The Clemson Tigers finished one of college basketball’s most historic streaks last season, defeating the North Carolina Tar Heels for the first time at Chapel Hill. UNC is better in 2020-21, but so is Clemson, who is entering its final ACC foray as a top 20 team. Our experts watched this game and other of the weekend’s top competitions while looking at the current state of the 2021 Wooden Award race and some of the top, recent college tire exits.
(Editor’s Note: Clemson in North Carolina was postponed Friday)
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It took 60 games and 93 years for Clemson to win at Chapel Hill, and there seems to be a reasonable chance that the Tigers in 19th place will win twice in a row on Saturday (7:00 p.m. ET, ESPN). How will this Tar Heels team position themselves in March? Give fans some reason to believe this may still be a relevant team from North Carolina. (Editor’s Note: Clemson, North Carolina was postponed Friday).
Myron Medcalf, Senior College Basketball Writer: I think this roster will still play its way into an 8- or 9-seed, but I don’t know they’re going to advance. Those tar heels that get a lot of offensive rebounds but can’t do much with these second chance opportunities because they can’t shoot seem prone to a round one surprise this insane year.
With Caleb Love on the ground, they’ve only produced 92 points per 100 possessions and made sales on nearly a fifth of their possessions per hooplens.com. If they can’t figure out the point guard point, they will have more problems in the months to come. Relevance? Well, they still have a bunch of former five-star recruits and a top 20 defensive. If offensive efficiency improves, they can win matches in March. Could be.
Jeff Borzello, College basketball insider: At the beginning of the season, my biggest concern about tar heels was their wing rating and whether they could find constant perimeter shooting. I assumed Garrison Brooks and Armando Bacot would carry most of the burden from the inside, I loved Day’Ron Sharpe in high school, and I expected Love to become an elite point guard pretty quickly. The last part hasn’t happened yet and that was a big problem.
Carolina is struggling with sales trying to get shots of 3 and I’m not sure those changes are about to change anytime soon. Still, I don’t think the ACC’s top is very good, so they should end up in the top 6 or 7 of the league and win the NCAA tournament as a 9-10 seed. This team defended better than previous iterations in Carolina, the inside group is still elite and I still hope for love.
John Gasaway, College basketball writer: This may still be a relevant UNC team as the tar heels do two things very well. North Carolina plays defense and crashes the offensive glass. As for the shooting, did I mention North Carolina is playing defense and breaking the offensive glass? Those two traits could be enough to finish two or three games over .500 in the ACC game and get to number 9 in the tournament, for example. If nothing else, the heels can always miss a shot (this happens occasionally) and rely on Brooks, Bacot or Sharpe to get it.
Joe Lunardi, ESPN Bracketologist: What the tar heels really need is Cole Anthony to be a year younger. The former star from last season would be quite a miss for this year’s one-sided roster. In the real world, however, the North Carolina perimeter is still a long way off to make up for its productive forecourt. The size of the UNC is still a significant asset, but the rest of the squad would be seriously superior to the best teams in the country. Fortunately, none of the best teams seem to be playing in the ACC, so the heels should sneak into the tournament. You won’t wear white, however, and the first four are out of the question.
The Wooden Award watchlist for 25 players was released on Wednesday evening. What would the top 3 of your wooden voting slip look like now?
Medcalf: Let’s be honest Iowas Luka Garza takes all three places, right? I think the field is fighting for second place. If I had told you ahead of the season that Garza, who finished second behind Obi Toppin last year, would return as a tall 6-foot-11 man who shoots 49% off the 3-point line, 66% off the Inner arc and 74% from the charity flick, all for the best offensive team in America on KenPom, you might not have believed me. But that’s exactly what happened. This is his distinction.
For # 2, I’ll pick Gonzaga’s Corey Kispert. In the 2013-14 season, Doug McDermott averaged 26.7 points and 7.0 rebounds per game while completing 45% of his 3-point attempts. Kispert averages 21.6 PPG, 4.5 RPG, and 2.2 APG for the # 1 team in America while making 51% of his 3-point attempts despite playing alongside a point guard, Jalen Suggs who could be number 1 on this year’s NBA draft. Number 3 would be Ayo Dosunmu from Illinois (23.0 PPG).
