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As we enter the second half of conference play in the college basketball season, there are plenty of intriguing storylines to keep an eye on throughout the country, including a Big Ten title race that is heating up.
Zach Edey and No. 2-ranked Purdue currently hold a 1.5-game lead over No. 10 Illinois in the conference standings. The Boilermakers, sitting at 21-2 overall and 10-2 in Big Ten action, have an upcoming matchup against in-state rival Indiana at 8 p.m. ET Saturday on FOX. Meanwhile, Illinois hits the road for a Saturday afternoon showdown in East Lansing against Michigan State.
In the ACC, Tony Bennett’s Virginia Cavaliers have quietly won seven in a row and are climbing up the conference standings, trailing No. 3-ranked North Carolina by only one game. Could the Cavaliers be a sneaky pick to make a late-season run and wreak havoc in the NCAA Tournament?
With a fun-filled month ahead, FOX Sports college basketball experts John Fanta and Michael Cohen are here to break it all down and offer their thoughts on the Big Ten and ACC title races, as well as answer some big-picture questions as we enter the home stretch.
Purdue, Illinois and Wisconsin are neck and neck in the Big Ten standings, with the Boilermakers holding a 1.5-game lead over the Illini and a two-game lead over the Badgers. Who ultimately wins this conference and why?
Michael Cohen: This is Purdue’s race to lose. By knocking off Wisconsin on the road last weekend, the Boilermakers proved yet again that they’re the class of the Big Ten and have an inside track toward a No. 1 seed in both the conference tournament and the NCAA Tournament. Beginning with Saturday night’s game against an Indiana team that has lost four of its last five games, Purdue has a chance to reel off five straight wins against the league’s unsightly underbelly — Indiana, Minnesota, Ohio State, Rutgers and Michigan — without breaking much of a sweat. If those games go according to plan, head coach Matt Painter’s team will be 26-2 overall and 15-2 in the Big Ten ahead of a tricky three-game closing stretch against Michigan State, Illinois and Wisconsin, the first and third of which are at home. There’s a chance Purdue could have the regular season title secured by then if either the Badgers or Illini stumble during the next few weeks.
The biggest threat to the Boilermakers might be Illinois given the reinstatement of star guard Terrence Shannon Jr., who was charged with rape following an alleged incident in Kansas last year. With Shannon’s next court date getting delayed until May, there’s a strong chance he will be available for the remainder of the season for a team that might be peaking at the right time. Illinois has won five of its last six games and appears to have one of the more balanced and versatile rosters in the country. Head coach Brad Underwood has four players averaging at least 11 points per game and a starting lineup in which all five players measure between 6-foot-6 and 6-10. With an offense and defense both ranked among the top 30 nationally in efficiency, the Illini are well-positioned to make a postseason run, regardless of whether they catch Purdue in the Big Ten standings.
John Fanta: The Boilermakers are winning the Big Ten because they’ve gotten through the challenging road portions of their conference schedule, and Matt Painter’s team has lost twice all year to begin with. I would be downright shocked if Purdue didn’t win the league. To Michael’s point, look at the team’s next five games: the Boilers only play one team, a home game against Minnesota, which currently sits in the top half of the standings. While the Badgers are having a strong season, they lost their chance at winning the league this past week with the losses to Nebraska and Purdue. Plus, four of the next six games for Greg Gard’s team are on the road. The Illini have won three in a row, but a road test at Michigan State this Saturday could lead to a hiccup and Brad Underwood’s team plays three of their next four on the road, including a game at Maryland that has gotten more challenging. I agree with Michael on Illinois being the biggest threat, but they’re already facing a deficit in the conference race, and they’ve got a daunting two-game swing to tip off March when they go to Wisconsin and then host the first-place Boilers.
The fact is, the Big Ten regular-season title is just one snapshot in Purdue’s grand vision. Getting the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament is what this team is thinking about and finding redemption in March. Could the Boilers lose in the conference tournament? Sure, but this team isn’t losing its top spot in the league in my opinion, especially coupled with the fact that the Boilers are a combined 2-0 against the Illini and Badgers already. The upcoming schedule should allow them to keep coasting in a Big Ten that’s shorter in depth than it’s been the last couple of years. Even though the final stretch of Michigan State, at Illinois and Wisconsin is tricky to close the season, I’m not going to start doubting the 21-2 Boilermakers and their ability to win at Mackey Arena, where they are 11-0 this season.
Purdue Boilermakers’ Lance Jones is Michael Cohen’s Guard of the Week
We have reached the midway point of conference play. Who makes up your first-team All-America squad as we get set to enter the home stretch of the season?
