By Matthew Soderberg | Sports Writer
In my last column, I didn’t take San Diego State seriously. I still don’t know if they’re real, or anyone else really, but I do think college basketball fans are in for one of the wildest tournaments in recent memory.
To win 23 games in a row is insane, but just like the football team, it almost seems like they’re getting pretty lucky through this streak. According to KenPom, the Bears are the second-luckiest team in the conference, and the close wins and leads given up recently show it.
Baylor’s key to winning it all comes down to if they can make shots from deep. The Bears have shot just 32% from behind the arc since conference play started, and without MaCio Teague on the floor, Baylor also lacks the depth to rest their star offensive playmakers.
The Green and Gold are definitely title contenders this season, but they will need to get hot and stay hot throughout March and into April to take home a trophy or two.
Another team with only one loss, the Bulldogs have the best offense in the country, according to KenPom. They have seven players averaging at least 10 points a game, and the second-highest field goal percentage in Division I.
The Achilles Heel for Gonzaga is their No. 36 defensive efficiency, just above Liberty and UNC Greensboro. The Bulldogs have average shot-blocking, and considering their size, it should probably be higher, but they’re missing defensive monster Brandon Clarke, who left for the NBA after last season.
They can outscore anyone put in front of them, and they’ve showed in past seasons that their soft conference schedule won’t hurt them by tournament time, but there’s no dominance here. A good defense, like Baylor or Kansas, could shut down their shooting and send them home prior to the Final Four.
Perhaps the most balanced team in the country, the Jayhawks have one of their best squads in the past 20 years. They have the top-rated defense thanks to anchor Udoka Azubuike and a top-10 offense with Devon Dotson’s inside-out game alongside the center.
The biggest issue is that Azubuike is not good on the offensive end. He can’t shoot, and if he gets fouled, he definitely can’t make the free throws. He hasn’t gotten played off the floor in conference play, but the Big 12 doesn’t feature a dominant offense this season.
If Azubuike can continue to be more a dominant plus on offense than he is a devastating negative on the other end, Kansas can win a title for the first time since 2008.
San Diego State
Who would have thought? Gonzaga isn’t surprising. Dayton isn’t nearly as surprising as SDSU. The Aztecs have rolled through this season undefeated, and KenPom has them as a legitimate contender.
San Diego State is the only school in the country with a top-seven offense and defense, and their style and bottom-30 tempo align with title contention. The biggest issue is that they will never have the best player on the floor from the second round onward.
There’s no Kawhi Leonard on this squad. Malachi Flynn is a good point guard and might get picked in the second round of the NBA Draft this June, but even some bubble high-major squads will out-talent the Aztecs. Their scheme and organization will have to carry this team to glory, otherwise, they could be in line for a big upset early.
Another mid-major stepping up to the plate! This is different than Gonzaga and SDSU: they’ll have the best player on the floor in most matchups the rest of the way. Obi Toppin is a legitimate star this year and will probably be a top-10 pick in the upcoming draft.
The Flyers have the second-best offense in the country, and Toppin’s 19.4 PPG could drive them to titletown. Their defense is just worse than even Gonzaga’s. They are below average in steal and block percentages, and Toppin hasn’t found a true calling on the other side of the court.
This year might be the year for the mid-major, or at least the fall of the blue bloods, but there’s been very little consistency anywhere, and whoever steps up come March will likely take home a title, no matter the talent level.