Biggest Winner and Loser from Each Noteworthy CBB Conference with 1 Month to Go
The 2020-21 men's college basketball season has been jam-packed with surprises, both good and bad.
As CBS Sports' Jon Rothstein noted on Twitter after Duke's horrific loss to Miami on Monday night, the Champions Classic quartet has a combined record of 31-28 right now. Last year, they went 100-24. Brace yourself to hear a lot about those teams in the "Biggest Loser" sections ahead.
On the plus side of things, a lot of individual players have been way better than anyone could have realistically projected 10 weeks ago.
For each of the seven most noteworthy conferences (plus two other groups of conferences), we've picked out one player as the biggest winner and one team as the biggest loser. In both cases, those judgments are based on how far things have deviated from expectations.
In the Big Ten, for example, Iowa's Luka Garza has been awesome and Nebraska has been, well, not awesome. Both of those things were expected, though. What wasn't expected was Michigan's Hunter Dickinson emerging as one of the best freshmen in the nation while Michigan State threatens to miss the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1997.
Now that you know how the game is played, conferences are presented in alphabetical order.
Biggest Winner: Carlik Jones, Louisville
When a guy goes from a minor conference to a major conference—an "up transfer"—you never quite know how it's going to work out. Just last year, North Carolina was banking on getting solid production out of Christian Keeling from Charleston Southern and Justin Pierce from William & Mary. That never happened, and the Tar Heels suffered 19 losses as a result.
But Carlik Jones has made the jump from Radford to Louisville without missing a beat.
Jones averaged 20.0 points, 5.5 assists and 5.1 rebounds en route to Big South Player of the Year honors last season, and now he's proving to NBA scouts that he can hang with the proverbial big boys. He's putting up 17.4 points, 5.6 rebounds and 4.9 assists per game with the Cardinals thus far this year.
Jones had 20 in the win over Kentucky and 24 in the win over Duke. But perhaps the clearest example of his value added: The Cardinals were hopelessly lost in an 85-48 loss to Wisconsin, and that's the one game he's missed this season.
Biggest Loser: Duke Blue Devils
Assuming Duke would be able to beat Miami on Monday night—a Miami team that was 6-10 and had been held below 60 points in each of its previous four games—I originally wrote a few hundred words about what a disappointment this season has been for the Hurricanes.
Instead, the Blue Devils put forth an atrocious defensive effort in a 77-75 loss that dropped them to 7-6 overall.
It's hard to believe that was the same Duke team that pummeled Clemson 79-53 barely 48 hours earlier, but therein lies the problem for these Blue Devils: inconsistency.
Jalen Johnson has the talent to take over games, but he vanishes too frequently. Matthew Hurt is a great shooter, but he's a huge liability on defense. Jordan Goldwire is the senior leader at point guard and the best on-ball defender on the roster, but opponents don't even need to respect his jump shot. Wendell Moore Jr. occasionally shows up in a big way, but the sophomore is nowhere near the regular, positive impact presence we expected in the preseason.
Add it all up and it's little wonder Duke often looks like a disjointed mess. Across the board, this team is nowhere close to its usual level of excellence. And if this mediocre play continues, its streak of 24 consecutive trips to the NCAA tournament will be snapped.
Biggest Winner: Justin Gorham, Houston
The only senior on Houston's roster last year was primary center Chris Harris. But when leading rebounder Nate Hinton somewhat surprisingly opted for the NBA draft and second-leading rebounder Fabian White Jr. suffered a torn ACL in late May, the frontcourt became a gigantic question mark for the Cougars.
Kelvin Sampson went out and got Reggie Chaney as a transfer from Arkansas, but it turns out a former transfer from Towson was the answer Houston needed.
Justin Gorham averaged a meager 3.0 points and 2.5 rebounds off the bench last season. He has blossomed into a force of nature on the glass this year, averaging 10.2 rebounds and 7.8 points while shooting 42.3 percent from three-point range.
