Winners and Losers of the First 2 Months of Men's College Basketball Season

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystDecember 27, 2021

Winners and Losers of the First 2 Months of Men's College Basketball Season

0 of 10

    Arizona's Bennedict Mathurin
    Arizona's Bennedict MathurinRick Scuteri/Associated Press

    As we prepare for what we hope will be 10 weeks chocked full of conference games, we wanted to also look back at some of the biggest winners and losers from the first two months of the 2021-22 men's college basketball season.

    More than 2,300 games have already been played, so please don't expect this to be a comprehensive list of every surprising development from November and December. Instead, our goal is to provide a broad snapshot of the players, coaches, teams and conferences who have been either most impressive or most disappointing thus far.

    (Though we easily could have gone this route, not all of the losers are from the ACC.)

    These are presented in no particular order outside of oscillating between winners and losers.

    Statistics are current through the start of Sunday's play.

Winner: West Coast Conference

1 of 10

    Dan Fotu of Saint Mary's
    Dan Fotu of Saint Mary'sRick Scuteri/Associated Press

    For more than two decades, the West Coast Conference has been little more than Gonzaga's personal playground. Either Saint Mary's or BYU is usually relevant enough for NCAA tournament consideration, but Gonzaga has a regular-season conference record of 295-28 dating back to 2000-01, plus 16 conference tournament titles during that time.

    But for the first time ever, there's a real argument to be made that this might be the fifth-best conference in the country.

    Gonzaga is great, of course. San Francisco is one of the biggest pleasant surprises of the season at 12-1 with wins over Davidson, Nevada, UAB, Fresno State and Arizona State. Saint Mary's almost won the Maui Invitational and later added a nice road win over Utah State. BYU already has a stockpile of solid wins and previously spent a few weeks in the AP Top 25. And even Santa Clara is no joke at 10-5, with wins over Stanford, Nevada and TCU.

    It's not going to be a five-bid league, and it probably won't even be a four-bid league unless Gonzaga, San Francisco, Saint Mary's and BYU all avoid losses to the WCC's bottom-six teams and share some quality wins with one another. (i.e., if Saint Mary's goes 10-0 against the bottom six but 0-6 against the others in the top four, that's unlikely to cut the proverbial mustard.)

    However, at this point, it would be surprising if the league sends fewer than three teams to the dance, and it wouldn't be all that shocking if the WCC ends up with at least as many bids as (or more bids than) the ACC and the Pac-12.

    Got to say, I did not see that sentence coming two months ago.

Loser: Michigan Wolverines

2 of 10

    Michigan's Caleb Houstan
    Michigan's Caleb HoustanPaul Sancya/Associated Press

    There are a whole bunch of preseason AP Top 25 teams that have fallen well shy of expectation through the first seven weeks of the season, but the biggest disappointment (in my humble opinion) is Michigan.

    Juwan Howard put together an incredible recruiting class, featuring McDonald's All-Americans Caleb Houstan, Moussa Diabate and Kobe Bufkin. Per 247 Sports, Houstan and Diabate are Michigan's "all-time" highest-rated recruits dating back to 2000, and Bufkin didn't miss the top 10 by much.

    It's not exactly the Fab Five, but it's almost indisputably the most hyped-up batch of freshmen the Wolverines have had since the early 1990s. Add to that mix a veteran transfer in DeVante' Jones, the return of Eli Brooks and potential first-team All-American Hunter Dickinson, and the buzz surrounding this team was perfectly understandable.

    In the preseason, the Wolverines were No. 2 on And though they were a bit lower in the AP poll at No. 6, that still made them the highest-ranked team from the Big Ten.

    After all that hype, they're 7-4 with a 21-point loss at North Carolina, an 18-point loss to Arizona, a 10-point home loss to Minnesota and nothing better than a home win over a bubble team (San Diego State) to their credit. The defense is a far cry from what it was one year ago, and they shot a combined 12-of-63 (19.0 percent) from three-point range in those four losses.

    As far as the NET rankings are concerned, Michigan is the seventh-best team in the Big Ten and just barely ahead of eighth-best Minnesota, ninth-best Northwestern and 10th-best Indiana.

    If the Wolverines miss the NCAA tournament, it would be the first time since 2012-13 Kentucky that a team in the Top Six of the preseason AP poll did so.

