We’re now just a couple of weeks or so away from having an NCAA tournament bracket, which means a bunch of people who have watched college basketball in varying degrees are going to be confronted with unusual (to them) names like San Diego State and Dayton in prominent places on the bracket. With that in mind, ESPN.com’s panel of college basketball experts discussed what they expect out of SDSU and UD, tried to make sense of a Big 12 with multiple prominent storylines, and made their picks for a wealth of this week’s top contests.
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We’re going to get to bracket time with enduring questions about mid-major mystery teams Dayton, San Diego State and, to some extent, Gonzaga. What do you think having these three teams at or near the top line says about college basketball in 2019-20, and which of these teams are you most worried about once they rejoin the national stage in the NCAA tournament?
Myron Medcalf, senior college basketball writer: I think, more than anything, it proves that in years without an outlier, such as 2011-12 Kentucky or 2014-15 Duke, teams stacked with talented veterans will rise to the top of the college basketball, and when the Power 5 schools aren’t blessed with multiple first-round picks, the gap between those schools and everyone else shrinks. But I also think we’re still stuck with the “mid-major” labels in the back of our collective conscience, even though these schools outperformed and outspent those labels years ago. Gonzaga has done this for two decades. Dayton, ranked 22nd overall, had a higher average attendance (12,957) last season than Iowa, Michigan or Illinois. San Diego State is on pace to complete its third season with 30 or more wins since 2011. Those teams have been capable of long runs for years. But the parity means those teams can all win it in Atlanta.
I think Dayton is the team that could have the most trouble in the NCAA tournament. The Flyers have made a ridiculous 62.1% of their shots inside the arc. If this lasts the entire season, it would be the No. 2 mark of the KenPom era. (Belmont made 62.6% of its attempts in 2015-16.) But they’ve been ranked 65th in adjusted defensive efficiency since Feb. 1, per barttorvik.com. You figure they might cool off at some point, even with Obi Toppin leading the way, and if the defense is slipping, that could pose problems once UD faces elite competition in the postseason.
Jeff Borzello, college basketball insider: It says a few things about the 2019-20 season. While those three teams being near the top line might reflect the parity elsewhere in college basketball, their ability to earn 1- or 2-seeds shows how spread out the talent is in the sport this season. Obi Toppin is a future lottery pick, Malachi Flynn averaged 15 points per game in the Pac-12 and is now a Wooden Award candidate, and Gonzaga is Gonzaga.
Dayton, San Diego State and Gonzaga are all legitimately very good basketball teams, and the addition or emergence of one or two players is sometimes enough to completely change the trajectory of a season. That said, I’m worried the most about San Diego State. Dayton has Toppin, Jalen Crutcher, some versatility and an elite offense. Gonzaga has done this before. But San Diego State can be susceptible with the wrong draw. Now, if Nathan Mensah can come back and make an impact, that would eliminate some of my concern about the Aztecs.
John Gasaway, college basketball writer: The excellent seasons recorded by the Flyers, the Aztecs and, for the millionth time in a row, the Bulldogs tell us that this is a glorious time in college basketball. The Bastille has been stormed, yes? Excellence can arise from anywhere, it’s not the exclusive possession of the major conferences. Speaking structurally, the game is thriving.
Speaking more specifically, I’m most concerned about Dayton based purely, it must be confessed, on recency effect. The Flyers actually haven’t looked all that hot on offense in three of their past four games (all wins, to be sure). Possibly that’s a blip and, anyway, the upcoming home game against a so-so Davidson defense could be the cure for any trifling ailments afflicting UD’s offense. Still, the micro-trend does make one wonder if perhaps word got out, finally, on how to defend not so much Toppin and Crutcher (they’ve been great) as much as the other three guys in this continuity ball-screen offense.
