It’s only three weeks into the season, and we have already had three different teams hold the No. 1 ranking in the country. The latest school to grab the top spot is Gonzaga, and if the Zags can remain unscathed over their next four games (at Creighton, vs. Washington, at Tennessee, and at North Carolina), there is a good chance that they will finish the regular season at No. 1 due to their relatively easy conference schedule. Remaining undefeated for the entire regular season will be no easy task, but do not forget that the Zags will get a boost in January when sharpshooting PF Killian Tillie returns from injury.
The current AP Top 25 features a number of teams that figure to hang around all season and be in contention for the National Championship in March, including Gonzaga, Duke, Kansas, North Carolina, and Virginia. It remains to be seen if some of the upstart squads, such as Iowa, Ohio State, and Buffalo have the staying power to remain among the elite. At the same time, at least a few teams that are currently unranked figure to climb into contention, and below, I will discuss some dark-horse teams that could break through and make a run during March Madness.
When attempting to project which teams might emerge as the season progresses, it’s logical to consider potential, and one way to measure team potential is by determining the collective pro talent on each squad. From time to time, we here at Hoops Prospects do just that – we tally up all of the pro prospects on each team from our entire draft board (400-plus players, including international players), and use a point system that weighs each player’s ranking, with the highest rankings receiving the most points. For example, a top-25 player is worth more than a player who is ranked between 51 and 100.
For a number of reasons, Hoops Prospects’ team rankings are fairly different from the current AP Top 25 and the NCAA’s new NET ranking system, which has many thinking that the RPI system wasn’t so bad after all. Hoops Prospects’ team rankings basically show which teams have the most collective pro potential, which is not the same thing as which are the best college teams at the present moment. Our team rankings significantly favor long-term potential, and talented youngsters who may not be significant factors on the floor at this time will still increase their team’s ranking, so a 5-star recruit like Kentucky’s Ashton Hagans will still boost his team’s ranking even though he is currently struggling. Also, winning in college basketball involves more than talent, as coaching, style of play, execution, experience, and team defense are all significant factors (see Wisconsin and Virginia as examples). And we all know that being a great college player often doesn’t equate to making it as a pro.
Duke tops our current team rankings, followed by Kentucky, Kansas, North Carolina, and Gonzaga, in that order. Some surprise teams in our current top 20 are UCLA, LSU, and Texas, which is mainly due to the deep and talented freshmen classes at those schools. All three of those teams should improve as the season goes along and could make some noise in March.
One team that is very likely to surge as the season progresses is the Iowa State Cyclones, who have jumped out to 6-1 start without four key players, all of whom averaged at least 27 minutes per game last season. Iowa State’s only loss over that span was a tight contest vs. Arizona in Maui, but observers remain skeptical because the team’s best win came over San Diego State. The Cyclones have received solid production from veterans Nick Weiler-Babb (PG/SG), Michael Jacobson (PF), Marial Shayok (SF), and freshmen Talen Horton-Tucker (SF) and Tyrese Haliburton (SG/PG). Very soon they will be joined by center Cameron Lard and SF Zoran Talley, both of whom are expected to be back next week after serving suspensions, and star point guard Lindell Wigginton and PF Solomon Young should return from injuries by the end of December. Last season, Lard led the team in rebounding (8.1 RPG) and blocked shots (2.2 BPG), while Wigginton led the squad in 3-point shooting (40%) and scoring (16.7 PPG).
An inexperienced LSU Tigers squad is going to take its lumps in the highly competitive and talented SEC Conference, but the Tigers have the pieces to make a serious run in March if they can develop and mature over the course of the season. Of the five Tigers who are averaging more than 20 minutes per game, three are freshman and one is a sophomore, and after a 5-0 start to the season, the team’s inexperience showed in back-to-back losses to Florida State and Oklahoma State last weekend – the Tigers struggled to rebound, committed too many turnovers, and allowed a total of 169 points. Coming into the season, the Tigers’ recruiting class (four in the top 100), led by PF/C Naz Reid (12.1 PPG), was considered the fourth best in the country, trailing only Duke, Kentucky, and Oregon, and they returned their top scorer from last season, sophomore PG Tremont Waters. As of now, Waters appears to be struggling to mesh with his new teammates, as his scoring and shooting percentages have dropped significantly, while he is averaging a whopping 4.1 turnovers per game (up more than one per game over last season).
