Maybe it’s simply a factor of having 345 Division One teams, but there is never a shortage of exciting finishes, confounding losses, and clutch performances, all of which add up to make college basketball so compelling on a nightly basis. It also lends itself to a roller coaster of emotions with teams looking brilliant in one game and pedestrian the next.
So after another unpredictable week of college hoops, here are five teams on the rise and five teams on the decline.
Bottoms Line: Stock Up
After dropping three of four, the Tide have now won five straight. The wins are nice, but the most encouraging sign for Alabama is that their offense has been significantly more efficient over that stretch, scoring at least 1.10 points per possession in each of the last five games. To put that in context, they hit that mark just three times in their first 12 games.
Guard Travis Releford has been terrific during that stretch, averaging 17.2 points. Backcourt mate Trevor Lacey has played well during their winning streak as well, and the team got a rather unexpected boost by getting Andrew Steele back after fears that concussions may have ended his career. He’s not going to score a ton of points but gives them another experienced and capable player in the backcourt to go with the dynamic duo of JaMychal Green and Tony Mitchell up front.
We’ll find out a lot more about this team over their next three games when the travel to Mississippi State, take on Vanderbilt at home, and head to Kentucky.
As I wrote earlier this week at Run The Floor, it’s time to start talking about the Bears as one of the elite teams this season, and the tempo-free numbers back that up. On Tuesday, they picked up arguably the best road win of the college basketball season when they pulled out a victory against Kansas State in the Octagon of Doom. For all of their offensive talent, Baylor has been terrific on defense as well, allowing just three teams to score over 0.94 points per possession.
Pierre Jackson, who dished out 11 assists against the Wildcats, has been a difference maker at the point, and his ability to make shots and spectacular plays helps to offset his high turnover rate. Brady Heslip gives the team an elite long-range shooter, and Perry Jones III is a sure-fire lottery pick. But to me, Quincy Acy is the team’s most important player. He is a phenomenal rebounder and shot-blocker, and he’s molded himself into one of the most efficient players in the country. And he can still throw down some filthy dunks.
Baylor faces Oklahoma this weekend then takes on fellow Big 12 contenders Kansas and Missouri next week, both of which should be great matchups.
It hasn’t always been pretty, but the Illini have a 4-1 record in the Big Ten after beating Minnesota in double OT, Northwestern by one, and Nebraska by five before Tuesday’s upset of Ohio State.
In that game, Brandon Paul went off for 43 points and hit a ridiculous three-pointer and subsequently swatted Jared Sullinger to put the dagger in the Buckeyes. Given Paul’s efficiency numbers coming into that game, it’s unfair to significantly heighten expectations for him.
The team has been getting solid play from Joseph Bertrand to help pick up the scoring slack for starting guard Sam Maniscalco, who has missed the last three games due to injury. With sophomore big man Meyers Leonard continuing to impress, Illinois needs to focus on getting him more touches inside. Quality depth is still an issue due to their youth, but the Ohio State win gives them a much-needed shot of confidence they can build on.
In what has become one of the more intense rivalries going, the Gaels pounded Gonzaga late Thursday night, winning by 21 points despite getting just two points from Rob Jones who led Saint Mary’s in scoring coming into the game. Matthew Dellavedova was fantastic, scoring 26 points and dishing out six assists compared to just one turnover.
The Gaels have now won six straight and 14 of their last 15 with the lone loss during that stretch coming against Baylor. Parts of that scheduled haven’t been particularly challenging, but they are now 5-0 in the WCC with wins over BYU and Gonzaga, who were expected to be the other squads at the top of the league.
Randy Bennett has nine players averaging at least 11 minutes, and while Jones and Dellavedova carry a lot of the scoring burden, there are a number of other able contributors on the roster. Overall, the team ranks eighth in adjusted offensive efficiency, and for a team that takes over 40 percent of their shots from beyond the arc, they actually rank second in two-point shooting. Defense is a potential concern, but teams with elite point guards are dangerous in March, and Dellavedova is one of the nation’s best.
After losing to Indiana State to fall to 6-4, the Commodores were universally considered the biggest flop in college basketball. They have since won six straight games and have quietly re-established themselves as a contender to be the second-best team in the SEC behind Kentucky.