Jordan Schultz, insider/analyst: It’s rare to have an entire season full of so much doubt — both in terms of the Wooden Award and in terms of a top 10 this fluid — but it has provided mid-majors an opportunity to showcase themselves. To be sure, all three of have been a model of consistency. I can’t go against Dayton because of Obi Toppin and the Flyers’ overall offensive balance. Nor can I go against the Zags because few teams anywhere can match their talent — there are four, maybe five pros on Mark Few’s roster — and nobody can match their nation-leading adjusted offensive efficiency.
That leaves us with the Aztecs, who’ve suddenly looked vulnerable — specifically offensively — after a 26-0 start to the season. After a shocking home loss to UNLV in which SDSU shot just 39% and had more turnovers (12) than assists (9), Brian Dutcher’s team narrowly defeated lowly Colorado State while shooting just 35%. Offense is the name of the game in the tournament, and dry spells like this can mean an early exit in March.
The Big 12 has gotten rather interesting. Tell us 1) which team you’d pick should Kansas and Baylor meet for a third time in the Big 12 tournament final, and 2) whether Texas’ resurgence or West Virginia’s collapse is the most meaningful storyline from further down the standings.
Gasaway: When future chroniclers write the history of this Big 12 season, I suspect they’ll pay equal measures of tribute to the defenses of Baylor and Kansas, both of which are amazing. But the Jayhawks’ offense is just better than BU’s, in large part because Udoka Azubuike has recorded 93(!) dunks so far this season. The Bears make up some of that difference by being far superior on the offensive glass, but, again, 93 dunks. I would pick KU in a third meeting.
As for this second query, it was just 12 days ago when the reports first emerged saying that John Beilein might exit the Cleveland Cavaliers job sooner than expected. Everyone then (rightly!) speculated that Beilein might return to the college game by way of the head-coaching job at Texas, where a vacancy was widely presumed to be imminent. So, yes, the Longhorns’ subsequent resurgence is indeed a highly meaningful storyline.
Medcalf: I think Kansas made its mark on Saturday. That was just a dominant performance on the road against America’s No. 1 team. And it’s just hard to imagine a scenario in which full-strength Kansas loses to Baylor again. Plus, they’d meet in Kansas City in the Big 12 tournament finale. The entire Sprint Center would be blue.
I think Texas’ resurgence is more fascinating because Shaka Smart Watch is one of the biggest storylines in college basketball. He’s owed more than $10 million if Texas decides to move on. That potential opening could become the first domino in a multitude of coaching hires this offseason. I don’t think Smart has met his personal expectations for the program. But I also know that teams often move on and make the wrong hire after assuming they’d found a quick fix. Between the money, the $300 million arena opening next year and UT’s recent surge (if this surge continues, of course), the Longhorns might have a more complicated decision than many realize.
Borzello: I think Kansas has established itself as the team with clearly the best résumé in college basketball, but I’ll go with Baylor in the rubber match. The Bears had one of their worst collective outings last weekend in the Kansas win, with their four guards shooting a combined 12-for-38 from the field and 6-for-17 from 3-point range. And Udoka Azubuike had the best game of his career for the Jayhawks. I just don’t see both things happening again in two weeks.
I’ll go with West Virginia’s collapse just so I can toot my own horn here and say that I predicted the Mountaineers free-falling a few weeks ago in this very column when discussing which teams would likely drop out of the top 16 teams on Selection Sunday. No big deal. West Virginia is a mess right now, especially on offense. The Mountaineers have gone 7-for-44 from 3 in their past three games. Also, Texas has a long way to go to get in the NCAA tournament discussion, despite the three-game winning streak. The win over West Virginia on Monday was the Longhorns’ first victory over an NCAA tournament team.
Schultz: It’s hard to decipher between Kansas and Baylor, because they mirror each other in terms of defensive prowess, physicality and, to a degree, personnel. That being said, I’d nudge toward the Bears. We don’t talk enough nationally about Jared Butler (15.7 PPG on 39.2% on 3s) and the dramatic impact that Division III transfer Freddie Gillespie has made. I thought the KU guards were bothered by Gillespie in the paint because of his ability to slide laterally and contain straight-line drives. Again, this is very close because I love Devon Dotson and the way he controls a game, but Scott Drew has a bona fide title contender in Waco.
