"Now that the Super Bowl is over, we turn our attention to college basketball ..."
This is one of The Bilastrator's favorite idiotic statements of all time, one that is uttered at this time of year about as often as Bill Raftery says, "What do you think, one more?!" The "we turn our attention" phrase is reflexive and ridiculous, implying that we cannot focus on more than one thing at a time. Of course we can. One never hears "Now that college football is over, we turn our attention to the NFL ..."
As dumb as that phrase is, it serves to make one think of how one would sum up the season to date, were a being from outer space to appear on Earth and ask for an update (assuming the extraterrestrial being had no access to the internet and did not routinely listen to Coach K's Sirius Satellite Radio show, as all intelligent life should). What would one tell the space alien about this season to date? How would one characterize this campaign?
After calling the Department of Defense, the INS and Men in Black to inform them of this creature's existence on Earth, The Bilastrator would tell the alien being that this has been a quite unusual college basketball season. First, the season began like an episode of "Law and Order," with four assistant coaches being arrested and charged with bribery for taking money to steer players to a financial adviser, and some shoe company executives and others were indicted for breaking NCAA rules by agreeing to pay money to help secure recruits. One Hall of Fame coach, Rick Pitino, was fired amid the allegations, but no other coaches outside of the indicted four were disciplined in any way. A few players were ineligible as a result of the probe, but otherwise, the whole FBI thing has been a bit of a "nothing burger."
The Bilastrator would inform the extraterrestrial about the commission formed by college sports' appointed figurehead, Mark Emmert, who said that there should be immediate, meaningful change while also saying the problem was not widespread.
Then, after being asked, The Bilastrator would take an extended detour to explain what a "nothing burger" is.
As for on the court, The Bilastrator would tell the alien being that it didn't seem like there was a truly "great" team in college basketball this season -- yet. But there are several very good teams and many good teams. This has been an exciting season of upsets and great fun, with the backdrop of scandal from time to time. After being told the top teams in the polls look eerily similar to the top teams in the polls every year, the extraterrestrial would inquire as to what a poll is. The Bilastrator would explain that writers who were picked last for everything from kickball to hoops on the playground were empowered by the masses to vote on which teams are the best in the land. These polls are not binding, do not have any real authority and are not used by the NCAA tournament selection committee. When asked what the selection committee is, The Bilastrator would inform the alien being that the selection committee is made up of administrators who were picked after the writers for kickball and hoops on the playground.
This has been a difficult season to figure out, for everyone but The Bilastrator and the now fully informed alien. The teams at the top might not be truly great -- yet -- but they are well on their way. Villanova, Purdue and Virginia have combined for a grand total of four losses against 67 wins, which stacks up favorably with any three teams in any given season. Add Michigan State, and you have a quartet of teams fully capable of running the table in March. But the recognized blue bloods of the sport are not quite what we expected. Duke is the most talented team, with Arizona not far behind. Both, though, are still looking to put it all together. Kentucky and North Carolina are not as talented and experienced as they were last season, and several teams are reeling from key injuries that have sidelined some of the nation's best players. Can the top teams be beaten in the NCAA tournament? Of course they can. That is true every year. But don't be surprised when the last teams standing are the top teams in the poll and the Power 5 conference teams (with a few exceptions falling early to account for March Madness upsets).
Ask yourself this: Where are the super-strong mid-majors? Aside from usual suspects -- Gonzaga, Saint Mary's, Middle Tennessee and upstart Nevada -- are there any superior midlevel teams?
Now that the Super Bowl is over, as always, you're welcome.
