As we progress further into conference play, one thing has been clear throughout the 2019-20 college basketball season: This year has been as nutty as ever. With Kansas State blowing out No. 12 West Virginia 84-68 on Saturday, that marks another top-25 upset in this whirlwind of a season.No. 4 Auburn and No. 5 Butler also fell to Florida and DePaul, respectively, adding themselves to the list of 14 top-five teams that have lost to unranked opponents so far. Ranked teams continued to struggle through the week of Monday, 1/13, as No. 3 Duke, No. 4 Auburn, No. 8 Oregon, and No. 10 Kentucky all lost to unranked conference foes on the road.
The madness at the top of the rankings continues.
With Florida beating No. 4 Auburn and DePaul beating No. 5 Butler today, 14 top-five teams have lost to unranked teams already this season.
That only happened six times all of last year. pic.twitter.com/ZdybK8Z2Ef
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 18, 2020
Women’s College Basketball Also Had its Fair Share of Upsets this Week.
No. 7 UCLA lost to unranked USC by two, No. 6 Oregon destroyed No. 3 Stanford 87-55, and No. 15 Indiana, No. 17 West Virginia, and No. 19 Missouri State all suffered losses to unranked teams.
So, what does all of this mean for this upcoming March? It’s essentially impossible for anyone to know, as so many of the teams that climbed to the top of the rankings this year ultimately failed to remain there.
I will attempt to make some sense of it all, in spite of the craziness that has been this year.
Here are my top men’s and women’s contenders, and my own early national championship predictions.
No. 1 Gonzaga Bulldogs (19-1, 5-0 West Coast):
The long-standing kings of the West Coast Conference have established themselves as a prime contender yet again in coach Mark Few’s 21st season at the helm. The Zags got off to a hot 8-0 start in non-conference play, beating No. 8 Oregon before falling to Michigan in the Battle 4 Atlantis Championship game 82-64 in November. They started conference play 14-1, and are now rolling through teams on an 11-game win streak.
Currently sitting at No. 4 in the 2020 Kenpom ratings, they lead all of college basketball in adjusted offensive efficiency with a blistering 117 points per 100 possessions. Gonzaga has an experienced roster, some of whom were part of the 2018-19 squad that reached the Elite Eight on the back of third-year phenom Rui Hachimura. Now, upperclassmen Corey Kispert and Killian Tillie play a significant role in leading the Zags.
The addition of Ryan Woolridge, the grad transfer guard from North Texas, brings more experience to the table. Seeing as they have taken care of business against Power-5 opponents and conference foes, the Bulldogs appear to be primed for another deep run in March.
No. 2 Baylor Bears (15-1, 5-0 Big 12):
Winners of now 14 straight games, Baylor already holds a number of impressive top-25 wins over Villanova, Butler, and Texas Tech, not to mention soon-to-be-ranked Arizona. However, the Bears firmly planted themselves in the championship conversation with a 67-55 blowout win over then-No. 3 ranked Kansas on January 11th.
The win only moved Baylor up two spots from No. 4 to No. 2, but Baylor’s all-around effort to give themselves their first-ever win in Allen Fieldhouse propelled the Bears to the top of the college basketball world.
Jared Butler leads the team with 16.9 PPG, and scored 19 on Saturday to help overcome a 12-point deficit to an Oklahoma State team that had not, and still has not, won a conference game. It was an ugly game overall, but a win is a win and the Bears are happy to have it.
No. 7 San Diego State Aztecs (19-0, 8-0 Mountain West):
After No. 4 Auburn fell earlier in the week to archrival Alabama, the Aztecs now remain the last undefeated team standing in the country. They continued their run with a 68-55 win over conference foe Nevada on Saturday. SDSU trailed by two at the half, but a quick 8-0 run allowed the Aztecs to put their stamp on the game and cruise to another victory.
Forward Yanni Wetzell led the way with 17 points and 16 rebounds, as four Aztecs scored double-digit points on the day. They used their defense, ranked 12th in defensive efficiency by Kenpom, to help them push past an off shooting night, holding the Wolfpack to just 28.1% from the field.
The Aztec defense is fifth in the nation in defensive points per game, serving as a constant base for the team. Upperclassmen Malachi Flynn, Wetzell and Matt Mitchell all average over 10 PPG, providing consistent offense and leadership which will only help as games start to get dicey down the stretch.
