With the college football season officially over, all eyes are on college hoops! With conference play in full swing, teams are beginning to find their stride and jockey for position throughout the men’s college basketball landscape. This week featured big upsets, standout performances and much more.
After an early-season loss to San Francisco and a close call at home against Kent State, Virginia appears to finally be hitting its stride. The Cavs are now alone atop the ACC at 5–0 after a pair of victories, including a dominant 85–50 win Saturday against No. 12 Clemson. UVA blitzed the Tigers with an early 26–3 run to take a 29–5 lead and never looked back, cruising past the highest-ranked ACC team in the polls and earning a résumé-building win in the process.
Perhaps most encouraging for the Cavs is that their offense continues to improve. Virginia has now scored 80 or more points in back-to-back games for the first time since November 2015. UVA now owns the 11th-best offense in the country per KenPom, a massive improvement from last season’s putrid 234th-ranked unit. A big reason for that improvement has been three-point shooting: Transfers Sam Hauser (Marquette) and Trey Murphy (Rice) have combined to shoot over 44% from deep, providing a huge lift for a team that last season shot just 30.3% from beyond the arc. Having two elite floor-spacers like Hauser and Murphy has also opened things up significantly for the likes of point guard Kihei Clark and center Jay Huff around the basket.
Minnesota… at Home
The Golden Gophers continue to look like world-beaters inside the friendly confines of Williams Arena. Just 10 days after trailing by as many as 37 at Michigan late in the second half, Minnesota dominated the very same Wolverines in Minneapolis en route to a 75–57 upset victory. It’s the second win over a top-five team for Minnesota this season after a Christmas night overtime victory over Iowa. Drake transfer Liam Robbins dominated the paint, posting 22 points and eight rebounds while clearly outplaying Michigan star freshman big Hunter Dickinson. The Gophers were also disruptive on the defensive end, forcing 20 turnovers and holding a Michigan team that had scored 75+ points in all but one game this season to just 57 points.
Now, can Minnesota replicate its dominant home play when it hits the road? The Gophers are 11–0 at home and have won three of its four Big Ten home games by 15 or more points. On the road, Minnesota is 0–4, has lost every game by double figures, and has an average margin of defeat in those games of 19.8 points. With two of its next three coming up away from Williams Arena, we’ll see if Richard Pitino’s team can solve its road woes.
Justin Champagnie, Pittsburgh
Originally expected to be out six-to-eight weeks with a knee injury, Champagnie returned after a month-long absence and dominated in a 96–76 victory over Syracuse on Saturday. Champagnie pounded the Syracuse front line with 24 points and 16 rebounds, his third game this season with at least 20 points and 15 rebounds in just seven games played. Despite standing just 6’ 6”, 200 pounds, the sophomore leads the ACC and ranks second nationally in rebounds at 12.9 boards per contest.
Champagnie’s return is a boon for Jeff Capel’s team as it looks to fight its way into NCAA tournament contention. After a disappointing season-opening loss against St. Francis PA, the Panthers have bounced back in a major way and are off to their best start in ACC play (3–1) since the 2015–16 season. Champagnie’s dominance on the glass has helped make Pitt the ACC’s second-best rebounding team, with a margin of over eight boards per game over their opponents. And while Pitt hasn’t had the most dynamic offense so far this season, it torched the nets for 96 points vs. the Orange behind a combined 43 points from starting guards Xavier Johnson and Ithiel Horton. Tuesday’s showdown with Duke looms large.
After losing three of four to open the season, Utah State has been as good as any mid-major in the country. The Aggies haven’t lost since Dec. 5 against BYU and looked like a clear-cut NCAA tournament team this week against San Diego State. Craig Smith’s club swept an SDSU team that has been ranked as high as 18th nationally in the AP poll this season thanks to a pair of elite defensive performances. Star seven-footer Neemias Queta had double doubles in both wins and blocked five shots in Saturday’s victory. Meanwhile, freshman sharpshooter Steven Ashworth had the finest game of his young career with 17 points and made key free throws late.
The calling card for the Aggies is without a doubt their defense: USU ranks sixth nationally in defensive efficiency per KenPom, the best in the nation among mid-majors. It has held its opponent under 60 points in seven consecutive games and under one point per possession in 12 straight contests. Two important contests against an excellent Colorado State team loom, but sweeping those games would keep USU in the driver’s seat for a Mountain West crown.
Evan Mobley, USC
The Trojans are winners of six straight and are quietly 11–2, and the highly-regarded freshman Mobley has been a huge reason why. An athletic 7-footer who moves incredibly fluidly for his size, Mobley has been one of the best freshmen in college basketball thanks to his versatile offensive game and ability to protect the rim on defense. Mobley scored 16 or more points in all three games this week for USC, and he also blocked two or more shots every game of that stretch. That included a 20-point, 11-rebound, six-block outburst in an overtime win over UC Riverside Tuesday.
A knock on Mobley entering college was that he had a tendency to drift on the perimeter and avoid contact. That hasn’t been an issue since arriving on campus—Mobley currently leads the Pac-12 in free throw rate and he has shown a willingness to get physical in the post against older bigs around the Pac-12. Combine that with his shot-blocking ability that has led the Trojans into the top five nationally in two-point defense, and he has established himself as a star in what will likely be his only season in college hoops. There’s a reason SI’s Jeremy Woo ranked Mobley his No. 2 NBA draft prospect for 2021 on his most recent Big Board.