Biggest Winner and Loser from Each Noteworthy CBB Conference with 1 Month to Go
North Carolina has a sub-.500 record, Rutgers is a near-lock to reach the NCAA tournament, and there's a strong case to be made that Dayton and San Diego State are two of the five best teams in the country.
Just like we all expected, right?
While those are some of the most unpredictable things to transpire in the first three months of this men's college basketball season, they're far from the only unlikely developments.
Rather than limiting ourselves to just a couple of big positive and negative surprises, we've highlighted one of each from every noteworthy conference—plus a "Mid-Major Grab Bag" at the end—for a more holistic look at how much has deviated drastically from preseason expectations.
Conferences are listed in alphabetical order.
Biggest Winner: Mike Young, Virginia Tech
The Hokies have gone through a bit of a rough patch in the past two-plus weeks, piling up not-great losses to Syracuse, Boston College and Miami. Because of those results, they have fallen onto the wrong side of the projected bubble.
But the fact that we've even been entertaining the possibility of Virginia Tech in the NCAA tournament is an incredible statement about the kind of coach Mike Young is.
Virginia Tech lost all five of its leading scorers from last season, and its recruiting class was rated by 247Sports' composite as the 10th-best in the ACC and 47th-best in the nation. Everybody who's anybody had the Hokies projected to finish in the bottom three in the conference. Most had them pegged for dead last.
Yet, they stunned Michigan State in the Maui Invitational and have won 14 games, making it rain from three-point range with freshmen serving as five of their six leading scorers. It's no surprise that redshirt freshman Landers Nolley II has emerged as the clear star of the team, but a lot of these key contributors came out of nowhere. If they do sneak into the NCAA tournament, it would be easily the biggest surprise compared to preseason expectations.
Biggest Loser: The Conference's Reputation
We could've gone with just North Carolina or just Virginia, but the big picture here is that the ACC has been an abomination compared to its usual standards of excellence. Duke, Florida State and Louisville have been more than adequate in their own right, but if the season ended today, this 15-team power conference would possibly only send three teams to the NCAA tournament.
There's still time to salvage this mess. NC State, Syracuse, Virginia and Virginia Tech are all smack dab on the bubble, and there's a chance North Carolina sneaks into that conversation with Cole Anthony back in action. The ACC has sent at least six teams to the Big Dance in each of the last six years, and there's a chance it does so again this year.
Anything less than five, though, would be the lowest percentage of ACC teams in the NCAA tournament since it was a one-bid league in 1974—when only 25 total teams were invited to the tournament. Even five would match its lowest percentage (33.3) of the past four decades.
Biggest Winner: Wichita State
Last year was—by Wichita State standards—a disaster for the Shockers. After finishing eight consecutive seasons with at least 25 wins and inside the KenPom top 30, they went 22-15 and ended up at No. 66.
Considering Gregg Marshall had to replace basically the entire roster during the 2017-18 offseason, it's hardly a surprise that it was a down year. But after losing the only two double-digit scorers from that team (Markis McDuffie and Samajae Haynes-Jones), we expected another semi-rebuilding year for the Shockers. Maybe they could sneak into the tournament, but they were supposed to be, at best, a distant fourth-best behind Memphis, Houston and Cincinnati.
The Shockers clearly didn't get that memo, though, starting 15-1 with a neutral-site loss to a very good West Virginia serving as their only misstep in the first half of the season. They're a bit behind Houston and about on par with Cincinnati, but the Shockers are one of the top candidates to secure the AAC's auto bid next month.
Biggest Loser: South Florida
You were likely expecting to see Memphis in this spot, considering the Tigers are nothing close to expectations after debuting at No. 14 in the preseason AP poll. However, at least they're still in the hunt for a trip to the NCAA tournament, and at least we can point to James Wiseman's suspension and subsequent departure from the program as the reason for Memphis' struggles.
But what the heck happened to South Florida?
Losing Alexis Yetna (12.3 PPG, 9.6 RPG last year) to a season-ending knee injury right before the regular season began was a tough pill to swallow, but the Bulls still had four returning starters, plus a major-conference transfer (Zach Dawson from Oklahoma State) more than capable of sliding into a starting gig. USF should've at least been a mid-tier AAC team, considering it won 24 games last season.
It didn't take long to find out that wasn't going to be the case, though. The 17-point home loss to IUPUI barely a week into the season was a clear indication that the Bulls were going nowhere fast. They are 10-12 overall and in the running with East Carolina and Tulane for the ignominious title of worst team in the conference.
Biggest Winner: Dayton and Obi Toppin
Tip o' the hat to Fatts Russell and Rhode Island for being better than anyone expected, already polishing off a season sweep of VCU. But there's no question that the biggest positive surprise has been Dayton emerging from back-to-back NCAA tournament-less seasons to become one of the handful of legitimate candidates to win it all this year.
