A 2020-21 men’s college basketball season that began with major questions about its format and duration will reach a key mile marker on Sunday, as the regular season concludes for all of the game’s power leagues. Champ Week and the most unique NCAA tournament in history are moving nearer on the horizon, but not before a number of on-the-floor issues are settled pertaining to the regular season. ESPN.com’s college basketball team of Myron Medcalf, Jeff Borzello, John Gasaway and Joe Lunardi got together to discuss their biggest questions — including who wins the always important Duke-North Carolina battle (Saturday, 6 p.m. ET, ESPN) — as the regular season draws to a conclusion.
North Carolina vs. Duke, Part II, has high stakes for two teams residing on either side of the NCAA tournament bubble. Based on what you’ve seen since the last time these two met, who wins this one — and who is most likely to win some postseason games?
Medcalf: Well, a week ago, I thought I had a sneaky sleeper to shock the field when I picked Duke to win the ACC tournament. Entering this rivalry game after back-to-back losses, however, I don’t feel as confident about that pick. These Blue Devils are always a threat to “stay in the game,” but defensive lapses and their struggles to keep opponents in check on the offensive glass have been problems that they have failed to overcome.
North Carolina had some promising moments entering Monday’s 72-70 loss to Syracuse. Its defense had carried the Tar Heels to wins over Louisville and Syracuse. But it’s also inconsistent enough to commit 20 turnovers against a struggling Orange squad. So who wins? I’ll go with North Carolina in another close game between two desperate teams.
I don’t think the Tar Heels or the Blue Devils can win two games in the tournament. But, could Matthew Hurt put up 38 in a first-round upset and could UNC bully a higher seed in the opening weekend? Maybe. The latter seems more plausible.
Borzello: I keep finding myself confused by North Carolina, but I also think it is better suited to win games in March than Duke. Here are the Tar Heels’ past four games: beat Louisville by 45, lost to Marquette at home by 13, beat Florida State, lost at Syracuse. They’ve shown the ability to beat anyone in the country, but the inconsistency is maddening. Much of it comes down to Caleb Love: The freshman point guard was unbelievable in the first meeting against Duke with 25 points and four 3-pointers, but he has scored in single-digits in four of six games since then and had more assists than turnovers in just one of his past four games.
But I’m a believer in Roy Williams’ team because of its inside play: UNC has four big guys as good as anyone in the league. Walker Kessler’s recent emergence adds another wrinkle to the frontcourt. I think North Carolina is in better position on the bubble, I think they win on Saturday and I think they win more games in the NCAA tournament — mostly because I don’t think Duke makes it if it doesn’t win this weekend.
Gasaway: I’ll tackle the last portion of the question first and state for the record that I don’t envision a staggering number of postseason victories for either the Tar Heels or the Blue Devils. But UNC, we think, will at least reach the NCAA tournament; whereas, the “Will you actually be in the field of 68?” question is more problematic for Coach K’s guys.
I do like North Carolina’s chances in this weekend’s showdown because Roy Williams’ men, as always, do terrific work on the offensive glass (I see you, Day’Ron Sharpe), while Duke’s nothing special when it comes to limiting opponents to one shot. The one caveat here is that the Heels have been exceedingly benevolent in terms of giving the ball away in ACC play. If Jordan Goldwire continues his pesky ways and gets some takeaways, the Blue Devils can make this prediction look silly and, no, that’s never happened before, and I did not pick Wisconsin to win the Big Ten.
Lunardi: Everything about the Duke-Carolina rivalry suggests that we expect the unexpected. In other words, as rare underdogs, the Blue Devils sneak into Chapel Hill with a two-game losing streak and waltz out with their most important victory of the season. Clearly, the Dookies need it more in terms of NCAA consideration and it’s not like the Tar Heels haven’t laid an egg at home recently.
As for the NCAA tournament, let’s keep in mind that North Carolina could be an underdog in its first-round game as a 9- or 10-seed. The Blue Devils, if they make it, could very well face a First Four contest in which they are favored. So it’s very possible Duke wins an NCAA game and the Tar Heels do not, with neither making it past the “first” round.
