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One month into the season in men’s college basketball, here’s what we’ve learned:
1. Team of the month: Purdue
The Boilermakers are the new No. 1 team in the country, the first time the Boilermakers have been No. 1 in their rich history. Purdue’s best win was over Villanova at Mohegan Sun. The Boilermakers have the most complete team in the quest for the national title with a towering, imposing big man tandem in Zach Edey and Trevion Williams and the most entertaining and one of the fastest players in the country in Jaden Ivey. There’s plenty of depth and a coach who knows how to maximize and blend talent in Matt Painter. Oh, and the Boilermakers have a motivational tool — a first-round loss to North Texas last March.
2. Player-of-the-year chase: It’s wide open. Illinois’ Kofi Cockburn, Duke’s Paolo Banchero, Kansas’ Ochai Agbaji, Auburn’s Jabari Smith, Kentucky’s Oscar Tshiebwe, Gonzaga’s Drew Timme, Wisconsin’s Johnny Davis, Indiana’s Trayce Jackson-Davis, Iowa’s Keegan Murray, Alabama’s Jaden Shackelford, UCLA’s Johnny Juzang and Ohio State’s E.J. Liddell have been the most consistent and influential players on likely NCAA tournament-bound teams. You can mix and match the order one month in, but the race is on for the Naismith Award.
3. The deepest league: The SEC looks like the deepest conference — for now — with seven teams that should be in the NCAA tournament in Kentucky, Alabama, Arkansas, Auburn, Tennessee, Florida and LSU.
4. The WCC vs. The Pac-12: The WCC has four legit candidates to make the NCAA tournament one month in with Gonzaga, BYU, San Francisco and Saint Mary’s. The Pac-12 has three in UCLA, USC and Arizona. There is still plenty of time for this list to grow but teams like Colorado, Oregon and Washington State need to start winning key games.
5. The three-person race for freshman of the year: Duke’s Paolo Banchero has the inside track but don’t dismiss Auburn’s Jabari Smith. Both have been more consistent than Gonzaga’s Chet Holmgren. They will likely be the top three in the 2022 NBA Draft.
An emotional Dick Vitale returns to the booth. pic.twitter.com/zSK4OLNZWy
6. Best moment: ESPN’s 82-year old Dick Vitale returning to the broadcast position in person while battling cancer, chemo treatments. Vitale was understandably emotional prior to the tip of the UCLA-Gonzaga game in Las Vegas. Broadcast partner Dave O’Brien did a marvelous job of letting the moment breathe and giving Dick his space to express himself.
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7. Best game: Duke 84, Gonzaga 81. T-Mobile Arena, Las Vegas. Nov. 25. The atmosphere was Final Four-esque. The game lived up to the hype. And Gonzaga and Duke met the moment.
8. Best buzzer-beater: Dayton’s Mustapha Amzil’s jumper to lift Dayton to a 74-73 win over Kansas in the Orlando semifinals during Feast Weak. There were more dramatic buzzer-beaters but none was as important. Dayton has a legit chance to be an NCAA tournament team after that tournament title.
Texas Southern is the first SWAC program to defeat a ranked SEC program in the AP Poll Era (Since 1936); Ranked SEC teams entered 51-0 vs SWAC opponents. pic.twitter.com/rgZcSLQh9t
9. Most stunning upset: Well, it just happened Monday. Texas Southern, on game nine of a 14-game, season-starting road trip, shocked No. 20 Florida 69-54 for the Tigers first win of the season.
10. Most exciting tournament: The Fort Myers Tip-Off. Ohio State beat Seton Hall on a Meechie Johnson 3-pointer with 2.3 seconds left. Then Florida beat Ohio State at the buzzer for the title on a Tyree Appleby 3-pointer.
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11. The new post-game trend: Dumping water, in bottle or bucket form, on the coach and or star of the game. Maybe social media is promoting more of it or it’s just happening more often, but the post-game water dousing has been happening quite a bit. And that’s a good sign that there was plenty to celebrate.
12. Most surprising move: The timing of Maryland’s Mark Turgeon mutually agreeing to step down as head coach last week. The overall negativity was too much on Turgeon and his family, and forced the decision the first week of December rather than waiting to see what would happen in three months.
13. Craziest game: NC State beat Nebraska in four overtimes, which included a minor scuffle with a few ejections. The game lasted so long on the final night of the Big Ten/ACC Challenge that the late games were already into the second half before the Wolfpack finally finished off the Huskers.
14. Biggest surprise: Plenty of candidates here, but the safe choice is Iowa State. The Cyclones were picked 10th in the preseason poll for the Big 12. Iowa State won the NIT Tip-Off by clocking Memphis in Brooklyn. They started 8-0 under new coach TJ Otzelberger.
