Listen, we’ve put this off long enough. It’s time to dive headlong into the Bucket List — a weekly assortment of 10 observations on the college basketball season.
1. More big games are ahead of us than behind us, but we’re just about at the halfway point on the regular-season calendar. If I were picking an All-America team today, there’d be four guards on it: in alphabetical order, Kris Dunn of Providence, Kay Felder of Oakland, Buddy Hield of Oklahoma and Denzel Valentine of Michigan State. The only big guy is a no-brainer, LSU’s 6-10 freshman Ben Simmons.
2. Put me on the spot for a midseason player of the year, and I’ll go with Hield. Ask me who’s the most talented guy, and I’ll join the chorus in saying it’s Simmons. But my favorite player to watch is Dunn.
Think former Notre Dame star Jerian Grant, only better — at everything. Dunn, a spectacular talent and a pleasant rarity in that he’s a senior, will keep Providence hanging around the top 25 all season.
3. This really is the year of the senior — Dunn, Hield, Valentine — in college basketball. Another one who has done nothing but improve over the course of his career is North Carolina forward Brice Johnson.
On Monday — the same night as Hield’s epic 46-point performance in a triple-overtime loss at Kansas — Johnson was even better, if overshadowed by the goings-on between the No. 1 Jayhawks and the No. 2 Sooners. The 6-9 Johnson put up 39 points and 23 rebounds in a victory at Florida State.
4. A Big Ten writer friend asked on Thursday which conference team had impressed me most thus far. I gave him a three-part answer: Michigan State for its trio of high-quality early victories over Kansas, Providence and Louisville; Iowa for its rugged 3-0 start in league play; and Maryland for looking every bit like the squad with the highest ceiling.
5. Also 3-0 in the Big Ten is Indiana, but I don’t think the Hoosiers can contend without sophomore guard James Blackmon Jr., who earlier this week was ruled out for the season with a knee injury. It’s just a crushing blow. Blackmon is that good.
6. Wisconsin is 9-7 and, what, NIT-bound? That’s probably the best-case-scenario for the defending Big Ten champs. The worst flaw I see in these Badgers isn’t the absence of Bo Ryan or Frank Kaminsky. It’s the emotionless manner in which the team’s best players, Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig, are carrying themselves on the court. Wake up, dudes.
7. I give 13-3 Northwestern no grief at all for losing at home to Maryland over the weekend, but the home loss to Ohio State that followed on Wednesday? Just. Not. Good. Even without Alex Olah, the Wildcats could’ve won the game — and it would’ve been huge to get off to a 2-1 Big Ten start.
This is all about finally making the NCAA tourney, of course. It’s not looking great at the moment.
8. As for Illinois … let’s not even get into it yet. Other than to say: I really do think the whole perception of coach John Groce could change if next season’s Illini enjoy better health. That 2016-17 roster will sneak up on a lot of people.
9. Meantime, it sure was surreal — and painful, for some — to watch the early game of the year in college hoops, the aforementioned Kansas-Oklahoma contest, and see Bill Self in front of one bench and Lon Kruger in front of the other. Salt in those Illini wounds.
10. Can we go back to Simmons? Let’s. The beauty of LSU’s 18-point victory over Kentucky on Tuesday was that everyone’s expected No. 1 NBA draft pick in June wasn’t at all a one-man gang. He was one of three Tigers who posted double-doubles. This team will challenge Kentucky for the SEC title and could have a March to remember.
Follow me on Twitter @slgreenberg.