1. Villanova Wildcats
The Wildcats have more broken hands this season than losses. Villanova is 22-1 and coming off a steamrollering of Seton Hall in Philly a few hours before the Eagles vanquished the Patriots in the Super Bowl. Villanova has balance, two stars in Jalen Brunson (the most efficient player in the country) and Mikal Bridges (one of the most versatile players in the country), another emerging star in Omari Spellman (who hit six 3-point field goals against the Pirates) and Donte DiVincenzo (the best utility player in the college game, whom Jay Wright can plug in anywhere). Villanova has, without a doubt, the best overall culture in college basketball -- and maybe in all of college sports. The Wildcats average almost 12 made 3s per game, second in the nation, and shoot better than 41 percent from deep as a team. They have played seven games in which they have hit 15 or more 3s. Jay Wright has fostered an amazing atmosphere of achievement, and his best recruiting is based upon the right guys wanting to come to the Main Line and compete with and learn from the current players. Don't be surprised if Villanova cuts the nets down in April. The Wildcats are worthy of it.
2. Virginia Cavaliers
How good is the Cavaliers' defense? Virginia ranks first among major conference teams in defensive efficiency (80.4), scoring defense (52.7), paint points allowed (21.2) and second-chance points allowed (7.3). Virginia holds opponents to just 29.7 percent from 3-point range, fifth in Division I. The Cavaliers average only 62 possessions per game, the slowest pace in college basketball. This is the third season in a row that Virginia has been No. 1 in slow play. Devon Hall is shooting 46 percent from deep in ACC games. A Cavalier has led the ACC in 3-point shooting each of the past three years (Justin Anderson, London Perrantes and Kyle Guy).
3. Purdue Boilermakers
The Boilermakers are on a school record 19-game win streak, the longest active streak in Division I. Purdue outscores its opponents by more than 20 points per game, the top scoring margin in Division I. In the past 20 years, five teams have outscored opponents by at least 20 points per game, and all five reached the Elite Eight, with three making the title game. Purdue is shooting 43 percent from deep, best among major-conference teams, and is the only team in the nation ranked in the top five in adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency.
4. Michigan State Spartans
The Spartans have a 120.5 adjusted offensive efficiency, sixth in the nation. Only Michigan State and Purdue rank in the top 10 nationally in both offensive and defensive efficiency. Michigan State leads the Big Ten in field goal percentage (51.6) and second-chance points (14.1). Michigan State shoots 51.6 percent from the floor, second in the nation. The Spartans record an assist on 68 percent of their baskets, the highest assist rate in the nation. Cassius Winston leads the way with 7.0 assists per game, best in the Big Ten and ninth in the nation. Jaren Jackson Jr. is on pace to be the first major-conference player to average more than three blocked shots and one made 3-pointer per game since Seton Hall's Eddie Griffin did so in 2001.
5. Xavier Musketeers
One can quarrel with any judgment that Xavier is national-championship good, but one cannot quarrel with The Bilas Index's stating that Xavier is Final Four good. This team just wins and has lost only to Arizona State, Providence and Villanova -- all away from home. The defense is bend but don't break, and Trevon Bluiett is a humble star who doesn't have to put up 20 shots every game. This team will be playing the second weekend. Book it.
6. Duke Blue Devils
The Blue Devils are a puzzle that has proved difficult for Mike Krzyzewski to solve. The most talented team in the nation, Duke does not get any production minutes from its bench. Plus, the very young baby Devils do not defend at a high level. The good news is that Duke averages 90 points per game and 44.6 paint points per game. Plus, Marvin Bagley III is one of only three players to average at least 20 points and 10 rebounds per game. No freshman has ever done that over an entire season. Duke leads Division I in offensive rebounding, grabbing more than 41 percent of its misses. It also puts up 17.5 second-chance points. Lone senior Grayson Allen has been in an extended slump, which has been one of Duke's biggest concerns. Duke is 7-3 in ACC play, but four of its wins were against Pittsburgh and Wake Forest. Has the defense really improved -- or did the schedule improve?
7. Auburn Tigers
The Tigers are the biggest surprise in college hoops this season. This team plays and defends like Bruce Pearl's old Tennessee teams. Auburn has a 6-foot-3 power forward and a bunch of no-name players who play like they are on 10-day contracts. Don't forget, this team is good offensively, too. Mustapha Heron, Jared Harper and Bryce Brown can all get buckets -- and all do so in different ways. Auburn is a disruptive, pain-in-the-backside opponent. The stretch run is brutal for Auburn, but there is plenty in the bank for this to be a top-seeded team in March.
