For understood reasons, the 2020-21 college basketball season is unlike any other we’ve witnessed. A delayed start. Back-to-back games against the same opponent in conference play. Limited or no fans in arenas. Ever-changing schedules.
Because of those changes, or perhaps despite them, there are individual and team stats, records and production that might be unexpected, unusual or nearly un-explainable this season. Here are some statistical oddities and occurrences that college basketball fans may not have predicted before the season.
The SEC standings that will stupefy
Through Jan. 13, advanced analytics site kenpom.com projects that none of the 14 teams in the SEC will finish with the same conference record. Seriously.
It seems almost impossible, but given that some conference games have been postponed and have not been made up, kenpom.com’s season projections are based on the games that have been played and the games that are currently scheduled. As a result, through Jan. 13, the site projects there to be one 14-win team (Alabama), one 13-win team (Tennessee), a 12-win team (LSU), an 11-win squad (Florida), 10-8 Arkansas, 9-8 Kentucky, four eight-win teams (each with a different number of losses: 8-7 South Carolina, 8-8 Missouri, 8-9 Ole Miss and 8-10 Mississippi State), 7-11 Texas A&M, 6-12 Auburn, four-win Georgia and a three-win squad in Vanderbilt.
Of course, those projections could change after the next SEC game is played, but for at least one day, one of the most prominent ranking systems in the sport says that the SEC’s 14 teams will finish with 14 different conference records.
Is Alabama a basketball school?
We kid, but ESPN analyst Dick Vitale broached the idea on air. The Crimson Tide are alone in first place with a 5-0 conference record with wins over Tennessee (which came on the road against the SEC favorite), talented-but-flawed Kentucky (by 20 points) and rival Auburn (in a high-scoring affair, 94-90, in which points were scored at a rate that not even Alabama’s football team could match).
Non-conference play was a struggle for the Crimson Tide. It entered SEC competition with a 5-3 record, with losses to Stanford, Clemson and Western Kentucky, and the Cardinal and Tigers were the two best teams Alabama played in the non-conference portion of its schedule.
“The way they’re playing tonight, football is going to be secondary to the hoops. This is becoming a basketball school,” Dick Vitale said of Alabama a night after winning its 6th football crown since 2009.
— Michael Casagrande (@ByCasagrande) January 13, 2021
Alabama loves to run — its average offensive possession lasts just 14.2 seconds. It loves to shoot threes — more than 45 percent of its shot attempts are 3-pointers — and so far that’s been a dangerous combination for the rest of the SEC.
The Crimson Tide hasn’t won the SEC regular season title in men’s basketball since 2002.
Michigan is among the nation’s last unbeatens for the third time in nine years
Three months before playing for the 2013 national championship, Michigan was undefeated, amid a 16-0 start to the season led by Naismith Player of the Year Trey Burke and an efficient complement of wings in Glenn Robinson, Nik Stauskas and Tim Hardaway surrounding Mitch McGary. The Wolverines finished the regular season 9-6 after their undefeated start and they were 26-7 on Selection Sunday, but there’s a reason the No. 4 seed was ranked No. 4 nationally on kenpom.com on the morning of Jan. 9, 2013 — the day of Michigan’s 16th win in a row to start the season.
A season after Michigan returned to the national championship game in 2018, the Wolverines were 17-0 after Jan. 13 during the 2019 season, this time with a brand new cast. Ignas Brazdeikis, Zavier Simpson, Jordan Poole, Charles Matthews and Jon Teske each started every game they played that season. Similar to the 2013 season, Michigan finished the remainder of the regular season 9-5 and they were 28-6 on Selection Sunday. The Wolverines started the season ranked No. 19 in the preseason AP poll — a year in which seven different teams received at least one first-place vote — and yet Michigan was the one with the season-opening winning streak that carried into mid-January.
That was just two seasons ago but the top five scorers from that 2019 Michigan team are no longer in Ann Arbor, with the only holdovers of note being Isaiah Livers (sixth in minutes and scoring in 2019), Eli Brooks (seventh), Austin Davis (eighth in minutes, ninth in scoring) and Brandon Johns Jr. (10th).
Now, Livers is the team’s second-leading scorer at 13.8 points per game, and while Brooks (8.7 ppg) has been an every-game starter, Davis has started five of the six games he’s played this season and Johns is eighth in minutes per game. Oh, and did we mention Michigan is doing this under second-year coach Juwan Howard, who had never been a college coach prior to the 2019-20 season? The Wolverines were ranked No. 25 in the preseason AP poll but only seventh among Big Ten teams, so sure, the expectation was that Michigan would be good this season but not this good. The Wolverines were one of the last seven undefeated teams in the country.
Michigan’s success on the hardwood in the last decade has dwarfed its accomplishments on the gridiron (it’s true, look it up), and the Wolverines’s men’s basketball program has sustained a coaching change and the roster turning over multiple times as players have graduated and gone to the NBA.