15. Most important transfer: There are a number of candidates for this but Marquette’s Darryl Morsell has been critical to the Golden Eagles thus far. The former Big Ten defensive player of the year has injected an identity into Shaka Smart’s first crew in Milwaukee that was much needed. He has helped Marquette remain competitive and viable.
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16. Most-improved player: Close call but both players may be in the Big Ten: Wisconsin’s Johnny Davis and Iowa’s Keegan Murray. The two players are legit conference player-of-the-year candidates. Davis is averaging 20 points a game. He averaged seven last season. He scored 30 against Houston in a relocated Maui Invitational semifinal win in Las Vegas.
Murray averaged seven points a game last season and is now posting 24. He had a ridiculous 27-point and 21-rebound outing against NC Central.
17. The best board man: Kentucky’s Oscar Tshiebwe has been ridiculous on the boards. He has grabbed 20 boards twice, including against Duke, and he was in double figures in rebounds in all seven games he played in to start the season.
18. Wildest stat line in an upset: Fardaws Aimaq of Utah Valley. He scored 24 points, grabbed 22 boards, had four assists, three blocks and five steals in 44 minutes in a 72-65 overtime upset over BYU.
19. The player who needs more attention: Colorado State’s David Roddy. The Rams are a team that can legitimately make a deep NCAA tournament run and Roddy is one of the main reasons. The Rams started the season 9-0 and Roddy is averaging 20 points and seven boards. He’s crushing it in Fort Collins.
20. The Ivy League is back and as competitive as it’s ever been: The chase for the four spots in the Ivy League tournament should come down to the final weekend. Columbia and Penn have struggled the most, but there’s no reason to completely dismiss them. The other six could easily finish in any order in the top four with Cornell, Princeton, Brown, Harvard, Dartmouth and preseason-favorite Yale all viable for the four spots. Cornell’s 8-1 start is impressive considering the team was gutted by departures, including Jimmy Boeheim going to Syracuse after the league didn’t play last season.
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21. COVID issues are still a problem: Abilene Christian, Nevada, Wagner and Washington all had to postpone or, in the case of Washington, cancel a game and force a forfeit due to positive cases.
22. Oddest cancellation: Fairleigh Dickinson couldn’t play its game at Drexel because the team bus could only go five miles an hour. The team tried to get another vehicle for the drive but to no avail.
23. The next big thing at Baylor: The reigning champs are in position to chase the title again. The guard tandem of LJ Cryer and James Akinjo is in line to lead the Bears to a possible Big 12 title.
Chris Beard’s “students-only” home game for the No. 8 #Texas #Longhorns against #SamHouston draws a packed house inside 3,234-seat Gregory Gym, where ?@TexasVolleyball? plays its home games. pic.twitter.com/U39fY8oD4r
24. Best move by a new coach: Chris Beard playing a game for students only against Sam Houston State at Texas’ Gregory Gym. The all-student crowd was rocking for the Longhorns in the win. Great move to connect with the student body.
25. Toughest tournament run: UConn went 2-1 in the Battle 4 Atlantis but had to play two overtimes to get past Auburn, then it lost to Michigan State and had to play in overtime to get past VCU.
26. Best scoring game: Indiana’s Trayce Jackson-Davis dropped 43 points on Marshall and the Hoosiers needed most of them in a gritty, 90-79 win over the Herd.
27. Balanced league races: Keep an eye on the MAAC, Horizon League, MAC and Missouri Valley. The leagues will be a slog to get through this season. Picking the winner isn’t going to be easy. The balance is real and a quality team is going to be left out. Don’t be surprised to see a third or fourth or fifth-seeded team win the conference tournament in those conferences.
28. Best single-day event: Champions Classic. This tip-off event still rises to the challenge. Coach K’s last game at Madison Square Garden delivered a Duke win over Kentucky. And Kansas rose to the hype and knocked out Michigan State. The doubleheader at MSG helped tip off the men’s season in the right way.
29. Best conference challenge: The Big East beating the Big Ten in the Gavitt Games. Sure, Johnny Davis didn’t play for Wisconsin in the loss to Providence and Kofi Cockburn wasn’t eligible yet for Illinois in its loss to Marquette. But the overall wins, including Seton Hall’s victory at Michigan and Xavier’s win over Ohio State, gave the Big East the momentum it needed for the season.
30. Player-of-the-year performance: Gonzaga’s Drew Timme has a long way to go to win the award, but his 37-point performance in the team’s home win over Texas in game two of the season will have shelf life for his candidacy throughout the season.
Andy Katz is an NCAA.com correspondent. Katz worked at ESPN for 18 years as a college basketball reporter, host and anchor. He’s covered every Final Four since 1992, and the sport since 1986 as a freshman at Wisconsin. He is a former president of the United States Basketball Writers Association. Katz can also be seen covering college basketball on Big Ten Network, Fox and FS1. Follow him on Twitter at @theandykatz. Follow his March Madness 365 weekly podcast here.
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