Gasaway: Garza, Jared Butler from Baylor, and Hunter Dickinson from Michigan. To be clear, Dickinson wasn’t included in Midseason 25, and he won’t actually be a mile away from the Wooden Award. He’s a newbie who wasn’t hyped up to any significant degree before the season so he won’t be able to make up for that ground against (worthy!) Folks like Garza and Butler. But each one does me a favor, comparing the young man’s 2 point accuracy and possession to what we saw two years ago from a certain (rightly!) Famous newbie at Duke. It’s an illuminating comparison.
Lunardi: Garza is the obvious # 1 choice, and that probably won’t change. Then I’ll go with the best players from the top two teams, Drew Timme from Gonzaga and Jared Butler from Baylor. If they were pushed, Butler and Ayo Dosunmu would actually be in third place. And how confusing it would happen to be if Butler had a star named Jared Baylor?
Borzello: I think Garza is the obvious # 1 pick right now. He came into the season as a strong favorite to win the Wooden Award and he didn’t disappoint. His “bad” games are still 18 and 6, 22 and 9, 16 and 14. Those numbers alone could be good enough to get a player on an All America team. I would go 2nd with Dosunmu, although I think there is quite a big gap between Garza and Dosunmu. Dosunmu has scored at least 30 points three times, was very good in late game situations and has improved his outside shooting dramatically.
I love Gasaway’s Hunter Dickinson shout-out, and Jared Butler would be on my midseason All-American team, but I’ll be making a selection of Gonzaga players for my # 3. The first couple of weeks of the season it would have been Suggs. Then Timme would have been the choice. At the moment, however, Kispert is playing out of his head. He has scored at least 25 points in three of his last four games, shooting 75.8% of 2 and 50.8% of 3.
Four players who made the first Wooden Watch list – Keyontae Johnson (Florida), Caleb Mills (Houston), Chris Smith (UCLA) and Oscar Tshiebwe (West Virginia) – will no longer play this season. Which of their teams can best withstand this absence and make some noise in March, and which one is in the greatest trouble?
Borzello: I will go with Houston. I think the Cougars are clearly the AAC’s class, with or without Mills, and that probably means they should get into the NCAA tournament in their best shape in terms of sowing. Kelvin Sampson is also loaded onto the scope. Quentin Grimes has the kind of season we all expected from high school a few years ago, Marcus Sasser is great, and DeJon Jarreau is a jack of all trades. Freshman Tramon Mark also had his moments.
I actually think all four teams should survive the absences and win the NCAA tournament, but Florida could be in the greatest trouble. Keyontae Johnson was the top player of the four absenteeists above, and while Anthony Duruji (Louisiana Tech) and Colin Castleton (Michigan) transfers have played well in recent games, the Gators are my biggest concern.
Medcalf: I also think Houston will be fine. Mills’ role changed for an excellent Cougars roster that didn’t need to log the minutes he played a year ago. We’ve seen Justin Gorham (12.5 PPG in 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 also think Florida had the biggest hit on this list. Johnson was a potential first-round pick when he collapsed in the scariest incident of the year against the state of Florida. Also, the SEC appears to be a more complicated race than what the season seemed to go on.
Gasaway: Houston seems sure to be fine without Mills. The Cougars are one basket away from unbeaten and as it is we will likely see this team finish the regular season with an exceptionally small number in the losing column. Mills was the top scorer last year, but he wasn’t the last word on efficiency. In his absence, Grimes has played the role skillfully, and UH overwhelms American opponents with offensive boards and trips to the line.
Lunardi: The tricky answer is Houston for all of the above reasons. But West Virginia’s epic comeback in the state of Oklahoma is still an issue, and Bob Huggins seems more than happy to ride it with Derek Culver as the lone wolf on top. I think the climbers will be fine and unfortunately the biggest loss will be Keyontae Johnson of Florida.
ESPN.com experts vote for this weekend’s top games
(Lines, if available, from Caesars Sportsbook. Predictors do not have access to lines when making point predictions.)