Don’t completely write-off the Indiana Hoosiers, who were demolished by Duke on Tuesday night. For starters, 5-star freshman Romeo Langford, who is currently ranked No. 4 on the Hoops Prospects Draft Board, is not going to have many more dreadful games, if any, as he did against the Blue Devils (3-of-15 from the floor). Also, power forward Juwan Morgan typically can be relied upon to produce double what he did against Duke (8 points, 4 rebounds). Additionally, the Hoosiers were not completely healthy for that game. Shooting guard Devonte Green and small forward Zach McRoberts had just returned from recent injuries, and both saw limited minutes. Powerful center De’Ron Davis is coming off a serious Achilles injury suffered last season, and he is not yet up to full speed. And 4-star recruit Jerome Hunter has yet to make his Indiana debut because of a leg injury. Michigan and Michigan State appear to be the best teams in a very balanced Big Ten, but the Hoosiers could be right there with them if they can get completely healthy.
Losing three starters, including star PF Bonzie Colson, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish are predicted to finish in the bottom half of the loaded ACC Conference. Duke, UNC, and UVA should be fighting for the conference title, while Florida State, Virginia Tech, Louisville, and Syracuse are a strong second-tier group. Coach Mike Brey certainly has his work cut out for him, and his squad is off to a sluggish start, but there are reasons for optimism. Sophomore SF D.J. Harvey, who is coming off microfracture surgery, is slowly rounding into form and is making 42 percent of his 3-pointers. UConn transfer Juwan Durham, also a sophomore, is developing into a rim-protecting force, averaging an eye-popping 8.7 blocks per 40 minutes. Junior combo guard T.J. Gibbs, a reliable veteran, and three top-100 freshmen are also in the mix. The Fighting Irish might be a year away from making serious noise, but don’t be surprised if Brey finds a way to get this young bunch into the Big Dance.
Perhaps no other conference in the country has more sleeper teams than the PAC-12. The conference is filled with young talent, and the title is up for grabs. The Oregon Ducks, who feature the top prospect in the conference, Bol Bol, a mobile 7-2 center with an outside shot, are the only Pac-12 team ranked among the AP Top 25, but they will not be there for long after losing to Texas Southern on Monday. Oregon, however, figures to improve as Bol and fellow freshmen Will Richardson and Louis King mature and develop. So far, King, a top-20 recruit, has played just two minutes this season due to injury.
The UCLA Bruins and the USC Trojans join Oregon in the Hoops Prospects top 15. UCLA is a very young team, but the Bruins are loaded with pro potential. On paper, the lineup of C Moses Brown, PF Chris Smith, SF Kris Wilkes, SG Jules Bernard, and PG Jaylen Hands is imposing, but the Bruins’ inexperience, poor defense, and lack of strength have been exposed against the likes of Michigan State and North Carolina. USC, meanwhile, has a nice blend of youth and experience, led by freshman wing Kevin Porter (14 PPG) and senior big men Bennie Boatwright (17.8 PPG) and Nick Rakocevic (13.8 PPG). The Trojans also have three former highly regarded recruits who have yet to live up to their potential in PG Derryck Thorton, SF Shaqquan Aaron, and SG Chuck O’Bannon. Thorton and Aaron are currently making solid contributions, but O’Bannon, a sophomore who is currently out with a finger injury, has been a non-factor during his time at Southern Cal.
Two other teams to watch in the PAC-12 are the Washington Huskies, an experienced and athletic club that can cause problems with a Syracuse-like 2-3 matchup zone defense, and the Arizona State Sun Devils, who feature the explosive duo of freshman Lugentz Dort (23 PPG) and sophomore Kimani Lawrence (15.4 PPG), both of whom are making better than 43 percent of their 3-point shots.