The Biggest What-Ifs of the 2018-19 College Basketball Season
What if there's an alternate reality in which the 2018-19 college basketball season—with just a couple of minor tweaks—looks entirely different?
Most of the following events transpired (or will transpire) this season, but we're also considering a couple of offseason developments that may have radically altered the landscape of championship candidates.
(Don't worry: There won't be any FBI hypothetical situations within—although that is a sizable variable that could have played out differently.)
These aren't outrageous what-if scenarios. We're talking about things such as a transfer that doesn't happen, a key field-goal attempt that finds its mark and a top-10 recruit who actually plays like a top-10 recruit.
Even if just one of these eight things had played out differently, the butterfly effect could have been massive.
What If Mustapha Heron Had Stayed at Auburn?
Mustapha Heron's team, St. John's, is one of five remaining undefeated squads. His former outfit, Auburn, is 10-2 and appears to be the top challenger to Tennessee in the SEC. Seems safe to say this transfer worked out well for both sides.
So what would have happened if Heron had stayed with the Tigers?
For starters, St. John's wouldn't be anywhere near as good.
Even with Heron, the Red Storm have a short rotation. Aside from emptying the bench in blowouts, they scarcely go any deeper than sixth man Mikey Dixon. Removing Heron's 15.6 points, 5.3 rebounds and 31.3 minutes per game would mean much more playing time for Bryan Trimble Jr. and Greg Williams Jr.—neither of whom has provided much value.
And Auburn might be better off without Heron, as his departure opened the door for Samir Doughty to carve out a significant role as a starter.
The VCU transfer has been one of Auburn's most valuable players, averaging 15.2 points, 7.3 rebounds, 3.9 assists and 2.7 steals per 40 minutes. Across the board, his shooting percentages are better than what Heron was putting up last season. He's much more of an efficient scorer than a volume scorer, which works nicely on a roster that already has Jared Harper and Bryce Brown to shoulder the load.
Had Doughty not gotten into early foul trouble in his scoreless performance against Duke on Nov. 20, Auburn might have pulled off the big upset in the Maui Invitational semifinals. That's how important he has been for the Tigers.
What If the Martin Twins Had Gone Pro?
Nevada is undefeated (12-0), and we don't expect that to change anytime soon. Road games against Fresno State (Jan. 12) and Utah State (March 2) might be the only hurdles left on the schedule capable of keeping the Wolf Pack from entering the NCAA tournament with a goose egg in the loss column.
But what if Caleb and Cody Martin had remained in the NBA draft pool instead of returning as fifth-year seniors?
The Martin twins waited until just about the last second before they withdrew from the draft in late May, at which point Nevada became a threat to win the national championship.
Caleb Martin is tied for the team lead in scoring at 18.8 points per game, but he's also No. 2 in assists, No. 2 in steals and No. 3 in rebounds. He isn't the most efficient shooter on the roster, but that hasn't stopped him from making 3.0 three-pointers per game on 9.2 attempts, scoring at least a dozen points in every content this season.
Cody Martin is probably the more important of the two, because he's the one running the offense. The 6'7" point forward is averaging 5.8 assists per game, to go along with 10.1 points, 4.1 rebounds and just under 1.0 blocks and steals.
In other words, both Martins fill up the box score, making it hard to imagine what the Wolf Pack would look like without them.
McDonald's All-American freshman Jordan Brown would've been forced to take on a bigger role rather than having the luxury of easing his way into the mix. They also would've needed to play a lot more of Nisre Zouzoua and Corey Henson for the sake of ball distribution. But given how poorly those two guys are shooting this year, that likely would not have gone well.
Alternatively, they might have tried to rush Lindsey Drew back from a torn Achilles rather than giving him a medical redshirt, which would have hurt the team for next season, too.
What If Villanova Hadn't Lost to Furman?
With more nonconference losses this season (four) than it had in the previous three years combined (three), Villanova has been one of the biggest disappointments through the first seven weeks. We probably should have lowered our expectations for the Wildcats after they lost Jalen Brunson, Mikal Bridges, Omari Spellman and Donte DiVincenzo to the NBA, but there's also still more than enough talent to contend for a national championship.
The most disturbing outcome of all was the home loss to Furman. The Wildcats jacked up 44 three-point attempts in that overtime affair, but with seniors Eric Paschall and Phil Booth shooting a combined 11-of-37 (29.7 percent) from the field, they could not put away the Paladins.
