In my travels, which have taken me well over 20,000 miles, to innumerable gyms, practices and games, and countless rental car counters and screaming-baby flights, I have seen a lot of really good players, teams and coaches. In addition, I have watched untold a number of games on the ESPN App and Synergy on my iPad and computer. It has been nothing but roundball for The Bilastrator, and it is all catalogued in his gigantic, high-functioning brain. Here are just some of The Bilastrator's observations on the best I've seen from the college game in the past month.
As I have said for several weeks now, there are no great teams, none that have separated themselves -- yet. There are several really good teams, but we don't have a year like 2015 or even last year, when you truly felt like it took a great performance to beat them. This year, there have been more upsets of ranked teams by unranked teams than ever. Overall, though, conference records of the best teams are pretty similar to any year you can name.
That said, there are a few teams that have stood out above the crowd:
Villanova Wildcats: Few teams are as solid in every regard as Villanova. The Wildcats have two stars in Jalen Brunson and Mikal Bridges. Villanova also has really solid "complementary" players such as Phil Booth (a guy who put up 20 points in the NCAA title game), Donte DiVincenzo and Omari Spellman. Villanova is an outstanding offensive team because it takes advantage of matchups like an NBA team would. The Wildcats, though, can be vulnerable at times on the glass and in transition. Still, there are very few areas in which the Wildcats are not rock solid. That said, Villanova is far from unbeatable. The Wildcats just don't beat themselves.
Purdue Boilermakers: This is the best Purdue team I have seen since Glenn Robinson hung 44 on Kansas in 1994. This is the best chance Purdue has had to reach a Final Four and win a title since then. Matt Painter has two legit 7-footers in Isaac Haas and Matt Haarms, and a group of veterans in Vincent Edwards (a versatile winner who can do it all), Carsen Edwards ( a dynamic scorer), Dakota Mathias (a tough defender and fearless scorer) and Ryan Cline (an excellent shooter). Purdue is older, hungry and unafraid.
Duke Blue Devils: The most talented team in the country -- by far. Duke has a starting five of NBA players, and so many scoring options, it's frightening. Duke is the best offensive team in the country, the best offensive rebounding team in the country and, if the young Blue Devils figure things out on the defensive end, the best team in the country. Duke has taken some steps forward in the past few games, although against some of the lesser teams in the ACC. If it takes a few more steps, Duke can win the whole thing. If the Blue Devils don't figure it out on the defensive end, Duke could be out early in the second weekend.
Michigan State Spartans: The Spartans have depth, talent and togetherness. While Michigan State has been subject to turnovers and settling for shots, this is a quality team that will also continue to get better. Remember, Michigan State has a bunch of sophomores as its best players. It is not like the Spartans are a bunch of grizzled seniors. Miles Bridges had a great outing against Illinois, with 31 points and only two missed shots. He may be getting his level of assertiveness revved up. Michigan State can really shoot the ball, with Jaren Jackson (45 percent), Joshua Langford (45 percent) and Cassius Winston (53 percent) all shooting well from 3-point range.
Virginia Cavaliers: I cannot recall a defensive team quite like Virginia -- or quite as good as Virginia. It is not like the Cavaliers have shot-blockers or "40 Minutes of Hell" pressure that creates offense off of its defense. Virginia is more like watching a boa constrictor slowly get a hold on you and squeeze. For non-residents of Charlottesville, Virginia is the basketball equivalent of a sedative. But to Hoos fans, it is a dream.
Best mid-major, bust-your-bracket teams
Saint Mary's Gaels: The Gaels are 19-2, with the only losses in Los Angeles early in the season to Georgia and Washington State. Saint Mary's is older and can shoot it; it is among the best offensive teams in the country. Jock Landale is one of the best big men in the country, and Calvin Hermanson, Tanner Krebs and Jordan Ford all stretch the floor and all shoot better than 42 percent from deep. Saint Mary's looked far more confident and capable in its win over Gonzaga in Spokane than it did last year in its home loss.
Nevada Wolf Pack: The Wolf Pack are unbeaten in Mountain West play and have won 10 of their past 11 games. Nevada has balance and talent, with players among the league's top five in scoring (Caleb Martin, 19.7 PPG, second in the conference), rebounding (Jordan Caroline, 9.1 RPG, fourth in the conference), and assists (Lindsey Drew, 4.4 APG, second in the conference). Nevada has Caleb Martin and Cody Martin, twins who transferred from NC State, making them the only duo in the country to play for the Wolf Pack and the Wolfpack. You're welcome for that one.
Boise State Broncos: The Broncos dropped a tight one at Nevada 74-68, but had a late lead in front of a capacity crowd on the road. At 16-4, Boise State is off to its best start since 1988-89.
Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders: The Blue Raiders are well-coached and have legit major-conference talents in Nick King and Giddy Potts. King started his career at Memphis, transferred to Alabama, then to Middle Tennessee. King put up 28 points and 9 rebounds as Middle Tennessee beat Western Kentucky on the road.
Western Kentucky Hilltoppers: The Hilltoppers also have major-conference talent, with Darius Thompson, the lefty wing who started his career at Tennessee, transferred to Virginia, then to Western Kentucky. The Hilltoppers also have Dwight Coleby, who started at Ole Miss, transferred to Kansas. There's also Lamonte Bearden, who started at Buffalo, before hitting WKU. Historically, having major-conference talent is good for NCAA tournament upsets.
Most underrated players
Isaiah Wilkins, Virginia Cavaliers: West Virginia's Jevon Carter seems to be the front-runner for national defensive player of the year, but Wilkins should be in that mix, if not the clubhouse leader. Is this guy ever out of position? Is he ever out of a play? When the teams line up for the opening tip and are getting matched up, and Wilkins says, "I got him," that must make a guy's heart sink.