New No. 1 seed Illinois got the world’s attention by going into Ann Arbor and hammering Michigan on Tuesday night — even without Wooden Award candidate Ayo Dosunmu (facial injury) on the floor. If you could pick only one member of the Big Ten to reach the Final Four, would it be the Illini, or someone else?
Gasaway: Not jumping off the Michigan bandwagon just yet. The Illinois loss notwithstanding, I expect the Wolverines will continue to be extremely tough to beat in all games in which they make more than two 3s. Franz Wagner is projected as a mid-first-round NBA selection for this year, but he has moments — many — when he looks like a lottery pick. Hunter Dickinson is dominant in the paint, but he’s also polished and that’s really rare for a freshman.
UM at all times has four well-spaced guys on the floor who can hit 3s, make the correct read and get the ball where it needs to go. Then the Wolverines turn around and make you miss all your 2s. It’s an exceedingly effective way to play, and their body of work says they’ll be heard from in the field of 68.
Medcalf: I’m with John. I’m sticking with Michigan because its two losses still feel like outliers. That 75-57 loss at Minnesota in January didn’t make sense then and it doesn’t make sense now. I don’t think we learned anything from that one. And then, a Michigan team that’s made its mark with balanced basketball, efficient perimeter shooting and effective touches for their star in the paint abandoned all of those things in the loss to Illinois, in which they took just seven 3-pointers (made two) and Hunter Dickinson took only eight shots. He has averaged 12 attempts in the team’s previous four games. I think Illinois can be a Final Four team. But I still have slightly more confidence in Juwan Howard’s program.
Borzello: I picked Illinois to make the Final Four back in the preseason, I picked Illinois to win the Big Ten tournament earlier this week, and I’m going to ride with the Illini in the NCAA tournament. Assuming Ayo Dosunmu is healthy for the dance, and I have no reason to think he won’t be, I just think the inside-outside duo of Ayo and Kofi Cockburn is unparalleled by any team in the country. Throw in a dynamic playmaker in Andre Curbelo and some veteran role players led by Trent Frazier, and I just think Brad Underwood has all the ingredients to make a Final Four run in a few weeks.
Michigan is obviously the other option here, and I really like what Juwan Howard has done with the Wolverines this season, but if it’s a one-possession game in late March, the one player in the country I want with the ball in his hands is Dosunmu. So give me Illinois.
Lunardi: It wouldn’t surprise many people if both Michigan and Illinois are playing in April. Both are now in line for No. 1 seeds and will have a favorable path to the final weekend. That said, the Illini have lost six times this year and the Wolverines just twice. Michigan has a little more balance and a slightly more predictable pattern of success. And, while freshman big man Hunter Dickinson is no Ayo Dosunmu, I remember his closing plays in the win at Ohio State as among the most clutch moments of the season.
One vote for Michigan.
What’s something else you have your eye on this weekend from the multi-bid leagues that will be finishing up their regular seasons?
Borzello: My eyes are on Villanova right now. The Wildcats just clinched the Big East title and are going to land on the 2- or 3-seed line regardless of what happens the rest of the season, but I need to see them play without Collin Gillespie. It’s heartbreaking what happened to the senior guard, who has been ruled out for the season with a torn MCL suffered Wednesday night against Creighton. But the Wildcats are going to have to get used to playing without their leader and point guard, and it starts on Saturday at Providence.
They looked a little choppy in the second half against Creighton, and understandably so. But Justin Moore really stepped up and even big man Jeremiah Robinson-Earl took on more of a playmaking role. Brandon Slater slotted into the primary five and added a different dimension with his length and athleticism on the wing. With Gillespie in the fold, I think the Cats could have made a Final Four run. Without him? That remains to be seen.
Medcalf: I feel like Oklahoma State is one of the most intriguing stories in the country right now. Lunardi had the Cowboys slotted as a 4-seed entering Thursday’s matchup against Baylor and they’ll face a tough West Virginia squad — on the road — that will be playing its third game in five days. Sure, the Bedlam sweep and Cade Cunningham’s 40-point effort last weekend were cool storylines. But is Oklahoma State evolving into a team that could make a run? If the Cowboys go to Morgantown on Saturday and win, it will be hard to deny their second-weekend potential. But it could also intensify the scrutiny on the NCAA, which could uphold its postseason ban in the coming days.
