Auburn is 13-0 and coming off its first Final Four appearance in program history. It's one of two remaining unbeaten teams. It's won 25 of its last 26 games.
And yet I can't ever recall a power-conference program making it to the second week of January without a loss and receiving fewer accolades and less overall pub than these Tigers.
Seems a bit odd, especially considering that Auburn's become a reliable nonconference juggernaut under coach Bruce Pearl. The Tigers are 12-0 outside of SEC play and have one more nonleague game later in January, vs. Iowa State. Here's Auburn's run the past four years vs. the noncon slate:
- 2019-20: 12-0
- 2018-19: 11-2
- 2017-18: 12-1
- 2016-17: 11-2
That's an aggregate 46-5 record in the regular season outside of SEC play -- a .902 win percentage, which is top-five in college basketball in the past four seasons. It hasn't come against horrid schedules, either. In fact, the NET rankings currently have Auburn's noncon SOS at No. 22 -- despite not playing a Quad 1 opponent so far.
"We played the team picked second in the A-10, Davidson, and nobody schedules Bob McKillop," Pearl told CBS Sports. "We haven't played a Quad 1 but it's not because we haven't tried to play a tough schedule."
That's the rub. Auburn's avoided the buzz bin -- though standing tall at No. 5 in the latest AP Top 25 -- due to an absence of high-profile games. It's not beat Quad 1 opponent nor a ranked team so far, so credit is in short supply. Pearl in part expected this, because Auburn is not an annual invitee to some of the biggest November tournaments or standalone events that routinely bring in top-25 squads.
"They're not calling me to play in the big games," he said, while acknowledging Auburn was fortunate enough to play in last season's Maui Invitational. "I would love to get invited to the tourneys that have Kentucky, Duke, North Carolina, Ohio State, Kansas and all that. Hey, we'll go next year -- we would be honored to attend next year. I'll give my phone number. They're not calling Auburn to play in those made-for-television matchups."
So Pearl scheduled six games away from home to help the Tigers' chances. He knows those games "count more," so he doesn't get too cozy at home in November and December. Those games became wins, most of them Quad 2 variety. And now he's somewhat inadvertently gamed the system. Play a pretty good overall nonconference schedule without facing a top-level team. Voila! Auburn's sixth in the NET. Nicely done.
It's been impressive to see this team continue apace after losing so many big pieces off that Final Four team, the one that was one foul on Kyle Guy away from making the national title game.
"Success didn't change us," Pearl said. "Auburn doesn't get guys leaving early unless they're transferring out. But guess what, we got two guys who did."
That would be Jared Harper and Chuma Okeke. Plus three seniors, including 3-point specialist Bryce Brown, who made more 3s than anyone in SEC history other than Chris Lofton. The Tigers were expected to be good but not great. Now they're a fascinating test case, a potential refraction on the sport itself in this awry kind of season.
Auburn is good because it's fortunate to have five seniors, plus a stud freshman in Isaac Okoro, who Pearl said is as adaptable as any freshman he's ever had and is in effect a senior in how he carries himself and knows the game.
"We're a good team, but there are no great teams in college basketball right now," Pearl said. "We can beat any team in our league and there have been years when I couldn't say that. ... Last year we were the fourth-best team in the league. Kentucky, Tennessee and LSU were all Final Four-good. We were the fourth best team, and in March we were as good as anybody in the country. There's no question. This year I don't see the top of our league being as good as it was last year, but the country's not as good. ... I think it's wide open."
We think we're not used to Auburn being consistently good, but it's time to dissolve that notion. Tigers have been a No. 5 and No. 4 seed the past two seasons and are clearly on pace to match that again in 2020. Pearl's not getting ahead of himself despite another strong start, but at this stage he should clearly be receiving more credit than he's getting on the whole. The reconstruction job at that program is essentially complete, the evidence is in.
Is this the best Butler team ever?
The 14-1 Bulldogs are ranked No. 6 in the latest AP poll, the highest they've ever been. (The AP Top 25 does not do a poll at the end of the NCAA Tournament.) The Bulldogs in Jerry Palm's bracketology. BU is holding opponents to 54.1 points, fourth-best in college basketball -- and 11 times it's kept a foe under 60.
Not much love overall -- just yet -- for LaVall Jordan's team nationally, though.