The Flyers have been ridiculously efficient on offense, leading the nation in effective field-goal percentage by a considerable margin. In fact, at 60.1 percent, they might become the first team to finish above 60 since Samford (60.3 percent) in 2004-05.
And that all starts with dunk machine Obi Toppin, who is making better than 70 percent of his two-point attempts, despite averaging 10 attempts per game. Aside from Zion Williamson, there haven't been many college basketball players more efficient than that in the past few decades.
A quick search engine query for "2020 preseason NBA mock draft" shows that Toppin was generally considered a late-first rounder three months ago. Nowadays, pretty much everyone has him going in the top 10, if not the top five.
Biggest Loser: Davidson
Looking back at a preseason bracket projection in February is always a comedic exercise, but Davidson as a No. 8 seed looks particularly ridiculous now that the Wildcats are floundering around the .500 mark.
In fairness, we were assuming that Davidson was retaining virtually its entire roster from a 24-win 2018-19 campaign. However, Luke Frampton (personal leave of absence) and KiShawn Pritchett (knee injuries) have combined to appear in just five games after both started all 34 last year.
The bigger issue is that Davidson's dynamic duo of Kellan Grady and Jon Axel Gudmundsson has been wildly inconsistent, the defense has been awful and nothing seems to be clicking. The Wildcats could go 9-0 the rest of the regular season—which would include road wins over Dayton and VCU—and it probably still wouldn't be enough to secure an at-large bid.
Biggest Winner: Scott Drew, Baylor
Might this finally be the year that people stop questioning whether Scott Drew can coach?
In a season otherwise almost completely devoid of consistent success, Baylor has been the exception to the rule, winning 19 consecutive games. Sure, Gonzaga and San Diego State have had similar runs, but the Bears won at Kansas, beat five KenPom top 25 teams and played 13 of those games against teams ranked 90th or better. Winning that routinely against this schedule is remarkable.
Baylor has done it despite limited availability from the man who was supposed to be its star (Tristan Clark). The Bears have also thrived on defense despite completely changing their approach from recent years, abandoning the zone defense.
Drew built this roster from the transfer portal. Of the five leading scorers, sophomore Jared Butler is the only one who actually started his collegiate journey in Waco. But regardless of where they began, they've united to build something special.
Biggest Loser: Oklahoma State
The good news for Oklahoma State is it has the No. 1 overall recruit in next year's class, Cade Cunningham. Signing that star on Nov. 5 and then going 7-0 in the month of November made it feel like Mike Boynton had a volcano ready to erupt in Stillwater.
The bad news is the Cowboys have lost 11 of their last 14 games, rapidly descending once more to the basement of the Big 12. This woeful offense has been held to 50 or fewer points four times already in eight league games, including opening Big 12 play with an 85-50 loss to Texas Tech.
Oklahoma State is also going to lose three senior starters this offseason, so Cunningham may well be entering into a situation nearly identical to Anthony Edwards' current predicament at Georgia—sensational individual performances that haven't resulted in many wins worth remembering.
Biggest Winner: Butler
Not much was expected from the Bulldogs this year. They went 16-17 last season and lost three key players—Paul Jorgensen and Nate Fowler as graduates; Joey Brunk as a transfer to Indiana. Kamar Baldwin is a great senior leader, but that potential one-man team didn't look that enticing in a league that also features Markus Howard and Myles Powell.
No matter. Butler started 15-1, climbing as high as No. 5 in the AP poll prior to a three-game losing skid in mid-January. Villanova and Seton Hall have begun to assert themselves as the two best teams in the Big East, but Butler is no worse than third in that pecking order, comfortably in the NCAA tournament picture.
In the preseason, it felt like this might be a do-or-die year for head coach LaVall Jordan. Expectations aren't Duke or Kentucky high for Butler, but last year was only the program's third losing season in the past 26 years—and one of the other two was perfectly understandable, as Brad Stevens left for the Boston Celtics in 2013 right before the Bulldogs were about to make the transition into the Big East.
Barring a collapse of epic proportions, though, a coaching change is no longer going to be a consideration this offseason. In fact, Jordan probably deserves to be the Big East Coach of the Year.
Biggest Loser: Providence
Providence was my preseason sleeper pick. Not just in the Big East but in the entire country. The Friars retained all seven players who made at least 10 starts last season, plus they got back Emmitt Holt from two injury-riddled seasons and added Luwane Pipkins as a potential impact transfer from Massachusetts. All signs pointed toward a bounce back from a disappointing 18-16 campaign.
Instead, this has been one of the most disappointing teams in the nation, sitting at 12-10 overall and nowhere close to the NCAA tournament conversation.
The Friars did have an impressive road win over Marquette in early January and just knocked off Butler in Hinkle Fieldhouse, but they also had embarrassing losses to Northwestern, Penn, Charleston and Long Beach State in November.