Zach Edey, Purdue
Dalton Knecht, Tennessee
RJ Davis, North Carolina
Tristen Newton, UConn
DaRon Holmes II, Dayton
I actually feel somewhat bad for the first player left off the first-team All-America roster this season because the top slot on this team was handed out last summer when Edey announced he would be coming back to Purdue for his senior season. To average 23.1 points and 11.7 rebounds on 63% from the floor is generational productivity at the center position. If there’s a pet peeve I have in college basketball this season, it’s those who try to downplay Edey’s greatness because of his size.
While it’s quite obvious that Edey has the unfinished business of taking the Boilermakers on an NCAA Tournament run this year, there’s zero denying that he’s the most dominant player in college basketball. As for the remainder of the list, the 6-6 Knecht is the most surprising revelation in the sport this season. Yes, we knew he would impact the Volunteers, but for a Northern Colorado transfer to enter the SEC and become as good of a bucket-getter as any in college basketball? Nobody could have predicted that. Knecht has surpassed 30 points in four of his last seven outings, and he has done all of this while shooting 48% from the field and 39% from 3-point range. That’s remarkable efficiency for a guy scoring it as well as he has. With the level that Knecht can score, combined with the gear that Rick Barnes-led teams can hit defensively, it’s on the table for the Vols to reach the Elite Eight for just the second time in school history and first time since 2010. In the past, I’ve had trust issues with Tennessee’s offense. Knecht alleviates that with his ability to take over a game, and five players beyond him averaging at least 7.2 points per game.
I’m going with Davis and Newton because, yes, they are both having sensational seasons, but I’m also big on the idea that team success breeds individual honors. Let’s begin with Davis, who leads the ACC and is 11th nationally in scoring, averaging 21.3 points per game. He has raised his 3-point percentage from just around 36% to over 41% this season, not to mention he’s top 10 in the country at 92% from the free throw line. Davis accounts for roughly a third of the team’s offense per game all by himself between his scoring and passing. For this team to have a one-game lead in the ACC and the No. 3 ranking in the country, it’s really special to see what they’ve been able to do, and Davis has authored it for Hubert Davis.
As for the reigning national champions, when I sat down with Dan Hurley ahead of the season and asked him what it would take to repeat as national champions, this was his response:
Well, the sixth-year head coach was right. Newton has been spectacular in leading the Huskies to a 21-2 start to the season, averaging 15.6 points, 6.7 rebounds and 5.6 assists per game. Charging the No. 1 team in the country, he is the only active NCAA player who has eclipsed the career milestones of 1,700 points, 600 rebounds and 600 assists, and his three triple-doubles are the most among all active players. What stands out about Newton is just how balanced his total skill set is, and he understands when he needs to take over in the scoring column, something he’s been doing lately, as Michael notes below. He’s got a silent assassin nature about him, not known for being vocal but with a calm demeanor that blends nicely with the intense Hurley and his staff. One of his finest acts this year actually came in one of the Huskies’ losses. On a night when Connecticut was out of sorts offensively, Newton kept them in the game at Kansas, scoring 31 points in the Dec. 1 loss. I think that performance notched the senior on the national radar, and he’s only risen on it ever since, currently coming in at No. 4 in KenPom’s National Player of the Year rankings.
To cap off my list, I go with Holmes of Dayton, who is a real NBA Draft prospect with upside because of his 6-10 frame, paired with his shotmaking and rim protection abilities. He has led the 19-3 Flyers to a top-20 ranking by averaging 20 points, 7.6 rebounds and 2.5 assists per game, not to mention all the great things that he does on defense. He currently leads the A-10 in blocks, averaging 2.3 per game. His performance on Friday night in a win at St. Bonaventure was exceptional – 34 points, seven rebounds and four blocks while shooting 10-of-15 from the floor. If you took Holmes off Anthony Grant’s team, this team would still be one of the better squads in the A-10, but would not be in the at-large bid picture. Holmes puts them firmly in that place, hovering around the 6 and 7-lines.
Zach Edey, Purdue
Dalton Knecht, Tennessee
Tristen Newton, UConn
DaRon Holmes II, Dayton
Johni Broome, Auburn
John is correct in that Edey’s decision to return for his senior season sucked the life from some of the awards and honors that will inevitably go his way following another incredible year in which he’s averaging 23.1 points and 11.7 rebounds per game. The only thing that would have prevented Edey from claiming the top spot on nearly every All-American list and earning his second consecutive Naismith Men’s College Player of the Year trophy — which most folks agree he’ll claim in a few short weeks — was some kind of injury. He’s so good and so dominant at full health that his place atop the college basketball landscape goes largely unquestioned after everything he’s achieved the last two seasons. All that’s missing from Edey’s résumé is a deep postseason run.
