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Ben Billman’s NCAA Basketball Mailbag No. 2

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Villanova's Josh Hart. Photo: Sports Illustrated

We are one week closer to March Madness. I have fielded some more questions about the current basketball season. If you have any questions for next week’s mailbag, contact me. I will answer as many as I can.

Q: Who leads the race for player of the year?

A: There are three players who have separated themselves from the pack. These players are Josh Hart, Frank Mason, and Caleb Swanigan. Josh Hart of Villanova has led the defending champions to a 21-2 start. He is averaging 19 points per game, six rebounds per game, and three assists per game. His senior leadership has put the Wildcats in position to become the first team to repeat at national champions since the Florida Gators in 2007.  Frank Mason has the Kansas Jayhawks at the top of the Big 12 Conference once again. Mason has come a long way since exiting high school as a 3-star recruit. He has turned into one of the best point guards in the country. He is averaging 20 points per game, four rebounds per game, and five assists per game. Caleb Swanigan is a rising sophomore for the Purdue Boilermakers. He is averaging a double-double with 19 points per game and close to 13 rebounds per game. He has Purdue in the top tier in the Big Ten.

My choice right now is Josh Hart. He is the heart and soul of Villanova.

Q: Who leads the race for coach of the year?

A: At this point in the season, there is only one name on this list for me. Scott Drew of Baylor has done a phenomenal job in Waco, Texas. Baylor was a #5 seed in the NCAA tournament last season, but they lost in the first round to #12 Yale. Expectations were low heading into this season. They lost leading scorer Taurean Prince, leading rebounder Rico Gathers, and their leader in assists, Lester Medford. Johnathan Motley has stepped up to take a leadership role. He leads the team with 16 points per game and close to 10 rebounds per game. Baylor already has wins over Oregon, Michigan State, Louisville, and Xavier. If anyone is going to break Kansas’ streak of Big 12 titles, it is Baylor. Scott Drew leads the pack for coach of the year by a wide margin.

Baylor head coach Scott Drew. Photo: AP/ Jae C. Hong

Q: The NCAA tournament selection committee will release the current top 16 teams on February 11. Any thoughts?

A: I love the idea. It will bring some transparency to a system that always seems to throw some surprises our way on selection Sunday. It will show the teams, whether they are in the top 16 or out of the top 16, what factors are being considered more than others. Every year it seems like different factors play different roles. Teams such as Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s, who have not played hard schedules but have great overall records, will find out how much the committee favors great success in a mid-major conference. Teams such as Duke and UCLA, who have played tough schedules but have struggled in recent games, will find out how much the committee views playing a tough schedule even with their recent slides. It will be important though that whatever is favored in this early release does not change when the real bracket comes out in March. I know I will be tuning in on February 11.

Q: If the tournament started today, would Gonzaga receive a #1 seed?

A: Gonzaga is currently the #1 team in both the AP and USA Today polls. They deserve this honor as the lone undefeated team remaining. They have quality non-conference wins over Florida, Arizona, Tennessee, and Iowa State. There is a good chance that they enter the NCAA tournament without a loss. I would put them as a #1 seed as of today, but not the overall #1 seed. Villanova is in that position right now. I also have Kansas above Gonzaga in the second slot. Gonzaga would be my third overall team. Baylor would round out the #1 seeds for me right now.

Q: Are there any teams that no one is talking about right now that should be in the headlines?

A: The one team that comes to mind is Cincinnati. The Bearcats are 20-2 overall with a 9-0 record in the American Athletic Conference. Their lone loss in the past two months came at Butler in a close game. They have nice wins over Iowa State and Xavier. Cincinnati could easily be included in the top 16 on February 11.  They will be a tough out in March. There are no dominant teams this season, so I am sure there will be a lot of surprises in the next two months. Keep an eye on Butler, Florida, and Maryland.  These are well-coached teams that all fall in the top tier of their respective conferences. Along with Cincinnati, they are teams that will be tough matchups in the NCAA tournament.

By Ben Billman

Ben Billman is currently a doctoral teaching assistant at the United States Sports Academy. He lives in Mobile, Ala. with his wife Jennifer and son Derrick. He is originally from Indiana, and therefore has a deep love for the game of basketball. Reach him at bbillman@ussa.edu

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