The 2020-21 college basketball season turns one month old on Dec. 25. That means in roughly three months, the men's basketball NCAA tournament will be nearing its conclusion. We've watched the games, we've checked the latest rankings and we've pored over the stats. I've identified these things that (I think) we know through the first month of the season.
Gonzaga and Baylor are clearly the two best teams – at least for now
Gonzaga and Baylor have been ranked No. 1 and No. 2 in the AP Top 25 poll since the preseason. Through Dec. 22, the Bears hold a slight edge in terms of efficiency margin over the 'Zags (per kenpom.com) which says that Baylor is outscoring its opponents by an average of 30.44 points per 100 possessions. That is just ahead of Gonzaga, which outpaces opponents by an average of 29.39 points per 100 possessions.
The drop-off from Gonzaga's efficiency margin at No. 2 to Wisconsin at No. 3 — 3.53 points per 100 possessions — is roughly the same gap between Wisconsin to the No. 10 team on kenpom.com, Texas Tech.
The Bulldogs have double-digit wins over No. 3 Kansas and No. 4 Iowa, plus a victory over No. 7 West Virginia. Outside of Baylor, which, by the way, the 'Zags and the Bears had a game scheduled but it was postponed, Gonzaga has beaten several of the other teams that could have a case to be one of the best teams in the country this season.
Meanwhile, Baylor knocked off the best opponent it has played to date, Illinois, by 13 points on a neutral floor, and that's an Illinois team that was among the favorites to win the Big Ten in the preseason.
The Big Ten is as good as expected, if not better
Northwestern, which was picked to finish 14th in the unofficial Big Ten preseason media poll (which surveyed two media members from every school in the conference), knocked off Michigan State on Sunday. The Spartans were picked fourth in the media poll and currently sit at No. 12 in the AP poll.
A conference headlined by preseason top-10 teams Iowa, Wisconsin and Illinois has seven teams ranked in the latest AP Top 25 poll, with four other schools among the "others receiving votes" category. The Big Ten rates as the best conference in the country, according to kenpom.com. Through Dec. 22, the conference rates 1.19 points per 100 possessions better than it did last season, when it had 10 teams in the mix for an NCAA tournament at-large bid.
Four of the top 10 offenses in the country are run by Big Ten teams (No. 1 Iowa, No. 7 Illinois, No. 8 Ohio State and No. 9 Michigan), as are two of the top 10 defenses (No. 3 Wisconsin and No. 8 Indiana).
Through Dec. 22, there are two undefeated teams in the Big Ten (6-0 Rutgers and 6-0 Michigan), and six one-loss teams. Thirteen of the 14 teams in the country are in the top 56 teams on kenpom.com, which means that almost any win in conference play, regardless of location, should help a team's NCAA tournament resume.
Luka Garza has backed up his preseason National Player of the Year hype
As I have analyzed in the past, preseason All-America and National Player of the Year picks aren't always accurate predictors of the year-end awards, especially when there's group-think that produces the same choice across major media outlets. However, Luka Garza has proven worthy of every single preseason honor he received before this season.
As the only returning consensus All-American from last season, he was the obvious choice for preseason National Player of the Year. He's been even better as a senior, averaging 28.4 points, 9.1 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per game, while shooting 58.6 percent from three and 70 percent inside the arc.
He plays for a top-five team and he has scored at least 30 points in four of Iowa's first eight games, including a 41-point outburst in just 29 minutes against Southern.
There's a lot of basketball left to be played, so Garza hasn't secured any hardware yet for the 2020-21 season, but he's absolutely deserving of his preseason accolades. He's playing the best basketball of his career.
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So have Oklahoma State's Cade Cunningham and Gonzaga's Jalen Suggs
Even for the most talented freshmen in the country, the transition from high school to college isn't always smooth. Now, after a turbulent offseason and a delayed start to the season, there have been even more hurdles.
But they haven't stopped Oklahoma State's Cade Cunningham and Gonzaga's Jalen Suggs from performing up to their potential. Cunningham, the 6-8 point guard who's arguably the most talented freshman in the country, is averaging 19.4 points, 5.6 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 1 steal and 1 block per game, while shooting 36.7 percent from three.
He's already hit a game-winning 3-pointer, too, against Wichita State.
Gonzaga's 6-4 freshman guard Jalen Suggs has been a sensation, averaging 16.3 points, 5.8 assists and 5.7 rebounds per game, and he scored a season-high 27 points in the Bulldogs's win over Iowa.
Both freshmen could play their way onto multiple All-America lists this season.
This is Shaka Smart's best team ever
After this season, Texas coach Shaka Smart will have spent as many seasons in Austin as he did at VCU, where he took the Rams from the First Four to the Final Four in 2011. That was his most famous Rams team, but his best VCU team (and the best team of his head coaching career, regardless of school, prior to this season) was his 2013 team that finished the season ranked No. 18 on kenpom.com.
In Smart's first five seasons at Texas, his Longhorns finished at No. 39, No. 70, No. 36, No. 25 and No. 61, respectively.
But Texas appears to have made a breakthrough in Year Six under Smart. Through Dec. 22, the Longhorns are 7-1, ranked No. 8 nationally on kenpom.com and they have the sixth-best defense in the country, which is tied for the best-ever ranking for a Smart-coached team.
Texas won the Maui Invitational, beating Davidson, Indiana and North Carolina in the process, and its only loss was to preseason top-five team Villanova by four points. This isn't a great shooting team (so far), but the Longhorns still rank 23rd nationally in terms of offensive efficiency, which gives them the balance to be a contender in the Big 12.
A lopsided loss to Gonzaga shouldn't discount other conference title contenders
As mentioned at the top, Iowa lost to No. 1 Gonzaga by 11 and Kansas lost to the 'Zags by 12. Those two schools could win the Big Ten and Big 12, respectively, so unless and until the Hawkeyes and Jayhawks are set to match up with the Bulldogs in the NCAA tournament, a double-digit loss to the No. 1 team in the country shouldn't discount how good Iowa and Kansas are in their own conference races.
Kansas has won eight games in a row since its season-opening loss to Gonzaga and Iowa won six in a row before its loss to the 'Zags. If one or both of those teams are in contention for a No. 1 seed, then those non-conference losses will just speak to the dominance of Gonzaga, not necessarily the disappointment or schematic shortcomings of Iowa and Kansas.
The Hawkeyes have the most efficient offense in the country and Kansas ranks in the top 15 nationally in offensive and defensive efficiency.
Iowa and Kansas might be really good, and Gonzaga might just be really, really good.
The Hauser brothers were worth the wait
Sam and Joey Hauser were Marquette's second and third-leading scorers during the 2019 college basketball season, before they transferred and split up, with Sam going to Virginia and Joey going to Michigan State.
Both players sat out last season with a redshirt year.
Sam Hauser leads No. 16 Virginia in scoring at 13.4 points per game, along with six rebounds and 1.8 assists per game, while shooting 43 percent from deep. Joey Hauser leads No. 12 Michigan State in scoring and rebounding at 12.1 points and 8.9 rebounds per game, while shooting 38.7 percent from 3-point range. Both brothers have improved their individual offensive rating since their last season at Marquette.