8. Cincinnati Bearcats
The Bilastrator is on record: Cincinnati leads the nation in playing hard. The Bearcats are better on the offensive end, but that is not their calling card. The identity of this team is defense and rebounding. The improved flow on offense is a nice bonus. One of the more underappreciated players in college ball is Gary Clark. He is a Wooden Award candidate, but too few voters have him on the radar, GPS or whatever is used today. Clark is among the nation's best and most efficient players, a stud.
9. Texas Tech Red Raiders
If you haven't seen Keenan Evans, see Keenan Evans. This dude can really score. Evans put up 26, 31 and 38 points against Oklahoma State, South Carolina and Texas without taking more than 13 shots in any game. He gets to the foul line and hits better than 84 percent. He is brutally difficult to cover. Chris Beard said it best: "I don't think we're better than anybody in college basketball, but I don't think anybody is better than us." Amen.
10. Kansas Jayhawks
The story is the same for Kansas: an empowered group of guards who can really spread the floor and score from deep, but a thin bench and frontcourt with difficulty protecting the rim and rebounding the ball. That Kansas is in position to win a 14th straight Big 12 title is mind-boggling. Bill Self pulled Malik Newman from the lineup earlier this season, and Newman responded with the best ball of his career. Now, it is Lagerald Vick who is being called out, and Mitch Lightfoot is being inserted into the lineup to rebound and play hard. Expect Vick to respond positively. Devonte' Graham has been spectacular all season, and Svi Mykhailiuk is one of the best shooters in the country. Kansas does not get to the foul line, and that will not change. Kansas does not rebound well, but that must change.
11. West Virginia Mountaineers
The Bilastrator still likes West Virginia, but the Mountaineers have been struggling lately. When West Virginia struggles to score, it really seems to impact the half-court defense. The Mountaineers simply don't bring the heat when they don't see the ball go through the net. In the six games before the win against Kansas State, West Virginia had been giving up 75 points per game on 46 percent shooting from the floor. Jevon Carter is one of only five players in Division I averaging at least 15 points, 5 assists and 5 rebounds per game. He is also averaging 3.3 steals per game, second in Division I and on pace to be the most in a season in Big 12 history (which, sadly, does not include Big 8 history).
12. Arizona Wildcats
It was a rough loss at Washington but hardly soul-crushing. Arizona has had a rough ride compared to what we expected of this team, but there is such a high ceiling. If the Wildcats improve just 10 percent on the defensive end, this is a Final Four team. Arizona has to be better at defending the perimeter and defending without fouling.
13. Wichita State Shockers
Fans and media in Kansas are not used to losses in January and February. Well, guess what? The American is a better league than the Missouri Valley Conference. The athletes are bigger, stronger and faster, and the teams in the middle and bottom of the league are way better. Wichita State is very good and still capable of reaching the Elite Eight. Remember, Wichita State doesn't have a bad loss.
14. Ohio State Buckeyes
The Buckeyes continue to improve and impress. Keita Bates-Diop is one of the best and most versatile players in the nation. He was finally added to the Wooden Award top 20 and is averaging 20.2 points, 8.9 rebounds and 1.7 blocked shots. Bates-Diop just hung 35 points and 13 rebounds on Illinois. He is the real thing.
15. North Carolina Tar Heels
This is a bit of an odd North Carolina team. The Tar Heels have significant issues scoring around the rim and defending the rim. Yet North Carolina is holding opponents to 44 percent shooting on 2-point shots, eighth among major-conference teams. The weakness has been in defending the perimeter, where the Heels are giving up more than 38 percent from deep, 73rd among major conference teams. There are 75 such teams. Still, North Carolina is capable. The Heels need a consistent third scorer to go with Joel Berry II and Luke Maye. Plus, they need to defend with more intensity. The NCAA tournament might be a lock, but the Heels' schedule down the stretch is really difficult. A skid is not out of the question.
