By Riley Saxon
Breaking Down the Championship Contenders
Tier 1 – Title Tier
Gonzaga, Baylor, Auburn, Kentucky
Outlook: If these four teams are in separate regions, this would be our Final 4. Gonzaga is Gonzaga, Baylor will be fine, and Auburn is the seemingly consensus number 1 team in the nation. Kentucky jumps up a tier or two after their display in Lawrence on Saturday and the fact that they hung with Auburn until besieged by injuries. The Wildcats have all the ingredients of a title team.
Tier 2 – Final Four Favorites
Arizona, Purdue, UCLA, Kansas, Duke, Michigan State, Villanova, Providence
Outlook: With the exception of Providence and Michigan State, all of these teams have spent time in Tier 1. If any of these teams made a championship appearance, and even won the whole thing, it would not be that surprising. UCLA is trending up (see The Bruin Bias, below), but we’ll know more about U of A and UCLA by this time next week: UCLA is at Arizona on Thursday, and then ASU on Saturday, and U of A takes on UCLA and USC this week. Purdue, Duke, and Villanova have teetered between unstoppable and extremely flawed, as has Kansas. Kansas’ problems look to be deeper and more concerning than the other three, however. Every team in this tier has a well-trusted coach, however, with the only possible exception being Tommy Lloyd at Arizona (and only because it is his first year).
Tier 3 – Elite Eight Extras
Illinois, Texas Tech, Houston, USC, Wisconsin, Ohio State, Marquette
Outlook: These teams can still make a push into the Final 4, but they’ll need to be playing their best basketball in the tournament. Houston might be the most impressive team of the tier, as they lost multiple starters from last year and suffered two season-ending injuries to two of their best players. Yet, they’ve marched on, partially thanks to a weak American Conference. On the other end of that scope, the gauntlet of the Big 10 has kept Illinois, Wisconsin and Ohio State humble, but that should theoretically help the teams in March (although we do say that every year). Texas Tech and Marquette have been the biggest surprises of late, and with each win their push seems more and more viable. USC can put itself right back into Tier 2 with strong performances the next two weeks: they start their slate at Arizona State, then head to U of A before taking on UCLA at home.
The Bruin Bias
The Bruins are halfway through the toughest stretch on their schedule: A road trip to the Mountain Schools, three games in 5 days, and then 4 road games, including at Arizona and at USC. And that’s not even mentioning the loss of Johnny Juzang (COVID Protocols) or Jaylen Clark (Concussion protocols) for a time.
So far so good. With 5 games in 10 games, the first half of the schedule was going to be a true test of the Bruins’ will. UCLA responded slowly, struggling with Utah and allowing Colorado to hang around and keep it close, but some home-cooking quickly changed all that. A beadown of Arizona, with fans back in the building, was followed by a dominant performance over Cal. Stanford, coming off an upset victory over USC, looked to have the ingredients of an upset: Juzang and Clark were still in their protocols, and Jaime Jaquez injured his ankle in the first half. Behind Jake Kyman and Jules Bernard, however, the Bruins kept Stanford at bay, holding them to under 45 points and forcing more turnovers than made shots allowed. It marked the third straight game UCLA held an opponent to under 60 points, and fourth in five games.
Of course, the season is far from over. The Bruins take their act on the road for 3 games in 6 days: Thursday its revenge-minded Arizona, Arizona State is Saturday, then they head to Stanford next Tuesday. They end the stretch with a road game at USC, who will be looking to put themselves back in the conversation of the nation’s elite. It’s a tough stretch, made tougher by the shaky outlooks of Juzang, Clark and Jaquez, three of the most important cogs in the Bruin machine.
Still, the story has to be the effort put forth by the Bruins, regardless of who was on the floor. Playing five games in ten days is no joke, especially down key rotation players, and we likely saw the effects of that on the offensive side, as the Bruins did not shoot well against Cal or Stanford. The defense didn’t slump though, an encouraging sign moving forward.
If the Bruins can consistently play high-effort D and make shots at even below their best, they’re going to be tough to beat no matter who, or where, they play.
College Hoops Breakdown appears twice a month at JoeTorosian.com
Riley Saxon can be reached at: