Midseason predictions: Why we’re high(er) on Arizona, Kentucky, more


Welcome to 2024! College football has crowned its national champion, conference play is now in full swing across the men’s hoops map and Purdue and Kansas make up two-thirds of the AP poll’s top three, just as they did in the preseason.

The other member of the AP’s big three in the preseason? That was Duke, but now this spot is occupied by Houston. The Cougars and the Jayhawks look like they’ll compete for the title of best team in the strongest top-to-bottom conference in Division I. Then again, who knows, Oklahoma or Baylor might have something to say there.

Elsewhere, Arizona appears to be the class of the Pac-12, defending champion UConn is trying to get healthy, and the SEC looks primed to send another large contingent of strong teams into the field of 68. All the while Zach Edey keeps dunking on his way to what could be a second consecutive Wooden Award.

As we enter the second half of the season, ESPN.com’s Joe Lunardi, Myron Medcalf, Jeff Borzello and John Gasaway have returned to revisit some storylines, debate other new ones that have cropped up and take back some predictions in favor of new ones.


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0:21

Zach Edey throws down the dunk off the inbound pass

Purdue puts the ball in play to Zach Edey for a dunk.

Purdue is again No. 1 in the polls and — before its double-digit loss to Nebraska — looked just as dominant as it did for much of 2022-23. Are the Boilermakers national championship material or still vulnerable to another early exit in March?

Jeff Borzello: The guards have still had some late-game issues protecting leads, but I think Purdue is better equipped to make a deep run in the NCAA tournament. Some of that is simple variance: Purdue is on track to get a 1-seed again, and losing to a 16-seed two years in a row is just unlikely. But, the team is also better. Zach Edey is even more dominant, Braden Smith looks like one of the best point guards in the country, and Lance Jones adds a two-way dimension that was missing a year ago.

John Gasaway: The Boilermakers are stronger on paper now than they were on Selection Sunday 2023. After 343 possessions of Big Ten play, Edey has 18 dunks; Trey Kaufman-Renn was magnificent in the win over Illinois. Purdue is clearly national championship material. At the same time, the Boilers are vulnerable. They lost in OT at Northwestern and by 16 at Nebraska. Smith is still prone to leaving his feet with the ball but without a plan. Opposing offenses still believe they can attack this backcourt.

Myron Medcalf: Yeah, I think Purdue is the best team in America right now and the favorite to win the national title. I think the key to this year’s improvement is Edey’s mobility. He lost weight in the offseason to become a more mobile presence and, according to ESPN’s latest NBA mock draft, is now a projected lottery pick. Per Synergy Sports data, the Boilermakers are in transition, per possession, twice as often as they were a year ago. And their success rate has risen: 57% this season compared to 53% last year. All of this with a 4-0 record over teams ranked top 30 in adjusted tempo on KenPom. That said, future opponents now know drawing Edey into foul trouble is the key to beating them.

Joe Lunardi: We should all know by now that any team can lose at any time in the NCAA tournament (if not before). That said, Purdue is the best team in the country by an unusually wide margin for this stage of the season. Barring injury, the Boilermakers are poised for a very deep run in March, and I would be very surprised if they are not also playing in early April. They are among the very least vulnerable teams in America.


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0:33

FAU forces overtime vs. Arizona with late bucket

FAU’s Vladislav Goldin hammers down the one-handed slam to force overtime against Arizona.

Last year’s Final Four darling Florida Atlantic has beaten a top-10 Arizona squad but also lost to multiple sub-100 squads. How confident are you in FAU’s ability to return to the Final Four?

Lunardi: I was never confident in FAU’s ability to return to the Final Four. It’s simply not a realistic goal for about 95% of the schools playing Division I men’s basketball. More important is that the Owls return to their peak by March in order to maximize their chances to win elimination games. I also think we’re disregarding the step up in class FAU is experiencing in its first AAC season. The American isn’t the same without Houston and Cincinnati, but it’s still better than the Conference USA the Owls dominated a year ago.

Medcalf: That win over Arizona has not only kept their résumé intact, it’s the reason the Owls entered the week 26th in the latest NET rankings. But I also believe they’ve experienced a dramatic switch only former Cinderella teams can understand. They’ve gone from spoiling NCAA tournament dreams to being a target for the underdogs on their schedule who want the prestige of an FAU win. The focus now has to be securing an at-large berth, because the floor seems lower than it was a year ago.

