College basketball roundtable: 5 burning questions heading into a jam-packed weekend

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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

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

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 Te

…. to be continued
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Publish date : 2024-02-09 01:47:09

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