Heat Check Herald: Making sense of a historic weekend, an unprecedented NPOY race and trustable guards in March

The college basketball community has quite literally never seen a day as wild as what occurred Saturday. According to ESPN Stats & Info, there had never in the history of the sport been a day in which each of the top 5 teams in the AP Poll lost, but when the dust settled on Feb. 26, each of the top 6 and seven of the top 10 ranked teams in the country had taken losses.

For some reason, chaos doesn’t quite feel like an apt word to describe what went down on the hardwood across the nation this weekend.

After all, Auburn, Kansas and Kentucky were each underdogs facing road games against ranked squads. Those losses didn’t necessarily put a shock into the collective viewing systems, but adding to them upset wins from 10-plus point underdogs with No. 23 Saint Mary’s taking down No. 1 Gonzaga, and Colorado taking down No. 2 Arizona, and one can certainly understand anyone who felt overwhelmed by the March-like feeling of the second to last day of the second month of 2022.

The six losses from the top 6 teams essentially canceled out things when it came to most bracketologists interpretation of resumés. With 11 Quad 1 wins — and the title of reigning national champion — Scott Drew’s Baylor Bears likely head back to the 1 line after a 10-point victory over No. 5 Kansas, replacing an Auburn squad that has lost their past three road games (and have played five straight road games within a five-point margin).

Interestingly enough, the contrast between what brackets are projecting, what analytics like KenPom and Torvik have and the general consensus of the AP Poll provides three different perspectives. In my HC Poll ballot I voted Kentucky No. 2 despite their six losses and poor non-conference schedule, because their per-100 possession efficiency numbers are strong and (when healthy) they are as scary athletically as any team in the nation. Providence and Wisconsin — both teams outside the top 25 in KenPom as of this writing — have legitimate cases to be made for making the 2 line of the bracket right now.

The contrasting beliefs from the three viewpoints feels indicative of the common belief that there are 10-plus teams that could cut down the nets in New Orleans in April. So instead of describing this weekend as chaos, I’d call it a lead-in, because it should serve as a preview of an unforgettable March of basketball.

Now, onto this week’s Herald insights:

Oscar Tshiebwe remains leader in crowded NPOY race

By the first week of March we usually have our decisions just about made up about who should be the national player of the year. But this year a variety of names are still hanging around the conversation. It seems the consistency of Kentucky forward Oscar Tshiebwe’s prominent rebounding numbers (he averages a nation-leading 15.3 rebounds per game) gives him the edge at the moment, but it could wind up going to so many different players.

Tshiebwe wound up with 30 points and 18 rebounds in Kentucky’s 75–73 loss to Arkansas this Saturday in Fayetteville, but the performance was more than good enough in defeat to keep as the leader in the award race. Kansas guard Ochai Agbaji scored 27 points in the Jayhawks’ loss to Baylor, but failed to completely take advantage of Kentucky’s loss and an opportunity for a national stage statement.

Given how debated the NPOY race has been this year it’s likely that different news outlets and awards name different players the winner. Maybe Tshiebwe grabs the Naismith Award and Wisconsin guard Johnny Davis grabs the Wooden Award. Maybe Agbaji and Gonzaga big man Chet Holmgren snag either the Sporting News POY or ESPN award.

Chances are as good as they’ve been recently that someone goes on a March run and we’re left feeling like 2011, when BYU guard Jimmer Fredette wound up as the national player of the year and UConn junior guard Kemba Walker tore through the Big East and NCAA Tournaments to wind up being the most remembered player in the nation that season.

Even if he does take home the hardware, Tshiebwe could make an unprecedented return to college basketball. With Kyle Tucker of The Athletic reporting that Tshiebwe could get an NIL deal in the range of seven figures, the former West Virginia big man could become the first reigning NPOY to return to school since Tyler Hansborough did for North Carolina in 2008–09. That year, “Psycho T” and the Tar Heels won the national championship.

Who are this year’s Kemba candidates?

Each March, guard-play winds up becoming a crucial factor in close games and late shot clock moments. So, let’s play a quick and totally honest game of blind resumés. But rather than comparing teams, how about we evaluate lead ball-handlers? OK, here we go. Which player would you rather have?

  • Player A: 19.1 points per game, 4.3 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 2.2 steals
  • Player B: 17.3 points per game, 4.8 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 1.0 steals

Player A is Arkansas redshirt senior guard JD Notae. Player B is Purdue sophomore guard Jaden Ivey. Interesting, isn’t it?