In the marquee win over Texas Tech in November, Gorham had nine points and seven rebounds and was named the KenPom Game MVP. And in a key road win over then-undefeated SMU, he finished with 11 points and 19 rebounds. It was the first of his eight (and counting) consecutive games with at least 10 boards.
Biggest Loser: Cincinnati Bearcats
A bit of a drop-off was to be expected from Cincinnati. The Bearcats were squarely on the bubble heading into championship week last year, and they lost both the leader (Jarron Cumberland) and the double-double machine (Tre Scott) from that team.
Even though John Brannen put together a respectable recruiting class and added a pair of key transfers in David DeJulius (Michigan) and Rapolas Ivanauskas (Colgate), anyone who had the Bearcats in a preseason bracket projection was arguably basing that more on what Cincinnati did throughout the 2010s than what was to be expected from this year's roster.
But even if you thought the Bearcats would struggle, you likely weren't expecting this much of a fall from grace.
Cincinnati is just 3-7 and has been in a COVID-19 pause for the past three weeks. Most of the losses were competitive and came against competent opponents, but that's little consolation for a program that had at least 20 wins in each of the last 10 years, as well as in 24 of the last 29.
Biggest Winner: Mac McClung, Texas Tech
Jared Butler is having a sensational season for Baylor, but that's no surprise. Most outlets had him as a preseason first-team All-American, if not the top candidate for National Player of the Year among people not named Luka Garza. Similar situation for Oklahoma State's Cade Cunningham, who entered the season as the presumptive favorite for the No. 1 pick in the 2021 NBA draft and has held steady there.
But Mac McClung as a likely All-Big 12 first-team guy?
Not many saw that one coming.
Athlon Sports posted a preseason list of what it deemed the 32 most noteworthy transfers for this season, but the guard who went from Georgetown to Texas Tech didn't make the cut. Yet McClung is currently second in the conference in scoring at 16.8 points per game.
Not only can he pour in points, but he also has a knack for doing so in the clutch, just like Keenan Evans did for the Red Raiders a few years ago. He hit the late game-winner against Texas, had a late dagger that proved not quite enough in the one-point loss to West Virginia and drained a pair of three-pointers in the final minute of TTU's come-from-behind victory over LSU.
If he stays this hot into the tournament, look out.
Biggest Loser: Kansas Jayhawks
Obviously, Kansas State and Iowa State have been worse than Kansas, but no one was expecting much from those teams. The Jayhawks were supposed to battle with Baylor for the Big 12 crown before making a push for a national championship.
With four losses in their first nine league games, you can just about rule out the first half of that equation. And the 19-point loss to Tennessee this past weekend speaks volumes about how far this team is from threatening to make a deep run next month.
My big question with the Jayhawks before the season began was: Who becomes that guy (or those guys) they turn to when they desperately need a bucket? And I'm still waiting on an answer.
Marcus Garrett is an elite defender, but he's not wired to be a lead guard. David McCormack is OK in the paint, but he's no Udoka Azubuike on either end of the floor. Kansas simply doesn't have the same talent or killer instinct we're used to seeing, and it's hard to imagine that suddenly changing this late in the season.
They'll make the tournament, but Bill Self's 19-tournament streak of earning a No. 4 seed or better is in jeopardy. And if the Jayhawks end up on the No. 5 or No. 6 line, they're going to be one of the most popular picks to suffer a first-round upset.
Biggest Winner: David Duke, Providence
David Duke: unfortunate name, excellent game.
Providence's junior lead guard has improved by leaps and bounds for a second consecutive year and entered February ranked third in the Big East in both points (18.6) and assists per game (4.9). He's also pulling down 6.0 rebounds per game, doing everything he can to carry a Friars team that had to replace five of its eight leading scorers from last season.
In a win over Marquette last week, Duke scored a season-high 31 points with six dimes, six boards and three steals. He also had 22 points, 13 rebounds and eight assists in a December victory over Butler.