This was par for the course for Providence prior to hiring Ed Cooley, but we've come to expect better from this program in recent years.
Biggest Winner: Rutgers
Instead of a loser, the Big Ten should probably just have two biggest winners. That's how great this conference has been, and that's how difficult it was to not put Iowa's Luka Garza in this spot. The big man wasn't even among the 10 players voted preseason first-team All-Big Ten, but he would clearly be the conference's Player of the Year if the vote was held today. Heck, he might be the front-runner for National POY.
Come on, though. Rutgers is obviously the big story here.
The Scarlet Knights are a perfect 15-0 at home this season. By the end of January, they already had more wins than in any of the previous 13 seasons. They are probably going to get to at least 21 wins for the first time since 1982-83. And while it's neither safe nor wise to call anyone a lock with this many games left on the schedule, Rutgers is almost certainly going to participate in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1991.
Improving the defense has clearly been Steve Pikiell's primary objective since taking over before the 2016-17 season, and Rutgers is now one of the best in the nation on that end of the floor, holding opponents below 61 points per game. The Scarlet Knights did recently take a bit of a beating at Iowa (85-80), but failing to slow down Garza and Co. at home is hardly unique to Rutgers.
Biggest Loser: Purdue
Thanks to 29-point wins over both Michigan State and Virginia, there's still a decent chance the Boilermakers sneak into the NCAA tournament. But no one was expecting this team to be saddled with 10 losses before the end of January.
The schedule certainly hasn't done them any favors. Purdue has already played 12 games against teams that rank in the top 50 in both NET and KenPom, putting together a 4-8 record in those contests. The bad loss at Nebraska still stings, though, as does Purdue's general inability to succeed away from Mackey Arena.
The Boilermakers play at Indiana this Saturday and at Ohio State next Saturday. If they don't win either of those games, the 23rd-ranked team in the preseason AP poll may well miss the dance.
Biggest Winner: Malachi Flynn, San Diego State
It's not a big surprise that San Diego State is good. The Aztecs have finished at least five games above .500 in each of the previous 14 seasons, resulting in eight trips to the NCAA tournament. They're usually at least somewhat relevant.
But no one saw this degree of excellence coming. San Diego State is 23-0, and Washington State transfer Malachi Flynn is a strong candidate for National Player of the Year.
What's funny is that Flynn's stats (16.5 PPG, 5.0 APG, 3.7 RPG, 1.8 SPG) aren't much different from what he managed in his final season in Pullman (15.8 PPG, 4.3 APG, 3.4 RPG, 1.6 SPG). They're just much more noteworthy now that he has a strong supporting cast on a team that isn't getting blown out on a regular basis.
Vanderbilt transfer Yanni Wetzell has also greatly benefited from a change in scenery. The big man bounced in and out of the starting lineup for a Commodores team that finished the 2018-19 season on a 20-game losing streak, but he has been a staple in the frontcourt for the undefeated Aztecs.
Biggest Loser: Utah State
Utah State debuted at No. 17 in the preseason AP Top 25 and was the unanimous preseason favorite to win the Mountain West Conference.
Safe to say no one was expecting the Aggies to be 6-5 in league play, languishing in fifth place in the MWC standings.
There's still an outside chance they'll make the NCAA tournament. The neutral-site victories over LSU and Florida look nice, and only one of their seven losses (at Air Force) was particularly unforgivable. Their NET (No. 55) and KenPom (No. 47) rankings are respectable, and they should win each of their seven remaining regular-season games.
But even if the Aggies do sneak in, this season has been a far cry from expectations. Utah State wasn't supposed to be a Cinderella candidate.
Biggest Winner: Onyeka Okongwu, USC
A couple of weeks ago, this would've been Jerod Haase and Stanford without a second thought. The Cardinal started out 15-2, and the losses were a one-point game against Butler and an understandable defeat at the hands of Kansas. However, they then went through a three-game losing skid, including back-to-back bad losses to California and Oregon State. Stanford did finally score a quality win over Oregon this past weekend, but that cold spell has dropped this team onto the bubble.
In Stanford's stead, let's show some well-deserved love to USC's freshman phenom, Onyeka Okongwu.
The 5-star center is thriving as an old-school big man, averaging 16.7 points, 9.1 rebounds and 3.0 blocks per game while not making a three-pointer yet this season.
Everyone loves a 5 with range, but Okongwu is simply muscling his way into the conversation for the No. 1 pick in the 2020 NBA draft. Our Jonathan Wasserman had the Trojan at No. 4 on his mid-January big board, and he merely averaged 18.5 points, 10.5 rebounds and 4.0 blocks in his final four games of that month.
Meanwhile, he has paced USC to a 17-5 record, making this the surprise contender to win the Pac-12.
