa’s Luka Garza, the top candidates for the Wooden Award. Marquette’s Markus Howard is an obvious candidate, too. And Azubuike’s teammate, Devon Dotson, might also have the edge on him in the race.
But Azubuike’s significance to the best team in college basketball perhaps makes him the most valuable player in America and worthy of more serious Wooden Award consideration.
He’s ranked as an “excellent” offensive performer, per Synergy Sports data. Kansas has made 58.6% of its shots inside the arc and allowed opposing teams to register just 0.79 points per possession with Azubuike on the floor, per hooplens.com. He has made 85% of his shots around the rim, according to hoop-math.com.
Azubuike’s 13.4 points, 10.4 rebounds and 2.6 blocks per game might not match the numbers of his competitors in the national player of the year race. But Azubuike belongs in the conversation.
Fake: Mick Cronin’s success says more about the Pac-12 than his coaching
Cody Riley puts the game out of reach for UCLA with a late layup to seal the Bruins’ upset against No. 18 Colorado.
A month ago, UCLA had just lost at Oregon by 21 points to complete a 3-4 start in the Pac-12 and 10-10 record overall. Since then, the Bruins have won seven of their past eight games, including a sweep of Colorado and a road win over Arizona.
The Pac-12 isn’t a top-three league this season, but it could send five or more teams to the NCAA tournament. That UCLA has entered that conversation — the Bruins are listed among Joe Lunardi’s “First Four Out” — is remarkable.
And Cronin deserves credit for that. He has led Jalen Hill (51% clip inside the arc) and a group of Steve Alford recruits to the top of the conference. Cronin is doing this with the remnants of a team that won 17 games all last season. The Bruins won their 17th game Saturday.
Cronin made his mark at Cincinnati, where his teams made nine consecutive NCAA tournament appearances before he accepted the position at UCLA. This year’s turnaround has been marked by an offensive surge. Overall, UCLA is ranked 22nd in the country in efficiency margin since the start of this 7-1 stretch, per barttorvik.com. From the bottom of the Pac-12 to a possible NCAA tournament team? That’s impressive in any league.
Real: Kentucky deserves more national title buzz
Immanuel Quickley goes for a team-high 21 points while Ashton Hagans chips in 11 to help Kentucky take down LSU 79-76.
In a season full of parity, Kentucky tends to shine. But the streaking Wildcats, who were not mentioned among the top four seeds by the selection committee during its in-season bracket reveal, have yet to stand out in a season that feels wide open.
However, they’re (quietly) 10-1 since Jan. 15 and they’re playing the best interior defense in the SEC. They’ve struggled to get Nick Richards, Ashton Hagans and Tyrese Maxey all on the same page for a consistent stretch, but they’re clearly dangerous.
And they’re following a trend under John Calipari. Sure, the national title team in 2011-12 and the 38-1 squad in 2014-15 rarely experienced defeat, stamping Calipari’s track record of success in the one-and-done era. But his 2013-14 and 2016-17 squads also highlight the improvement some of his teams have enjoyed late in the season. The 2014 team had nine losses entering the SEC tournament and still reached the Final Four. The 2016-17 group started 18-5 and didn’t lose again until it faced North Carolina, which won the national title that year, in the Elite Eight.
This group has similar momentum. Sure, this isn’t one of Kentucky’s best teams under Calipari. But this is a national field full of good teams — none great. That means Kentucky probably has as much of a chance as any team in the country to make a run in March.
Fake: San Diego State never deserved the buzz prior to Saturday’s loss
UNLV holds off a late charge from No. 4 San Diego State to hand the Aztecs their first loss of the season.
After SDSU’s home loss to a .500 UNLV team on Saturday, the critics swarmed the Twitterverse to call Brian Dutcher’s squad a fraud.
Already pegged as the worst of the No. 1 seeds in the NCAA men’s basketball selection committee’s in-season bracket reveal, SDSU had faced critics all season. But those doubting SDSU after Saturday’s loss are wrong.
Teams like SDSU are always in difficult positions. The Mountain West isn’t as strong as it has been in recent years, which has limited the number of in-season tests the Aztecs have faced in conference play. And if you point to their nonconference wins, folks will say they took place too early in the season. But a 31-point win over Creighton will always impress. A 10-point win over Iowa and a 5-point win over BYU should matter, too.
Entering Saturday’s game, SDSU owned top-10 marks on offense and defense in every reputable set of efficiency rankings. Saturday’s loss could cost SDSU a top seed on Selection Sunday. But it won’t change the team’s status as a true national title contender.