Borzello: Put the Final Four talk on hold. There’s a non-zero chance FAU ends up on the bubble come Selection Sunday. The Owls have the elite top-line win over Arizona, but losses to Bryant, Florida Gulf Coast and Charlotte are all huge negatives. And pretty much any AAC defeat outside of Memphis, SMU and North Texas is going to be viewed as a bad loss. I don’t think it will get to that point, though, and the trio of Johnell Davis, Alijah Martin and Vladislav Goldin is enough to win games once again in March.

Gasaway: It has been seven long years since any program reached a second consecutive Final Four, and now we’re pressuring the Owls to do it? This seems like a tall order. I’m surprised opponents have fared so well in the paint against FAU just one year after Dusty May had one of the better interior defenses in the nation. If the likes of East Carolina and Charlotte continue to make 51% of their 2s against this D, that does not have the feel of a Final Four trajectory.


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0:38

Dre Davis’ slam punctuates Seton Hall’s upset of No. 5 UConn

Dre Davis flushes home a dunk in transition to put the finishing touches on Seton Hall’s victory.

UConn lost by 15 to Seton Hall. What does this loss say (or not say) about the reigning national champ’s chances to repeat?

Gasaway: Classic UConn, this is how they do it! Roll through the nonconference season (though usually the program has the good sense not to schedule a road game at Kansas), then look mediocre or occasionally worse in Big East play. Pretty soon the Huskies are unstoppable in March, and another national title is the result. It could play out like that again in 2024, who knows, but the number of future minutes played by Clingan is perhaps the key variable in play.

Borzello: I don’t think a single-game result changes my opinion one way or the other on UConn (or anyone). The Huskies need to get fully healthy before we judge their chances to repeat. Donovan Clingan was hurt to start the season, then Stephon Castle was injured, Cam Spencer was banged up along the way and now Clingan is out again. At full health, however, I don’t think there are many better teams than Dan Hurley’s group. Prior to Clingan’s injury, this team was playing as well as any in the country.

Medcalf: Last season, UConn won its first 14 games, 13 of them by double digits. And then, it lost five of the next six when Big East play began, three of them by double digits. I just don’t think this is a team — with Clingan out and Castle only recently looking like the player we all know he can be — that will be rattled by a lopsided loss. The Huskies will be ready in March, and that will be the only thing that matters.

Lunardi: A history lesson might be in order when assessing UConn. Villanova (2017), Baylor (2022) and Kansas (2023) are recent defending champions who earned No. 1 seeds the following season. The Huskies are on a similar path, but it will take a major change of fortune for them to again cut down the nets. None of the teams I’ve listed made it out of the first weekend in their next NCAA appearance, much less won it all. That UConn is good enough to do so doesn’t take away from how hard it is to repeat.


You can take back one prediction from the preseason or from December. Which is it?

Borzello: My previous predictions look incredibly prescient, as one might expect, but one I’d like to take back is Michigan State going to the Final Four. The Spartans were never quite as bad as their record indicated when they started the season 4-5, but the five-game winning streak that followed looks like a mirage as well, after their 14-point loss at Northwestern on Sunday. They’re still a tournament team, and they can still win games in March, but the defense and everyone besides Tyson Walker aren’t consistent enough for me to have confidence in a Final Four run.

Medcalf: I still think my picks of Purdue, Houston and Kansas in the Final Four look good. But I’ll take the do-over on Tom Izzo’s team, too. It has been a weird ride for the Spartans, who returned the bulk of last season’s roster and then added a nationally ranked recruiting class. They’ve overcome one of the worst 3-point shooting slumps to start a season in recent men’s college basketball history, but they don’t look like a team that can make a run to Phoenix at this point.

Gasaway: I’m pretty happy with my preseason Final Four, so can we just end the discussion here? No? Fine, my smug preseason confidence in Isaiah Collier being selected as national newcomer of the year is looking a bit misplaced. Little did I know the correct choice here would clearly be Reed Sheppard. My bad!

Lunardi: When Duke is your weakest remaining Final Four prediction, that’s pretty good. I’m happy to rise with Purdue, Kansas and Tennessee while hoping the Blue Devils come together in the second half of the season. And, as a projected 4-seed, it’s not like they’re some kind epic dark horse. But, given the chance, I’d replace the Blue Devils with Arizona. The Wildcats are confounding to be sure, but they have a very high ceiling.