Michigan’s basketball program has reached a status — one bigger than any head coach or national player of the year — that its success should no longer be unexpected.
Northwestern is becoming known for its … speed?
As of Jan. 13, Northwestern’s tempo, as measured by the average number of possessions in the games it has played this season and adjusted by kenpom.com for the quality of opponents, is 70.3 possessions per game. In the final season of former coach Bill Carmody, who was the predecessor to current coach Chris Collins, Northwestern averaged 60 possessions per game, so the Wildcats are playing noticeably faster, especially on offense, where they ranked 31st nationally in tempo.
Over the last two decades or so, Northwestern has spent most seasons ranked outside of the top 300 teams nationally in terms of tempo, so playing fast has never been the name of the game in Evanston. Advanced stats suggest this is (or could be) the second-best team of Collins’s tenure, second only to Northwestern’s first-ever NCAA tournament team in 2017.
Not only have the Wildcats been a fairly competitive team through the first month and a half of the season, but they’ve played a brand of basketball that many fans of the sport would consider more visually appealing — one that’s up-tempo, assist-happy and geared towards high-percentage 3-point shots.
Luka Garza is now an elite 3-point shooter
As a freshman and sophomore at Iowa, Luka Garza made more than 60 percent of his 2-point attempts, while shooting a combined 37-of-118 (31.4 percent) from behind the arc. If you’re 6-11 and you’re at best an average 3-point shooter (he made 34.8 percent of his 3-point attempts as a freshman), then logic might suggest to embrace what you’re great at and to limit the rest.
Instead, last season Garza became an above-average, high-usage 3-point shooter (35.8 percent shooting on 109 attempts). Now, he’s among the best in the country, as he has made 22-of-45 3-point attempts this season, which is good for 48.9 percent and the 59th-highest 3-point percentage nationally.
Through 13 games as a senior, Garza has already made more 3-pointers than he made in his freshman or sophomore season, and his 3-point percentage is roughly 13 percentage points higher than it was last season.
Is the Big Ten even deeper than expected with individual and team talent?
At the end of last season, 11 Big Ten teams finished the spring ranked in the top 30 on kenpom.com and 10 teams were projected to make the NCAA tournament, according to the consensus of the bracket projections compiled by Bracket Matrix. But is the Big Ten even better this season?
Through Jan. 13, 12 of the 14 teams in the Big Ten rank in the top 50 of kenpom.com and a 13th team, Northwestern, is ranked inside the top 60. Other than sub-.500 and winless-in-conference Penn State and Nebraska, the other 12 teams in the conference have each won at least two conference games and can reasonably factor into current NCAA tournament projections.
Then there’s the absurd level of individual talent in the conference. Since the Naismith College Player of the Year was first awarded in men’s basketball in 1969 (to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, by the way), a Big Ten player has won the award just six times in 52 years. Duke (eight Naismith Award winners) has won the award more times than all of the players in the history of the Big Ten combined and UCLA’s total (five) is just one award shy of the Big Ten.
Through Jan. 13, the Big Ten is responsible for five of the top eight players in kenpom.com’s national player of the year standings: No. 1 Luka Garza (Iowa), No. 2 Trayce Jackson-Davis (Indiana), No. 3 Ayo Dosunmu (Illinois), No. 5 Hunter Dickinson (Michigan) and No. 8 Trevion Williams (Purdue). Sure, those standings are based on advanced analytics and voters may not place the same emphasis on efficiency and advanced metrics, but the point remains, that the Big Ten has as much individual, top-end talent as any conference in the country, especially among frontcourt players.
Quentin Grimes is becoming the player many expected him to be
Grimes was among the most talented incoming freshmen in the country in the 2018-19 season and despite starting in all 36 games he played at Kansas as a freshman, he averaged just 8.4 points and transferred to Houston in the offseason. He averaged 12.1 points per game as a sophomore, starting 21 times in 30 games.
Now, as a junior, Grimes is potentially reaching his All-America potential, averaging 17.7 points, 6.8 rebounds, 2.0 assists and 1.2 steals per game for a Houston team that’s 10-1 and ranked No. 11 in the country.
After having a below-average offensive rating (93.6) as a freshman and one that was roughly average as a sophomore (104.1), Grimes is now operating at the highest efficiency of his career, with an offensive rating of 111.8. It certainly has room to improve, too, as he’s shooting just 40 percent inside the arc, but his efficiency is buoyed by his career-best 88.9-percent free throw shooting and 34.2-percent 3-point shooting.
His 15.8 percent turnover rate is the lowest of his career, while he’s grabbing nearly 16 percent of available defensive rebounds, which is also a career best.
Through Jan. 13, kenpom.com has Grimes ranked No. 10 in his national player-of-the-year standings.