No. 9 Florida State Seminoles (16-2, 6-1 Atlantic Coast):
The final contender is surprisingly not the highest-ranked team in the ACC. Instead, it’s Florida State who should look to emerge as conference champions. After suffering a loss to the Pittsburgh Panthers to open the season, the Seminoles have now won 15 out of their last 16 games.
Led by their top-20 defensive rating by Kenpom, FSU got a huge boost by defeating No. 11 Louisville on the road by 13 points, adding to their signature win pile. The Seminoles have time to adjust against unranked opponents before they face the Blue Devils on February 10th. It will be interesting to see if they can improve their rebounding numbers, which are among the worst in the country.
Men’s Basketball Prediction:
Despite the current madness that is the college basketball landscape, Gonzaga and Baylor appear to be right on track for an April meeting in Atlanta. I see the Zags’ offense besting the highly rated Bears defense in a tight contest, 77-72.
No. 1 South Carolina Gamecocks (17-1, 5-0 SEC):
The Gamecocks have continued to cruise through their season, climbing all the way to the No. 1 ranking in the wake of the upsets that have occurred above them. Save for a slip up against currently-ranked No. 15 Indiana in November, USC has looked strong in all of their outings.
They have also padded their resume with five wins against top-25 teams, by an average margin of 14.6 points per victory. Now, the Gamecocks are entering a rough patch on their schedule in which they play four of their next six games against ranked teams.
They will start with a matchup against No. 10 Mississippi State on Monday and finish with another top-five battle against No. 4 UConn when they go to Columbia on February 10th. Freshmen Aliyah Boston and Zia Cooke will look to deliver a heavy dosage of the scoring, and the leadership of their two starting seniors should help propel South Carolina through to the end.
No. 2 Baylor Lady Bears (15-1, 4-0 Big 12):
After upsetting then-No. 1 UConn last week, the Lady Bears are now matching their male counterparts in the current AP rankings. They will continue to hold down that spot after this week’s contests, which ended with a 91-51 laugher over No. 17 West Virginia. The win marked their 45th straight regular season conference win, setting a new Big 12 record.
Similarly, to the No. 1 Gamecocks, the Lady Bears enjoyed a strong start to the season before falling to USC by 15. However, they can gloat over them in that they beat Indiana the game before.
Where the two teams’ outlook start to separate is in looking at the schedule for the rest of the season, as Baylor will not face any more currently ranked teams besides another matchup with the Mountaineers. Barring any surprises, the Lady Bears should emerge unscathed from Big 12 play and ready for another run in March.
No. 6 Oregon Ducks (14-2, 4-1 Pac-12):
Arizona State knocked the Ducks down a peg or four after upsetting Oregon at home 72-66 on January 10th. The Ducks have responded well since, beating two top-25 teams in No. 18 Arizona and No. 3 Stanford. They are led by phenom Sabrina Ionescu, who dropped 37 against Stanford to secure the mark of Oregon’s all-time leading scorer.
Now that the team appears to be back on track, their focus will need to stay at a high level. They’ll have the pleasure of playing a back-to-back against instate nemesis No. 8 Oregon State, as well as multiple ranked conference foes and a date with No. 4 UConn in early February.
No. 9 North Carolina State Wolfpack (15-1, 5-1 Atlantic Coast):
In terms of survival of the fittest, the Wolfpack has a strong case to be one of the last teams standing at the end of the season. With wins in each of their matchups against top-25 teams, N.C. State has shown their ability to compete successfully with the best of them.
Much like Baylor, they should cruise to a top seed in the ACC tournament. Their February 13th tilt with No. 5 Louisville will be their only meeting with a ranked opponent for the rest of the season. That game should have huge implications in determining who looks ready to separate themselves from the rest of the conference.
The Wolfpack will look to rely on the brilliance of sophomore center Elissa Cunane to possibly lead NCSU to a No. 2 seed in March.
Women’s Basketball Prediction:
South Carolina should continue to succeed through a tough remaining slate of games, as should Oregon. In a college basketball championship game full of fireworks, South Carolina will come out on top, 85-81.
All credits for stats and information given to ESPN and Kenpom.com.