College Basketball

Breaking down college basketball's best at the midseason mark

Selection Sunday is two months away from this weekend, so it’s time for our mid-season breakdown:

Player of the year

Leader: Oklahoma freshman Trae Young.

He’s leading the country in scoring (29.2) and assists (10.2). He’s sensational, dominating his position, wonderful to watch and he can carry Oklahoma deep in March.

Top candidate: West Virginia’s Jevon Carter.

The senior guard was instrumental in forcing Oklahoma and Young into turnovers when the Mountaineers knocked off the Sooners in Morgantown. West Virginia hasn’t lost since the opening game. Carter is the leader, catalyst and the most important player in the Big 12 outside of Young. Here’s a scenario that could really occur: Young wins national player of the year, but Carter wins Big 12 MVP.

Filling out the All-American five

Marvin Bagley III, Duke: The freshman forward is averaging 22.1 points and 11.8 rebounds for the Blue Devils. He has stepped up in big games for Duke (32 points and 21 rebounds against Florida State, 34 and 15 versus Texas in OT, 30 and 15 versus Florida, 23 and 10 at Indiana). When he’s on, he’s dominant.

Deandre Ayton, Arizona: Ayton has had his moments where he is nasty and makes you stand back and just bear witness to his freak athleticism. He can make you feel for the rims, dunking with such viciousness. Ayton is averaging 20.4 points and 11.6 rebounds and has blocked 25 shots. In the biggest game of the seasons so far — a win over Arizona State — Ayton scored 23 points and had 19 boards.

Jalen Brunson, Villanova: The junior guard has been the difference for the No. 1-ranked Wildcats. He rarely makes mistakes, as his 5-1 assist-to-turnover ratio shows. He’s increased his scoring from 14 to 19 points a game from last season and has welcomed the leadership role. Villanova coach Jay Wright has an incredible trust with him that seems to be unbreakable. Brunson has a real shot to win two national championships in his career.

Coach of the Year

A leader in the clubhouse: Purdue’s Matt Painter

Painter has been coaching this group for what seems like a year after starting out with a silver medal in the world university games in Taiwan last summer, but he and the Boilermakers show no fatigue. This crew genuinely exhibits sheer joy on the court. Purdue went 1-2 in the Bahamas, including a critical seventh-place win over Arizona. Since then, Painter has rectified that situation and Purdue is a threat to grab a top-two line seed and a Final Four berth. 

#BoilerNotes

Top 25 in 9 @NCAAStats categories. #BoilerUppic.twitter.com/1njxkbelrX

— Purdue Men’s Basketball (@BoilerBall) January 12, 2018

RELATED: Andy Katz breaks down NCAA Tournament hopefuls

The Field

Bobby Hurley, Arizona State: The Sun Devils had some of the most significant wins of the season, beating Xavier in Las Vegas and Kansas at Phog Allen. ASU has struggled though, in the Pac-12, dropping to 1-3 after losing to Oregon at home Thursday night. ASU has been one of the most entertaining teams to watch this season, and the Sun Devils are loving playing together. Hurley has built something special in Tempe. If he can sustain it, he’s got a chance to finally do what others couldn’t — build a consistent winner that actually gets people to make Wells Fargo a destination. The Sun Devils haven’t been to the NCAA tournament since 2014, nor won a game since 2009. Both of those streaks should end in March.

Jay Wright, Villanova: Coaching the No. 1 team in the country, getting every team’s best shot and never seeming too rattled.

MORE: Jay Wright discusses Villanova’s Big East title streak

Tom Izzo, Michigan State: This is Izzo’s best shot to win a title, perhaps, since 2000. He’s only going to make this team better in March.

Chris Holtmann, Ohio State: The Buckeyes are the surprise team in the Big Ten after knocking off Michigan State at home. Holtmann has the Buckeyes buzzing again in Columbus and should be a dangerous team in March.

Bob Huggins, West Virginia: The Mountaineers lost the opener to Texas A&M in Germany but haven’t lost since. They don’t just look like a possible Big 12 champ — they have the look of a team that could win it all.

Chris Beard, Texas Tech: OK, so who had the Red Raiders winning at Kansas and being 14-2 overall, 3-1 in the Big 12? Crickets. Thought so.

Tony Bennett, Virginia: Rebuilding year? Hardly. The Cavs may win the ACC.

Comeback player of the year

Keita Bates-Diop, RS-Jr., F, Ohio State: Bates-Diop played in only nine games last season due to a stress fracture in his left leg. He was averaging 9.7 points and 5.2 rebounds when he was shelved. This season he’s posting 20 points and 8.8 rebounds and is the main reason the Buckeyes are in the thick of the Big Ten title race.

Rising star

McKinley Wright IV, Fr., PG, Colorado: During the Paradise Jam victory at Liberty in November, I called him the Roadrunner, because of his speed from end to end. He splashed onto the scene in that tournament. Buffaloes coach Tad Boyle was raving about him prior to the event and he knew what he was talking about. Wright is the real deal — he’s a star, leading the Buffaloes in scoring at 15.6 points and dishing out 5.2 assists a game.

RELATED: Ohio State headlines the country’s most surprising teams this season

Most impressive performance

Markus Howard, So., G, Marquette: He scored 52 points, made 17 of 29 shots — 11 of 19 in threes — in a 95-90 overtime win at Providence on Jan. 3. Oh, and he hasn’t missed a free throw this season. He’s 51 of 51.

Best conference race

Wichita State/Cincinnati for the American

Circle these two dates: Feb. 18 at Cincinnati, 4 p.m., ET, ESPN; March 4 at Wichita State, 12 p.m., ET, CBS.
This is the new rivalry in the AAC and it could end up being one of the best in the sport. Intense.