16. Tennessee Volunteers
The turnaround continues in Knoxville. The Vols' defense has improved, communication is better, and this young team has reeled off eight wins in nine games heading into the game at Kentucky. If Tennessee can rebound the ball a bit better to finish defensive possessions, this team can take the next step. This is an NCAA tournament team.
17. Oklahoma Sooners
The Sooners are capable of some really good things, but so much depends upon Trae Young. The wunderkind has the ball in his hands all the time, and it is incumbent upon him to make good decisions. When Young scores or assists on more than 55 percent of Oklahoma's points, Oklahoma is 12-1. He scores 30 points per game and assists for 22 points per game, which accounts for 58 percent of OU's offense. After the difficult game against Oklahoma State, Young turned a corner and was much more efficient. But in the second half against Texas, the young prodigy reverted back a bit. Young's bad shots and turnovers were essentially outlet passes for the Longhorns down the stretch. Young finished with 19 points, 14 assists and five turnovers while shooting 2-for-14 from deep. When Young makes good decisions, Oklahoma can stay with almost anyone.
18. Seton Hall Pirates
The Pirates rebound more than 35 percent of their misses, the best offensive rebounding percentage in the Big East. Angel Delgado is one of only eight major-conference players and the only Big East player to average a double-double this season. Delgado has 16 double-doubles. Against Villanova, he fell one rebound short of his 17th. Delgado has 66 career double-doubles, a dozen more than any other active player.
19. Gonzaga Bulldogs
The Zags are really good -- again. As an offensive team, Gonzaga can play with anyone. The Zags rebound the ball well but need to do a better job defending on the ball and on the perimeter. Gonzaga has wins over Ohio State, Texas, Creighton and Washington, with a loss at home to Saint Mary's. The Bilastrator still has Gonzaga ahead of the Gaels, but that will change if Saint Mary's beats the Zags at home on Saturday. How's that for incentive?
20. Michigan Wolverines
The Wolverines keep getting better, but this is a bit of an odd Michigan team. For the first time The Bilastrator can recall -- and The Bilastrator can recall everything -- Michigan is better on defense than on offense. It has been at least eight seasons, back to when Michigan wasn't all that good at anything. The Wolverines' improvement this season can be traced to the improvement of point guard Zavier Simpson, who has continued to get better. Michigan is solid.
21. Kentucky Wildcats
The Wildcats are so painfully young. Kentucky is capable but not consistent. The Cats (young enough to be called Kittens) turn it over too much and don't shoot well from the perimeter, but they keep fighting, and they are getting better. With road games against Florida, Arkansas, Texas A&M and Auburn coming up, Kentucky must hold serve at home.
22. Clemson Tigers
Had Donte Grantham not been hurt, Clemson was a second weekend NCAA tournament team. Still, with guards Gabe DeVoe, Marcquise Reed and Shelton Mitchell, the Tigers have the ability to spread defenses and score from deep. Clemson needs to keep winning without Grantham to solidify an NCAA tournament résumé. The Tigers are in, but a really good seed is the goal.
23. Saint Mary's Gaels
The Gaels are very good. They are a terrific offensive team. Saint Mary's has lost only -- back-to-back during a flu-ridden early-season tournament -- to Washington State and Georgia. But the only Bilas Index teams the Gaels have beaten are New Mexico State, BYU and Gonzaga.
24. Butler Bulldogs
The Bulldogs did not look like an NCAA tournament team early, but with wins over Ohio State, Utah, Marquette (twice) and Villanova (what seems like an annual event in Hinkle), Butler will be there again this year. Kelan Martin is leading the way again, averaging 19.8 points per game this season.
25. Rhode Island Rams
Rhody has used the starting lineup of Jared Terrell, E.C. Matthews, Jeff Dowtin, Stanford Robinson and Andre Berry for eight straight games and 11 games overall. The Rams are 11-0 in those games. In 126 minutes, that lineup is plus-70 in scoring margin. Dowtin is third in the nation with a 4.77 assist-to-turnover ratio. In Atlantic 10 games, in which Dowtin averages 6.9 assists per game, his assist-to-turnover ratio is 5.1-to-1.