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0:31

No. 3 Purdue drains back-to-back 3s as they knock off No. 1 Arizona

Lance Jones and Braden Smith knock down two long balls to help extend Purdue’s lead vs. Arizona.

What has been the season-defining moment for you?

Medcalf: I’m not sure we’ve had that moment yet, but I think the Big 12 getting even stronger through nonconference play should be a scary development for a league that will soon add Arizona, Colorado and Utah, three top-30 teams on KenPom right now. While we all knew Houston would be a force, BYU (ninth on KenPom) and Cincinnati (29th on KenPom) should help extend the league’s reign in the conference rankings in men’s college basketball.

Lunardi: The season’s narrative was set at the Maui Invitational when Purdue put away Gonzaga, Tennessee and Marquette to win that great event. The Boilermakers cemented themselves as a national championship favorite with the Virginia 2019 storyline. By March and maybe early April, we’ll all be talking about a repeat of that Virginia scenario (losing to a 16-seed but coming back to win it all the following year).

Gasaway: Not “defining,” necessarily, but one might say that Purdue defeating Arizona 92-84 in Indianapolis in December was a moment we could find ourselves summoning once again in the weeks to come. There’s a fair chance both of these teams will end up with No. 1 seeds, and the interesting thing about a game played in the Boilermakers’ backyard was that they won it playing at the Wildcats’ preferred speed.

Borzello: There has been some fantastic on-court action: FAU vs. Arizona was incredible, and it seems like there were marquee nonconference matchups every week in November and December. But the biggest storyline of the past two months came off the court, when a legal court ruled the NCAA could essentially no longer enforce its transfer rules, which preceded the NCAA ultimately giving in and giving all two-time transfers eligibility for the rest of the season. In between, there was a 48-hour period when teams weren’t sure whether to let their previously ineligible players suit up. And there’s still conversation as to what it all means moving forward. In terms of impact on the court, players like Ole MissBrandon Murray, LSU‘s Jalen Cook, Arizona State‘s Adam Miller and Southern MissAndre Curbelo were suddenly able to get on the floor and help their team after weeks of uncertainty.


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1:45

Auburn picks up home conference win over Texas A&M

Auburn picks up home conference win over Texas A&M

Which will be the most competitive conference race?

Borzello: The Big 12 should feature an elite head-to-head battle between Houston and Kansas, two potential 1-seeds, but the SEC looks awfully intriguing right now. Tennessee and Kentucky have looked like the best teams in the league so far, but metrics darling Auburn throttled Arkansas on the road and looks a real threat. Throw in the teams with gaudy records (South Carolina, Ole Miss) and the typical contenders that need to turn things around (Alabama, Arkansas), and the SEC standings are worth watching.

Gasaway: I’m with Borzello. Unlike the other major conferences, the SEC looks like it could be downright crowded at the top. To take one example fairly at random, consider Alabama. The Crimson Tide are, quite rightly, unranked. Does this team really possess the best offense in the nation? If so, that would figure to have an impact in a race in which we already think Tennessee, Kentucky and Auburn look tough. Now, picture this league next year when Oklahoma and Texas join the fun. Are you hearing “strongest conference in the nation” footsteps yet, Big 12?

Medcalf: Agreed. The league has eight top-50 teams right now. The depth is undeniable. That’s why the unbalanced schedule will matter. Kentucky will face Tennessee twice this season but Alabama and Auburn only once. Auburn might have the most favorable slate among the contenders. The Tigers will play Alabama twice but see Tennessee and Kentucky only once. Tennessee will get both Alabama and Kentucky twice and one matchup, a home game, against Auburn late in the season. The SEC is a gauntlet, and who gets to play who and where and how often will make things interesting.

Lunardi: I’ll be the contrarian and go with the ACC. I can’t remember the last time so many different teams looked capable of winning. Beyond the obvious choices of Carolina and Duke, we could make a credible case for several others. Wake Forest and NC State are legitimate sleepers at 3-0, Clemson was terrific in nonconference play, and I’m not quite ready to write off Miami. The ACC is in no way the best conference, but it could be the most competitive.


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0:40

Reed Sheppard, Rob Dillingham 3s give Kentucky a 10-point lead

Reed Sheppard and Rob Dillingham knock down 3-pointers on back-to-back possessions to put Kentucky up double digits.

Which team will surprise us all by March?

