Starting this week, here on Rocky Top Talk, I’m going to start a weekly column on the happenings around college basketball. First and foremost, a large chunk of it will revolve around Tennessee’s week in review. From the games to the stats to standings updates, from who showed out, who needs to step up, and who’s a player ready to break through (we have a big one this week), it will remain Vol and SEC-centric.
That being said, we’re nearing March, and there’s over 360 Division I college basketball teams, many of who are vying for a spot in the Dance, and there is some pretty great college basketball happening around the country right now. We will focus a spotlight on both the other power conferences, gauging what’s going on in the ACC, Big 10, Big 12, Big East, and Pac-12. You’ll also find a section for mid-major programs, who to watch for vying for the double-digit spots in March, and who could be a potential Cinderella this year.
Without further ado, your first edition of Roundball Round-Up.
Vols rebound on road trip after Kentucky loss
After the rough loss against Kentucky last Saturday, Tennessee had its hands full en route to a 70-59 win in Starkville, but they cruised on Saturday in Baton Rouge. The Vols were without top scorer Santiago Vescovi and Tyreke Key against Mississippi State, leaving Zakai Zeigler all on his lonesome to shoulder the point guard duties. On Saturday, they were minus Uros Plavsic as he was sick.
In the first half against State, it just felt like one of those games. Zeigler continued to struggle around the rim while turnovers and the poor shooting from the Kentucky game spilled over into the first half of this game. However, the second half was a totally different tune after the under-eight timeout.
Tennessee has made it their calling card this season to come out hot in both halves, but it was the later portion of the game where Tennessee took this one from State. The Vols outscored the Bulldogs 20-10 over the final 7:25 to pull away. The Vols sweeps the season series for the first time since conference realignment. Tennessee and Mississippi State don’t play twice in a regular season often. It’s just the second time this has happened under Rick Barnes, but they’ve now taken the two games against the Bulldogs by a combined 45 points.
This has been a second half team all season. The splits don’t lie.
Tennessee First Half vs. Second Half
|Stat||1st Half||2nd Half|
|Stat||1st Half||2nd Half|
|Points per half||35.3||38.4|
|Adj. Off. Rating||106.0||117.9|
|Adj. Def. Rating||75.1||89.5|
|Points in Paint||14.0||17.5|
We briefly touched on Zeigler’s struggles in the first half, but he was a different beast in the second half, and it carried into Saturday as well. Zeigler went off in Starkville, scoring 16 of his career-high 24 points in the final 20. All five of his turnovers came in the first half, meaning he essentially played the perfect second half. ZZ went 5-for-5 from the field, four of which were from three, and went 2-for-2 from the free throw line. When the Vols needed him most, he came through in a major way.
Julian Phillips also played a major factor in Tennessee’s win. The freshman, like Zeigler, struggled early, but he added 13 points in his second double-double in a variety of ways. Phillips added a pair of threes, was active on the offensive glass as he normally is, flashed off the ball cutting to the basket to get easy layups and free throws, and he even forced the issue, attacking the basket off the dribble.
Bench minutes, as sparse as they were, came in clutch in the interior. Jonas Aidoo continues to be a menace inside, blocking four shots in his 17 minutes of play. Aidoo is currently one of just 12 players with a 10%+ block rate among power conference players. Tobe Awaka added four points and a pair of blocks as well. Awaka may only be 6-foot-8, but he’s played much bigger in his limited minutes this season.
Against LSU, just about everyone shined offensively. Josiah-Jordan James led the way with 22 while Zakai put in another tremendous effort, posting his second career double-double with 12 points and 10 assists. This kind of performance will be integral down the stretch as teams continue to face guard Vescovi more.
Without Plavsic, it was big by committee as Tennessee went small ball to start. Nkamhoua had his worst game of the season, but Aidoo picked him up off the bench, adding eight points and seven boards
The three-point shot has been hit or miss this season. Early in SEC play, it was a huge hit, but against Kentucky...well 3-for-21 speaks for itself. However, they answered the bell from behind the arc, knocking down eight of nine threes in their second half outburst and then knocking down over 40-percent against LSU.
Also, shout-out to Will Wade for landing Julian Phillips in Knoxville. He’s pretty great.
Around the SEC
Kentucky continues their minor winning streak with a pair of home dubs over a game Georgia and a previously unbeaten in conference play Texas A&M. Oscar Tshiebwe put up one of the more bonkers stat lines of the year, scoring 37 points, snagging 24 rebounds along with three steals against Georgia. After a rather slow start, Tshiebwe has gotten it in gear of late. Calipari accidentally struck gold after Sahvir Wheeler’s injury. It allowed him to get his best five on the floor for most of the game. Tshiebwe, Cason Wallace, Jacob Toppin, Antonio Reeves, and CJ Fredrick are the best group of five in the country, per Evan Miyakawa, and they’ve been getting it done on both ends.
