The 10 most intriguing storylines heading into the final month of college basketball season
With football season officially over the focus is about to be on college basketball, as we are less than one month away from Selection Sunday.
Rather than our normal "Power Rankings" this week, we've decided to do something different: Here are 10 Storylines to keep an eye out on, from now until the end of the season.
Can Memphis finally reach the NCAA Tournament under Penny Hardaway?
After a couple month stretch where Hardaway's Tigers won the NIT and signed the No. 1 ranked recruiting class in the country, there was real optimism about this Memphis team coming into the season - optimism that faded almost immediately after the season began. Yes, there were injuries, but also losses to bad teams, first Georgia and Ole Miss in the out of conference (two teams you have to beat if you're an NCAA Tournament team) and then a 3-4 record to start AAC play which included losses to Tulane, East Carolina and Central Florida. Memphis hit rock bottom following a 70-62 home loss to SMU on January 20th, in which Penny Hardaway called out the media after the game, for their negative energy and expectations surrounding the team.
Although it looked pretty silly at the time, Memphis has responded in a big way winning their last five games, a streak which started with a 15-point comeback against Tulsa, and featured the biggest win of Hardaway's career this weekend at Houston. Despite all of the bad losses early in the season, this win along with the December 14th victory over Alabama, gives Memphis a legitimate resume and a chance to make the NCAA Tournament. The Tigers are currently the first team out of Joe Lunardi’s projected NCAA Tournament field, which could change very shortly.
The remainder of Memhpis’ season is something that needs to be monitored going forward, due to the fact that this team is still really talented and has so many pieces that help this team win games in March. Even after the four-game winning streak going into the Houston game, the three-game stretch starting with the Houston game could be what defies the Tigers season. After starting the stretch on a good note, Memphis will travel to Cincinnati and SMU this week.
Yes, three games on the road against arguably the three best teams in the league - all in one eight day stretch.
Something else worth monitoring is the status of Emoni Bates, who has missed the last six games with injury. As unfortunate as it may sound, it has been clear for a while now that Memphis is at their best without Bates in the lineup. It seemed like Penny was feeling obligated to play Emoni at all times, and that was not the best thing for this team. With the majority of last year's players being back along with Jalen Duran and DeAndre Williams being healthy this team can still do serious damage and the chemistry has never been better. But will that change if Emoni is back in the picture?
Again, it's worth monitoring as the Tigers push towards March.
The Craziness of the Coaching Carousel
After the 2020 season ended early with no NCAA Tournament as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the assumption by many was that it would result in schools trying to save money. This meant that coaches who would be fired during normal circumstances, would have an extra year or two, to figure things out and it made sense at the time.
As it turned out, the assumption was one thousand percent wrong. Following the 2021 season, a handful of the biggest and most prominent athletic programs made coaching changes including Indiana, Arizona, Marquette, Minnesota, Iowa State and more. That doesn’t include Chris Beard's move from Texas Tech to Texas or Roy Williams retiring at North Carolina.
The possibility that this coaching cycle could be just as crazy as last year didn’t seem like a reality until the Maryland and Louisville jobs both opened earlier this season. With those two jobs open and a handful of others bound to as well it is time to start monitoring some potential candidates to get these big jobs. Maryland and Louisville will have a head start looking for their guy however as seen in college football and other sports, it is only a real advantage if you can end up getting the guy you want. Other jobs like Georgetown, Georgia, South Carolina, Butler, Arizona State and more possibly opening this offseason, many Athletic Directors are going to need to make a splash.
Aaron has the full list of power conference jobs that he thinks could open - which is worth checking out here.
In terms of candidates, well all sorts of names are being thrown around. USC head coach Andy Enfield is a name is that is picking up plenty of buzz after eight-plus seasons in Los Angeles. Enfield is from the Northeast, played at John's Hopkins in Maryland and coached at Florida Gulf Coast, so he makes sense for a lot of East Coast jobs, most notably Maryland.
With other candidates including Ed Cooley (Providence), Kevin Willard (Seton Hall) Jeff Linder (Wyoming), Niko Medved (Colorado State) along with many others, schools are going to have to be really aggressive and willing to spend a lot of money in order to land their top dog. There is going to be a legitimate market for some of these coaches, and the only way you’re getting one is if basketball is taken seriously and as a priority. Considering the amount of money spent that was spent by other school's post-pandemic, expect that to stay the same this year.
Is This the Year for Mark Few and Gonzaga?
