For those just tuning in now that college football is over, here’s Boardroom’s crash course in the 2021-22 NCAA men’s and women’s basketball seasons.
Just before midnight on Monday night, Georgia’s Nolan Smith sacked Alabama quarterback Bryce Young, sealing the Bulldogs’ first national championship since 1980. It marked the end of a wild season on the NCAA gridiron, and with it, football fans everywhere wonder what’s next (aside from the NFL Playoffs, whose beginning this weekend is not a coincidence).
The correct answer, of course, is college basketball.
The college roundball season is about two months old, but if you’re just tuning in, you’ve missed a lot. But that’s okay — we’re here to help. With Selection Sunday still about nine weeks away, there’s plenty of time to catch up on both the men’s and women’s games.
And Boardroom is here to help.
The Defending Champs are Strong Again
No women’s college basketball team has repeated as national champion since UConn’s run of four in a row ended in 2016. On the men’s side, it hasn’t happened since Florida in 2006 and ’07.
That could change on either side — or both — this year.
For the men, Baylor has somehow retooled its roster to climb to the top of the AP Poll as one of two remaining undefeated teams. Scott Drew’s Bears lost four starters from last year’s championship squad, including Final Four MOP Jared Butler and NBA lottery pick Davion Mitchell, but transfer James Akinjo and freshman Kendall Brown have helped fill the gaps, while Adam Flagler and LJ Cryer have taken on increased roles.
Cryer suddenly becoming a knockdown three-point shooter hasn’t hurt, either.
On the women’s side, Stanford isn’t the favorite to win it all this year — that honor belongs to South Carolina — and it took the Cardinal a little while to hit their stride, but they sit at No. 2 in the country right now for a reason. Stanford has four wins over teams that were either ranked in the top 5 at the time, or are in the top 5 now. That includes an 18-point blowout over then-No. 2 Maryland and a double-digit win at Tennessee before Christmas. Stanford boasts four double-digit scorers, including do-it-all guard Haley Jones, who is averaging 12.5 points, 8.1 rebounds, and 3.6 assists per game.
Power in the SEC
It bears repeating: Dawn Staley’s South Carolina team is an easy favorite on the women’s side.
The Gamecocks have lost just once — a shocking upset at Missouri — and own wins over NC State, UConn, Maryland, and Stanford. They also have the most dominant player in the game this season in Aliyah Boston. Her 17-and-11 average is bolstered by a 58% field goal percentage, which increases to 61% inside the arc.
South Carolina is more than just a one-woman show, however. The Gamecocks are one of the deepest teams in college basketball, and on a given night, Boston, Zia Cooke, and Destanni Henderson can all put up 20 points.
Meanwhile, as Baylor has been the best men’s team, Auburn might be the most surprising in the top five… and the Tigers could be the second-best team in the country right now. They haven’t lost since before Thanksgiving, are undefeated in regulation, and have an offense and defense that both rank in the top 20 nationally. Jabari Smith might end up being the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft, and at 6-foot-10, he’s making 73% of his shots at the rim
But like the South Carolina women, this Auburn team has plenty of weapons.
It’s hard to ignore 7-foot-1 Walker Kessler, who should also go in the first round. In addition to being a constant double-double threat, he’s the best rim protector in college basketball and, according to USA Today, is having the best shot-blocking season on record. And that’s not to mention the guard duo of K.D. Johnson (12.8 PPG) and Wendell Green (12.7 PPG).
Yeah, they’re loaded.
The Best Women’s Player Hasn’t Played in a Month
Reigning National Player of the Year Paige Bueckers has made plenty of noise off the court, scoring a landmark NIL deal with Gatorade, following up with a StockX partnership, and trademarking her nickname “Paige Buckets.” But unfortunately for her and the Lady Huskies, Bueckers suffered a knee injury late in their Dec. 5 win over Notre Dame, sidelining her for at least two months.
Before her injury, Bueckers was (predictably) phenomenal, scoring 21.2 points per game to go with 6.2 assists. Since then, however, UConn has struggled, with several other players missing extended time with injury. The short-handed Huskies have since lost games at a better-than-expected Georgia Tech team and to No. 3 Louisville. Still, if Bueckers returns as expected — and her best friend Azzi Fudd is re-added to the fold soon — expect UConn to be favored to reach their 14th straight Final Four.
Have You Heard of the Best Men’s Player?
Johnny Davis came off the bench for a mediocre Wisconsin team last year to average 7.0 points and 4.1 rebounds per game. You’d be forgiven for not knowing who he is.
It’s what makes his 2021-22 season so astounding.
Out of nowhere, Davis is now ranked fifth in the nation in scoring average (22.3 PPG), and leads the Badgers in rebounds, assists, and steals per game. Wisconsin has lost just once in games he has played, and has defeated Final Four contenders Houston and Purdue in the process.
His finest performance came in that road win over the Boilermakers, where he went off for 37 points and 13 rebounds on 13-24 shooting.
Davis’s breakout year has pushed him from an NBA afterthought to a projected top-five pick. It doesn’t look like he’s capitalized much on the NIL side of things, but that’s not a surprise considering his meteoric rise is so recent.
Omicron Has Wreaked Havoc on the Schedule
Last year, conferences put their schedules together keeping in mind that COVID-19 would cause stops and starts. Conferences gave teams extended breaks in January and February, knowing that they would eventually need to be filled with rescheduled games. That didn’t happen this year, with conferences banking on high vaccination rates being enough to prevent schedule changes.
Then, the Omicron variant came through, turning college basketball upside down in December and early January. Every major conference had to adjust their forfeit policies on-the-fly to account for this, realizing it was unfair to punish fully vaccinated teams for having to cancel games.
Omicron has already caused us to miss marquee games like Michigan vs. Michigan State and Tennessee vs. Memphis for the men, and NC State vs. Notre Dame for the women. Fortunately, it does seem like Omicron’s impact on sports is slowing down and, if trends hold up, we should be facing a fairly normal February and March. Don’t worry — as of now, the tournament is in no danger whatsoever.
Gonzaga is still the favorite to win the men’s basketball championship despite a couple of losses (albeit excusable ones to Duke and Alabama). FanDuel Sportsbook has the Zags at +700 to win the whole thing, and considering they should coast to a No. 1 seed, there’s a good chance Mark Few’s group reaches their third Final Four in the last five tournaments.
Baylor, Purdue, and Duke are all +1000 and are all strong bets to be factors at the end. If you’re looking for value, try LSU (+5000), which is 14-1 and coming off back-to-back wins over Kentucky and Tennessee. The Tigers are the best defensive team in the country and, according to KenPom, it’s not particularly close.
Women’s championship odds are a little tougher to find, but they look about how you would expect. In mid-December, shortly after Bueckers’ injury, BetOnline Sportsbook placed South Carolina as the favorite (+180), followed by UConn (+215) and Stanford (+550).
Louisville at +3300 appears to be a little undervalued, so the Cardinals might be the most intriguing bet.