Alabama continues to roll as Nate Oats has his best team in Tuscaloosa and currently in the SEC as the Tide are clicking on all cylinders. Since the 100-90 loss to Gonzaga on December 17, Alabama is averaging 84.6 points per game and has held every opponent under 70 points during their eight game winning streak.
Auburn has won five straight as they cruised to road wins over LSU and South Carolina. Their defense and an admittedly weak schedule against the bottom five teams in the SEC have sparked this streak. Offensively, they still struggle a lot as their 49.4% effective field goal percentage ranks 222nd in the country per KenPom, and their 29.9% mark from deep is 330th. They’ll have a tough stretch over the next month, so their in-conference test is only just beginning.
Of course South Carolina goes here, they likely will all year, but as for the aforementioned Tigers down in Baton Rouge, it’s bad. They’ve dropped six straight and appear to be in a free fall right now, and it’s largely because of their inability to score or get stops inside and turnovers. Over their last five games, LSU is shooting just 40% on field goal attempts in the paint (last in the country) while allowing opponents to shoot 65.9% in the paint (last), scoring just 20.8 points in the paint per game (second-last) while allowing 32.4 per game inside (279th), and are scoring just 5.2 points off of turnovers (last) while giving up 21.4 points off turnovers per game (last). They just don’t have the size or physicality to hang with a very big SEC, and that’s compounded by their overwhelming turnover struggles.
Up in Oxford, things are going about the same for Ole Miss. Their offense has been abysmal in conference play. They rank 11th of 14 SEC teams in conference play in offensive efficiency, and in conference play, they’re shooting 27.9% from three, good for 359th in the nation. A lot of year one’s for coaches in the SEC are bringing in growing pains.
Team of the Week
Alabama Crimson Tide
- 78-66 W @ Vanderbilt
- 85-64 W @ Missouri
- Allowed Vandy and Mizzou to shoot a combined 14.8% from three as Tide extended their winning streak to eight, moving to 7-0 in conference play
Player of the Week
Oscar Tshiebwe — Kentucky
- Averaged 22 points and 20.5 rebounds in two wins for Kentucky
- Scored 37 to go along with 24 rebounds in win over Georgia
- First 30/20 game with no turnovers since Purdue’s Trevion Williams in 2020 against Michigan
Power Conference Round-Up
*Disclaimer*: You’re going to see “Utah Watch” pop up in all of the conferences. In 2012, Utah finished 302nd in the country on KenPom. Since 2002 when KenPom began, it’s the lowest finish ever by a power conference school.
- Conference Leader: Clemson (16-4 | 8-1)
- Highest in KenPom: Virginia (11)
- ACC MVP: Armando Bacot (UNC): 17.6 PPG, 11.2 RPG, 58.1 eFG%, 119.6 ORtg
- Current Tournament Teams (Lunardi): 7
- Who’s Hot: Virginia (5-game winning streak), North Carolina (winners of 5 of last 6)
- Who’s Not: Notre Dame (after 6-1 start, Irish have lost 10 of 13 since the start of December, including 7 of 8 in ACC play)
- Notable Upcoming Game(s): 1/23: Duke @ VATech; 1/24: UNC @ Cuse; 1/28: NCSt @ WF,
- Utah Watch?: Louisville — 296
- Conference Leader: Purdue (19-1 | 8-1)
- Highest in KenPom: Purdue (5)
- Big 10 MVP: Zach Edey (Purdue): 21.5 PPG, 13.2 RPG, 61.4 eFG%, 125.5 ORtg
- Current Tournament Teams (Lunardi): 10
- Who’s Hot: Purdue (6-game winning streak)
- Who’s Not: Ohio State (went from 5-seed to Last Four In with latest January swoon)
- Notable Upcoming Game(s): 1/24: OSU @ Illinois, PSU @ Rutgers; 1/26: Purdue @ UM; 1/28: OSU @ IU
- Utah Watch?: Minnesota — ❄️ 190 ❄️
- Conference Leader: Kansas State (17-2 | 6-1)
- Highest in KenPom: Kansas (9)
- Big 12 MVP: Markquis Nowell (Kansas State): 16.4 PPG, 8.4 APG, 50.9 eFG%, 119.3 ORtg
- Current Tournament Teams: 8
