By Kevin Lucas
1. Gonzaga: Yes, I know the Zags don’t play in the toughest conference, but they still win games handily and that should not be overlooked. Even without a true point guard, this Zags squad is still getting the job done led by their two stars in Killian Tillie and Corey Kispert. They have quality wins over Oregon, Arizona, Washington, and an underrated Pepperdine squad. Trust me, the West Coast is no pushover of a league and Gonzaga will have to earn each and every win to claim yet another conference title, but as for now, the Zag’s train is still rolling steady.
2. Baylor: To me, the Baylor Bears of Waco, Texas have the best resume of any college basketball team in the country. They currently have wins over four ranked teams and they have one of, if not the best, guards in college hoops in Jared Butler who has become a breakout star. They recently beat Kansas at Phog Allen Fieldhouse for the first time in school history and even more recently clawed out another tough road win against Oklahoma State in a game where the Bears trailed for a majority of that game. Scott Drew has one of the best teams he has had since becoming the head man at Baylor. Do not be shocked if the Bears claim the Big 12 regular-season title.
3. Villanova: As long as Jay Wright is the head man at Villanova they will always be relevant in the college basketball world. From lead guard Collin Gillespie to versatile forward Saddiq Bey, Nova is led by their vets who have truly adopted the grit and tough ways that represent Villanova. True freshmen Jeremiah Robinson-Earl and Justin Moore have also been key pieces in this team’s success so far. They have a few big-time wins already, but the win over a then-ranked no.1 Kansas squad in Philadelphia is their best win to date. They will always be in the hunt for the Big East crown but it certainly looks like Coach Wright is hungry for that third National Championship.
4. Kansas: The Jayhawks have had an up and down first half of the season. They already have three losses, which is very uncharacteristic of them to have that many losses this early, but they have had really good wins over an elite Dayton squad and a hard-nosed West Virginia Mountaineers ball club. Point guard Devon Dotson and Udoka Azubuike aka “Dok” form to make one of the most formidable duos in all of college hoops. That’s without even mentioning their ultimate glue-guy in Marcus Garrett plus the shooters they have around those three guys like Isaiah Moss and Ochai Agbaji. This KU squad will be a very tough out by the time we reach March.
5. Florida State: Leonard Hamilton is probably the most unappreciated coach in the entire country and regardless he has his Seminoles ready to go every season. Every year since Coach Hamilton has been in Tallahassee the Seminoles are always super versatile and that’s the case again this season. MJ Walker has really risen to the occasion and is finally showing his true gifts as a junior, while Trent Forrest continues to be the straw that stirs the drink for the Noles with his play-making ability. Now they do have a few bad losses going all the way back to when they lost at Pittsburgh to start the season, but since then they have won at Louisville and at Miami in a game where they need overtime to win against the Canes. The Noles don’t have a resume that wows you but as of late they are trending in the right direction.
6. San Diego State: Is SDSU a legit final four contender? Possibly, but in the meantime, they remain the only undefeated squad in college basketball with a record of 19-0. Brian Dutcher has done an excellent job of taking over the reins as head coach at SDSU from the legendary Coach Steve Fisher and now he is putting this Aztecs program on the map. Malachi Flynn, the Washington State transfer, has shown to be one of the best guards on the West Coast. Matt Mitchell is the Robin to Flynn’s Batman as his brute strength is a force to be reckoned with. I don’t know how long the undefeated streak will last but the Aztecs are legit and deserve respect.
7. Louisville: Chris Mack has to have the most lethal team in the country because they have so many weapons. You start with star forward Jordan Nwora who eats, breathes and sleeps getting buckets. Then you move to their big men in Malik Williams and Steven Enoch who both rebound hard and can hit the three-ball at a very high clip. Darius Perry probably has taken the biggest leap skill-wise from his sophomore season to now in his junior year. The biggest surprise though is freshman David Johnson, who after missing the beginning of the season with a shoulder injury has established himself as the Cards main point guard standing at 6ft5 and absolutely willed the Cards on the road to beat the Blue Devils of Duke in Cameron Indoor Stadium. The Cards will definitely be a team to keep an eye on once the big dance rolls around.
8. Dayton: Anthony Grant and the Flyers of Dayton have come out of nowhere and shocked the entire college hoops world. Yes, Obi Toppin is their best player and will be a lottery pick come June, but they have so many players that complement his skill set. Their experienced guard play really separates the Flyers from a lot of teams in the nation. From Trey Landers to Ibi Watson to Rodney Chatman, the Flyers have multiple playmakers and elite shot-makers. Also, Ryan Mikesell playing the small-ball power forward leaves Dayton with endless possibilities offensively. Oh and don’t let me forget Jalen Crutcher, who just so happened to hit the game-winning three-point shot in overtime against the Billikens of Saint Louis to sink them in an epic Atlantic 10 conference game in the STL. Believe me when I say that the Flyers are primed to make a deep run by the time we reach the NCAA Tournament.
9. Seton Hall: When you have the best scorer in all of college basketball it makes running plays offensively very easy. And that’s the luxury that Coach Kevin Willard has with Myles Powell, who just reached an elite class by joining the 2,000 points club. The Pirates are currently on an 8-game winning streak and in this past week alone they knocked off a top-5 ranked Butler team at Hinkle Fieldhouse and beat St. Johns at Madison Square Garden. This may sound crazy but Myles Powell missing a few games with a concussion was a blessing in disguise for the Pirates because it forced players like Quincy McKnight and Jared Rhoden to really be more assertive and step up offensively. Plus, the Pirates have two 7-footers in Romaro Gill and Ike Obiagu who are both steadily improving on both ends of the floor. The scariest part about them is that they still aren’t fully healthy yet as Sandro Mamukelashvili is still sidelined with a fractured right wrist but should return soon. Once they are back and healthy the whole nation will be aware of what’s going on in South Orange, New Jersey.
10. Oregon: Dana Altman has yet another final four caliber roster this season in Eugene. The Ducks have a top-3 point guard in the nation in Payton Pritchard, who just hit a game-winning three in overtime to knock off their Pac-12 rival Washington Huskies in Seattle. When you have a dynamic play-maker like Pritchard, you don’t need that much talent around him in order to succeed, but fortunately, the Ducks do. You pair Pritchard with his longtime friend and brother Anthony Mathis who just so happens to be one of the top shooters in the country. Plus they brought in a 7-foot monster straight from Mali, West Africa in true freshmen center N’Faly Dante and another freshman in Chandler Lawson is starting to find his groove as well. I know they dropped a game at Washington State but them going to Ann Arbor and beating Michigan and again beating UW in Seattle aren’t easy tasks. Coach Altman and Mr. Pritchard will have the Ducks ready to rock and roll for the remainder of this season.