It’s easy to rush to judgments based on November and December results, but some teams take longer to gel than others.
Here are six squads who went through some turbulence early in the year but are flourishing at the right time.
Not much was expected of Ohio State this season – few believed the Buckeyes would reach the NCAA tournament. But they’re 9-1 in the Big Ten after an uninspiring 5-3 overall start; a team that seemed to lack a true star might have the Big Ten Player of the Year in Keita Bates-Diop.
All of these things happened in November: Ohio State got pummeled by Gonzaga, lost a huge late lead against Butler, and was uncompetitive at home against Clemson. Since then: a 13-2 record with wins over Michigan, Michigan State and Maryland, all top-50 KenPom teams.
The Buckeyes don’t have a glaring weakness. They rank in the top 30 on both sides of the floor. The actualized version of Bates-Diop has come to life – an elite 6-7 shooter with a sneaky-good handle and plus length. He’s averaging 20 points and nine boards.
Part of the reason Ohio State has been so good is because it plays in the Big Ten — which is having a down year by its standards — and the Buckeyes don’t beat themselves. They take smart shots. They rarely turn the ball over. They don’t allow easy baskets, and usually have the best player on the floor in Bates-Diop. Blend all of that together, and you have a team that could win the conference and earn a top-three NCAA tournament seed.
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Arizona came in dead-freaking-last at the Battle 4 Atlantis – perhaps the biggest shock of the college basketball season. The Wildcats still don’t look like the team we expected before the year, but they’re winning. Even if it’s not always pretty.Arizona started the year 3-3. It sits at 18-4 now, including a nine-game winning streak and an undefeated December. Rawle Alkins’ return worked wonders – it’s no secret that the Wildcats are top-heavy, and one player can make a huge difference depending on how a team is constructed. Deandre Ayton and Allonzo Trier are stars. Parker Jackson-Cartwright is fine; Dusan Ristic is good, but he’s not an ideal fit next to the rim-rampaging Ayton. Besides those four, who else could Arizona count on?
Alkins gave the Wildcats exactly what they needed – a plus perimeter defender with some secondary playmaking chops. Arizona is 8-1 in Pac-12 play.
With all of that said, it doesn’t look like a national title contender – yet. The Wildcats rank 97th in defense. Ayton and Ristic are better suited playing without the other, but Sean Miller’s hands are tied – those are two of his best four players, so he has to play them as a tandem.
Despite fit issues, Arizona has still come a long way since November.
St. Mary’s (CA)The Gaels, unranked a week ago, now sit at No. 13 in the AP poll after a massive win at Gonzaga on Jan. 18.
St. Mary’s is dangerous – you’ve probably heard this in prior years only for it never to come to fruition, but humor us. The Gaels are on a 15-game winning streak and have one real regular season challenge left, when they host Gonzaga on Feb. 10.
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They have the No. 4 offense in the country and are making a sizzling 42.1 percent of their 3s and 57.9 percent of their 2s. Emmett Naar is a magician in the halfcourt; he sees passes before they’re open. Jock Landale is a problem — a brute throwback big with touch around the hoop. The Gaels still play at a snail’s pace – they rank 336th in tempo, and their defense ranks outside of the top 100.
But they squeeze the life out of opponents. Imagine defending well for 25 seconds, only for St. Mary’s to sink a 3 in the waning ticks of the shot-clock. Then play that on loop. That’s facing the Gaels in a nutshell. We forgot about them after November losses to Washington State and Georgia, and to be fair – outside of Gonzaga, we don’t really know how St. Mary’s matches up against quality foes. We’ll see the Gaels in the tournament, and perhaps they’ll fare better than in years past.
Florida started the year off 5-0, bombing 3s, and was a college basketball darling. Then, it lost four of five – including an ugly one to Loyola-Chicago.
But the Gators have rebounded, winning eight of their last 10 and playing a fun, free-wheeling offensive style. Forty percent of Florida’s shots come from 3-point range, and it turns the ball over on just 14.2 percent of its possessions – the No. 3 mark in the country.
Some of Florida’s defensive issues can be attributed to bad luck. Opponents are making 76.4 percent of their free-throws against the Gators; that’s the fifth-highest mark in America, and they foul a lot (the latter isn’t bad luck). That doesn’t tell the whole story, of course, but it makes a difference in close games – Florida is getting scorched from behind the arc and ranks 278th in 3-point defense. Some of that is on the Gators. Some of it is bad fortune.
Florida has all of the ingredients for success. Jalen Hudson is a scoring machine. Chris Chiozza is the senior leader at point guard that most teams crave. KeVaughn Allen is having a down year, but we’ve seen what he can do in big moments. Egor Koulechov is one of the most versatile players in the SEC.
The Gators could still win their league and make noise in March despite a rough patch early in the season.
The Trojans stumbled out to a 4-3 start despite being ranked in the preseason top 10. The Princeton loss was the only “bad” loss, but USC’s problem was that it wasn’t getting any big wins.
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That hasn’t necessarily changed, but at least the Trojans are winning frequently. USC is off to an 8-2 start in the Pac-12 and has won six straight. It still has no top-30 KenPom wins – No. 37 New Mexico State is the Trojans’ best victory to date – but thanks to this recent streak, an NCAA berth is looking more likely after concerns that they might miss the dance earlier in the season.
There’s still plenty of talent in Los Angeles. Chimezie Metu is an all-around beast, Jordan McLaughlin is one of the better point guards in the country and Bennie Boatwright is a phenomenal talent – even if he’s not a great fit next to Metu. Look up in a month, and this USC team could be scary with its most important basketball left in front of it.
Michigan started 7-3 – which is fine – but lost to its three best opponents in LSU, North Carolina and Ohio State. The Wolverines weren’t playing with the offensive joy we’re used to seeing; something felt off.
To be frank, they still haven’t really found their offensive stride outside of the occasional outburst — but Michigan is winning with defense. The Wolverines rank 26th on that end, which is their best mark of the John Beilein era. Michigan is 7-4 in the Big Ten and has solid nonconference wins over UCLA and Texas; like last year, the Wolverines are improving as the season ages.
Michigan has lost twice to No. 3 Purdue by a total of five points. That shows it belongs. If Beilein can catch this team’s offense up to its defense (a rare statement for him), these guys could win in March.