But how much differently would we view both of those teams if just one more bucket had fallen in regulation to keep the massive upset from happening?
On the Villanova side of the equation, things wouldn't look anywhere near as bad.
The Wildcats never would have dropped out of the AP Top 25. They have five wins over KenPom.com Top 105 teams, including a quality victory over Florida State to wrap up the AdvoCare Invitational. They almost won at Kansas. And were it not for the loss to Furman, the three-point road loss to Penn would've been chalked up to an inconsequential tough game against a rival that's playing its best basketball in more than a decade.
And speaking of the AP Top 25, without this win, Furman never would have gotten there for the first time in program history. The Paladins only have one other win against a KenPom Top 175 team, and that early two-point road victory over Loyola-Chicago doesn't seem as impressive now that the Ramblers have six losses.
Instead of starting 12-0 and getting into the conversation for a single-digit seed in the NCAA tournament, Furman (12-1) would have joined Toledo and North Texas on the list of one-loss teams flying a mile below the national radar.
What If Arizona State Had Lost to Kansas?
The Pac-12 is a disaster.
Six of the 12 teams in the league have already suffered at least five losses. The ACC, Big 12, Big East and SEC each has just one such team. No Pac-12 program is ranked in the Top 40 on KenPom, and only Arizona State (No. 31) is in the top 55 of the NET rankings.
If Arizona State had lost to Kansas, every team in the conference would have had at least three losses, and the entire league would only have three wins worth mentioning: Arizona over Iowa State, Oregon over Syracuse, and Arizona State over Mississippi State.
At that point, it likely would have been a one-bid league.
It's still a possibility. If Arizona State wins both the regular-season and conference-tournament titles, there might not be another team worthy of an at-large bid. Conversely, if the Sun Devils fall to pieces like they did last year—started 12-0 before going 8-10 in Pac-12 play—it might be "auto bid or bust" for the league.
But because of Arizona State's win over the No. 1 team in the AP Top 25, at least the Pac-12 has one quality resume in the league that will help inflate the numbers of every other squad. Once the Sun Devils dole out a couple of nice wins to the likes of Arizona, Oregon and UCLA, there might even be three or four Pac-12 teams deemed worthy of the NCAA tournament.
What If RJ Barrett Hadn't Gotten Stuffed Repeatedly Against Gonzaga?
Both in terms of the quality of play and the championship potential of the teams involved, there might not be a better game all season than Duke vs. Gonzaga in the Maui Invitational title game. The Blue Devils stormed back from a 16-point second-half deficit to tie it up in the final two minutes, but the Bulldogs eked out an 89-87 victory because Duke missed its final seven shots.
Rui Hachimura and Brandon Clarke each blocked two late attempts, as RJ Barrett was denied over and over again, ending Duke's quest for an undefeated season before it had much of a chance to begin.
But what if Barrett had been able to convert in the clutch and the Blue Devils had won?
It's a "what if?" that doesn't shift the season's trajectory much—both teams are strong candidates for No. 1 seeds either way—but it would change a lot about how we discuss the season at a national level.
Without this win, we would have a much different opinion of Gonzaga. The Zags suffered losses to North Carolina and Tennessee, so if they also had a loss to Duke, there would be serious questions about this team's ability to win big games. The Zags' best victories aside from this one were against Creighton, Arizona and Washington, none of which are anything close to a lock to make the NCAA tournament.
Not only did this result save us from "Is Gonzaga actually good?" debates, but it also prevented "Can Duke go 40-0?" from dwarfing every other conversation.
The undefeated season might be a fun narrative that draws in the casual college basketball fan earlier than usual, but there were so many great stories during the 2014-15 campaign that went untold because everyone had to write/talk about Kentucky's 38-0 start on a daily basis.
It's good to know we'll avoid a similar fate this year. Even if Nevada, Michigan or Virginia threatens to run the table, the storyline won't dominate the headlines like it did with Kentucky or like it would have with this Duke squad.
What If EJ Montgomery Had Lived Up to the Hype?
EJ Montgomery was supposed to be the crown jewel of Kentucky's 2018 recruiting class.
Rated as the No. 9 overall player in the 247Sports composite rankings, Montgomery figured to help the Wildcats replace Wenyen Gabriel, Jarred Vanderbilt and Sacha Killeya-Jones in the frontcourt rotation. Even when Kentucky picked up Reid Travis as a graduate transfer from Stanford, Montgomery should have been in the running for a starting job.
