NCAA Basketball: Xavier at Connecticut

The Super Bowl has come and gone, and to many sports fans, that leaves an understandable hole in their hearts (and their sports-watching schedules).

College basketball is here to fill that void. It's been a wild season with upsets at a historic rate, surprising teams both good and bad and all of the general craziness that comes with any college basketball season: players flashing middle fingers and Horns Down, an alleged spying scandal, epic ejections, players being ruled school employees, a shoe blocking a shot and ... Morgan Freeman?

Basically, you never know what you'll get on any given night, which makes the sport wonderful and makes trying to fill out a bracket agonizing.

We'll forgive you if NFL/Chiefs/Taylor Swift mania means you haven't been locked in on college hoops, but with the first games of the NCAA Tournament exactly five weeks away,  now is the best time to start paying attention, especially for your bracket's sake.

Things will certainly change between now and Selection Sunday, but we're here to help you get your footing, answering 20 questions as we hit the stretch run.

Who's the best team?

UConn is the nation's No. 1 team and looking to do what the Chiefs just did: repeat as champions. The Huskies are 22-2, have won 12 straight and have been atop the AP Top 25 for five consecutive weeks, the longest streak for any team this season. After losing three players to the NBA last offseason, UConn has reloaded with returnees (do-it-all Tristen Newton, inside force Donovan Clingan, sharpshooter Alex Karaban), transfers (leading scorer Cam Spencer) and freshmen (electric Stephon Castle) alike.

And No. 2?

That would be Purdue, which is ranked No. 2 in the AP Top 25. Zach Edey is putting together another player-of-the-year season (23.3 ppg, 11.7 rpg, 2.3 bpg). He's a near lock to be the first repeat Naismith Player of the Year winner since Virginia's Ralph Sampson won three straight from 1981-83. Like Virginia, Purdue is looking to go from losing to a No. 16 seed to winning a title. The biggest difference this year, though, is much-improved point guard Braden Smith (12.7 ppg, 7.1 apg).

Wasn't Kansas expected to be good?

Yes, and the Jayhawks are good, but not exactly "preseason No. 1 good." Bill Self's team has been outstanding at home: 13-0 with wins over UConn, Houston, Oklahoma and Baylor. On the road is a different story: 2-5 including losses to UCF, Kansas State and West Virginia. The No. 6 Jayhawks lost by 29 at Texas Tech on Monday, with Self getting ejected for the first time as Kansas coach. Prized transfer Hunter Dickinson has been as advertised (18.2 ppg, 10.8 rpg), but the offense as a whole is hit-or-miss ... and downright bad without Kevin McCullar.

What's up with all these upsets? 

Kansas is far from alone in its road struggles. Overall, top-10 teams are just 37-42 on the road this season.

Isn't LeBron James' son playing?

Yes. After suffering cardiac arrest at a summer practice, Bronny James made his USC debut Dec. 10, 2023. James is averaging 5.8 points, 3.0 rebounds and 2.6 assists in about 21 minutes. USC, which also features potential 2024 No. 1 pick Isaiah Collier, has been among the nation's most disappointing teams this season at 9-15 overall and 3-10 in the Pac-12.

How about Duke and North Carolina

Ah yes, Tobacco Road. The No. 9 Blue Devils and No. 7 Tar Heels aren't in that top tier of NCAA title contenders, but they're both probably just one tier down. North Carolina leads the ACC but recently sandwiched a win over Duke in between losses to Georgia Tech and Clemson. Duke is third in the conference, with losses to North Carolina, Georgia Tech and Pittsburgh. Both have extremely good veteran guards (UNC's RJ Davis and Duke's Jeremy Roach) and stud bigs (Armando Bacot and Kyle Filipowski).

And what's going on at Kentucky

We complete our tour of East Coast blue bloods in Kentucky, where the No. 22 Wildcats have lost three straight home games for the first time since 1966. John Calipari's bunch has an enthralling offense with Antonio Reeves, Rob Dillingham and Reed Sheppard, but defense is a major concern. Only DePaul allows more points per game among major-conference teams. Kentucky has dealt with several injuries, so Calipari must figure out his rotations and his defense over the next month-plus.

Is anyone challenging Edey for player of the year?

Probably not, but head one state south after our visit to Kentucky and you'll meet Tennessee's Dalton Knecht, who might be the next-best player in the sport. The Northern Colorado transfer is averaging 20.3 points while shooting 40.5% on 3-pointers for the No. 8 Volunteers. The last SEC player to average 20+ on 40% 3-point shooting for a whole season (min. 20 games) was Jamal Murray in 2015-16. That's solid company.

I remember Alabama being good last season, but what about now? 

The Crimson Tide were the No. 1 overall seed entering last year's NCAA Tournament before flaming out in the Sweet Sixteen. Nate Oats' team has a new cast of characters this season, but still has the Nate Oats identity: shoot a ton from 3-point range and by the rim and protect those areas defensively. No. 15 Alabama has the nation's most efficient offense, but the defense has taken a steep fall. Remember that 20 ppg on 40% 3-point shooting stat I used with Knecht? Alabama's Mark Sears also falls into that category. Don't sleep on the Tide, even if they're not as highly regarded as last season.