The next two selections, Knecht and Newton, both have strong claims to be considered the best guard in the country this season. In Knecht’s case, it’s difficult to find a more impactful transfer than what the former zero-star recruit has brought to Tennessee after beginning his career at Northeastern Junior College (two years) and Northern Colorado (two seasons). The 6-6, 204-pound Knecht already has five 30-point outings, including a stretch of four such outbursts in five games during the second half of January. He’s averaging 19.9 points per game for a team ranked sixth in the latest AP Top 25 Poll. In Newton’s case, he’s leading Connecticut in scoring (15.6 points per game), rebounding (6.7 per game) and assists (5.6 per game), while tied for second in steals (1.2 per game). Over the last six games — all wins — Newton took his scoring to another level by averaging 17.7 points per game against Creighton, Villanova, Xavier, Providence, St. John’s and Butler.
Holmes and Broome, meanwhile, are excellent big men in their own right, though Edey still dwarfs them physically. The former is averaging 20 points and 7.6 rebounds per game for a Dayton team ranked 18th in the latest AP Poll. The Flyers are 19-3 overall with notable non-conference wins over St. John’s (21 points for Holmes) and Cincinnati (28 points for Holmes), and should be a popular dark horse in this year’s NCAA Tournament. Auburn’s Broome has developed into one of the most complete players in the country, a 6-10, 240-pound junior who influences games on both ends of the floor. He’s averaging 15.7 points and 8.8 rebounds per game — including 2.5 offensive boards per game — to lead the Tigers in both categories. Broome’s defensive prowess can be measured by his 2.3 blocks per game, which ranks seventh among players from the power conferences. He also ranks No. 9 in overall defensive value by EvanMiya.com.
Kentucky hosts Gonzaga this weekend in a rare February non-conference showdown. The Wildcats have lost three of their last five, while the Bulldogs sit at 17-6 and don’t have many more opportunities to get a résumé-boosting win. Which team needs a win more in this game?
Michael: From the standpoint of building an NCAA Tournament résumé, Gonzaga needs this game much more than Kentucky. The relative weakness of a West Coast Conference dominated by Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s has rendered the league a one- or two-bid outfit most years, though a strong San Francisco team could give the selection committee more to think about this season. But as of Tuesday afternoon, the Zags were still without a Quad 1 win in the NCAA Net Rankings, having lost their first five attempts against such opponents. And as their schedule currently stands, the only remaining chances to score a Quad 1 win would be in forthcoming road games against Kentucky (No. 27 NET), Saint Mary’s (No. 21 NET) and San Francisco (No. 63 NET) prior to the conference tournament. Non-conference losses to Purdue and UConn show Gonzaga was willing to schedule the best of the best, but failing to beat either team leaves head coach Mark Few still searching for a signature win. And while victories over USC, UCLA and Syracuse would be dynamite results most years, none of those programs are on track to make the NCAA Tournament this season.
Though Kentucky has dropped three of its last five games to South Carolina, Florida and Tennessee, two of those three defeats came against quality teams in the Gamecocks and Volunteers, both of which are ranked among the top 15 in the latest AP poll. Head coach John Calipari’s bunch have already scored noteworthy non-conference wins over Miami (95-73) and North Carolina (87-83), which showed how dangerous the Wildcats can be at their best. Remaining games against Ole Miss, Auburn and Tennessee should give Kentucky several chances to improve its résumé by beating higher-caliber opponents than what Gonzaga will face the rest of the way.
John: Gonzaga is currently in Mike Decourcy’s “Next Four Out” in his bracket forecast, so in terms of need, there is no question that the Bulldogs are the more desperate team entering this game. That being said, I’ll play the contrarian here and tell you why Kentucky could really use this game. This team reached as high as No. 6 in the country two weeks ago and was sitting in the top-five of my weekly FOX Sports rankings. I considered them a team that was a legitimate national championship contender, possessing the most upside in America with their loaded freshman class.
But part of life with having youth in college hoops is that you can go through the spell they’ve gone through recently. The other part of being young is that your defense can suffer, and right now in Lexington, it’s just plain poor.
The Wildcats aren’t even in the top 100 in KenPom adjusted defensive efficiency.
To give up 94 points in a loss to bubbly Florida at home, then allow 103 to Tennessee, also in Lexington, reflects where John Calipari’s team is on that end of the floor.
