The Clemson Tigers ended one of college basketball’s most historic streaks last season, taking down the North Carolina Tar Heels in Chapel Hill for the first time. UNC is better in 2020-21, but so is Clemson, which enters their latest ACC foray as a top-20 team. Our experts took a look at that game and other of the weekend’s top contests, while also shining a light on the current state of the race for the 2021 Wooden Award and some of the key, recent departures across college hoops.
(Editor’s note: Clemson at North Carolina was postponed on Friday)
It took 60 games and 93 years for Clemson to win in Chapel Hill, and there seems like a reasonable chance the 19th-ranked Tigers are going to make it two straight on Saturday (7 p.m. ET, ESPN). How do you think this Tar Heels team will be positioned in March? Give fans one reason to think this can still be a relevant North Carolina team. (editor’s note: Clemson at North Carolina was postponed on Friday).
Myron Medcalf, senior college basketball writer: I think this squad will still play its way into an 8- or 9-seed, but I don’t know that it will advance. These Tar Heels, who grab a lot of offensive rebounds but can’t do much with those second-chance opportunities because they can’t shoot, seem vulnerable for a first-round upset in this wacky year.
With Caleb Love on the floor, they’ve produced just 92 points per 100 possessions and committed turnovers on nearly one-fifth of their possessions, per hooplens.com. If they can’t figure out the point guard spot, they’ll have more trouble in the coming months. Relevance? Well, they still have a bunch of former five-star recruits and a top-20 defensive unit. If the offensive efficiency improves, they can win games in March. Maybe.
Jeff Borzello, college basketball insider: Entering the season, my biggest concern about the Tar Heels was their wing scoring and whether they could find consistent perimeter shooting. I assumed Garrison Brooks and Armando Bacot would shoulder most of the load on the inside, I loved Day’Ron Sharpe in high school and I expected Love to be an elite point guard fairly quickly. The last part hasn’t happened yet, and that has been a huge issue.
Carolina is struggling with turnovers and struggling to make shots from 3, and I’m not sure either of those changes anytime soon. That said, I don’t think the top of the ACC is very good, so they should finish in the top six or seven of the league and make the NCAA tournament as a 9-10 seed. This team has defended better than past Carolina iterations, the interior group is still elite and I’m still holding out some hope for Love.
John Gasaway, college basketball writer: This can still be a relevant UNC team because the Tar Heels do two things very well. North Carolina plays defense and crashes the offensive glass. As for shooting, well, did I mention that North Carolina plays defense and crashes the offensive glass? These two traits could prove sufficient to finish two or three games above .500 in ACC play and earn, say, a No. 9 seed in the tournament. If nothing else, the Heels can always miss a shot (this does occur on occasion) and count on Brooks, Bacot or Sharpe to go get it.
Joe Lunardi, ESPN bracketologist: What the Tar Heels really need is for Cole Anthony to be a year younger. Last season’s erstwhile star would be quite a missing piece for this year’s lopsided squad. In the real world, however, North Carolina’s perimeter has a long way to go to balance out its productive frontcourt. UNC’s size is still a significant advantage, but the rest of the squad would be seriously outgunned against the best teams in the country. Fortunately, it appears none of the very best teams play in the ACC, so the Heels should sneak into the tournament. They won’t be wearing white, though, and the First Four isn’t out of the question.
The 25-player Wooden Award watch list was revealed Wednesday night. What would the top 3 of your Wooden ballot look like right now?
Medcalf: Let’s be honest. Iowa’s Luka Garza takes up all three of those spots, right? I think the field is fighting for second place. If, before the season, I’d told you Garza, who finished second to Obi Toppin in last year’s race, would return as a 6-foot-11 big man shooting 49% from the 3-point line, 66% from inside the arc and 74% from the charity stripe, all for the best offensive team in America on KenPom, you might not have believed me. But that’s what has happened. This is his award.
For No. 2, I’ll pick Gonzaga’s Corey Kispert. During the 2013-14 season, Doug McDermott averaged 26.7 points and 7.0 rebounds per game while connecting on 45% of his 3-point attempts. Kispert is averaging 21.6 PPG, 4.5 RPG and 2.2 APG for the No. 1 team in America while making 51% of his 3-point attempts, despite playing next to a point guard, Jalen Suggs, who could be the No. 1 pick in this year’s NBA draft. No. 3 would be Illinois’ Ayo Dosunmu (23.0 PPG).