It's probably not going to be enough to get Providence (9-8 overall) into the NCAA tournament, but it has garnered Duke some attention in the NBA mock draft community. USA Today recently put together a consensus first round from five different mocks, and that had Duke projected just outside the first round at No. 34 overall.
With two games remaining against Connecticut, one against Villanova and then the Big East tournament, maybe he can do enough to climb into the first round—if he decides to turn pro.
Biggest Loser: Marquette Golden Eagles
Butler, Georgetown and DePaul have struggled more than Marquette, but those teams were expected to finish in the Big East basement and didn't give their fans false hope with two marquee victories in the first three weeks of the season.
Seven games into the year, Marquette was 5-2 with huge wins over Wisconsin and Creighton. Despite losing the nation's leading scorer (Markus Howard) and two of his top running mates (Sacar Anim and Brendan Bailey), it looked like the Golden Eagles might soar into the NCAA tournament.
Instead, they have bottomed out with losses in seven of their last 10 games, including home losses to DePaul and St. John's.
Ohio State transfer D.J. Carton has been a solid addition. Freshmen Dawson Garcia and Justin Lewis have been every bit as good as advertised. There haven't been any pauses or significant injuries. It just isn't working for Steve Wojciechowski and Co. this year.
Biggest Winner: Hunter Dickinson, Michigan
Back in early April 2020, it looked like Michigan was going to have one of the best recruiting classes in the country. 5-star power forward Isaiah Todd committed to the Wolverines in October 2019, and 5-star guard Josh Christopher seemed to be leaning in the direction of Ann Arbor. Juwan Howard had also signed top-100 recruits Hunter Dickinson, Zeb Jackson and Terrance Williams.
But in the span of about 24 hours in mid-April, Christopher chose Arizona State, and Todd decided to bypass college and go straight to the G League.
It has worked out pretty well for the Wolverines, though, because Dickinson has been arguably the most valuable freshman in the entire country—and they maybe wouldn't have been able to figure that out if Todd and Christopher had been on the roster.
He was starting to hit the freshman wall in the three games before the Wolverines entered their current COVID-19 pause. We'll have to see how he fares coming out of that, but he was a force in Michigan's first 10 contests, averaging 18.0 points, 8.1 rebounds and 1.4 blocks as the anchor of a dominant frontcourt.
I can't wait to see what he's able to do against Illinois' Kofi Cockburn and Iowa's Luka Garza.
Biggest Loser: Michigan State Spartans
After going 6-0 in nonconference play, Michigan State has been chewed up and spit out by the Big Ten.
The Spartans are just 2-6 in league play, and most of those losses weren't even competitive. While it's one thing to lose by 17 at Ohio State, getting blown out by Rutgers, Minnesota and Northwestern was troubling, to say the least.
Similar to Kansas' problem in the Big 12, it just doesn't feel like Michigan State has figured out how to replace its prolific inside-outside duo. Without Cassius Winston, it has been Rocket Watts and Aaron Henry sort of sharing lead-guard duties without much success. And with Xavier Tillman Sr. out of the picture, the Spartans simply don't have a go-to guy in the paint.
Marquette transfer Joey Hauser is a fine rebounder, but he takes more three than twos and has blocked two shots all year. That's quite the drop at both point guard and center.
With 22 consecutive trips to the NCAA tournament, the Spartans boast the third-longest active streak, behind Kansas (30) and Duke (24). Duke's streak is also in danger, but at least the Blue Devils occasionally show signs of turning things around. Michigan State just looks lost and, frankly, hopeless in this loaded conference.
Biggest Winner: Oscar da Silva, Stanford
We expected someone from Stanford to contend for the Pac-12's scoring crown. However, we expected that someone to be super freshman Ziaire Williams, not senior Oscar da Silva.
Nevertheless, da Silva has been the go-to guy for the Cardinal all year long. He has scored in double figures in each of the team's 16 games for a Pac-12-best 19.5 points per contest. He's also averaging 7.3 rebounds and 2.6 assists, leading the team in the former category.