Last season was supposed to be the season for Mark Few and the Gonzaga Bulldogs. They weren’t only the best team in the regular season by a wide margin, but they also entered the NCAA Tournament undefeated with an offense that looked borderline unstoppable. Unfortunately for the Bulldogs, it would result in Mark Few losing his second National Championship game appearance in four seasons against Baylor. Gonzaga was dominated from start to finish by the Bears and it left many Gonzaga and college hoops fans in general asking themselves one question. “If not now, then when?”
Thankfully for Gonzaga fans, Mark Few has done a great job reloading his roster following the losses of three key players from last year's squad to the professional ranks. Five-star Freshman Chet Holmgren has figured things out, with double doubles in four of his last five games. In addition, Gonzaga brought back Drew Timme who was a key part of last year’s squad and is the best post scorer in the sport.
The tricky thing about Gonzaga, is that even though Mark Few hasn’t won a National Championship yet, the narrative that Gonzaga is a bad NCAA Tournament team is a complete myth. The Bulldogs are the only program in the sport to reach the Sweet 16 in each of the last six NCAA Tournaments. However, it was apparent last year that playing in a conference that doesn’t challenge them very often, has an impact on Gonzaga not being able to win that first championship just yet. In last year’s title game, it was apparent very early on that the Zags had no answer when Baylor punched them in the mouth to start the game. This is due to the fact that Gonzaga was never challenged or faced any adversity during conference play and when Baylor did, they didn’t have an answer.
Things may be different this season, considering some teams in the WCC not named Gonzaga have realistic at-large aspirations for the NCAA Tournament. The hope was that maybe Gonzaga could be challenged more in this year's WCC compared to any other. Especially after Gonzaga dropped games during their non-conference portion of the schedule against Duke and Alabama. However, it turned out these losses definitely helped Gonzaga get ready for WCC play, considering the Bulldogs are now 10-0 in conference play, with every win coming by at least 16 points.
Chet Holmgren might just have the ability to take over a big game by himself on either end of the court, which is something that no one on Gonzaga was able to do last year and these Bulldogs have more experience playing in the big games. However, after another WCC Conference season of not being challenged in the slightest, is this Gonzaga team finally the one to take it home and cut down the nets in March?
How will the SEC fair in March?
Although when most people think of the Southeastern Conference it is football that comes to mind, the league’s prioritization of basketball has paid off in a big way. Over the course of the past few years, the SEC has been trending towards being one of, if not the premier conference in the sport. Following the launch of the SEC Network, the conference started to make basketball a priority and considering the amount of good coaches and talent in this league, it has been a massive success. All of that hard work to improve basketball in the league feels like it’s been building towards this year. For the first time it feels like any fan who follows this sport knows that the SEC is must-see TV.
With Kentucky and Auburn clearly establishing themselves as two of the best teams in the country and other teams such as Alabama, Arkansas, LSU, Tennessee and more showing great crowds and atmospheres on a consistent basis, this is turning into the premier basketball league in the country. At the end of the day though, the real answer to that question will be determined in March based on performance.
Kentucky has not been to a Final Four since 2015, which for most Kentucky fans is not acceptable. Auburn has shown many times this season that they are worthy of being one of if not the best team in the sport, but also barely beat conference bottom feeders Georgia and Missouri. In addition, Alabama has wins over Gonzaga, Houston and Baylor and has also lost to Georgia and Missouri. They can beat anyone or lose to anyone they play and will be one of the more polarizing teams in the country entering March. Arkansas, Tennessee and LSU are all really good teams, with a chance to get to the second weekend if things go their way.
It may not be the most fair way to evaluate these teams, but the reality is that conferences are judged as a whole, based on how their best teams perform in March. After Arkansas and Alabama came out of almost nowhere last year in the preseason to get to a second weekend, the expectations for the SEC in March this year will be much higher based on the quality of the league. The chance is going to be there in March for the SEC to prove to everyone just how good of a basketball conference they have become over the course of the past 4-5 years.
How will it end for Coach K?
Since the 2021-2022 College Basketball season kicked off, the Mike Krzyzewski retirement tour has been one of the top storylines to monitor. One year after missing the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1995, Krzyzewski has this Duke team in a much better position. Currently sitting at 21-4 overall and 11-3 in the ACC, there is no doubt Duke is going to be on the short list of National Championship Contenders in March.