Winner: Trevor Keels, Duke

3 of 10

    Duke's Trevor Keels
    Duke's Trevor KeelsGerry Broome/Associated Press

    Heading into the season, Duke had two presumed lottery picks in freshmen Paolo Banchero and AJ Griffin. In late July, ESPN's Jonathan Givony had Banchero at No. 2 and Griffin at No. 8. The day before the Champions Classic, Kyle Irving of Sporting News had Banchero at No. 1 and Griffin at No. 9. Our Jonathan Wasserman had Banchero at No. 2 and Griffin at No. 7 on the morning of the Champions Classic.

    But Trevor Keels was much more of an unknown. Wasserman had Keels projected for No. 21, and he was by far the most optimistic about Duke's alleged third-best freshman. Irving didn't have Keels anywhere in his first-round mock. Nor did Givony even mention Keels while projecting all 58 picks in the June 2022 draft.

    Smash cut to Dec. 22, and Givony has Keels projected for the seventh overall pick.

    The consensus on Duke's Lu Dort-like combo guard isn't quite that high. Most mocks seem to have him somewhere in the late-teens/early-20s range. But even that's a huge step up from where Keels started the season.

    Keels has made at least one three-pointer in each of Duke's first 12 games, and it wasn't until Wednesday night's matchup with Virginia Tech that he first finished a game with more turnovers than assists. The 6'4" jack of all trades is also averaging just under 2.0 steals per game.

    It was the 25-point performance in the opener against Kentucky, though, that got everyone excited. There aren't many marquee opponents in the ACC this year (more on that in a moment), but a few more games like that in the next two months and someone will use a top-10 pick on this star in the making.

Loser: The Rest of the ACC

4 of 10

    Virginia head coach Tony Bennett
    Virginia head coach Tony BennettEric Christian Smith/Associated Press

    Things have been going pretty well for Trevor Keels and the Duke Blue Devils, but this has been a dreadful season for the ACC as a whole.

    Florida State, North Carolina and Virginia joined Duke in the preseason AP Top 25, but they are long gone with a combined record of 22-12. At least the Tar Heels have one impressive win in which they blew out Michigan, but they also got trounced by both Tennessee and Kentucky. The Seminoles are 0-4 against the KenPom top 100. The Cavaliers already have two losses to teams outside the KenPom top 100.

    It's not like the league's preseason second tier has been any better. Virginia Tech, Louisville, Syracuse and Notre Dame each received votes in the preseason AP poll, but the only one currently in the KenPom top 50 is Virginia Tech, which is 3-5 against the KenPom top 200.

    The one exception to the rule has been 11-1 Wake Forest, but even the Demon Deacons remain a colossal question mark. The 19-point road win over Virginia Tech was a big resume booster, but it's pretty much all Wake Forest has accomplished, and the Hokies simply might not be any good.

    The ACC has sent at least six teams to each of the last seven NCAA tournaments, but there is no way that run is continuing for another season. Even four ACC teams in this year's dance feel like it might be a stretch.

Winner: The 5 Remaining Unbeatens

5 of 10

    Iowa State's Izaiah Brockington
    Iowa State's Izaiah BrockingtonCharlie Neibergall/Associated Press

    All they do is win, win, win no matter what. Baylor, Colorado State, Iowa State, LSU and USC are a combined 57-0 as we approach the 2022 portion of the season.

    The most legitimate of the bunch certainly appears to be the reigning national champions. Baylor went through Arizona State, VCU and Michigan State to win the Battle 4 Atlantis and subsequently annihilated Villanova.

    The Bears have won each of their 11 games by at least eight points and somehow look every bit as good as last season despite losing four starters. Arizona transfer James Akinjo has been a godsend at point guard on both ends of the floor.

    The most surprising still-undefeated squad is Iowa State. The Cyclones only won two games last season before losing pretty much every noteworthy contributor on that team. T.J. Otzelberger took over as head coach, brought in a bunch of transfers and somehow put together an elite defense that already has wins over Xavier, Memphis, Creighton and Iowa.

    The other three teams have yet to face a KenPom top-35 opponent, although that will only be true of both LSU and USC for a few more days. The Tigers open SEC play with three straight against Auburn, Kentucky and Tennessee, while the Trojans have a brutal matchup with Arizona coming up on Sunday. The two defenses currently leading the nation in effective field-goal percentage will be put to the test soon.