26. Florida Gators
The Gators have four games this season with 15 or more made 3-point field goals, which is more than the rest of the SEC combined. Florida scores more than 36 percent of its points from deep, second highest among SEC teams behind Missouri. Florida turns the ball over on only 14 percent of its possessions, best in the SEC and third in Division I. Chris Chiozza is averaging career highs in scoring (12.7), assists (6.1), rebounds (4.2) and steals (1.9). He is one of only three SEC players to average at least 10 points and 5 assists (Auburn's Jared Harper and LSU's Tremont Waters are the others).
27. Miami Hurricanes
The Hurricanes' opponents shoot 31 percent on 3-pointers, the third-lowest percentage among major-conference teams. Miami started the season 11-1, but since then, the Hurricanes have fallen out of the AP Top 25. Miami has beaten NC State, Florida State, Louisville and Middle Tennessee. With Bruce Brown out, that takes away a weapon, even though Brown had not played up to his ability this season.
28. Louisville Cardinals
The Cardinals have lost four of five, but all those losses have come to good teams. Louisville struggles to score from the perimeter, outside of Deng Adel, and needs to continue to win to make the NCAA tournament.
29. Arizona State Sun Devils
The Sun Devils are 5-6 in the past 11 games after winning the first 12 games of the season. Arizona State has a top-10 offense but not even a top-100 defense. The next three games, against UCLA, USC and Arizona, are all at home. Those games are really important for seeding.
30. Nevada Wolf Pack
The Wolf Pack are the second-rated mid-major in the country, behind Saint Mary's. Remember, Gonzaga doesn't count in that category anymore. Caleb Martin and Kendall Stephens are shooters, Cody Martin is a driver, and Jordan Caroline is a rebounder and versatile scorer. This team is legit and will be a tough out in the NCAA tournament because it has major-conference talent.
31. Florida State Seminoles
Deep, athletic and no agendas -- that makes this Florida State team difficult to play against. The trouble is, the Seminoles have one of the easier ACC schedules. That does not help Florida State rack up quality wins. If you can keep Florida State off the offensive glass, you have a chance. Keep your eye on Braian Angola, one of the best players in the country who doesn't seem to get the credit.
32. NC State Wolfpack
After a crazy bad loss at Notre Dame, NC State has been excellent. The win over Duke was the introduction to how good the Wolfpack could be, and the return of Markell Johnson solidifies this team as NCAA tournament-worthy. If you take only the games Johnson has played, NC State boasts some pretty big wins. With wins over Arizona, Duke, Clemson and North Carolina, Kevin Keatts' team makes a pretty good case for inclusion into the field. In South Bend, that was a pipe dream.
33. Texas Longhorns
The Longhorns keep getting better and better. After a tough loss in overtime at Texas Tech in which Matt Coleman missed three free throws and fouled out in frustration, Texas returned to Austin to take on Oklahoma. Coleman, who shot free throws at 3 a.m. after the Texas Tech loss, was outstanding against Trae Young. Coleman had 22 points and two steals and was excellent down the stretch in the win. Mo Bamba is averaging 10.9 rebounds and 4.4 blocks per game. The last player to average at least 10 rebounds and 4 blocks was Anthony Davis in 2012.
34. Creighton Bluejays
The loss of Martin Krampelj hurts badly. Creighton is very good but has lost three of seven, including drubbings by Villanova and Xavier. Kansas State transfer Marcus Foster is quietly having a terrific season, averaging 19.9 points and 3 assists, while shooting 50 percent from the field and 44 percent from deep.
35. Texas A&M Aggies
The Aggies are a discussion of talent versus performance. There have been injuries and suspensions (self-inflicted), and Texas A&M is far better than its record. How the NCAA tournament selection committee processes that will be really important. If Texas A&M gets it together, underseeding the Aggies would be a mistake. This team has top-10 talent.
