While there was much complaining about a slow first week of the season, men’s college basketball’s early-season schedule was as loaded as it has been in a long time. From the Champions Classic on Nov. 15 through the Jimmy V Classic on Dec. 6, we’ve had so many high-profile matchups and tournaments that have allowed us to learn plenty about who the nation’s top teams truly are.
One month in, here’s a look at five overreactions from the season’s first few weeks that could look prescient or foolish like March.
The Big Ten has title contenders
The skepticism about the Big Ten in March is earned. The league has produced just two Final Four teams in the last six tournaments (none from outside the state of Michigan) and no national champions since 2000. And on paper in the preseason, the conference once again looked loaded with good, but not great, teams.
After a month, I’m coming around on multiple Big Ten teams as having at least Final Four upside. Purdue had as good a first month as anyone, as the Boilermakers are off to a 9-0 start with quality wins over Duke, Gonzaga, Marquette and West Virginia. They have the nation’s best player thus far in dominating center Zach Edey, and freshman guards Braden Smith and Fletcher Loyer have exceeded all expectations. It’s reasonable to question whether a team so reliant on a young backcourt can thrive in March, but Purdue has clearly been among the nation’s elite so far and the league has multiple other dangerous teams.
Illinois could turn out to be the conference’s best bet in March. The new-look Fighting Illini have been ahead of schedule early on, with wins over UCLA and Texas behind the emergence of transfer wing Terrence Shannon Jr. Illinois’ roster is incredibly adaptable thanks to its length and versatility, which could make the Illini more dangerous in March. The only concern: They lack the end-of-game shot creation you really want to have in a tournament setting.
Indiana also has March upside as guards Xavier Johnson and Jalen Hood-Schifino continue to improve next to big star Trayce Jackson-Davis, and teams like Maryland, Wisconsin and Ohio State also have dark-horse potential.
UConn is the No. 1 team in the country
I wrote after PK85 that UConn was a legitimate national title contender.
I’m not sure that piece went far enough. Right now, UConn should be considered the best in the country.
The Huskies are the nation’s only 10–0 team. They’ve won every game they’ve played by double digits. Their last five games have been against high-major opponents (three on neutral courts, one at home and one on the road), and they’ve won those games by an average margin of nearly 18 points. UConn has yet to trail in the second half all season and hasn’t even been within single digits of an opponent in the final five minutes of a game this season.
Has it beaten an elite team? Perhaps not. But this group checks every box. The Huskies shoot it at a high level, have two dominant interior presences in Adama Sanogo and Donovan Clingan, share the ball and have elite depth. They combine the usual physicality and toughness of a Dan Hurley team with the type of high-powered offense necessary to compete for championships. We know teams can peak too early (last year’s Auburn team is a good example), but if the NCAA tournament were played today, I’d pick UConn to win it all.
Gonzaga doesn’t have a national title ceiling
Yes, Gonzaga has fallen short of winning it all each of the past two years despite spending much of both seasons as the No. 1 team in the polls. But there was little doubt that those Zags teams had a real chance to win it all going into March. I’m not sure this year’s Gonzaga does.
The Bulldogs are good, but not great. Drew Timme is in the National Player of the Year conversation, but Gonzaga lacks the elite guards or high-level defensive bigs it’s had in years past around him. Sophomore point guard Nolan Hickman has been frustratingly inconsistent at a position where the Zags need high-level play. It’s hard to envision a team whose best guard is Rasir Bolton winning six straight games in March, several against high-level teams. And without a rim protector like Chet Holmgren hanging around to erase mistakes, Timme’s struggles defensively are more easily attacked.
It would be classic college basketball for this flawed Gonzaga team to be the one that finally breaks through after two straight elite teams fell short. But after one month, it’s just hard to see this team being the one that brings a championship to Spokane.
The A-10 is a one-bid league
Perhaps no conference in the sport had a worse first month than the Atlantic 10. And given how important it is for mid-major leagues like the A-10 to make hay in the nonconference, there’s a real possibility the league could get just one NCAA tournament bid for the first time since 2005.
The two teams with the best outlook in the preseason were Dayton and Saint Louis. The Flyers entered the year with major expectations but have fallen flat thus far, starting 5–5 and 0–5 vs. top-150 teams in KenPom. It might not be autobid-or-bust just yet for Dayton, but it would take a turnaround that feels quite unlikely at this point for this to be an at-large team. Saint Louis has a pair of decent wins against Providence and Memphis, but if a league’s best team is getting blown out by Iona, things are probably not going well.
The league’s preseason No. 3 team in VCU will exit the nonconference slate with a bad loss to Jacksonville on its ledger and its best win being a neutral-court victory over Pittsburgh. Loyola Chicago has gotten off to a much slower start than expected with a new-look roster in its first year in the league. George Mason went 0–3 at Paradise Jam with losses to Belmont, Buffalo and a bad Boston College team. Richmond and Davidson look far from at-large quality. The second-best chance for an at-large outside of Saint Louis might be UMass, and while the Minutemen do look like they’re ahead of schedule I’m skeptical they’ll be consistent enough in league play to get over that hump.
Plus, a weaker middle of the league just makes it that much harder for the top of the conference to build a resume. Games that on paper in the preseason were Quad 1 on the road and Quad 2 at home are turning into being Q2 on the road and Q3 at home. That means more potential stumbling blocks while the high-majors stack quality wins.
Maryland got it right with Kevin Willard
It’s usually best not to judge coaching hires after one season, let alone one month of one season. But it’s hard not to take notice of the job Willard has done early on Marylandwhich is off to a magnificent 8–1 start in Year 1.
Willard has seamlessly integrated a pair of transfer newcomers in Jahmir Young and Don Carey into the starting rotation after retaining three key cogs in Donta Scott, Julian Reese and Hakim Hart. Young, Carey and the Terps’ loaded 2023 recruiting class show a clear improvement from the Mark Turgeon era in recruiting the talent-rich state of Maryland, and the nonconference woes against high-level competition that were often evident under Turgeon have vanished.
The Willard hire wasn’t universally praised because of his past struggles in the NCAA tournament, but it’s hard to argue with the success he had at Seton Hall in revitalizing a program that had fallen off. So far, Willard has made all the right moves, hiring a strong staff and making a good early impression. This feels like a marriage that could last a while.