The question is, what exactly is the ceiling of this Duke team and how far can they go in the NCAA Tournament? Similarly, to many of Coach K’s successful Duke teams of years past, these Blue Devils have a good mix of elite young talent and experience. The combination of freshmen Paolo Banchero and AJ Griffin on the frontline, gives Duke two future NBA lottery picks to give the ball to down the stretch. That young talent alongside experienced players such as junior Wendell Moore and sophomore Mark Williams fits together really nicely. However, the problem for this Duke team has been, in close games they seem to forget to get their best players the ball down the stretch and it has cost them. This was evident on Monday Night, when Duke lost outright as an 11.5 point home favorite against Virginia. Griffin and Banchero combined for one point in the second half and that ultimately proved to be the difference, considering Duke lost by one point following a Reece Beekman buzzer beater three.
There are some similarities between this Duke team and the 2019 team with the superstar freshman class headlined by Zion Williamson, RJ Barrett and Cam Reddish. In 2019, Duke got into a habit of playing in a few too many close games and many times they would fail to get the ball to Williamson down the stretch. Coach K is arguably the best coach in the history of the sport and to this day, will always have his team ready to play in the biggest games. However, when you have players that are as special and rare as guys like Zion, Paolo and AJ Griffin, putting them in the best position to succeed especially late needs to be the No. 1 priority.
The NCAA Tournament is so hard to win, due to the fact that one mistake can cost you your entire season. Not slipping up over the course of six consecutive games is not easy at all. Playing in a weak ACC Duke has already let a number of close games slip away, and because of it, the Blue Devils may not be the top favorite on the board heading into March Madness. Nevertheless, these are the moments when Coach K is at his best and this Duke team will be a tough out in March, while looking to send off Coach K on the best note.
Is Providence “Lucky?”
There hasn’t been a more polarizing team at the top of the sport than Ed Cooley’s Providence Friars. Despite entering Tuesday’s monster clash against Villanova with an overall record of 21-2 and a Big East Record of 11-1 not everyone is completely sold on the Friars just yet. KenPom currently has Providence ranked at No. 47 based on his analytically based formula.
Still, all of the disrespect seems a little much at this point. Considering the number of close games that Providence has won this season, if the argument is made that Providence has caught a break here and there, fine. With that being said, no one can justify that they are not one of the 15 best teams in College Basketball right now and can do some serious damage in March - remember, this is a team that beat Wisconsin and Texas Tech in the out of conference, won at UConn and Xavier since league play started.
Ed Cooley has done a great job taking advantage of the transfer portal which is something not every coach in the country can say. Brining in guys like Al Durham (Indiana), Jared Bynum (St. Joesphs), Justin Minaya (South Carolina) and Noah Horchler (North Florida) over the past two years, and it has made all the difference in the world for this Providence team. At the end of games, when things get close and tight, it should be considered a skill that you are always able to rise up to the occasion and find a way to win. The Friars have now won eight games in a row following their comeback win against DePaul on Saturday, thanks to 25 points from Jared Bynum. Bynum has made so many plays in the clutch this season, including hitting the game winning three at Xavier a few weeks ago, and has scored at least 19 points in each of his last three games. The Dunkin Donuts Center will be on absolute fire on Tuesday Night, when Villanova comes to town for a battle for first place in the Big East Conference.
There is no doubt that it will be Ed Cooley’s best team since he arrived as the head coach of Providence in 2011. While he is going to be a top candidate for many other jobs that open, a long run in March could be the difference for someone like Cooley, in terms of the quality of job he can get (assuming he wants to leave). Cooley has made five NCAA Tournaments out of the 9 that have taken place since he became Providence Head Coach, but only has one tournament win to go along with it. Expect him to top that number this season.
Mid Majors to Watch
Part of what makes college basketball the best sport (in my humble opinion) and the NCAA Tournament the best postseason, is the schools that come out of absolutely nowhere and cause havoc in March. Despite last year’s NCAA Tournament being mostly remembered for taking place with limited fans and the Gonzaga-Baylor title game, mid majors did have a lot to say.
Oral Roberts became only the second No. 15 seed to make it to the second weekend and Abilene Christian shocked the world by pulling a stunning upset over Texas. This season, there are a lot of teams that come to mind that can cause chaos.
Murray State is currently ranked in the Top 25, just a few years after losing NBA superstar Ja Morant. Matt McMahon’s Racers are currently on a 14-game winning streak and have not lost since December 22nd against Auburn. They have picked up true road wins over
NCAA Tournament hopefuls Memphis and Belmont in the process. With Morant’s former teammate Tevin Brown along with high major talents like KJ Williams and Justice Hill there is no reason why the Racers can’t go on a long run in March.