I haven’t a clue about what has happened in Morgantown. West Virginia was rolling, deploying a suffocating brand of defense while scoring just enough to be deemed a threat in the league. But somewhere along the way, the Mountaineers stopped guarding and stopped scoring. That’s my pump fake, though, because Shaka Smart has the Longhorns — winners of three straight — playing some great ball. At 17-11 (7-8 Big 12) with a quality win over Bob Huggins & Co., dynamic backcourt play has keyed the Horns. Matt Coleman continues to shoot it at a high clip while also guarding his position, Courtney Ramey has been a lightning rod offensively and junior Andrew Jones looks fully recovered and comfortable.
Our Jeff Borzello wrote this week on Gonzaga assistant coach Tommy Lloyd, an incredibly important part of the Bulldogs’ success over the past two decades. If you had to hire one current Division I assistant to helm your program, other than Lloyd, whom would you pick and why?
Medcalf: I think Baylor’s Alvin Brooks III would be a great choice to run a program. He was an original member of Bruce Weber’s Kansas State staff before he moved to Waco in 2016. Scott Drew’s staffers are involved in all aspects of film preparation and game strategy, so Brooks has been a critical component for one of America’s best teams. He’s the son of former Houston coach Alvin Brooks Jr. And by all accounts, he’s ready to take on a head-coaching job, especially after the success he has helped Baylor attain thus far. Great story by Borzello, too.
Borzello: That was a great story by Borzello. Most of the names thrown around this spring will be young assistants looking for their first shot at running a program, but I think one name that will likely be mentioned by nobody is Florida State’s Stan Jones.
Jones has been Leonard Hamilton’s right-hand man since Hamilton was at Miami, following him to the NBA with the Washington Wizards and then moving to Tallahassee in 2002 when Hamilton was hired there. Jones is considered one of the better X’s and O’s assistant coaches in the country and has helped build some of the best recruiting classes in the country over the past 20 years. He’s rarely mentioned for other jobs, but I think he would certainly be a good option to run his own show.
Schultz: You killed this piece, Borzello! And I love the question because there are so many good assistants around the country. My guy? Jason Hart, who’s been at USC for seven years and most recently turned down Washington head coach Mike Hopkins’ offer in 2017. (Hopkins was the graduate assistant at Syracuse when Hart earned first-team All Big East honors and was eventually named to the school’s All-Century team.)
Hart, 41, has established himself nationally as an excellent recruiter who relates to players and families alike. (His son, Jason Hart Jr., class of 2022, is also a point guard and already drawing interest from an array of schools.) He has helped the Trojans secure blue-chip prospects like Bennie Boatwright, Chimezie Metu, De’Anthony Melton and most recently, Onyeka Okongwu, a potential top-five pick.
Better yet, Hart’s contract will be up after this season, and you can rest assured he will draw tremendous interest for a head-coaching gig. The Los Angeles native and 11-year NBA veteran point guard is known to be both fiery and fair with players, often lending a hand in X’s and O’s during games as well as film study. It’s only a matter of time before Hart secures a head-coaching role.
Gasaway: That really was a great story by Borzello! So, right. If I’m an AD, I’m hiring Texas associate head coach Luke Yaklich as my next head coach. Then I’m ordering him to reduce the number of timeouts my team calls. Alas, I digress. Anyway, with Coach Yaklich, my defense will terrorize opposing teams no later than the second season. My new coach will absolutely not morph before my horrified eyes into a weird, overprivileged tyrant who alienates the roster and scares off recruits. (Yaklich is a chill aw-shucks Midwestern sort who taught high school until 2013.) Best of all, I’ll win the news conference, as they say in the business. Coach Yak is widely known as a defensive wizard.
ESPN.com expert picks for this weekend’s top games
(Lines, when available, from Caesars Sportsbook. Predictors do not have access to lines when making score predictions.)
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