"Well, you know, that's Butler," Jordan told CBS Sports this week. "I don't get concerned with that because we're Butler and we're a chip-on-the-shoulder program. You come here because you've got an edge and you get a collective group together and everyone's got their own story and their own journey. That's who we are and who we've always been. I don't think that's any different and I don't think guys get any more or less motivated. Just don't lose the chip. Don't lose it. Be who we are at all times. Don't read the headlines."
It's interesting, in this season of unreliability in the top of the polls, a team like Butler still can't be praised for what the voters and metrics claim it to be: top-five quality in the sport. Senior Sean McDermott's gone seven straight game with at least two made 3s -- and in fact he's the most efficient player in college basketball. McDermott's 144.7 offensive rating is ridiculous, the best in the sport.
The guy's worth almost 1.5 points every time he attempts a shot. That's lethal.
"We challenged him big-time and told him we're going to be able to play a little bit bigger and he'd play on the wing, whereas last year he'd be in the paint and fought his butt off," Jordan said. "But being able to guard on the perimeter and playing one-one-one with Kamar, Aaron and Tuck, plus then to play with the ball in his hands more in terms of guys running him off the line and developing his game."
Yet McDermott might not be as valuable as senior Kamar Baldwin or juniors Aaron Thompson and Bryce Nze. Baldwin is top-10 in all-time scoring at Butler. Thompson is No. 8 in school history in assists. Inside Indianapolis, these players are building up legendary careers. That's how you get to 14-1.
That's how you keep Butler as a top-30 program in college basketball.
Jordan told me the defining moments of the season so far haven't been a big shot or a bit stop in a big game. It's been McDermott stopping a practice cold -- a dead halt -- and demanding more of his teammates. It's been Thompson grabbing the clipboard during a timeout and drawing up the play, Jordan having the confidence in his player and trust in that moment to let his savvy point take command.
"Those are the player-owned moments when we're in the heat of it and guys are holding each other to a certain standard," Jordan said. "Those moments are the ones where you look at and say, you know, you say you're cooking with gasoline."
Butler has five wins vs. Quad 1 competition so far, and is likely to at least double that by March. This was a 16-17 team a season ago with its worst defense in a decade and a half. Now it rates top-five in per-possession defense and is still yet to play a great offensive game, according to Jordan.
This is one of the biggest turnaround stories in college basketball this, but since it's Butler, the surprise factor gets muted. The program's highest finish ever in KenPom's ratings is No. 12, in 2009-10, when Gordon Hayward missed at the buzzer vs. Duke in the title game.
This team can be even better. Making the Final Four is a brutal journey, but Butler's as well-built as almost anyone to do it in 2020.
NPOY power poll
Stadium's Jeff Goodman tapped me and nearly a dozen other national media members this week for a straw poll on the current race for National Player of the Year. It's as spacious as any race we've seen in a decade-plus. You can check right here for the overall averages, but for transparency's sake, my top 10 submitted for that poll (prior to Tuesday night's games) was:
1. Vernon Carey Jr., Duke
2. Obi Toppin, Dayton
3. Payton Pritchard, Oregon
4. Cassius Winston, Michigan State
5. Markus Howard, Marquette
6. Udoka Azubuike, Kansas
7. Myles Powell, Seton Hall
8. Jordan Nwora, Louisville
9. Kaleb Wesson, Ohio State
10. Malachi Flynn, San Diego State
To me, Carey is the no-brainer at this point. Best player on the best team and his numbers are in Zion Williamson's stratosphere from a season ago, when Williamson ran away with the honor. Carey's averaging 18.4 ppg, 9.0 rpg, 0.8 apg, 2.1 bpg with a 39.0 PER. Williamson finished averaging 22.6 ppg, 8.9 rpg, 2.1 apg and 1.8 bpg with a 40.8 PER. Williamson averaged 30.0 minutes; Carey's at merely 23.7.
Have a Q, curiosity or complaint? Do @ me. Lob your question my way on Twitter.
Where do you see San Diego State losing its first game, or do they just go undefeated?— Mountain West Wire (@MWCwire) January 8, 2020
I expect the Aztecs to win their next two games (at Wyoming, vs. Boise State) to get to 17-0 -- and then fall on the road on Jan. 14 against Fresno State. The Bulldogs are only 5-10 at the moment. I'm not saying it makes sense. I'm just making my guess as to when it's going to happen.