Whether it is categorized as a true “Mid Major” is up for debate, but the Mountain West has very quietly turned into one of the more quality and competitive leagues in the country. There are at least four Mountain West teams that currently stand in good positions to make the Tournament - Wyoming, Colorado State, Boise State and San Diego State. Not only are each of these four teams tournament worthy, but each of them possesses different qualities that can help them go on a long run in March.
Wyoming has two of the better players in not only the Mountain West, but in all of college basketball, in Hunter Maldonado and Graham Ike. That is a nightmare inside/outside duos in the sport and Wyoming is a threat to anyone they play in March because of that. Coach Jeff Linder has done a phenomenal job building this program in only a year and change in Lairime and will be a Pac 12 coach soon, assuming he can keep this up.
In addition, other teams like Vermont, Chattanooga and South Dakota State are dominating their leagues and will be very popular upset picks in the first round, assuming they can find their way into the tournament.
West Coast Best Coast?
After being on the wrong side of “West Coast Bias” since the start of time, college basketball fans should be aware of what is going on late at night on the West Coast in 2022. Both Gonzaga and Arizona currently have a legitimate argument for the best team in the sport, with plenty of star power, insane depth and even similar playing styles. That's what happens when Arizona hires Mark Few's long-time assistant, Tommy Lloyd.
Although Sean Miller left a really talented group of players behind, Lloyd has done a terrific job using that to his advantage. With Lloyd’s spacing oriented, fast past style of play many of these guys have burst onto the scene and have gotten everyone's attention quickly. Junior big man Chrsitian Koloko was mostly known for being the only remaining member of Sean Miller’s heralded Class of 2019 recruiting class which also included NBA players like Nico Mannion, Josh Green and Zeke Nnaji. Koloko has thrived during his third year in Tucson becoming the anchor of Arizona’s defense and averaging 12 points, seven rebounds and three blocks per game in the process. Even with the Pac 12 clearly not being the best league in the country, there is zero doubt that this Arizona team must see TV every time they take the floor and will be a National Championship contender in March.
It is evident that Gonzaga falls under this category as well, (See storyline above). With that being said, mostly everyone knows what the deal is with this Gonzaga program that has been good for a really long time but has also had some trouble getting over the hump.
The top two teams out west aren’t alone, as UCLA is another team that deserves a conversation. After last year’s dream ride all the way to overtime of the Final Four, there were still some doubts about Mick Cronin’s Bruins heading into the season. UCLA did return every key member of last year's squad that went on the miraculous run, but many will forget that this is the same team that entered last year’s Tournament as an 11 seed and almost lost to Michigan State in the First Four. Following some bad breaks that UCLA couldn’t even control like COVID pauses and brutal injuries, UCLA has hit a little bit of a wall, losing 3 of their last 4 games.
Considering the schedule is very manageable from here on out, there is good reason to think Mick Cronin can get his team back on track. That is until the last game of the season against USC, who has beaten UCLA 5 times in a row including Saturday Night without the services of Isaiah Mobley.
Can The Big Ten Finally Break Their Championship Drought?
One of the crazier stas in college hoops that doesn’t get spoken about nearly enough, is the fact that the Big Ten has not won a National Championship since Michigan State cut down the nets in 2000. The reason why this is so crazy is due to the fact that there have been a handful of really good teams that have made Final Four's and National Championship games, but still nothing.
Sometimes, statistics like this could be deceiving as if a few bounces go differently here and there than most likely the final result is different. However, last year was supposed to be when the narrative really changed for the Big Ten. They appeared to be the best conference in the country from start to finish, while sending nine teams to the Big Dance which was more than any other conference in the sport. Unfortunately, Michigan was the only one out of those nine teams that ended up making it to the second weekend which ended in disappointing fashion in a loss to UCLA.
In 2022, no conference in the sport has more star power and elite players than the Big Ten. Between guys like Kofi Cockburn, Johnny Davis, Keegan Murray, Jaden Ivey, EJ Liddell, Trent Frazier, Hunter Dickinson and more there are so many good players in this league and it will be very difficult trying to fill out a First Team All-Conference Squad. The question is though, how will the Big Ten do in this year's Tournament? Will their championship drought finally end?