36. Missouri Tigers
The Tigers score just fewer than 37 percent of their points off made 3-point field goals, best in the SEC. Back-to-back wins over Alabama and Kentucky have put Missouri in a better position. Jordan Barnett is having a nice season, averaging 14 points and 6 rebounds while shooting 41 percent from deep and better than 90 percent from the foul line.
37. Virginia Tech Hokies
Bubble -- again. Early in the season, the Hokies looked like a team that would get better and better and be tough to guard all season. Well, the defense didn't come along for the ride. Virginia Tech is good, but the Hokies need to play hard all the time to win. Talent will not win any games for this team. The Hokies need more quality wins. Right now, only the win over North Carolina stands out. Justin Robinson is one of the more underrated players in the ACC. He is a very good point guard who distributes, defends and drives the ball. He has been impressive.
38. USC Trojans
The Trojans have really good talent. The question is this: Do the Trojans have want too? This team is not what it should be on the defensive end. With games against Arizona, Arizona State, Utah and Colorado all on the road and UCLA at home, USC is in the most important stretch of the season. This team is talented enough to do damage in the NCAA tournament.
39. Syracuse Orange
The Orange play very good defense but are 0-4 against AP ranked teams this season. Syracuse is ranked in the bottom third of Division I in 3-point shooting and effective field goal percentage and has fallen to 4-6 in ACC play heading into Big Monday against Louisville. Syracuse has only two wins against teams ranked in The Bilas Index (Maryland and Virginia Tech). With a terrific offensive performance from Frank Howard and Tyus Battle, the Orange put together a really good road win at Louisville. Down the stretch, Syracuse plays six Bilas Index teams in its last eight regular-season games. Win half, and the Orange are in the NCAA tournament in a walk.
40. Boise State Broncos
If you haven't seen Chandler Hutchison, fire up your device or tablet and watch him. He is a legit NBA player. Boise State is coming off an overtime win over UNLV, winning when Hutchison struggled a bit (but still had 21 points and eight assists). The Broncos play Nevada at home and San Diego State on the road down the stretch in the Mountain West.
41. Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders
The Blue Raiders lead Conference USA in overall defense, effective field goal percentage defense, defensive rebound percentage and 3-point field goal percentage defense. Middle Tennessee tends to turn the ball over too much, but this team has major-conference talent. The Blue Raiders will not be a fun draw for anyone in the NCAA tournament.
42. Alabama Crimson Tide
Collin Sexton is averaging 18.7 points per game, sixth among freshmen in Division I. He has 10 games of 20 points or more, second in the SEC to Georgia's Yante Maten. With the win over Florida, Alabama won its first road game in Gainesville over a ranked Gator team. Alabama had lost its past nine games against Florida when the Gators were ranked in the top 25.
43. Washington Huskies
The Huskies are making their Bilas Index debut this season. They have beaten Kansas, Arizona, Arizona State and USC to sit among the Pac-12 leaders. In a season in which the NCAA tournament selection committee will have a hard time distinguishing from the middling, bubble teams, proving that you can beat top-quality teams will be a separating factor. Washington has one of the most unheralded leading scorers in the country in freshman wing Jaylen Nowell. The 6-foot-4 guard is a program-changer and has an old man's midrange game. Nowell is wired to score. Mike Hopkins has engineered quite a turnaround in Seattle.
44. SMU Mustangs
The Ponies have lost five of eight heading into Thursday's game at Houston. That stretch, though, includes a win over Wichita State. SMU has Shake Milton, who is terrific, but a pretty average defense.
45. Maryland Terrapins
The Terps keep battling, especially since Justin Jackson's season-ending shoulder injury. The problem is that the league schedule is letting Maryland down. Where will the quality wins come from? Right now, the best win is against Butler.
46. Houston Cougars
The Cougars are great on the offensive glass and play their tails off for Kelvin Sampson. But Houston does not get to the foul line enough -- and it puts opponents on the stripe too much. Houston is good, but the margin for error is thin. The best wins are against Arkansas and Wichita State.