Their most impressive performance during that stretch was a dominant road win at Marquette where Vandy jumped out early and never looked back. The offense has been fantastic, scoring at least 1.06 points per possession in all six games and scoring at least 1.12 ppp in five of them. The defense has also improved, and the Commodores still haven’t gotten a ton out of big man Festus Ezeli who is still working through knee issues. Sharpshooter John Jenkins has been on fire lately, averaging 19.5 points and hitting 28-of-52 (53.8 percent) of his three-pointers during the six-game winning streak.
After facing Georgia at home over the weekend, Vandy goes to Alabama next Thursday in a game that will pit their prolific offense against the Tide’s stifling defense.
Bottoms Line: Stock Down
It’s hard to kill the Cardinals for losing to Georgetown and Kentucky, and even a double overtime loss to Notre Dame can be chalked up to an off night. But losing by 31 points and essentially giving up against Providence is simply not something a Top 20 team does.
Most everyone would agree that Louisville was overrated when they were in the Top 10, but they have now dropped four of their last five heading into Saturday’s game against DePaul, who they will apparently face without Kyle Kuric, who has an ankle injury.
Outside of the Providence game, the Cardinals have been consistent on defense, but offensive efficiency is another matter. The team doesn’t shoot well, particularly from three-point range, and they have struggled with turnovers at times. And while injuries have certainly played a factor, Louisville needs to find answers on the offense end or the Providence game won’t be the last head-scratching loss.
After their surprising win over Marquette, the Tigers moved their way into the at-large discussion and had people thinking that maybe they had been overlooked. Since that game, they have lost to Virginia and Alabama while not beating anyone of note. Those losses aren’t even in the neighborhood of LSU’s earlier losses to Coastal Carolina and South Alabama, but at some point the Tigers have to prove the win over Marquette wasn’t a fluke if they are truly to be taken seriously, particularly with those bad losses already on their profile.
Over their next nine games, LSU faces Mississippi State twice, goes on the road to Florida and Vandy, plays Kentucky and Alabama at home, and heads to Arkansas this weekend, where the Hogs hung 98 on Mississippi State last Saturday night.
The Tigers have been relatively impressive on defense, but I’m not convince they can do enough on offense to win even two of those seven games. And if I’m right, you can scratch them off the list of potential tournament teams.
North Carolina State
Heading into Wednesday night’s game with Georgia Tech, NC State’s chances at a potential NCAA bid were tenuous. After losing to the Jackets by 11 at home, I can’t see anyone projecting them to be in the field.
With the ACC down this year, there just isn’t much margin for error for the teams in the middle of the pack. To be fair, I don’t think anyone expected NC State to even be in the mix for a bid in Mark Gottfried’s first season at the helm, but the opportunity is definitely there. However, their lone quality win came against a Texas team that is also on the bubble, and their defense has been poor at best against the better teams on their schedule.
There is definitely talent on the roster with guys like C.J. Leslie and Richard Howell among five players scoring at least 12 points per game, but there simply isn’t much depth on the roster. They can’t afford to lose either of their next two games against Wake Forest and Boston College, which lead into road games against Miami and UNC before a home date with Virginia. Their schedule down the stretch is also tough, but that won’t matter as much if they can’t add a couple quality wins over the next couple weeks.
At 12-1, the Billikens were one of the pleasant surprises in college hoops, but they’ve since dropped three of their last four. All three defeats came at the hands of potential tournament teams, and two of them were on the road. That said, earlier wins against Washington and Villanova don’t look as impressive as they did at the time, and Saint Louis doesn’t have any wins against teams that would be in the field of 68 if the tournament started today.
Luckily for them, the A-10 is pretty deep this year and provides a number of opportunities to pick up quality wins. Consequently, the Billikens need to hold serve against the lesser teams in the league and then play well in their two games against Xavier and also at home against Dayton and on the road versus Saint Joseph’s. In fact, they may need to win three of those four games to make a more compelling case for a bid.
Everyone’s favorite bubble team is at it again. First they dropped a road game against Wake Forest on Saturday to pick up their first bad loss of the season, and then they lost at home to Florida State in a game featuring two bubble teams. At this point, their best wins are a pair of victories over an Oklahoma State team with virtually no shot of dancing in March.
The Hokies have struggled to get consistent production from their players inside, and their defensive efficiency has dropped off compared to last season.
Following Saturday’s game against Boston College, Va Tech faces a difficult stretch of games featuring home dates with North Carolina, BYU, and Duke along with road trips to Virginia and Maryland, who is playing better of late. If they can’t pick up some signature wins during that stretch, they won’t have to worry about sweating things out on Selection Sunday.