Have you checked out on college basketball for a bit? As this is the first weekend without football since August, some of you might be bringing your attention back to the hardwood for the first time.
Here’s some storylines to keep an eye on as we head into the heart of the college hoops season.
Houston is incredible, but sometimes they can’t score
Kelvin Sampson’s Cougars are a force of nature defensively, as they can swarm you on the perimeter with elite athleticism and length. But sometimes they really struggle to find a way to put the ball in the basket.
You’ll see the Coogs go a couple of media timeouts between buckets at points, but their overwhelming presence gets them a ton of offensive rebounds off those misses (they recover 37.9% of their bricks, good for fourth in the nation).
But what UH does so well is defend the entire 94 feet; they hold opponents to just 26.3% from three-point range, and block 17.5% of their shots (the No. 1 rate in the country). They are also the No. 1 team by most of the computers, but not by the polls after their shocking home loss to Temple.
Purdue is really good, and they might have the best player
The Boilermakers are 22-1, with their only loss coming at home to a very good Rutgers team (yes, Rutgers is actually good). Junior center Zach Edey is 7’4, but moves like a gazelle and is the most unstoppable force offensively in the game right now. If he catches the ball within 10 feet of the rim, it’s usually over as he can shoot as well as dunk.
If Purdue has a flaw, its that their not super-athletic, and they haven’t exactly surrounded Edey with three-point shooters (33.9% as a team). But they’re outstanding at defending without fouling, and they rebound at an elite level.
But Purdue’s past failures (no Final Four since 1980, head coach Matt Painter has been to one Elite Eight in 12 seasons) hang over this team like a guillotine. Until they do it in March, they won’t have a lot of believers.
The bubble has plenty of teams you recognize
Kentucky is currently one of the last four teams in the NCAA Tournament according to ESPN’s Joe Lunardi, and they’d have to play in Dayton in the First Four just to get in the main draw. They’d be there with Oklahoma State and West Virginia as well, but the thought of Preseason Player of the Year Oscar Tshiebwe missing the tournament is real.
Last year’s Elite Eight darlings Arkansas are on the bubble too, and Bobby Hurley’s Arizona State team aren’t getting in at all unless they can beat some of the top teams in the Pac-12 at some point.
The game is in a good place
If you don’t watch a ton of college basketball outside of filling out a bracket, you’ll probably enjoy how the game is being played now more than at any time in recent memory.
More teams are running sophisticated, European-style offenses that focus more on motion and less on set plays. The level of skill and athleticism, particularly around the Top 100 schools, is stronger than it has ever been. Because of the depth of talent, there’s more parity than we’ve ever seen (only one team, No. 1 Purdue, doesn’t have multiple losses this season).
It’s a good time to be a fan of the sport. Now if only the referees knew how to blow the whistle consistently.