Instead, he has been the year's biggest 5-star bust and barely sees the court anymore. Over Kentucky's last three games (Seton Hall, Utah and North Carolina), Montgomery has played a total of 22 minutes and scored four points and grabbed six rebounds. Rather than the ninth-best freshman in the country, he has become the ninth man in the Wildcats rotation.
But would Kentucky look any better if Montgomery had been as good as advertised?
Even without the freshman center doing much of anything, the Wildcats are third in the nation in offensive rebounding percentage and rank in the top 20 in block percentage. Sophomore power forward PJ Washington has been a huge asset in both categories, as has sophomore center Nick Richards—when he gets the chance to play.
What the Wildcats need is better luck defending the three-point arc and to cut down on turnovers, neither of which Montgomery would change even if he lived up to the hype.
Kentucky might actually be better off without Montgomery thriving, because there's no temptation to play three big men at the same time, which would mean fewer minutes for the likes of Keldon Johnson, Tyler Herro and Ashton Hagans. Plus, it increases the likelihood that he'll return for a sophomore season, which the Wildcats may need, considering they have not yet signed a frontcourt player for next year's class.
What If Houston Goes Undefeated?
Houston is 12-0 with quality wins over LSU, Oregon, Utah State, BYU and Oklahoma State. The Cougars have been sensational on defense, limiting opponents to 58.0 points per game and holding each of the last eight below 40 percent shooting.
It seems legitimate, so what if this continues for another three months?
For the other four remaining undefeated teams—Michigan, Virginia, Nevada and St. John's—it's a no-brainer that they would be No. 1 seeds in the NCAA tournament if they keep winning. The Wolverines, Cavaliers and Wolf Pack are already projected as No. 1 or No. 2 seeds in any early bracketology worth a darn. And the Red Storm still have a February road game against Duke in addition to all of their Big East games, so they would have more than enough quality wins to warrant a spot on the top line.
But given the early state of affairs in the AAC, Houston isn't as much of a sure thing.
The Cougars are already No. 5 in the NET rankings, which is a great start. Staying there will be a challenge, though, since their next game against a team ranked higher than 60th won't be until February.
Cincinnati and UCF are the next-best teams in the conference, and that's not saying much. The former received 11 votes in the latest AP poll while the latter didn't get any. Neither has been ranked this season. Even road wins over those teams won't amount to that much.
However, undefeated Wichita State was given a No. 1 seed in 2014 with a similar nonconference resume and an even easier conference schedule in the Missouri Valley, so that precedent could lead them to the top seed line.
If it does happen, it would be Houston's first No. 1 seed since it lost to North Carolina State and Jim Valvano in the 1983 national championship. If at any point the Cougars are the last undefeated team left standing, expect to hear a lot about them down the stretch.
What If Virginia Hadn't Lost to UMBC Last Year?
Virginia is having another excellent season. The Cavaliers are 11-0 and are No. 2 on KenPom, as well as in the new NET rankings, trailing only Duke in both metrics. They have a neutral-court win over Wisconsin as well as a road victory over Maryland. And only one opponent has scored so much as 60 points against them.
Ty Jerome is a candidate for the Wooden Award. De'Andre Hunter is right there with him. Kyle Guy remains a gifted scorer, and Jack Salt (6'10", 250 lbs) is still a mountainous presence in the paint. Braxton Key has been everything the Cavaliers could have hoped for when they acquired the Alabama transfer. Freshman Kihei Clark is admirably holding down the fort as the backup point guard. And Mamadi Diakite is the glue that holds it all together. It's a seven-man rotation capable of beating any team.
But rather than rivaling Duke for the top spot in the AP Top 25 and the Vegas odds to win the 2019 national championship, Virginia is No. 4 in the latest poll and either has the fourth-best or fifth-best odds to win the title, depending on your sportsbook of choice.
The reason is four letters: UMBC.
Because Virginia made ignominious history last year by becoming the first No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16 seed—by a 20-point margin, no less—it has become the proverbial boy who cried "wolf!" The Cavaliers could enter the tournament with a 33-0 record, earning a No. 1 seed for the fourth time in six seasons, and there would still be an inordinate number of people picking them to lose in the first round.
Even if they had beaten UMBC by one point before getting destroyed by Kansas State in the second round, there wouldn't be such a negative perception of this team. As it is, it seems like there's a market inefficiency to be found in picking Virginia to win it all.