As many good players as there are in this league, when it comes to the teams that are capable of winning it all, that looks like a different story. If one team could do it, Illinois would be the most likely to based on how they are built. Yes, Illinois did earn a one seed in last year’s Tournament and the Illini’s season ended in painfully disappointing fashion against Loyola Chicago. In addition, they lost Ayo Dosumno to the Chicago Bulls. However, without Ayo the ball moves better, and this team has so more guys that could beat you not named Kofi compared to last. The improvement of Trent Frazier has been one of the better stories in the sport this season, as he is playing the best basketball of his five-year career by a wide margin. With other knockdown shooters like Alfonso Plummer and Jacob Grandison alongside him in the backcourt behind Kofi, there is no reason why this Illini team cannot make a deep run in March.
The other team at the top of the Big Ten is Purdue, who is seeking to get to their first Final Four since 1980 and for the first time under longtime head coach Matt Painter. There is no doubt that Purdue has the best offense in the Big Ten, which is also on par with any other offense in the country. Their lead guard is also a lock to be a Top 5 NBA Draft Pick in Jaden Ivey and there won’t be a team in the country who can match up with the two big men in Purdue's frontcourt, Trevion Williams and Zach Edey. The question is, can this Purdue team get enough stops and right now the answer is no. Purdue had given up 68+ points in each of their last 4 games prior to Sunday’s win against Maryland, which they were lucky to get. Purdue ranks 175th in defensive efficiency and that simply isn’t good enough to win games in March.
Is Everything Bigger in Texas?
Although football will always be king in the state of Texas, man, are there some good basketball teams in the Lone Star State - teams that can go deep into March. In just the Big 12 alone, Baylor, Texas Tech and Texas have all shown flashes of being really good, while Houston has a legitimate argument for most consistent program in the state over the past couple years. All Houston has done under Kelvin Sampson is win and that hasn’t changed at all this season. This is a program that has been ranked in the Top 10 for the past month after going to the programs First Final Four since 1984 last season and losing two of their better players in Marcus Sasser and Tramon Mark to season-ending injuries. The Cougars are a team that cannot be taken lightly and they have a coach who can outsmart anyone else on the sidelines in a big game.
It hasn’t been an easy road for the defending National Champion Baylor Bears, while trying to repeat. After starting the season off 15-0, the Bears have dropped 4 out of their last 10 games, while battling numerous injuries along the way. Luckily, the injuries haven’t been anything bad long term, but that changed on Saturday when big man Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua - who did a great job providing energy and effort for the Bears each of these past two seasons - suffered a season-ending leg injury on Saturday. Hopefully the big man is ok and can return to the floor as soon as possible, but this could be a huge loss. Every single time Baylor has taken the floor, they would be able to rely on JTT without question for that energy. With LJ Cryer currently out of the lineup and other guys like James Akinjo, Adam Flagler and Kendall Brown just making their way back in, everyone needs to get back on the same page in order for this Baylor team to be successful.
One season after losing Chris Beard in completely unexpected fashion to their in-state rivals, Texas Tech has become one of the best stories in College Basketball. 67-year-old, first time Head Coach Mark Adams has done a tremendous job, keeping a lot of the DNA that his former boss Chris Beard used to build up this program while also using his magic to get things rolling. Adams was another coach who did a tremendous job taking advantage of the Transfer Portal and bringing in winning players from schools that not everyone would expect. These guys include Bryson Williams (UTEP), Adonis Arms (Winthrop), Kevin Obanor (Oral Roberts), Davion Warren (Hampton) and more. The crazy thing about Texas Tech is that Terrance Shannon Jr., has been dealing with injuries all season and hasn’t even got going yet. Shannon has been one of the Red Raiders best players each of the last two years and was also very close to going to the NBA Draft after last season ended. Considering this Texas Tech team is a lock for the NCAA Tournament, it is a scary thought that they can keep getting better.
Chris Beard’s first season at Texas hasn’t necessarily gone as smoothly considering this another team built primarily off transfers. Unlike Mark Adams at Texas Tech, Beard built this Longhorn team with a bunch of transfers from the high major level and on paper this team looked like a juggernaut. The expectations were so high going into the season, that Texas was ranked in the top 5 of the preseason AP poll, despite only returning three players from last year's team that entered the NCAA Tournament as a #3 seed.
As talented as the Texas roster is, when you have so many transfers playing together for the first time, it can be very difficult for them to adjust and learn their roles. The bottom line is, as good as this Texas team could be based on their talent, they haven't been able to put it all together yet. Considering it is already February, it is safe to say that this Texas team probably won’t ever be capable of matching those preseason expectations. The question is, are they good enough to put together a few wins in March and build some momentum?
Follow Zac Krull on Twitter @ZKrull3