47. TCU Horned Frogs
Losing Jaylen Fisher for the season is soul-crushing. TCU was in great position to reach the NCAA tournament. Without Fisher, though, it will be difficult. TCU has lost seven of 11 heading to Allen Fieldhouse to face Kansas. Plus, the schedule doesn't get any easier. TCU is headed in the wrong direction and on the wrong side of the Mendoza Line as it heads toward March.
48. Arkansas Razorbacks
The Razorbacks have lost six of 10 heading into a home game against South Carolina. Arkansas has Jaylen Barford, Daryl Macon and Daniel Gafford, but the Razorback defense has been poor. Right now, Arkansas ranks at the bottom of the SEC in defense. That will not win in an improved league. Arkansas has wins over Oklahoma and Tennessee in overtime but little else to show for its efforts.
49. Nebraska Cornhuskers
Don't be surprised when Nebraska is right there in line for an NCAA tournament bid. The Huskers are good. James Palmer and Isaac Copeland have made a big difference this season. The question will be this: Has Nebraska beaten enough quality teams, or did it just not lose to a bunch of average teams? If Nebraska can get to 12 Big Ten wins, it will all come down to the Big Ten Tournament in New York.
50. Kansas State Wildcats
The Wildcats allow 24.5 paint points per game, second-fewest in the Big 12 and seventh fewest among major-conference teams. But Kansas State has the worst offensive rebounding percentage in the Big 12 (28 percent) and the worst defensive rebounding percentage in the Big 12 (67 percent). Barry Brown is averaging 17 points per game, on pace to be the most by a Wildcat since Jacob Pullen in 2011.
51. Marquette Golden Eagles
Marquette has lost six of eight in a difficult stretch of the schedule, but this team is still very capable. Sophomore Markus Howard is having a spectacular season. This kid is younger than Trae Young yet putting up ridiculous numbers. Howard is averaging 21.6 points and has hit 78 3-point field goals on the season. Oh, yeah, he shoots 94 percent from the foul line, too. That's with a personal shooting slump lately (he has made 16 of his past 21 free throws).
52. Oklahoma State Cowboys
The Cowboys had lost six of 10 before squeaking out a win Saturday at Allen Fieldhouse. Oklahoma State has wins over Florida State, Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas but too many losses. This one can go either way. The Cowboys have to finish strong and build on the Kansas win.
53. UCLA Bruins
Wins over Kentucky, Utah, USC and Washington are encouraging, but UCLA has not done enough yet. The Bruins can score. That is not an issue. The issue is whether UCLA can stop anybody when the game is on the line. Road games at Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado and Utah will tell that story, loud and clear.
54. Western Kentucky Hilltoppers
The Hilltoppers have five players averaging double figures, led by Darius Thompson, the lefty who played at Tennessee and Virginia. Western Kentucky leads Conference USA in getting to the foul line and keeping opponents off the foul line. Those are two pretty good indicators of success in league play.
55. San Diego State Aztecs
The Aztecs have lost four of six heading into a road game at Fresno State. That means San Diego State is headed in the wrong direction. This is the best offensive rebounding team in the Mountain West but not as powerful on the defensive end as it has been in past years. San Diego State is not an NCAA tournament team without a major push late.
56. New Mexico State Aggies
One of the 20 best defensive teams in the country, the Aggies lead the WAC in overall defense, defensive rebounding and 3-point defensive field goal percentage. The Aggies take care of the ball and are really good on the offensive glass, getting more than 36 percent of their misses. Zach Lofton leads the team in scoring at 20.5 points per game, and Jemerrio Jones leads the team in rebounding with 12.0 per game, including four offensive rebounds per game.
57. Providence Friars
The Friars have wins over Washington, Butler, Xavier, Marquette and Creighton -- all Bilas Index teams. Providence leads the Big East in effective field goal percentage defense and 3-point field goal percentage defense.