Medcalf: If we’re looking for Cinderellas, I’d suggest you take a look at Grand Canyon. Last year, the Antelopes lost to Gonzaga in the first round. Bryce Drew’s squad is even better in 2023-24. It has been one of the top offensive rebounding teams in America and owns a win over San Diego State. Grand Canyon will fall off the national radar as we get into WAC play but come March, watch out for Grand Canyon. Again.

Lunardi: Even if it weren’t on its death bed, the Pac-12 has been supplanted as the best of the West — as in the Mountain West, which has collected four NCAA bids in each of the past two seasons and should get at least that many in 2024. What the conference hasn’t done is make a dent in the tournament (outside of San Diego State), but that’s about to change. The league’s top five teams are collectively 67-8, and I would be very surprised if one or more aren’t in the Sweet 16.

Gasaway: If it’s possible for a team to surprise us two years in a row, Princeton is about to do so. The Tigers will greet Selection Sunday with zero Quad 1 wins after having played a schedule that included only one major-conference opponent (Rutgers). No one will be talking about Mitch Henderson’s group except to say that they “haven’t played anybody.” But Xaivian Lee and Caden Pierce can play.

Borzello: I don’t know if it’s going to be much of a surprise by the time the dance rolls around, but I think this is the year John Calipari silences some of his detractors. Kentucky hasn’t advanced out of the first weekend of the NCAA tournament since 2019, but the Wildcats are going to make a Final Four run this season. The Wildcats have few peers in terms of quickness and transition offense, and their freshmen are only going to get better as the season progresses.


Which coach should be getting more buzz?

Lunardi: It’s never a bad idea to pick the coach of the best team. Somehow, even with a dominant national championship contender, Purdue‘s Matt Painter is rarely mentioned. That is almost certain to change between now and April.

Borzello: There are plenty of coaches off to surprising starts — Porter Moser, Lamont Paris, Mark Pope, Chris Beard — but I think Bruce Pearl will be near plenty of Coach of the Year lists later in the season. Auburn has a top-10 unit at both ends of the floor. The Tigers are experienced and deep, they have guards who can create their own shot, and Johni Broome is playing at an All-American level. The Tigers weren’t ranked in the Top 25 in the preseason; they were seven teams deep into the “others receiving votes” category. But they might be legitimate SEC contenders.

Medalf: I think Lamont Paris is leading a real turnaround at South Carolina. While the Gamecocks will have to hold their own in one of the top leagues in America, Paris has already positioned this team to make a case for an at-large berth with a respectable performance in the SEC. They’ve been a good defensive team in the paint, and Meechie Johnson could be an all-SEC first-teamer. Paris has developed South Carolina into a team with real NCAA tournament aspirations after an 11-win season a year ago.

Gasaway: Let’s direct our attention to the guy on a two-game losing streak, just so you know I’m not jumping on any bandwagons. Craig Smith is getting it done at Utah, a school with little in the way of recent success in a league that’s about to vanish. Score one for the Tim Miles coaching tree.


National picks

2024 Final Four teams (* indicates national champion pick)

Borzello: Arizona*, UConn, Kentucky, Purdue
Huge changes from my preseason Final Four. Kansas was my title pick in November, but I think the Jayhawks have dynamism issues on the offensive end. Baylor isn’t good enough defensively and we already discussed Michigan State. Tennessee was my toughest one to leave out. As for the current group, I just love Arizona’s makeup and improved toughness. The Wildcats have guards who can get their own shot, perimeter shooters and defensive versatility. I discussed UConn, Kentucky and Purdue earlier — I have growing confidence in all three.

Gasaway: Kansas*, Purdue, Tennessee, Creighton
These were my preseason picks. I’m good.

Medcalf: *Purdue, Houston, Kansas, Kentucky
I removed Michigan State and added Kentucky. Maybe it’s a big risk. But John Calipari has depth, legit NBA prospects and a bunch of shooters (41% from the 3-point line). That feels like a Final Four formula to me. He’s bringing two projected first-round picks (Reed Sheppard, Rob Dillingham) off the bench. Calipari with real NBA prospects usually ends with a deep run.

Lunardi: Purdue*, Kansas, Tennessee, Arizona
As noted earlier, I’m swapping in Arizona for Duke.

Wooden Award (player of the year)

Borzello: Zach Edey, Purdue
He was the obvious pick to repeat entering the season, and last month, I wrote that the gap between Edey and everyone else is wider than it was last season. Both things remain true. He’s more efficient than last season and better defensively, and he’s getting to the free throw line more than ever.