It's not like he came out of nowhere, though. Da Silva put up 15.7 points per game last year and has now made improvements in both scoring and rebounding with each passing year. It was reasonable to expect him to be second-team, maybe even first-team All-Pac-12. But for him to be essentially neck-and-neck with USC's Evan Mobley for Pac-12 Player of the Year honors has been a surprise.
Biggest Loser: Arizona State Sun Devils
Senior guards Remy Martin and Alonzo Verge have averaged a combined 31.5 points, 7.7 assists and 2.6 steals per game. Highly touted freshman Josh Christopher is also contributing nicely in all three categories with 15.3, 1.5 and 1.6, respectively. ASU's other star freshman, Marcus Bagley, is putting up 11.8 points and 6.1 rebounds per game.
That quartet has done about as well as could be expected, and yet the Sun Devils are a 6-8 mess.
What the heck happened here?
We knew rebounding was liable to be a significant issue when they lost Romello White as a transfer to Ole Miss, but who knew it would be this bad? Arizona State has been outrebounded by 9.0 per game, which is practically a death sentence for a team that routinely struggles on the defensive end of the floor.
Bobby Hurley has scorers. There's no denying that. But he also has a team that has allowed at least 80 points in half its games. Both rebounding and defense were major issues when the Sun Devils went 15-18 in 2016-17. It's a shame to see them back in that spot in spite of all this talent.
Biggest Winner: Herb Jones, Alabama
Coming into this season, it felt like we were at a "boy who cried breakout star" point with Herb Jones.
Three years ago, when everyone was watching Alabama games to get a glimpse of Collin Sexton, Jones had occasional flashes of brilliance. It was raw athleticism, though. He committed too many turnovers and too many fouls, shot 50.0 percent from the free-throw line and was just generally inefficient. But he was one of those classic "once the game starts slowing down for him, look out" candidates.
This year, that switch has finally flipped.
Instead of shooting 50.0 percent from the charity stripe, Jones is shooting 50.0 percent from three-point range (and 78.6 percent from the free-throw line). He's leading the Crimson Tide in rebounds and steals, he's second on the team in assists and blocks, and he's third in scoring at 12.6 points per game.
Jones has been arguably the most valuable player on the best team in the conference. And the scary thing is he's been playing at considerably less than full strength.
He left the Jan. 12 game against Kentucky after just eight minutes with a hand/wrist injury, and lately, he has been trying to battle through back and hip pain. Here's hoping he's close to 100 percent for the NCAA tournament because he is fun to watch when he's able to fly around the court.
Biggest Loser: Kentucky Wildcats
At this point, we're beyond wondering what's wrong with Kentucky and have moved on to trying to decide how this train wreck of a season will be succinctly remembered.
In John Calipari's first six years in Lexington, he had the John Wall team (2009-10), the Anthony Davis championship team (2011-12), the "lost to Robert Morris" team (2012-13) and the 38-1 team (2014-15). The past few years have kind of all blended together with stars coming and going from title contenders that fell shy of reaching the Final Four. But this year will not be soon forgotten.
The Pandemic Wildcats? Calipari's Calamity?
We'll figure it out eventually. For now, Kentucky is 5-10 and has been one of the worst shooting teams in the entire country. The Wildcats are averaging nearly 13 offensive rebounds just to score 67.5 points per game. It's been tough to watch.
Atlantic-10 / Missouri Valley / Mountain West / West Coast
While the term "mid-major" has been used loosely for many years to describe any team capable of pulling off an upset in the NCAA tournament, these are the four conferences outside the top seven that are typically in the mix for multiple bids and are typically the first you think of when you hear "mid-major."
Biggest Winner: Corey Kispert, Gonzaga
Has any player in the country made a more meteoric rise up mock draft boards in the past 10 weeks than Corey Kispert?
He was a borderline first-round prospect heading into the season, but now he's a consensus lottery pick. And why not? He's averaging better than 20 points per game, is shooting nearly 50 percent from three-point range and is the highly efficient, veteran leader of the 17-0 co-favorite to win the national championship.