58. Penn State Nittany Lions
The Nittany Lions are on the cusp of something pretty darn good. With Tony Carr, Lamar Stevens and Mike Watkins, Penn State has a really good nucleus of young talent to build on in the Big Ten. If Penn State can win out, which means wins over Purdue and Ohio State, this team can sneak into bid contention. The Bilastrator likes this group's chances next year.
59. Notre Dame Fighting Irish
What a bummer. Notre Dame is in most every game, and TJ Gibbs and John Mooney are getting quality reps as go-to guys. Being without Bonzie Colson and Matt Farrell, though, for such extended periods has killed Notre Dame. This was, conservatively, a top-25 team with a healthy roster. No team has been crushed by injury more than the Irish. If Colson can come back by the ACC tournament, maybe the Irish can catch some magic.
60. Mississippi State Bulldogs
The Bulldogs win with defense, as the offense is a struggle. Quinndary Weatherspoon is Mississippi State's best player, but 6-foot-10 forward Aric Holman is the best NBA prospect. If the Bulldogs can finish 10-8 in the SEC, with no major nonconference wins, will it be enough to crack the field? The Bilastrator is not sure the SEC is that strong.
61. Utah Utes
The Utes are a good advertisement for taking the best 68 teams in the NCAA field. This is a good, solid team that can beat people. But it is not among the top 40 at-large teams. So in favor of a team such as Utah, small conference teams fill out the bracket and have almost no chance to win. But we point to Hampton's upset of Iowa State decades ago and watch the tiny coach, Steve Merfeld, get picked up into the air and dream that it can happen again. It rarely does, but when it does, it is at the expense of teams such as Utah, Providence, Penn State, and yes, Davidson, Murray State and Louisiana-Lafayette.
62. East Tennessee State Buccaneers
The Bucs are 21-4 with a two-point loss to Xavier on the résumé. They lead the Southern Conference in just about everything except forcing turnovers. This team is good and should scare a first-round opponent. This is a team full of PHDs -- poor, hungry and driven.
63. Georgia Bulldogs
Yante Maten is an underappreciated player in the SEC. The senior big man is averaging 19 points, 9 rebounds and 1.4 blocked shots. He had 26 points and 15 rebounds in a double-overtime loss to Arkansas. Georgia has beaten Florida, Marquette, Alabama and Saint Mary's -- all Bilas Index teams. The losses projected down the stretch, though, are the tournament-hopes crusher.
64. Vermont Catamounts
This was the team that barely lost at Rupp Arena to start the season. The Catamounts have five losses, but all were very close games. That matters. In the NCAA tournament, this team can sneak up and beat some poor, dumb group that takes it lightly. The Catamounts will likely run the table in the America East and be crazy confident in March.
65. Louisiana Ragin' Cajuns
Bob Marlin is one of the best coaches most fans have never heard of. His Ragin' Cajuns are off to a great start, winning 20 of 23 and losing only to Ole Miss, Clemson and Wyoming. Louisiana-Lafayette is led by Frank Bartley IV, who transferred from BYU. His father played football for the Cajuns. Bartley has been able to transition to a guard position. Oh, tell all the doomsayers out there: Most transfers benefit the mid-majors, not hurt them.
66. BYU Cougars
The Cougars have lost three of four, but this will still be a 20-plus-win team by season's end. However, that will not be good enough to crack the NCAA tournament field. BYU is good but has only one legit win -- the win over Utah.
67. St. Bonaventure Bonnies
The Bonnies have won four straight. Wins over Syracuse, Maryland and Vermont help their NCAA tournament case. Still, St. Bonaventure will likely have to win the Atlantic 10 tournament to get into the field. Since his injury, Jaylen Adams is averaging more than 18 points on 47 percent shooting from deep. Adams put 40 on an improved Duquesne team on Saturday.
68. Murray State Racers
The Racers are in a race with Belmont to win the Ohio Valley Conference's automatic NCAA tournament bid. These two teams are both good. Murray State guards the 3-point line very well. Jonathan Stark is one of the better 3-point shooters in the country. Murray State can hang with anyone, but the Racers have to beat Belmont for the league crown.