Kansas vs. the field in the Big 12

Tough to predict against the Jayhawks since they’ve won 13 in a row. Kansas already has road wins at Texas and TCU, but if there is a team that could unseat KU, it’s likely West Virginia. Stay tuned. Oh, and there are zero bad teams in this league. Most balanced conference by far.

Villanova vs. the field in the Big East

The Wildcats have won all four Big East regular-season titles since the league was reformed. Xavier was run out of Philadelphia this week and already lost at Providence. Seton Hall and Creighton can’t be dismissed, either. But, like KU, it’s hard to go against the favorite.

Hardest to predict

The SEC and ACC

The SEC still runs through Kentucky, but Florida and Auburn have to be taken as serious threats to knock off the Wildcats. The rest of the league is as balanced as the SEC has been recently.

RELATED: 7 of the most indispensable players in the game

The ACC should be Duke’s to lose, but that hasn’t been the script. Virginia has been the most consistent team by far and the lone remaining unbeaten. North Carolina isn’t going anywhere, either. Clemson and Miami will be in the thick of the race.

The Big Ten could have……two teams in the top two lines in Michigan State and Purdue, a decent seed for Ohio State and then a big drop for whoever else can make the field.

The Pac 12 will have….three locks in Arizona, Arizona State and UCLA and then maybe a few others sweating out Selection Sunday.

Most shocking results

Wofford 79, North Carolina 75, Dec. 20, 2017 in Chapel Hill. Boston College 89, Duke 84, Dec. 9, 2017 in Newton.

The most distressing injury was…..to Notre Dame’s Bonzie Colson, a stellar four-year player for the Irish, who was having another all-ACC type season.

Not playing, but not forgotten…..Freshman Michael Porter, Jr., of Missouri, who had to have back surgery, may not play in college. He would have likely been in the mix with all the other great freshmen this season.

The freshman getting overshadowed is…..LSU’s Tremont Waters. He has been a stud, beating Texas A&M on the road and averaging 16.8 points and 6.1 assists. The Tigers are 2-1 in the SEC, 11-4 overall and could make a late surge for a tournament bid.

The A-10 needs…..St. Bonaventure to challenge Rhode Island to get multiple bids. This is URI’s conference to lose.

The most surprising teams have been…..Texas Tech (14-2, 3-1 Big 12), Ohio State (14-4, 5-0 Big Ten), Auburn (15-1, 3-0 SEC), Duquesne (12-5, 3-1 A-10) and NC State (wins over Arizona in the Bahamas, Duke and Clemson at home).

It would be great to see…..the Big Sky come down to the state of Montana and the Summit to the state of South Dakota. Montana and Montana State are 5-0 and 4-0, respectively. Too bad they don’t play in the final game of the regular season. South Dakota State is 3-0, South Dakota is 3-1. They don’t end the season against each other, either, playing their last game on Feb. 22. 

MORE: Full NCAA.com hoops coverage

Don’t give up on….Northwestern just yet.

The Wildcats are just 2-3 in the Big Ten and 11-7 overall. But if you watched them dismantle crumbling Minnesota Wednesday, you saw the team the Wildcats were supposed to be this season. The dream to go back-to-back to the NCAA tournament for the first-time ever is not dead yet.

Middle Tennessee and Western Kentucky will likely vie for the Conference USA title and whoever wins will be a trendy pick to pull off a first-round upset.

You don’t want….East Tennessee State opposite your team if the Buccaneers get in the field. ETSU had a monster 22-point lead on Xavier at the Cintas Center, only to lose by a deuce. ETSU has six true road wins.

The Mountain West may only get….one bid but Nevada, Boise State and San Diego State all have the goods to win a game in the NCAA tournament.

I fell for….Drake’s Reed Timmer, Graham Woodward and coach Niko Medved in covering the the Bulldogs at the Paradise Jam. If this team gets into the field — possibly over Loyola-Chicago, which won at Florida — they will be a team fans will fawn over. Grit. Shooters. A great combo.

New Washington coach Mike Hopkins has done an outstanding job of putting his imprint on the Huskies program with a win over Kansas in Kansas City, a victory at USC and a real chance to finish in the top four in the Pac-12.

Gonzaga was not supposed to be this good after losing so much. The Zags have once again found hidden gems in Zach Norvell Jr., Corey Kispert and Jacob Larsen that will be stars in the coming seasons.

No one will want to play…..New Mexico State in the first round if the Aggies win the WAC. The Aggies, who knocked off Illinois in Chicago and beat Miami in Honolulu. Two-time transfer Zach Lofton, by way of Illinois State and Texas Southern, is averaging 18.9 a game and has the ability to go off as his 29 in a win over Grand Canyon and 28 in a loss to USC displayed.

Texas A&M is…..talented enough to win the SEC tournament and get in the field, even if the Aggies continue to flounder in the conference. The Aggies are a shocking 0-4 in large part due to injuries and suspensions this season.

The most bizarre game was…..Minnesota beating Alabama in Brooklyn in a final 5 on 3 in the last 10 minutes due to ejections and injuries. But the Tide had the right player among the three — freshman Collin Sexton. He scored 40!

Top plays

Stanford’s Daejon Davis stuns USC with 50-foot buzzer beater

Florida’s Chris Chiozza steals pass, lays up game-winner vs. Mizzou

W&M’s Oliver Tot sinks half-court buzzer-beater to down ODU

Tayler Persons caps Ball State upset over Irish with last-second 3

Radford’s Ed Polite soars high for one-handed poster dunk

Andy Katz is an NCAA.com correspondent. Katz worked at ESPN for 18 years as a college basketball reporter, host and anchor. Katz has 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. Follow him on Twitter at @theandykatz.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NCAA or its member institutions.

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