For the previous three years, Kispert was Gonzaga's "other good guy."
Zach Norvell Jr. was the three-point sniper for Kispert's freshman and sophomore years. Both wings were overshadowed by Rui Hachimura and Brandon Clarke in 2018-19. Last year, we were all obsessed with Filip Petrusev and marveled at Gonzaga's overall depth and balance. It was expected that Kispert would take a back seat to Jalen Suggs and perhaps Drew Timme this year, too.
Suggs certainly has gotten a lot of the spotlight, but Kispert has been sensational during a senior-year explosion on par with what Buddy Hield did at Oklahoma five years ago.
Biggest Loser: Northern Iowa Panthers
Northern Iowa won 25 games last season and then brought back nearly 75 percent of the scoring from that team. Whether Northern Iowa or Loyola-Chicago was the preseason favorite to win the Valley depended on who you asked, but there was no question they were the co-favorites.
While the Ramblers have held up their end of that deal, the Panthers have imploded. By mid-January, they were 2-10 against D-I competition, including a pair of losses to Evansville, which KenPom rates as the worst team in the league.
Of course, when those preseason predictions were made, no one knew star player AJ Green would suffer a season-ending injury after just three games, nor that the second-leading scorer from last year's team (Trae Berhow) would be out for all three games Green was able to play.
The Panthers have not been at full strength at any point this season, and they still almost won each of their first three games against Western Kentucky, Saint Mary's and Utah State. Those close calls serve as little more than a painful reminder of what could have been. But try not to act surprised if and when UNI is back with a vengeance next year.
The Other 20 Conferences
Biggest Winner: Jalen Moore, Oakland
It's quite the season to be named Jalen.
Gonzaga's Jalen Suggs and Duke's Jalen Johnson both look like they'll be top-10 draft picks. Kansas got out to a hot start because of Jalen Wilson's breakout campaign (and has since struggled mightily during his prolonged cold spell.) Jalen Crutcher is doing everything in his power to keep Dayton in the mix for an NCAA tournament bid. And while he decided to jump straight from high school to the G League, Jalen Green still hangs over this season as "the one who got away."
But far off the beaten path, there's another Jalen thriving.
Jalen Moore—following in the footsteps of former Oakland point guard Kay Felder—has been a revelation in an otherwise mediocre year for the Golden Grizzlies.
He averaged 22.6 points, 6.2 assists and 5.0 rebounds last year for Olney Central, and he isn't far off from that stat line after making the move from JUCO to D-I. In addition to his nation-leading 8.0 assists per game, he's poured in 18.9 points, 3.8 rebounds and 2.0 steals per contest.
He's not just some guy padding his stats against the mostly unimpressive Horizon League, either. In four consecutive games against Michigan, Purdue, Oklahoma State and Michigan State, Moore averaged 18.5 points, 6.5 assists, 4.5 rebounds and 2.5 steals.
Oakland probably won't make the tournament this year, but watch out for this guy next year.
Biggest Loser: Eastern Illinois Panthers
Eastern Illinois wasn't expected to win the Ohio Valley Conference. As is often the case, that preseason crown was shared by Belmont and Murray State.
But the Panthers were at least supposed to be respectable. With one of the most experienced rotations in the nation, they were No. 167 in the preseason KenPom rankings—behind No. 94 Murray State and No. 96 Belmont, sandwiched between No. 139 Austin Peay and No. 219 Eastern Kentucky and well ahead of seven other teams rated No. 295 or worse.
At last check, though, the Panthers were all the way down at No. 318 in the KenPom rankings, mired in an eight-game losing streak, the last four of which were losses by double digits to teams ranked outside the top 290.
In fairness, they have been all sorts of short-handed throughout the season. Not a single player has appeared in all 18 of their games, and Marvin Johnson is the only one who hasn't missed multiple games. In the recent loss to Tennessee-Martin, EIU's DNP list was almost as long as the list of players who were able to go. It's hard to win games like that.
It's still surprising to see the Panthers jostling for last place in the OVC standings.