- Who’s Hot: TCU (beat Kansas by 23 at the Phog; 2 wins vs. top 2 teams in Big 12 in last week), Kansas State (11-1 since start of December, beat Kansas)
- Who’s Not: Kansas (0-2 last week), Texas Tech (dropped 7th straight to start conference play Saturday)
- Notable Upcoming Game(s): 1/23: KU @ Baylor; 1/24: KState @ Iowa State; Big 12-SEC Challenge 1/28
- Utah Watch?: Texas Tech — ❄️❄️ 64 ❄️❄️
- Conference Leader: Xavier (16-4 | 8-1)
- Highest in KenPom: UConn (6)
- Big East MVP: Souley Boum (Xavier): 16.6 PPG, 4.2 RPG, 5.1 APG, 56.2 eFG%, 126.3 ORtg
- Current Tournament Teams: 5
- Who’s Hot: Marquette (Won 5 of 6 in new year), Creighton (5-2 since 6-game losing streak)
- Who’s Not: UConn (Lost 5 of last 6 after 14-0 start)
- Notable Upcoming Game(s): 1/25: Xavier @ UConn; 1/28: Xavier @ Creighton
- Utah Watch?: Georgetown — 227
- Conference Leader: UCLA (17-3 | 8-1)
- Highest in KenPom: UCLA (4)
- PAC-12 MVP: Azuolas Tubelis (Zona): 19.9 PPG, 9.5 RPG, 57.4 eFG%, 119.0 ORtg
- Current Tournament Teams: 3
- Who’s Hot: Arizona (picked up wins over USC and UCLA after dropping 2 of 3)
- Who’s Not: Colorado (1-3 in last 4)
- Notable Upcoming Game(s): 1/26: UCLA @ USC, Zona @ Wazzu
- Utah Watch?: Oregon State 226
The At-Large Contenders
Gonzaga (17-4 | 5-1) | WCC | NET: 12 | KenPom: 17 | Bracket Matrix: 3 seed
—Top Player: Drew Timme: 22.0 PPG, 7.6 RPG, 3.3 APG, 61.0 eFG%, 117.0 ORtg
— Okay, yes, Gonzaga is not a mid-major. Let’s just get that out of the way now. They may play in a mid-major conference, but they’ve become the preeminent powerhouse of the west coast for years now. Now that we got that out of the way, despite having the nation’s longest home winning streak (75) snapped last Thursday when Loyola Marymount went into The Kennel and upset the Zags. This team is primed for a possible Round of 32 upset, however, unless their defense and guard play pick up in a big way.
Saint Mary’s (18-4 | 8-0) | WCC | NET: 6 | KenPom: 7 | Bracket Matrix: 6 seed
— Top Player: Aidan Mahaney: 15.0 PPG, 43.2 3PT%, 55.2 eFG%, 113.4 ORtg
— The team I once dubbed “baby Virginia” has lately outplayed its comparison. Randy Bennett has his best team out in Moraga as they are blowing conference opponents out. The Gaels are winning their conference games by an average of 21.6 points. Their closest game was at Santa Clara where they won by three. They’ve allowed 70 points once. They held North Texas to 33 points.
San Diego State (15-4 | 6-1) | MWC | NET: 26 | KenPom: 27 | Bracket Matrix: 7 seed
— Top Player: Matt Bradley: 13.5 PPG, 4.5 RPG, 46.7 eFG%, 103.0 ORtg
— Though they can be on the more inconsistent side offensively, they’re much improved from a season ago at that end. This is a very experienced team with a very good defense poised to get out of the Round of 64 for the first time under Brian Dutcher.
New Mexico (18-2 | 5-2) | MWC | NET: 28 | KenPom: 44 | Bracket Matrix: 8 seed
— Top Player: Jaelen House: 17.4 PPG, 4.6 APG, 53.5 eFG%, 117.1 ORtg
— In year two in Albuquerque, Richard Pitino has found a home. Sitting at 18-2 with big wins over Saint Mary’s, Iona, Oral Roberts, San Diego State, and Boise State, this team is poised to help snap the Mountain West’s recent March struggles, potentially as an at-large. Jaelen House and Jamal Mashburn Jr. can flat out score. Both are averaging over 17 a game and shooting over 40-percent from three.
Boise State (15-5 | 5-2) | MWC | NET: 21 | KenPom: 25 | Bracket Matrix: 10 seed
— Top Player: Tyson Degenhart: 14.4 PPG, 5.7 RPG, 53.5 eFG%, 116.2 ORtg
— The Mountain West is loaded. The reigning MWC Tournament champs are back, this time as a potential at-large. This team gets it done defensively at a high level, they can shoot the three, and they don’t turn the ball over. They create bad shots and are among the best one shot and done rebounding teams in the country. That’s tough to beat. Boise is coming off a tough overtime loss at The Pit against New Mexico.