Given Michigan’s early recruiting under Juwan, do you think they’re actually better off long term with Juwan instead of Beilein? Seems like that was unthinkable a few months ago— RIP D (@affluenzaQB) January 8, 2020
Michigan's performing just about as well on and off the court as Michigan fans could have hoped for when the transition happened. The Wolverines have a tricky upcoming slate of games, but overall the 10-4 start is obviously acceptable. Currently, U-M has the No. 4-rated recruiting class for 2020, all commits being four- or five-star caliber. It's an awesome beginning, but if we're going split universes and project out U-M for the next five years under Howard and the next five under Beilein, I cannot yet say the brighter future is with the former. Beilein turned so many less-heralded players into NBA picks and made the Final Four twice.
What are your top 5 NCAA tournament regional sites?— Matt Weber (@theMattWeber) January 8, 2020
My kind of question! I really took some time to mull on this and made sure to only include sites I've been to. Here's my list, in alphabetical order. I did not include cities that get the Final Four.
- Boise, Idaho
- Lexington, Kentucky
- New York City (Madison Square Garden)
- Portland, Oregon
- Salt Lake City
One city that no longer gets the tourney but would love to see return: Bloomington, Indiana. (Lasted hosted in the early '80s.)
Norlander, can you explain what’s happening to Uconn? How are they this bad? They’re not so devoid of talent that they should be getting blown out by a mediocre Cincinnati team and a straight up bad, Yenta-less USF team. I understand rebuilding but this is mid-year 2...— College Hoops & College Poops (whatever man) (@HoopsStuff) January 4, 2020
Dan Hurley inherited a broken locker room and subpar roster and is doing his best to get Kevin Ollie's recruits to play Hurley's way, his system, and giving himself backaches in the process. It's rough right now but if all the right guys return next season, UConn's going to be an NCAA Tournament team. A little more patience here. And I do expect UConn to finish in the top six in the American.
If the NCAA tournament was like the NBA playoffs and you were to choose the top 16 teams and they played best of 7, who would win the 2020 Championship? Who would’ve won 2019?— Heidi Simon (@HeidiJHawk) January 8, 2020
Thank goodness it's not. The tournament's the best thing about American sports. But if it was hypothetically set up like this, my pick for last season still would have been Virginia (over Duke in seven games). For this season: Michigan State over Duke in six games. That's how I'd forecast it out as of now. Creative question!
- Duke's the best team in college hoops right now, but I'll be keeping an eye on how the machine goes without freshman wing Wendell Moore Jr. (7.4 ppg, 3.9 rpg), who broke the fourth metacarpal in his right hand in Duke's win at Miami. No timetable for Moore to return, but given he had hand surgery, it's automatic he'll miss at least three weeks.
- VCU is 12-3 and on the fringes of cracking into the AP Top 25. The Rams are a March threat because of junior forward Marcus Santos-Silva, who's a bruising 4 man averaging 13.3 points and 8.7 rebounds. Santos-Silva had a career-high 26 points in a win at George Mason over the weekend.
- Good note from the Valley: Since 1992-93, only one men's D-I player has had a stat line with at least 16.0 ppg, 8.0 rpg, 4.0 apg, and 60.0% shooting. It was Furman's Matt Rafferty last season. But now Loyola Chicago's Cameron Krutwig (16.5 ppg, 8.1 rpg, 4.3 apg, 59.9% FG) might do it too.
- Stadium reported on Tuesday that Central Arkansas has fired coach Russ Pennell. So that's the first move for the 2020 carousel, which will eventually grow to 50-plus changes by the end of March.
- Team Rankings does a great job of stat analysis across many sports, college hoops included. Jason Lisk crunched some numbers this week, forecasting the 2020 NCAA Tournament field by conference. Here's how things predict to shake out by league: Big Ten (8), SEC (7), Big East (6), ACC (5), Big 12 (5), Pac-12 (4), American (3), Atlantic 10 (3), WCC (3). And right now, I think the ACC struggles to get five. The Big Ten is a mortal lock to send the most teams.
- Most mysterious team in college hoops might be Santa Clara. The Broncos are 14-2 but have won all 14 of their games at home against the No. 352nd-ranked schedule. The losses came on the road against Stanford (18 points) and Nevada (31 points). That's how you get to 14-2 yet are still just 130th in KenPom. Time to get real on Thursday with a roadie against San Fran.
- Best game the next four days in college hoops: Wednesday is Seton Hall at Xavier; Thursday is Arizona at Oregon; Friday is Maryland at Iowa; Saturday is Baylor at Kansas.