    But with David Roddy and Isaiah Stevens leading the way, Colorado State might be the final team to suffer its first loss. The Rams were supposed to play at Alabama on Dec. 21, but that game was canceled because of COVID-19 issues within the Colorado State program. Now, the Mountain West Conference favorite might make it into late February before dropping a game. Watch out for the Rams in the dance.

Loser: St. Bonaventure Bonnies

6 of 10

    St. Bonaventure's Kyle Lofton (0), Linton Brown (4) and Quadry Adams (2)
    St. Bonaventure's Kyle Lofton (0), Linton Brown (4) and Quadry Adams (2)Mic Smith/Associated Press

    For the most part, the teams that we considered Final Four contenders in the preseason still have plenty of time to turn things around.

    We've already hit on Michigan as a colossal disappointment, but the Wolverines have a three-game stretch against Michigan State, Purdue and Illinois within the first half of January. Win two of those three games, and everyone will be jumping back on the bandwagon. Similar opportunities abound for the likes of Villanova, Oregon and Arkansas.

    But preseason AP No. 23 St. Bonaventure might already be in "auto bid or bust" territory.

    The Bonnies did knock off Boise State, Clemson and Marquette in the span of four days to win the Charleston Classic. They subsequently lost by double digits to Northern Iowa at home, lost by double digits to Connecticut on a neutral floor and got destroyed 86-49 by Virginia Tech in North Carolina.

    They were No. 30 on KenPom after winning the Charleston Classic, but now, they're outside the top 60. It's even worse in the NET, where the Bonnies are hovering outside the top 100, only barely in the top half of the 14-team Atlantic 10.

    And in that league, opportunities to improve the tournament resume with Quadrant 1 games are just about nonexistent. Davidson is now the league's highest-rated team in both KenPom and the NET, but the Bonnies won't even play a road game against the Wildcats this year.

    To have any hope of an at-large bid, they'll need to be almost flawless the rest of the way and then hope that a stockpile of Quadrant 2 wins is enough to impress the selection committee.

Winner: Tommy Lloyd, Arizona

7 of 10

    Arizona's Tommy Lloyd and Dalen Terry (4)
    Arizona's Tommy Lloyd and Dalen Terry (4)Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    After two decades as an assistant to Mark Few at Gonzaga, Tommy Lloyd finally got an offer he couldn't refuse.

    Arizona parted ways with Sean Miller after 12 years with no Final Fours and a few too many NCAA allegations, and the Wildcats handed an extremely young roster to a man with no head coaching experience.

    Had this first season been a complete disaster, it wouldn't have been that much of a surprise.

    Instead, Arizona started out 11-0 and has been a staple in the still superearly conversation about possible No. 1 seeds for the 2022 NCAA tournament. The Wildcats destroyed Michigan in Las Vegas, won at Illinois a few weeks later and darn near battled back from an early 15-point deficit at Tennessee this past Wednesday.

    The night-and-day difference from recent years at Arizona has been the defense.

    Miller often had tall rosters, yet it rarely amounted to dominance in the paint on D. But under Lloyd's tutelage, Christian Koloko has blossomed into one of the most valuable defenders in the nation. Fellow big men Azuolas Tubelis and Oumar Ballo also provide a ton of rim protection for the team that currently ranks first in two-point field-goal defense.

    Lloyd also has the Wildcats playing at the type of fast pace we've grown accustomed to seeing from Gonzaga in recent years. And that combination of great interior defense and the ability to turn just about anything into a fast-break opportunity has made Arizona fun to watch and very difficult to stop.

    In the process, Lloyd has become one of the top early candidates for national coach of the year.

Loser: Peyton Watson's Draft Stock

8 of 10

    UCLA's Peyton Watson
    UCLA's Peyton WatsonAshley Landis/Associated Press

    While Trevor Keels' draft stock has been soaring, Peyton Watson's has been sinking like a lead balloon.

    Circling back to the three mocks we referenced earlier, Watson was a projected top-10 pick in each of them, expected to be one of those lengthy three-and-D wings the NBA loves so much.

    Unfortunately, he hasn't been able to buy a bucket.

    Through nine games with the Bruins, Watson is 13-of-37 (35.1 percent) from inside the arc and 1-of-10 (10.0 percent) beyond it. And all of his success came against the weakest opponents on the schedule—Bellarmine, North Florida and Cal St. Bakersfield.

    In the games that people actually watched, Watson has been a ghost. His combined stat line in UCLA's three Tier A games against Gonzaga, Marquette and Villanova was: 31 minutes, 0-of-9 from the field, zero points, seven rebounds, two assists, one block.