National consensus is that Ivey and Purdue are national title contenders despite a defense that ranks 105th in adjusted efficiency according to KenPom. Arkansas, a much better defensive group (currently 14th in adjusted defense), is slowly gaining steam in the public perception as a national contender.

Notae produced 30 points and eight assists in the Razorbacks’ win over Kentucky on Saturday and placed himself firmly in the discussion for a spot on one of the three All-American teams at years end. In fact, against No. 6 Kentucky, Notae became the first SEC player to produce a game with that stat line against a top 10 team in over 25 years.

He’s made significant strides as a guard since starting his career at Jacksonville and earning All-A-Sun honors in 2018–19. In a year of relatively poor play from lead ball-handlers nationwide, the reigning SEC Sixth Man of the Year gives Arkansas an advantage at a crucial position in March against most teams.

Here are 15 contenders — in descending order of likeliest to least likely — that could make a Kemba-like run for their squads in March (or have late-game moments of brilliance):

  • Baylor’s James Akinjo
  • Illinois’ Trent Frazier
  • Arkansas’ JD Notae
  • Purdue’s Jaden Ivey
  • UConn’s R.J. Cole
  • Villanova’s Collin Gillespie
  • Tennessee’s Kennedy Chandler
  • Kentucky’s TyTy Washington
  • Arizona’s Kerr Kriisa
  • Murray State’s Tevin Brown
  • Providence’s Jared Bynum
  • USC’s Boogie Ellis
  • Iowa State’s Izaiah Brockington
  • Alabama’s Jaden Shackelford
  • Kansas’ Remy Martin (you didn’t think I’d sneak that one in, did you?)

Free throws, free throws, free throws

Monday is the beginning of conference tournaments and the end of certain teams’ seasons. That means more fouling at the end of games as some squads get desperate to avoid elimination. And, interestingly enough KenPom notes that free throw shooting continues to improve year-over-year.

Something to consider in March.

My HC Poll for Week 16

Here’s what I wound up with for the Heat Check poll this week.

1. Gonzaga

2. Kentucky

3. Baylor

4. Arizona

5. Kansas

6. Duke

7. Auburn

8. Texas Tech

9. Houston

10. Arkansas

11. UCLA

12. Purdue

13. Tennessee

14. Illinois

15. Villanova

16. Wisconsin

17. Texas

18. Iowa

19. UConn

20. Providence

21. Saint Mary’s

22. Alabama

23. Ohio State

24. Murray State

25. Iowa State

My Weekly Pac-12 Ballot:

Pac-12 Player of the Week: USC guard Drew Peterson

More often than not the winner of this award is going to come from someone who won both of their games in a weekend. I’ll assume that some people will be enamored by the triple double that Arizona guard Kerr Kriisa put up. Maybe this is me thinking too highly of myself, but I’ll take responsibility for providing the motivation for that performance.

With that being said, the five-point, 16.7 percent shooting performance with five assists and three turnovers in a blowout loss to Colorado — plus the performance from USC guard Drew Peterson — gives me reason to go in another direction than Kriisa, despite his 21-point, 10-rebound, 10-assist triple double Thursday night in a win over Utah.

One could argue that USC shouldn’t have allowed 3-win Oregon State to hang around and take the Trojans to double overtime in Corvallis on Thursday night. To that I say, did you see what Dashawn Davis was doing? A Herculean 31-point performance allowed Oregon State to hang around, but Peterson wound up with a 23-point, 10-rebound double-double to secure the win. In Eugene on Saturday, he hit the go-ahead 3-pointer to seal another tight victory for the Trojans.

If Oregon fails to make the NCAA Tournament, at least some of the reason will be the ball-screen defense played against Peterson here. Now, he and USC get chances to boost their resumé — which only features a 4–1 record in Quad 1 games — with matchups against No. 2 Arizona and No. 12 UCLA this week.

Pac-12 Freshman of the Week: Washington State center Mouhamed Gueye

25 points, five rebounds and three assists in the 78–70 Thursday win over Washington was enough to secure the award in a week where the rest of the conference’s freshmen really did much.

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Gabe Swartz

Gabe Swartz

Sports Journalism at Arizona State University | Cronkite 2022 | Staff Writer DevilsDigest.com | President WCSN | Former Editor-in-Chief of BVNWnews