Biggest Loser: Washington
As far as the predictive analytics are concerned, Washington is one of the six best teams in the Pac-12. As recently as Saturday morning, the Huskies were ranked in the top 50 both on KenPom and in the NET.
But in the Pac-12 standings, it's a completely differently story. Washington is in dead last with a 2-8 record and would be the clear favorite for the "close but no cigar" award if such a thing existed.
Just since Christmas, the Huskies have gone 0-8 in games decided by six points or fewer. As Bill Walton described it on the call of their loss to Arizona on Jan. 30: "They once again snatch defeat from the jaws of victory."
And yet, this is the only team to defeat Baylor this season. That succinctly sums up how weird the past three months of college hoops has been.
Biggest Winner: Mason Jones, Arkansas
What a strange year it has been in the SEC. Half of the league ranks in the KenPom top 50, but no one is in the KenPom top 25. LSU and Auburn arguably have two of the best resumes in the conference, but who has either set of Tigers actually beaten? Kentucky is probably the best team, but it has losses to Evansville, South Carolina and Utah, which highlight how inconsistent the Wildcats have been.
Perhaps most bizarre of all, the SEC's best player comes from what was supposed to be one of the five worst teams in the conference, and it's not even the Razorback that was expected to be the star of the team.
Mason Jones—not Isaiah Joe—leads Arkansas in points, rebounds, assists and steals per game with marks of 19.8, 6.4, 3.5 and 1.8, respectively. He didn't record his first double-double until going for 34 points and 12 rebounds in a recent loss to South Carolina, but he has consistently been a valuable contributor in Eric Musselman's first season coaching the Hogs.
Jones has been a huge part of a defense that leads the nation in three-point percentage allowed, and his rebounding presence at 6'5" is a big reason Musselman's positionless approach has taken root so quickly in Fayetteville.
Biggest Loser: Florida
The Gators haven't been quite as disappointing as North Carolina, but those are clearly the two squads jostling for worst performance by a preseason AP Top 10 team.
Florida debuted at No. 6 before quickly falling out of favor. In its first four games, it lost to Florida State and Connecticut and damn near lost a home game to Towson. And since then, it hasn't done much to prove it deserves a chance to play in the NCAA tournament. The Gators did blow out Auburn at home on Jan. 18, but they immediately put together a three-game losing streak after what felt like it might have been a turning point type of victory.
Virginia Tech transfer Kerry Blackshear Jr. has been every bit as good as advertised, but he hasn't had much help. Freshmen Scottie Lewis and Omar Payne have shown occasional flashes of brilliance, but never in the same game and never for more than two games in a row.
If those guys ever start producing consistently, maybe the Gators could still flip the switch and make a deep run. If not, this is probably the seventh-best team in a league on a trajectory for five or six bids.
Mid-Major Grab Bag
Note: We normally include the West Coast Conference in pieces about the top 10 conferences, but nothing overly surprising has happened in that league. Instead, let's open up the floor to all teams from conferences not already covered.
Biggest Winner: Merrimack
The Warriors are ineligible for postseason play because this is their first year at the Division I level. Fair or not, the NCAA makes teams transitioning from D-II to D-I ineligible for the NCAA tournament for four years. But if the Warriors were eligible, they would be projected to represent the Northeast Conference in the Big Dance.
Merrimack is 9-1 in league play and it already avenged its only loss, beating Robert Morris two weeks after a Jan. 4 loss to the Colonials. Senior point guard Juvaris Hayes is the star of the show, averaging 10.0 points, 5.9 assists, 4.8 rebounds and 3.9 steals per game. He is leading the nation in the latter category, and as a result, Merrimack has the highest team steal percentage.
Not only is Merrimack taking care of business in the NEC, but it also won a road game against Northwestern in the opening week of the regular season. It's a shame the Warriors won't get a chance to go dancing, because they could have been a serious fly in the ointment as a No. 16 seed.
Biggest Loser: Lipscomb
The Bisons were one of the most dangerous mid-major teams last year. They won games against TCU, Liberty and Vermont during the regular season. They almost won at Louisville and twice battled Belmont to the wire. And in the NIT, they destroyed the state of North Carolina, going through Davidson, UNC Greensboro, NC State and Wichita State before falling to Texas in the championship.
Lipscomb ranked as high as 26th on KenPom and finished the season at No. 45.
But after losing four starters and the head coach, Lipscomb has plummeted all the way to No. 281 in the current KenPom rankings. No other team has dropped more than 160 spots since the end of last season, but the Bisons have fallen 236 rungs, barely even putting up a fight against the types of teams they would have beaten soundly last year.
There was an outside chance the Atlantic Sun would produce an at-large team last year with both Lipscomb and Liberty playing as well as they did. This year, though, even 21-3 Liberty has no realistic hope for an at-large bid, in part because Lipscomb's free fall has turned the entire league into a joke.