At this points last season, Kentucky was undefeated and looked like they would never lose, Frank Kaminsky and Jahlil Okafor had already made the Wooden Award a two-man race, and Gonzaga appeared good enough to reach the Final Four for the first time in school history (sorry Zag Nation).
This year, the entirety of the season is still in the air. No one seems to be able to latch on to the number one spot, the Wooden Award is still undecided, and there have been surprising teams in each and every conference. Undoubtedly, we could guess the Final Four will look something like Kansas, North Carolina, Michigan State, Maryland, with schools like Oklahoma, Xavier, and Duke still looking like legitimate contenders. In recent weeks, we’ve some schools and players trending the right direction, while others need to find some stability quickly if they’re going to keep March dreams alive.
Clemson Tigers – When the Tigers dropped a home game to UMass by 17 in November, I assumed the Tigers would be doomed when it came time for ACC. This season’s ACC is looking like the old Big East – if your team doesn’t bring your A game night in and night out, the likelihood is that you’ll find little success. Well, Clemson has brought their A game each night since conference play started, currently boasting a 5-1 record in conference play, with their only loss coming against my National Championship pick, North Carolina. Included in those five conference wins are victories against #16 Louisville, #9 Duke, and #8 Miami where Clemson played as the underdog. Jaron Blossomgame has been opening scouts’ eyes, putting up almost 20 PPG in his last three games, carrying the Tigers. I highly doubt Clemson’s success will continue in this fashion, but they’ll be a tough out come March.
Iowa Hawkeyes – Though they started the week outside the top 15, the Iowa Hawkeyes have been playing like a top five team this week. Wins on the road against Purdue and Michigan State paired with a home victory over the Spartans and Michigan have alerted the nation as to what the Hawkeyes are capable of in a gruesome Big Ten Conference. If Iowa had hung on to the 20 point lead they had on the road against in-state rival Iowa State, perhaps we’d be looking at these games differently. Nevertheless, to knock off the Spartans twice is an accomplishment that will certainly help the Hawkeyes with seeding when March rolls around. The chemistry between Jarrod Uthoff and Mike Gesell gives Iowa confidence, and Peter Jok has become a dynamic scorer for the Hawkeyes.
Louisville’s Chinanu Onuaku – Last year, Onuaku’s game was largely overshadowed by the dominating play of Montrezl Harrell. There weren’t too many low block touches available for him, and his numbers suffered as a result. This season has been a completely different story for the big man. In the last four games, Chinanu has posted 14 points, over 12 rebounds, and nearly 3 blocks per game, recording double doubles in each of those games. With his great play in the low block, strong hands grabbing rebounds, and slick passing, Nanu has done wonders for his draft stock, while also helping Louisville re-emerge as a legitimate contender in this year’s ACC. Onuaku plays much like Andrew Bogut, using his savvy in combination with his physical skills to become the most dominant player on the court. For the season, Chinanu is averaging 10.5 points and 8.8 rebounds per game. If he can elevate those numbers and continue his hot streak, Louisville is likely to catch fire as ACC play continues.
Kentucky Wildcats – For the first time since 2000, UK lost to Auburn. Unfortunately for the Wildcats, that isn’t the only reason they find themselves on this list. When UK knocked off Duke at the very beginning of the season, they appeared to be on track to have a season with similar success to last year’s team. Then, losses to UCLA, Ohio State, and LSU (all unranked) revealed some of the major blemishes in this year’s Cats. Perhaps the biggest disappointment for Kentucky this season has been freshman sensation Skal Labissiere. Coming into 2015-2016, Labissiere was supposed to assume the role that was vacated by Karl Anthony-Towns last season. Thus far, he has appeared overmatched, averaging only 7.9 points and 3.3 rebounds per game. His block average of 1.6 per game shows that he is not a lost cause, and as we know, the season is still very young. This Kentucky team is eerily similar to the team of two seasons ago that finished the regular season 29-11, but eventually went on to the National Championship game, where they fell just short of a miraculous run with a loss to UConn. The Cats are weak for now, but the long-term reality is that Coach Cal will get this team trending the right direction when it matters, making them as dangerous as any team in the tournament.
California Golden Bears depth – Cal came into this season with three players ranked in the preseason top 100 by CBS and had a lot of optimism as a program. Those three players (Jaylen Brown, Tyrone Wallace, and Ivan Rabb) have all had solid years thus far, and the other two members of the starting five, Jabari Bird and Jordan Matthews, have provided production as well. The problem for California has been finding any production outside of those five guys. The sixth highest scorer for the Bears averages a meager 4 points per game. In a season as long as the college basketball season is, relying on the starting five for the entirety of the points is a strategy that simply cannot work. If Cal wants to be a team capable of a deep March run, the starting five is going to need some serious help. Even with that being said, this is a team no one wants to face in March.
Mississippi State’s Malik Newman – A member of the ESPN 100 before the season started, I had high hopes for Malik Newman. His high school film looks like a cross between Steph Curry and Tracy McGrady, but playing against some formidable competition has drastically slowed him down. Currently boasting a field goal percentage of 41.3%, Newman has been a part of a four game skid for the Bulldogs that has left them at the very bottom of the relatively weak SEC. To this point in the season, Newman has only been able to average 13 points, 3 rebounds, and 2 assists per game; but if there’s one thing I’m confident in, it’s that he’ll eventually figure out a way to get his buckets. His jumpshot could be suffering from fatigue, adding muscle, or any number of hindrances, but once he controls it and learns how to play at an elite level, watch out.
Photo: Richard Shiro (Associated Press)