Gasaway: I’m watching Rutgers. The balladeer of the bracket bunker himself, our colleague Mr. Lunardi, has downgraded the Scarlet Knights to a No. 10 seed, and Steve Pikiell’s men close the season at Minnesota. Granted, the Golden Gophers haven’t looked terribly formidable of late, but what happens if a senior night miracle occurs in Minneapolis and Richard Pitino’s guys pull off the win? Then you’re looking at a Rutgers team that’s 13-11 and 9-11 in the conference. Next up is the Big Ten tournament and, possibly, an opening game against, say, a Michigan State or a Maryland. That’s no gimme. For the past month or so, we’ve all assumed that the 30-year NCAA tournament drought in Piscataway is about to end, but, well, you asked. I’m watching Rutgers.
Lunardi: Thank goodness no one but Gasaway expects me to be a balladeer. If I were, I’d be singing the praises of the likes of Colorado, BYU and UConn. All are playing very well, all have star power, and all could see themselves in the Sweet 16 in the right draw and riding their ongoing pre-Selection momentum. I’ll be watching.
The first NCAA tournament ticket will be punched on Saturday night when the OVC crowns its champion. What’s your favorite ‘one-bid’ league storyline over the next week-plus?
Gasaway: Come Monday evening, a hoops nation will drop everything and turn its eager eyes to Indiana Farmers Coliseum in Indianapolis for the Horizon League semifinals. That’s where Pat Badlwin’s “Miracle” Milwaukee Panthers will be fighting to extend their once-in-a-lifetime postseason run against Cleveland State.
In their quarterfinal win over Wright State, the Panthers, incredibly, trailed 72-48 with 6 minutes, 16 seconds remaining in regulation. Every Bill Jamesian algorithm worth its salt had long since pronounced the game analytically finished. Well, those smug laptops forgot to factor in what every real Milwaukee fan calls Te’Jon Time. Te’Jon Lucas, DeAndre Gholston & Co. closed regulation with a 33-9 explosion and then prevailed in overtime. The Panthers had already flouted these same laws of probability with a similarly impossible come-from-behind win in January against, wait for it, Cleveland State. You never, ever count out Milwaukee.
Medcalf: I think the Atlantic Sun entered conference tourney season with the best storylines. Both Bellarmine, which finished second to Liberty in the conference race, and North Alabama were ineligible to accept the league’s automatic bid for the NCAA tournament because of the rules attached to their four-year Division I transitions. But both participated in the ASUN tournament. Bellarmine was upset by Stetson on Thursday but UNA is still alive. Perhaps if the Lions claim the title and then get denied the opportunity to dance, it might convince the power brokers in Indianapolis to reexamine what feels like an archaic rule and barrier for schools transitioning to Division I.
Borzello: I’ll go with the Southern Conference. This league always seems to produce battle-tested and tournament-ready teams, and this year is no different at the top. UNCG has won three of the past five regular-season titles, has a talented young coach in Wes Miller, and a bona fide star in Isaiah Miller. And the wild thing is the Spartans might play 9-seed Western Carolina in the quarterfinals — and it won at UNCG just over a week ago. Furman (Bob Richey) and Wofford (Jay McAuley) are also well-coached units and both finished tied with UNCG in the loss column. And then there’s 5-seed East Tennessee State, which already beat each of the three favorites. UNCG is my pick, but I think whatever team comes out of the SoCon is going to pose a challenge in the first round of the dance.
Lunardi: The nation’s best winning percentage — non-Gonzaga division — resides in Rock Hill, South Carolina, where Winthrop takes a 22-1 record into the Big South semifinals. The Eagles have played only one Top 100 opponent — walloping Southern Conference contender Furman — and have no real chance at an at-large bid, but that doesn’t mean they couldn’t spring an NCAA upset with their efficient, rapid-fire attack.
Remember when Pat Kelsey was the UMass coach for about 45 minutes a few years ago? Me too. Good for him and Winthrop that he changed his mind.
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