Gasaway: Garza, Jared Butler of Baylor and Hunter Dickinson of Michigan. To be clear, Dickinson wasn’t included in the midseason 25, and he won’t actually come within a mile of the Wooden Award. He’s a freshman who wasn’t hyped to any significant degree before the season, so he won’t be able to make up that ground against the (worthy!) likes of Garza and Butler. But everyone do me a favor and compare the young man’s 2-point accuracy and possession usage to what we saw from a certain (rightly!) celebrated freshman at Duke two years ago. It’s an illuminating comparison.
Lunardi: Garza is the obvious No. 1 choice, and that isn’t likely to change. After that I’ll go with the best players on the two best teams, Drew Timme of Gonzaga and Jared Butler of Baylor. Actually, if pressed, Butler and Ayo Dosunmu would be tied for third. And, randomly, how confusing would it be if Butler had a star by the name of Jared Baylor?
Borzello: I think Garza is the obvious pick at No. 1 right now. He came into the season as the heavy favorite to win the Wooden Award, and he hasn’t disappointed. His “bad” games are still 18 and 6, 22 and 9, 16 and 14. Those numbers on their own might be good enough to get a player on an All-America team. I’d go with Dosunmu at No. 2, although I think there’s a fairly sizable gap between Garza and Dosunmu. Dosunmu has scored at least 30 points on three occasions, been very good in late-game situations and dramatically improved his outside shooting.
I love Gasaway’s Hunter Dickinson shout-out, and Jared Butler would be on my midseason All-American team, but I’ll go with a take-your-pick of Gonzaga players for my No. 3. The first couple weeks of the season, it would’ve been Suggs. Then Timme would’ve been the pick. Right now, though, Kispert is playing out of his mind. He has scored at least 25 points in three of his past four games and is shooting 75.8% from 2 and 50.8% from 3.
Four players who were on the initial Wooden Watch list — Keyontae Johnson (Florida), Caleb Mills (Houston), Chris Smith (UCLA) and Oscar Tshiebwe (West Virginia) — are not going to play again this season. Which of their teams can best withstand that absence and make some noise in March, and which is in the biggest trouble?
Borzello: I’ll go with Houston. I think the Cougars are clearly the class of the AAC, with or without Mills, and that likely means they should head into the NCAA tournament in the best shape in terms of seeding. Kelvin Sampson is also loaded on the perimeter. Quentin Grimes is having the type of season we all expected coming out of high school a few years ago, Marcus Sasser is terrific and DeJon Jarreau is a jack-of-all-trades type. Freshman Tramon Mark has had his moments, too.
I actually think all four teams should survive the absences and make the NCAA tournament, but Florida might be in the most trouble. Keyontae Johnson was the best player of the four aforementioned absentees, and while transfers Anthony Duruji (Louisiana Tech) and Colin Castleton (Michigan) have played well in recent games, I’m most concerned about the Gators.
Medcalf: I also think Houston will be fine. Mills’ role was changing for an excellent Cougars squad that didn’t need him to log the minutes he played a year ago. We’ve watched Justin Gorham (12.5 PPG over the last two games without Mills) do more on offense to help his team beat SMU and Wichita State in back-to-back games. Sampson has depth with this group.
I, too, think that Florida took the biggest hit on this list. Johnson was trending as a potential first-round pick when he collapsed against Florida State in the year’s scariest incident. Plus, the SEC looks like a more complicated race than it appeared to be entering the season.
Gasaway: Houston certainly appears to be doing fine without Mills. The Cougars are a basket away from being undefeated, and, as it is, we’re likely to see this team end the regular season with an exceptionally small number in the loss column. Mills was the featured scorer last year, but he wasn’t the last word in efficiency. In his absence, Grimes has filled that role capably, and UH is overwhelming American opponents with offensive boards and trips to the line.
Lunardi: The knee-jerk answer is Houston, for all of the reasons articulated above. But West Virginia’s epic comeback at Oklahoma State is still top of mind, and Bob Huggins seems more than happy to ride it out with Derek Culver as the lone wolf up front. I think the Mountaineers will be fine and, sadly, the biggest loss will turn out to be Keyontae Johnson of Florida.
ESPN.com expert picks for this weekend’s top games
(Lines, when available, from Caesars Sportsbook. Predictors do not have access to lines when making score predictions.)