How are San Diego State and FAU after destroying my bracket last year?

Still good! San Diego State -- last year's NCAA Tournament runner-up -- is in a four-way tie for second in the Mountain West and owns impressive nonconference wins over No. 18 Saint Mary's and Gonzaga. Jaedon LeDee has taken a huge step forward for Brian Dutcher's squad, averaging 20 points after 7.9 last year. FAU returned basically everyone from last year's Final Four run but hasn't been quite as good, especially defensively. Johnell Davis still heads an elite offense for the No. 24 Owls.

Why are there so many Big 12 teams with high seeds in Bracketology?

Expansion made the country's best conference even better: No. 3 Houston is at the top of the NET rankings, and No. 19 BYU has been a nice surprise. The Cougars shoot it well (12th in effective field goal percentage) and have a ton of depth (11th in bench ppg) and size (17th in's average height rankings). Cincinnati has also been strong in its league debut. As for holdover programs, Grant McCasland has worked a near-miraculous turnaround in his first year at Texas Tech, and No. 25 Oklahoma has been a nice surprise thanks to some strong transfer portal work. Texas is finally rounding into shape, too.

How is the SEC this season?

The SEC won't expand until next season, but there are plenty of surprises, and No. 11 South Carolina has been the biggest. The Gamecocks are one of the nation's most experienced teams, led by fifth-year center BJ Mack, fifth-year point guard Ta'Lon Cooper and fourth-year guard Meechie Johnson. Texas A&M and Florida are surging, too: Both have won five of their last six. No. 13 Auburn is deep and impossible to beat at home. Chris Beard (Ole Miss) and Chris Jans (Mississippi State) could get the Magnolia State's SEC teams to the NCAA Tournament.

When did the Mountain West get so good?

Last year, when four teams made the NCAA Tournament. This year could see a conference record-tying five teams in the Big Dance: San Diego State, Utah State, Colorado State, Boise State and Nevada are all in the latest projected field, and New Mexico is in the NET top 25.

Where is Gonzaga?

Right on the bubble. The Zags got a massive win at Kentucky on Saturday, but are just 1-5 in Quad 1 games and are one of the "First 4 Out" according to Palm. The computers (24th in NET, 19th in KenPom) like them much more than the bracketologists do. Mark Few has never missed an NCAA Tournament in 25 years at Gonzaga; Quad 1 games at San Francisco (Feb. 29) and Saint Mary's (March 2) loom large.

Who else is heading in the right direction?

Saint Mary's has won 12 straight games and is tied with UConn for longest active winning streak in Division I. No. 23 Indiana State has won nine straight and is in the AP Top 25 for the first time since Larry Bird was a Sycamore. Matt Norlander has more on them in this week's Court Report. South Florida has also won nine straight (and 15 of its last 16) to emerge as the surprise leader in the AAC. After a slow start, Virginia has won eight straight games.

Who's heading in the wrong direction? 

Avert your eyes, Wisconsin fans. The No. 20 Badgers reached No. 6 in the AP Top 25 two weeks and have lost four straight since. The latest defeat, by 22 at RutgersUtah, loser of four of last five, has also gone backwards, with a triple-overtime loss to Arizona especially painful.

It's been a frustrating season for Michigan coach Juwan Howard. USATSI

Who's uncharacteristically bad this year?

At 8-16 and in last place in the Big Ten, Michigan seems due for big changes this offseason. Villanova was expected to be much better in Year 2 under Kyle Neptune but is just 13-11 and has lost six of last eight. The Muss Bus has hit a bumpy road at 12-11 Arkansas, but it's even worse at Missouri (8-16, 0-11 SEC). I mentioned USC already, but fellow soon-to-be-Big-Ten program UCLA (13-11) isn't thriving, either.

Who are the Cinderella candidates? 

After producing a Sweet 16 team last year (Princeton), the Ivy League has three potential Cinderellas in Princeton, Cornell and Yale. Princeton's Xaivian Lee and Yale's Danny Wolf stand out as guys who could send your bracket to the shredder. I wrote about James Madison as a potential Cinderella last month. Finally, Indiana State ranks second in 2-point percentage, ninth in 3-point percentage and 18th in free-throw percentage nationally. Five players average double-digit points. The Sycamores are a good story ... but also so much more.

Is there anyone else you want us to know about?

There are three teams with a top-15 KenPom offensive and defensive rating. I've talked about Purdue and Tennessee. No. 5 Arizona is the other. The Wildcats shoot very well and rebound even better. After a circuitous offseason, Caleb Love has posted a career-high shooting percentage and a career-low turnover rate. Add in a career year for Pelle Larsson, the steady Kylan Boswell and impact transfers Keshad Johnson and Jaden Bradley, and Tommy Lloyd is cooking with gas.

What are some games I should circle on my calendar?

Now that you are caught up, here's what games to watch the rest of the season. UConn hosts No. 4 Marquette on Saturday, visits No. 17 Creighton next Tuesday and returns the trip to Marquette on March 6. Tennessee at Alabama on March 2 could go a long way in the SEC race. Duke hosts North Carolina on March 9, the same day Kansas at Houston could determine the Big 12 regular-season title.