Gasaway: Zach Edey, Purdue
I picked Edey in the preseason and I’m sticking with the lad. My only question is whether he could have won three Wooden Awards if in 2017 Trevion Williams had signed somewhere other than Purdue.

Medcalf: Zach Edey, Purdue
I thought Kyle Filipowski had a chance to upset him in this race. That was a ridiculous assumption. Edey is even better than he was a year ago. We’re looking at (potentially) just the second player in NCAA history to win back-to-back Wooden Awards.

Lunardi: Zach Edey, Purdue
Edey’s continued improvement puts him ahead of my preseason pick, Hunter Dickinson.

Newcomer of the year

Borzello: Ja’Kobe Walter, Baylor
There hasn’t been a clear-cut top freshman so far this season, with most of them dealing with the typical first-year inconsistencies. An argument could certainly be made for Kentucky‘s guard duo of Rob Dillingham and Reed Sheppard, but for me it came down to Walter or preseason pick Isaiah Collier. The tiebreaker: Walter might be the go-to guy on a top-15 team, while Collier’s USC team is struggling.

Gasaway: Reed Sheppard, Kentucky
I too am withdrawing my preseason support for Collier. If Sheppard were “just” an incredible 50%-plus 3-point shooter, that alone would be seismic. The Wildcats have needed one of those in approximately two out of every three seasons for the past 15 years. But as it happens, the first-year star’s also an excellent all-around player. Collier will be stellar soon enough at the next level, but in 2024, Sheppard is the pick.

Medcalf: Reed Sheppard, Kentucky
He has been a popular prospect since high school because his parents — Jeff Sheppard, Stacey Reed-Sheppard — were both stars at Kentucky. But he has put up numbers that are undeniably brilliant. I’m not sure how many players in college basketball history, regardless of age, have matched this production: 12.6 PPG, 61% inside the arc, 55% from 3, 87% from the free throw line. He’s coming off the bench. And he might be Kentucky’s best player.

Lunardi: Reed Sheppard, Kentucky
I picked the wrong Kentucky freshman in the preseason.

Coach of the year

Borzello: Tommy Lloyd, Arizona
We probably ranked Arizona too low in the preseason, and now the Wildcats look poised to run away with the Pac-12 title with no more than a couple of losses. They looked like the best team in the country for the first month of the season and will likely be a 1-seed and national title contender come Selection Sunday. I had Rick Barnes in the preseason, and I wouldn’t argue with that pick, either.

Gasaway: Greg McDermott, Creighton
Not only am I staying with McDermott, I am more confident than ever. McDermott is plainly following the “Dan Hurley 2023” script, the one in which you drop some games prior to March just so you look even more impressive when your team turns things around. Shrewd move, Coach! I see what you’re doing.

Medcalf: Kelvin Sampson, Houston
Give me Sampson again. Since Nov. 7, 2022, Houston has lost four games. Four. He lost Marcus Sasser and Jarace Walker to the NBA and Tramon Mark to the transfer portal, yet his team is ranked first in adjusted defensive efficiency and 10th in adjusted offensive efficiency. This is his award.

Lunardi: Kelvin Sampson, Houston
Put me down for a second Kelvin Sampson vote.

All-America Team

Borzello:
RJ Davis, North Carolina
Kevin McCullar Jr., Kansas
Kyle Filipowski, Duke
PJ Hall, Clemson
Zach Edey, Purdue
Edey and Filipowski are holdovers from the preseason. I gave McCullar the edge over teammate Hunter Dickinson, while Davis has been the best guard in the country so far this season. The fifth spot was up for debate, but I went with Hall due to his ability at both ends of the floor.

Gasaway:
Jamal Shead, Houston
Boogie Ellis, USC
Kevin McCullar Jr., Kansas
Kyle Filipowski, Duke
Zach Edey, Purdue
Massive changes since the preseason, as it should be. We’ve seen some basketball.

Medcalf:
RJ Davis, North Carolina
Kevin McCullar Jr., Kansas
Zach Edey, Purdue
Kyle Filipowski, Duke
DaRon Holmes II, Dayton
Yeah, let’s just start over with my list. I think there are three guaranteed All-Americans right now with Edey, McCullar and Filipowski. From there, it’s about preference.

Lunardi:
Zach Edey, Purdue
Kyle Filipowski, Duke
Hunter Dickinson, Kansas
DaRon Holmes II, Dayton
Tristen Newton, UConn
My fifth spot came down to McCullar and Newtown, but this team really needs a guard.



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