In the final weeks of the 2010-11 regular season, Connecticut lost seven of its final 11 games. Then Kemba Walker happened. The shifty guard led the Huskies to the national championship with an uncanny performance that created a perennial question: Who is the next Kemba Walker?
On Feb. 4 of this season, six top-10 squads lost on the same day for just the fifth time in the history of the Associated Press poll. Three of those teams lost to unranked opponents on their home floors. On Saturday, the NCAA's selection committee unveiled its current list of top-four seeds. And the gap between the top seeds and the 4-seeds seemed slim in a season without a juggernaut.
It's the perfect setting for another Kemba Walker-like performance in the NCAA tournament.
If so, who are the top candidates?
Lonzo Ball, UCLA Bruins
Steve Alford's squad possesses the most impressive, frustrating, exciting, worrisome blend of gifts in college basketball. The Bruins sent their fans on another roller coaster when they overcame Oregon's 19-point lead and beat the Ducks in a must-win Pac-12 game last week. In that matchup, Ball finished with 15 points and 11 rebounds, a performance stamped by a 30-foot 3-pointer he nailed to stretch his squad's late lead. He's a special talent.
But the Bruins don't defend like national champs. Only one champion (since 2001-02) has finished outside the top 20 in KenPom.com's adjusted defensive efficiency rankings -- North Carolina was 21st in 2008-09. The Bruins are ranked 126th. They do fly behind the game's most exciting player, though. And he's clutch. Ball led UCLA to that win over Oregon with Magic Johnson sitting in the front row. He. Does. Not. Feel. Pressure. Could UCLA lose its first game of the NCAA tournament? Sure. Could Ball carry the Bruins to a national title? Definitely.
Grayson Allen, Duke Blue Devils
For weeks, he seemed burdened by the backlash. Allen, whom Duke suspended for one game after he'd tripped his third opponent in less than two seasons, seemed rattled. But his 25-point performance in last week's win over rival North Carolina highlighted the Duke star's new tone: He has accepted his reality. He will never change the thoughts of those who dislike him. Every questionable act for the remainder of his career will incite his critics. He earned that reaction with his inexcusable antics. But now, it seems, he doesn't care, and he's playing his best basketball of the season.
Any pro wrestling fan will tell you that you can't play the role of a half-villain. It doesn't work. Allen knows, in the eyes of many, he's the heel in college basketball's battle royale. But he also has made 38 percent of his 3-pointers, and he gets to the free throw line often and makes 81 percent of his attempts. Yes, he's a member of a Duke team most picked to win the national title before its turbulent season began. Yes, he's on a squad with multiple projected pros, much like Kemba Walker, who played with three future first-round picks on his 2010-11 national championship team at UConn.
Duke is a perennial powerhouse, but every preseason expectation disappeared when the Blue Devils lost four of their first seven ACC games. So a run in March would still surprise many. If Allen's final chapter of his collegiate career includes another heroic stretch in the NCAA tournament -- similar to his efforts in the 2014-15 national title game against Wisconsin -- his legacy would remain stained. But he'd also aggravate his haters, who'd be forced to accept his wacky, uncertain, damaging, impressive season.
Semi Ojeleye, SMU Mustangs
One of the nation's unsung stars, Ojeleye scored 18 points in SMU's win over Cincinnati on Sunday, a game that snapped a 17-game winning streak for the Bearcats. He's averaging 18.2 PPG and connecting on 42.3 percent of his 3-point attempts. His SMU squad has lost just one game since Nov. 30. The Mustangs also boast the American's most efficient offense and one of its most imposing defenses. If the Mustangs get the right draw, the talented Duke transfer could carry his squad deep into the NCAA tournament.
Bonzie Colson, Notre Dame Fighting Irish
The 6-foot-5 forward scored 33 points in Saturday's win over Florida State. Colson's squad overcame a slide -- Notre Dame had lost five of six in ACC play -- with two consecutive wins. This is a Notre Dame squad with victories over Northwestern, Louisville, Syracuse and Florida State. The Fighting Irish can tussle with the best. And this season's tournament, like others in the past, will depend on matchups. Few teams will want to face Colson (16.7 PPG, 10.8 RPG, 1.5 BPG and 49.7 percent success rate in half-court sets, per Synergy Sports scouting data) and a fiery Notre Dame offense that leads the nation in free throw shooting (81.2 percent). Colson scored 33 points against an athletic, long Florida State frontcourt. How many times will he face an opponent in the NCAA tournament with similar attributes?
Jawun Evans, Oklahoma State Cowboys
Oklahoma State lost its first six Big 12 games. But the Cowboys have won five of their past six in league play and six of their past seven overall after defeating Arkansas in the Big 12/SEC Challenge. They're the UCLA of the Big 12. Oklahoma State plays fast and occasionally emphasizes defense. It's "The Fast and the Furious" every night. But Evans, a 6-foot-1 guard, will make money in the NBA someday. Earlier this season, he took Oklahoma State to Morgantown, scored 18 points and fueled a win over a West Virginia squad with one of the nation's most terrorizing defenses. His squad is hot right now. If this continues, you might see Evans kick off a Kemba Walker campaign in the NCAA tournament.
Justin Patton, Creighton Bluejays
Creighton is not the same team without injured point guard Mo Watson Jr. The Bluejays are 3-3 in the past six games without him, a stretch that includes a 20-point road loss to Georgetown. But they've turned to their evolving 7-foot superstar in this critical moment. Patton, a redshirt freshman, has made 71 percent of his shots inside the arc, and he's fourth in the Big East in block rate. In a Jan. 31 win at Butler, he finished with 15 points, seven rebounds and two blocks. You have to understand, Patton is close to realizing how dominant he can be every night. He's not there yet. Once the NCAA tournament arrives, however, this potential first-round pick could pull a talented Creighton squad through the field.
Sindarius Thornwell, South Carolina Gameocks
The leader of a team ranked No. 1 in KenPom.com's adjusted defensive efficiency rankings has collected double figures in every game he has played this season. South Carolina has lost just two games with Thornwell available. The Gamecocks finished 3-3 when he served a six-game suspension earlier this year. Thornwell, a member of the SEC's all-defensive team and all-conference first team last season, is arguably the best two-way perimeter player in America. The Gamecocks have wins over Florida, Syracuse and Michigan. And the 6-foot-5 star could help his team knock off quality opponents once the NCAA tournament begins.
Ethan Happ, Wisconsin Badgers
Happ is the only reason the pursuit of the Big Ten player of the year award is still a race and not yet a foregone conclusion for Purdue's Caleb Swanigan. He's averaging 14.2 PPG, 9.2 RPG, 2.8 APG, 2.0 SPG and 1.1 BPG this season. ESPN's Jay Bilas says he's the leader for national defensive player of the year, and that's backed by his standing among the top 15 in the Big Ten in both steals percentage and blocks percentage, per KenPom.com. The Badgers just lost a home game to a Northwestern squad seeking its first NCAA tournament appearance. But they can still finish strong and accrue momentum entering the postseason. Swanigan has grabbed the headlines in the Big Ten. Happ, however, could be the league's most dominant player in March and guide the Badgers on a long run.