I love Rob Dillingham’s abilities, as he has combined for 75 points in the last three games, including a 35-point showing against Tennessee, and Reed Sheppard has posted a stellar freshman year as well. Additionally, I don’t think we talk enough about Antonio Reeves and the year the fifth-year senior is having. After being the Sixth Man of the Year in the SEC last season, it was murky whether he would return this year on a team stacked with five-star perimeter talent. Reeves has averaged over 19 points per game while shooting 44% from beyond the arc, a top-20 mark in the country.
But Kentucky doesn’t need to worry about scoring. They have a top-10 offense in America. For Dalton Knecht to shoot 5-for-14 in a game and only hit one 3, and for the Vols to hit the century mark in the scoring column in the same game, is a big eyebrow-raiser for Big Blue Nation.
Gonzaga is not a great perimeter-shooting team, currently at 33% from deep this season. Five players are averaging in double-figures and big man transfer Graham Ike has played better in the WCC, but the same offensive issues doomed the Zags in their 64-62 loss at home to Saint Mary’s over the weekend. This team is so reliant on Ryan Nembhard and Anton Watson to make them go. If UK can contain Nembhard, the Creighton transfer, the Wildcats should win this game. Gonzaga might need it more, but Kentucky has to show it should still be considered in the upper tier of teams, or else a cold spell this time of year could end up dooming them when March Madness rolls around. One other storyline to monitor is the health of DJ Wagner and big man Tre Mitchell, who missed Tuesday’s game against Vanderbilt with an ankle and back injury, respectively. You do not want to face the elite and have major holes defensively. That’s a formula to exit in the first weekend of the tournament.
Purdue is set to host in-state rival Indiana in a Big Ten matchup Saturday night. What must the Hoosiers do in order to pull off an upset?
John: This game isn’t being played in Utah in 1997, where a food-poisoning pizza flu could alter Zach Edey, Braden Smith and Fletcher Loyer’s chances to play, right? I’m only kidding. Look, the first thing that you need to do in order to be competitive with the Boilermakers is take away the 3-point line. That’s even more essential for Indiana, whose weakness this season has been perimeter shooting. The Hoosiers, who enter Saturday’s matchup against Purdue having dropped four of their last six contests, rank dead last in the Big Ten at just 5.1 made triples per contest while shooting 33% from beyond the arc. Edey is going to get his, having posted 33 points and 14 rebounds in Purdue’s 87-66 win at Assembly Hall on Jan. 16. And while Indiana locked up Smith, holding him to 2-for-14 from the field and 0-for-6 from downtown, Southern Illinois transfer Lance Jones filled the void nicely with 17 points on 7-of-12 in that game. Loyer scored 19 points on 5-of-6 from the floor, including 4-of-4 from 3-point territory in that first meeting.
Because teams can pack it in against the Hoosiers, it puts the big men in a tough spot, especially against the elite programs in America. If there’s something that has to flip for Indiana in this second meeting between the Hoosiers and Boilermakers, it’s Malik Reneau and Kel’el Ware packing more of a punch in their production level. The frontcourt duo, which combines to average over 31 points per game, was limited to just 13 combined points in the first meeting with the Boilers. They have to find a way to do more in this second meeting.
My X-factor for Mike Woodson’s team is 6-8 freshman wing Mackenzie Mgbako, who’s averaging more than 13 points per game over his last eight games and has settled into a better place offensively as the year has gone on. Mgbako has hit multiple 3s in six of the last eight contests, so perhaps that could be something that makes this a more competitive game, which Purdue will be a double-digit favorite in.
Indiana’s Mackenzie Mgbako throws an inbounds pass off an Iowa player’s back, picks it up and scores
Michael: The sentiment of John’s joke likely reflects how most people feel ahead of Saturday’s game. What is normally a fiery and fiercely contested in-state rivalry carries far less “oomph” this time around given the Hoosiers’ significant regression after losing stars Trayce Jackson-Davis (Round 2, Pick 57) and Jalen Hood-Schifino (Round 1, Pick 17) to the NBA Draft. A team that ranked 28th in offensive efficiency and 45th in defensive efficiency en route to earning a No. 4 seed in last year’s NCAA Tournament had sunk to 101st and 100th, respectively, ahead of Tuesday’s game against Ohio State. Indiana is spiraling no matter how you slice it: The Hoosiers are 101st in effective field goal percentage (52.3%), 332nd in free-throw percentage (66.5%), 214th in 3-point field goal percentage (32.9%), 300th in percentage of turnovers forced (15.4% of possessions), 228th in percentage of offensive rebounds allowed (30.3% of shots) and 211th in 3-point field goal defense (34.1%).