Florida Atlantic (19-1 | 9-0) | C-USA | NET: 18 | KenPom: 36 | Bracket Matrix: 9 seed
— Top Player: Johnell Davis: 12.7 PPG, 5.2 RPG, 42.4 3PT%, 56.5 eFG%, 116.6 ORtg
— It’s not often the best player on the team comes off the bench, but that’s the case for FAU. Johnell Davis has not started a game since November 17, but he has been sensational in the new year. Since the start of January, Davis is averaging 18.1 points per game while shooting 44.8% from three. So much of what makes this team so good is how everyone accepts and buys into their roles. Davis embodies that perfectly.
FAU is on an 18-game winning streak, second best in the nation. They’ll have a tough test on the road against UAB on February 2nd.
Charleston (21-1 | 9-0) | CAA | NET: 43 | KenPom: 73 | Bracket Matrix: 12 seed
— Top Player: Dalton Bolon: 13.2 PPG, 4.4 RPG, 48.7 eFG%, 115.0 ORtg
— The College of Charleston have won 20 games in a row, and bracketologists, myself included, can’t figure out where to put them. Does their record and win streak in a weak conference outweigh the fact they have no wins against an at-large caliber opponent? Why are they ranked? Both of these debates will rage on so long as the winning streak does.
As a team, they’re obviously very good, but their numbers don’t exactly blow you away. 47.7% of their shot attempts come from behind the arc, but they only knock down 33.4% of their threes, slightly below the national average, which makes sense as those two things can tend to work like a yo-yo. They’re a decidedly smaller team as only Ante Brzovic (6-10) is their lone player who gets substantial minutes in their rotation over 6-foot-8. They’re an enigma, and I really hope a team that’s been this hot for this long gets their shot in March.
The High-Seed Automatic Qualifier Contenders to Watch
Kent State (16-3 | 6-0) | MAC | NET: 35 | KenPom: 53 | Bracket Matrix: 12 seed
— Top Player: Sincere Carry: 17.0 PPG, 4.7 APG, 1.8 SPG, 43.3 eFG%, 98.2 ORtg
— The Golden Flashes have won 10 straight, and if Kent State makes a run the rest of the way in the regular season, I would listen to arguments that they should be in line for an auto-bid. However, this is the MAC, and their best non-conference win is Cleveland State.
Their offense at times can look woeful, but man, their defense is fantastic. As it stands now, their 92.6 adjusted defensive efficiency on KenPom would be the best ever posted by a MAC team since KenPom started tracking data in 2002. On top of that, they generate the twelfth highest turnover rate while ranking in the top 40 in lowest turnover rate offensively. This isn’t a particularly big team, but they’re athletic and physical on defense, and they have some shot makers on offense when needed. Watch out for the Flashes.
Oral Roberts (17-4 | 8-0) | Summit | NET: 50 | KenPom: 69 | Bracket Matrix: 12 seed
— Top Player: Max Abmas: 22.1 PPG, 5.1 RPG, 4.0 APG, 57.4 eFG%, 123.6 ORtg
— They’re back. The darling of the dance back in 2021 has returned to prominence with an even better team than the one with Abmas and Kevin Obanor. Abmas is still there, and he’s probably among the 20 best players in the country. However, instead of the physical stretch-four in Obanor who can step out and knock down threes, it’s 7-foot-5 Connor Vanover. ORU’s pick-and-roll/pop game with Abmas and Isaac McBride handling the ball with Vanover rolling or popping is lethal. You can probably count on one hand the 7-footers who shot 34% from three.
Iona (13-6 | 6-2) | MAAC | NET: 72 | KenPom: 78 | Bracket Matrix: 13 seed
— Top Player: Nelly Junior Joseph: 15.6 PPG, 8.7 RPG, 55.7 eFG%, 113.9 ORtg
— So long as Rick Pitino is coaching basketball, Iona is going to be here. They’ve struggled at times lately, but they’re still head and shoulders above the rest of the MAAC. The Gaels are top 15 in the country in turnover rate at 15.1%, the lowest mark by a Pitino team this century. They’re fairly uptempo on offense, and they force a ton of long possessions defensively that lead to bad shots. They’re top five in blocked shots rate defensively. I would argue this is Pitino’s best team in his third year at Iona.
That’s it for this week! Let me know your thoughts, what you would change, and where you see the Vols going down the home stretch. GBO!