The sands begin to run more quickly now in college basketball. The NCAA Division I Men's Basketball Committee’s first version of the top 16 seeds is in, written in pencil. The first conference tournaments begin in a week. By next Monday night, someone’s season in the Northeast Conference will already be over.
With March imminent, we can take a minute to ponder not the NET rankings, but how about the WWHT list, or Who Would Have Thought...
1. That arguably the two top candidates for national player of the year would be a guard who averaged seven points last season and a tall guy who wasn’t even on the court?
In 31 appearances last season for Wisconsin, Johnny Davis had 19 games where he scored seven or fewer points. Now he’s the big-game hunter who has averaged 25.3 points against ranked opponents. Oscar Tshiebwe’s final appearance in the 2020-21 season was Dec. 29, 2020 for West Virginia. Then he transferred to Kentucky and sat out the rest of the schedule. Now he’s running up double-double numbers that Kentucky hasn’t seen in 50 years.
2. That Duke would not only be the lone ACC team on the top-16 seed list, but also the only league member in the top 39 of the latest NET rankings?
The Mountain West and WCC, by the way, each has three teams in the top 39. One reason for this ACC void is distinguished names such as Virginia, Syracuse, Florida State and Louisville are a combined 32-32 in league play.
3. That four of the top eight seeded teams in the committee’s current thinking — Auburn, Arizona, Kentucky and Duke — weren’t even in the NCAA tournament last March?
Any of the four could win it all, too. From not in the tournament to national champion in one season? Connecticut and Syracuse are the only schools to manage that in the past 35 years. The Huskies did it twice.
4. That Oregon State, with five of the top seven scorers back from an Elite Eight run in 2021, would be 3-22 overall, and 1-14 in the Pac-12?
The Beavers got the same number of votes in the Pac-12 preseason poll as Arizona. The Wildcats are currently 24-2.
5. That Kentucky could be headed for a No. 1 seed with 76.4 percent of its points being scored by juniors, seniors and graduate students?
John Calipari has seen the light in the value of experience. The Wildcats are first in the nation in rebounding margin and 11th in field goal percentage and assists per game. Last season, they were 126th, 277th and 218th, respectively.
6. That Texas Tech, with a new coach and seven transfer portal arrivals, could make a viable case of being the best team in the Big 12?
The first Red Raiders of the Mark Adams era are 7-3 against ranked opponents, they swept Baylor and Texas, and nearly did the same thing to Kansas.
7. That Providence, picked to finish seventh in the Big East, would be leading the conference and 22-3 overall and ranked No. 8 in the Associated Press poll.
Sunday was the latest example of the Friars’ magic. They missed 18 of 19 shots in one stretch, trailed by 19 points in the second half, were 12 for 24 from the free-throw line, had to play without their second-leader scorer Al Durham, and still won at Butler in overtime, 71-70. That’s the sign of savvy, and Providence has five graduate students and an average age in its rotation of 23.
“We’re an old team,” coach Ed Cooley said. “You’ve got to let them know that, that they’ve been in a lot of games; up, down, big and small leads. You’ve got to try to believe in them the best you can because it’s not about coaching, it’s about putting them in position to believe.”
Oh, they do. The win makes Providence 10-1 in games decided by five or fewer points. “We’ve been known as the luckiest team in the country,” Cooley said. “We like playing in close games. I tell them, get me to two or three minutes in a one or two-possession game, that’s where I know I’m not lucky. That’s where I know we’re damn good, and the numbers will speak to that. The closer the game, the more comfortable I feel.”
8. That Wisconsin, picked to finish 10th in a preseason Big Ten media poll, would be battling for the conference lead?
The Badgers have soared to this high place by winning on the road at Indiana, Michigan State and Purdue in the same year for the first time in school history, and by going 12-1 in games decided by six or fewer points. The only close loss was to — wouldn’t you know it? — Providence. And by beating Michigan Sunday. Speaking of which...
9. That formerly No. 4-ranked Michigan would be 14-11 and fighting for its NCAA tournament life in late February?
Not to mention dealing with the fallout of Sunday’s ugliness when coach Juwan Howard struck a Wisconsin assistant after harsh postgame words flew between the two staffs. It’s a rare place to get yourself into trouble, going through the handshake line.
10. That Georgetown, coming off winning the conference tournament last March, would be 0-15 in the Big East?
The Hoyas’ losing streak is now 16. The only program in the nation in a deeper rut is Delaware State at 19. This is not what Patrick Ewing had in mind when he decided to coach his alma mater.
11. And finally, that Gonzaga would be in position to run the table again in the WCC and go into the NCAA tournament as the No. 1 ranked team and overall top seed?
No, the Zags on top is not a shocker. They’ve been ranked No. 1 more than any other program since 2017, even Duke. But as they’ve stormed through another schedule, it’s been a little easy to forget they lost three of the top four scorers from the national runner-up team last April. And unlike many places, Mark Few didn’t bring in a wave of transfers to fill the holes. Guard Rasir Bolton is the lone import, from Iowa State. This is mostly reloading from within.
There’s domination, there’s supremacy, and there’s Gonzaga in the WCC. The Zags just clinched their 10th conference regular-season title in a row. They have won 33 consecutive league games, 30 in a row by double digits. They’re 114-0 since 2014 against every WCC team not named BYU or Saint Mary’s. It is now 2,922 days since they lost to anyone else. They’ve beaten Pepperdine 43 games in a row, Loyola Marymount 25, Santa Clara 24, San Francisco 22. They haven’t lost to Pacific since 1976. Gonzaga has played only 49 conference games this century that were decided by five or fewer points.
You get the idea. The Zags are no surprise. Except maybe with their relentless success.