So, what’s the key for Indiana to potentially pull off an upset? It has to be 3-point defense, just as John noted, for the simple reason that the Hoosiers are ill-equipped to keep pace in a shooting contest. Where the Boilermakers have four players with at least 30 made 3s this season — Lance Jones (51), Fletcher Loyer (42), Braden Smith (32) and Mason Gillis (30) — the Hoosiers have just one in Mgbako (30). The only other Hoosier to have eclipsed 13 made 3s is Trey Galloway with 21. To have a chance, Indiana must make Saturday’s game into a 2-point contest instead of a 3-point contest.
Which team currently sitting outside the AP Top 25 could you see making a run down the stretch and earning a top-five seed in the NCAA Tournament?
Michael: One team to watch here is Virginia. The Cavaliers finished six spots outside the Top 25 in the latest AP Poll, but they’re 18-5 overall, 9-3 in the ACC and bring a seven-game win streak into their date with Florida State later this week. Head coach Tony Bennett’s team vanished from the national discussion during a rough patch that began with a loss to Memphis on Dec. 19 and continued through a lopsided loss to Wake Forest on Jan. 13, a stretch in which the Cavaliers lost four of six games. The defeat to then-No. 23 Memphis cost Virginia a chance to secure a quality non-conference win after getting blown out by Wisconsin (65-41) earlier this season, while ACC losses to Notre Dame, North Carolina State and Wake Forest dropped them to 2-3 in a league that isn’t particularly deep.
Since then, however, Virginia has won seven consecutive games on the strength of a defense ranked eighth nationally in efficiency, according to KenPom. The Cavaliers have held opponents to an average of 54.9 points per game during their winning streak, headlined by a 60-38 stomping of Miami on Monday night. The Hurricanes shot 28.6% from the field and made just two of 20 attempts from beyond the arc in that game. The nature of Virginia’s schedule gives the Cavaliers, who are 2-2 against Quad 1 opponents and 4-2 against Quad 2 opponents, a chance to make a significant climb as February gives way to March. Bennett’s team still has remaining games against No. 3 North Carolina (home, Feb. 24) and No. 9 Duke (away, March 2) that could propel them toward a top-five seed in the NCAA Tournament. It wouldn’t be surprising to see the Cavaliers sitting comfortably in the Top 25 entering postseason play.
John: The first three teams outside of the AP Top 25 are Saint Mary’s, TCU and Indiana State. The Gaels don’t have enough in the West Coast Conference to get up to the 5-line in my opinion, and would still likely be in an 8-9 game if the season ended today, if not in a 7-10 contest. While I like the Horned Frogs, three of their next four games are on the road and against Iowa State, Kansas State and Texas Tech. There are opportunities to move up in the Big 12, but TCU isn’t winning all of those games. And Indiana State is a terrific story led by head coach Josh Schertz, but the Sycamores don’t have the résumé to get that high.
So, who could make the move?
Let’s go to the conference that is one of the best stories in college basketball this season, and a team with a fifth-year senior who has stayed the course at his home school, has not left and now could lead them to history.
I’m talking about Isaiah Stevens and Colorado State. The Rams are currently a 6-seed in Mike Decourcy’s latest bracket forecast and are 18-5 on the season. Niko Medved’s team can score at such a high clip, currently holding the nation’s No. 21 offense, according to KenPom. Stevens, the 6-foot guard, is going to notch All-American honors, currently averaging 16.6 points and 7.1 assists per game. His latest performance: 16 points and 11 assists in a 75-62 win over an NCAA Tournament Boise State team on Tuesday. And here’s the thing: The Mountain West is currently projected to get five teams to the Big Dance, so there’s a window for CSU to keep building its profile.
Colorado transfer Nique Clifford has been a great option on the wing, while Patrick Cartier brings length and versatility to the fold and Joel Scott is a steady double-figure, 6-7 senior.
I really think this team has second-weekend potential and believe in their ability to keep rising up the ladder.
John Fanta is a national college basketball broadcaster and writer for FOX Sports. He covers the sport in a variety of capacities, from calling games on FS1 to serving as lead host on the BIG EAST Digital Network to providing commentary on The Field of 68 Media Network. Follow him on Twitter @John_Fanta.
Michael Cohen covers college football and basketball for FOX Sports with an emphasis on the Big Ten. Follow him on Twitter at @Michael_Cohen13.
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