    Take out the Villanova game, add in the UNLV and Colorado contests, and you're looking at a guy who has played 47 minutes over the past four games without a single block, without a single steal and without making any of his 12 field-goal attempts.

    Not exactly the three-and-D potential we were promised.

    Part of the problem for Watson is that he has been forced into more of a conventional frontcourt role with big man Cody Riley still sidelined by a knee injury.

    Any time he has been on the floor without Myles Johnson, the 6'8" Watson has been UCLA's de facto center, even though he figures to be a shooting guard/small forward hybrid at the next level. Combine playing out of position with inconsistent playing time, and Watson simply hasn't been able to get into any sort of offensive rhythm.

    There may well still be a team willing to use a 2022 lottery pick on Watson, but this season hasn't gone according to plan. And with Riley presumably returning to action whenever UCLA next does—he was a game-time decision for the Dec. 15 game against Alabama State that was canceled—Watson's playing time might be next to nil the rest of the way.

Winner: Houston Cougars

9 of 10

    Houston's Marcus Sasser
    Houston's Marcus SasserJustin Rex/Associated Press

    Nothing screams "college basketball" quite like arguing for weeks on end whether a highly rated team is actually good, and, friends, there is going to be a lot of arguing about Houston between now and Selection Sunday.

    The Cougars are 11-2 with a two-point, neutral-site loss to Wisconsin in which they almost came all the way back from a 20-point deficit, as well as a one-point loss at Alabama in what was an incredible game with a controversial finish.

    Those are forgivable, respectable losses on a resume otherwise fully populated by wins. However, none of those wins came against teams currently in the KenPom top 50, so it's a little hard to argue that Houston is one of the five best teams in the country.

    That hasn't stopped both KenPom and the NET from bestowing the Cougars with that honor, though.

    They rank fourth in both metrics, largely because of a scoring margin of 23.4 points per game against a schedule that only includes a couple of cupcakes. Houston does not yet have a Quadrant 1 win, but consistently blowing out teams like Oklahoma State, Oregon, Virginia and Butler has done a ton to make up for that dearth of quality wins.

    The problem that many people are going to have with the argument for Houston as a No. 1 seed is that the 0-2 record in Quadrant 1 games isn't going anywhere any time soon in a weak AAC.

    Some of the road games against Cincinnati, Memphis, SMU, UCF and Wichita State will likely end up as Q1 results. However, the Cougars don't play the first of those games until more than a month from now, and it's possible that none of those teams end up making the NCAA tournament.

    Same deal as last year, though, in which they earned a No. 2 seed and made it to the Final Four. A repeat of that run might be in the cards for a program well on its way to a fifth consecutive spot in the season-ending AP poll. (Although, losing leading scorer Marcus Sasser for the season might throw a wrench into those plans.)

Loser: No. 1

10 of 10

    Purdue's Caleb Swanigan and Rutgers' Clifford Omoruyi
    Purdue's Caleb Swanigan and Rutgers' Clifford OmoruyiRich Schultz/Getty Images

    Though it's still nothing compared to two years ago when No. 1 Kentucky lost at home to Evansville and No. 1 Duke lost at home to Stephen F. Austin, it has already been a tumultuous season for the top spot in the AP poll.

    Gonzaga defended its preseason throne admirably in convincing early wins over Texas and UCLA, but an 84-81 loss to Duke on Black Friday paved the way for the Blue Devils to climb to No. 1 on Nov. 29.
    They lasted about 35 hours before suffering a 71-66 loss at then-unranked Ohio State.

    The following week, Purdue ascended to No. 1 for the first time in program history. But it was a short reign for the Boilermakers, who lost 70-68 at unranked Rutgers and had to rally from a late 12-point deficit against North Carolina State to avoid going 0-2 at No. 1.

    And though Baylor did ultimately beat Oregon by eight, the Bears were down by 10 in the first half against a 6-5 team in their first game atop the polls. Had they not gone on a tear midway through the second half, that game of No. 1 hot potato would have continued for another week. And with a road game against undefeated Iowa State coming up on New Year's Day, Baylor's time at No. 1 might end soon.

    All told, three different No. 1 teams lost in the span of 14 days. Fresh off a season in which Gonzaga went wire-to-wire in the top spot, it sure does feel like one of those years where anyone can lose on any given night.