Carsen Edwards, Purdue Boilermakers: Everyone knew Edwards could score. He has continued that, averaging 17.2 points per game, fifth in the Big Ten. But it is Edwards' decision-making and efficiency that is remarkable. At just 6-foot-1, Edwards shoots 48 percent from the field, 40 percent from 3-point range and 80 percent from the line.
Chris Chiozza, Florida Gators: He is the best point guard in the SEC, and one of the best defenders in the country. He never seems to come out of the game. When a big play is needed, Chiozza makes it. Few players have had buzzer-beating, game-winning shots like Chiozza had against Wisconsin last year in the NCAA tournament. How many have a buzzer-beating, game-winning shot like Chiozza had against Missouri, which came off of a steal?
Markus Howard and Andrew Rowsey, Marquette Golden Eagles: These two are the elite of the elite shooters in the country. Both are averaging better than 20 points in the Big East, and both have extraordinarily quick releases, exceptional footwork and fearlessness. They are No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, in the Big East in 3-point field goals made. They are No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, in free throw percentage. Howard has yet to miss a free throw this season, but sources say that Howard has missed a free throw once in practice. And with all of that, teammate Sam Hauser leads the Big East in 3-point field goal shooting at 49.6 percent. Marquette must have to change the nets daily at its practice facility.
Wendell Carter Jr., Duke Blue Devils: If Marvin Bagley III had not reclassified and were still terrorizing high school players instead of being at Duke, we would be touting Carter as the best big man in the country, along with Arizona's Deandre Ayton. Carter is a monster rebounder who always goes after the ball with two hands. He is a capable 3-point shooter. He is a skilled low-post scorer. He averages 14 PPG and 9.7 RPG and leads the ACC in field goal percentage at 60.7 percent. He does all of that playing alongside Bagley, who is averaging 22.4 PPG and 12.6 RPG. Bagley takes all of the air out of the room before Carter walks in, but Carter is an absolute stud.
Jaren Jackson Jr., Michigan State Spartans: The 6-10 freshman is legit. Jackson is averaging 11.9 points and 6.4 rebounds. He leads the Big Ten in blocked shots (and is about to set a single-season record for blocked shots in a Spartans uniform). He can run, post and step away and hit 3-point shots. He does so at a higher rate than Wendell Carter Jr. or Marvin Bagley III. He has hit 25 3s and makes better than 80 percent of his free throws. He is getting better and better. Yikes.
Don't forget how good we are
Jock Landale, Saint Mary's Gaels: The Aussie big man is a clinic in low-post play, averaging 22.4 PPG and 10.2 RPG while shooting over 65 percent from the floor. Landale is very skilled and patient when he gets the ball in the post.
Jalen Adams, St. Bonaventure Bonnies: Back from injury and nowhere near 100 percent yet, Adams is averaging 18.5 points, 4.4 rebounds and 4.8 assists while shooting 49 percent from deep and 84 percent from the free throw line. Adams is a scoring point guard. He has been one of the best and most consistent players in the country for three years now. And he has been one of the most underappreciated outside of the Atlantic 10.
Chandler Hutchison, Boise State Broncos: This dude is ridiculous. After his 44-point outburst against San Diego State, Hutchison leads the Mountain West in scoring with 19.9 points, is sixth in rebounding with 8.1 and ninth in assists with 3.2. Against Nevada, Hutchison scored 27 points for his fifth 25-plus point game of the season and his 11th 20-plus point game this year.
Chris Clemons, Campbell Fighting Camels: When you are 5-foot-9 and average 25.1 PPG in your junior year, how do you top that? You become more efficient and better in putting up those same numbers. Clemons is averaging 25.2 points, 4.1 rebounds, 2.9 assists and just under 2 steals per game. His percentages are up from last season. He is shooting 47 percent from the floor, 40 percent from 3-point range and 88 percent from the foul line, all career bests. He had 39 points against Penn State and just put up 42 on Liberty. The kid can play.
Justin Wright-Foreman, Hofstra Pride: This 6-1 guard from Queens is an absolute scoring machine. He is a virtuoso with the ball in his hands. Not many scorers can do it when defended well, but Wright-Foreman makes the tough shots. And he does it over and over again. After averaging over 18.1 PPG last season, Wright-Foreman is putting up over 25.1 this season. He dropped 25 on No. 1 Villanova. Hofstra had Juan'ya Green a couple of years ago, and he was an elite passer. This guy is different. He can flat out fill it up.
Brandon McCoy, UNLV Running Rebels: Just a freshman, McCoy is averaging 17.4 points per game, which would be the most by a freshman in the history of the Mountain West. McKoy is also averaging 9.9 rebounds, which is on pace to challenge the Mountain West freshman record held by Utah's Andrew Bogut and San Diego State's Kawhi Leonard (9.9). Yikes.
Wooden Award winner
Jalen Brunson, Villanova Wildcats: Oklahoma's Trae Young and Duke's Marvin Bagley III have dominated the Wooden Award discussion. But don't hand it to either phenom just yet. In my view, the Wooden Award to this point in the season has been Brunson. The junior point guard has been outstanding, and has impacted winning more than any other player in college basketball. Young and Bagley are better pro prospects, but this is the player of the year. This year, at least so far, it has been Brunson.
Best defensive team
Virginia Cavaliers: Look, I can quote statistics to you to help you grasp just how difficult it is to score on Virginia, but it won't resonate. I can help you with the principles of the Pack Line defense, but it's not about X's and O's. Virginia's defense is a feeling. It is a deep, dark depression. It is a Rubik's Cube that you have to solve in the dark. It is a dentist's office with an interminable wait and no magazines or Wi-Fi. It is a rhythm-killing, vexation-filled, irritating festival of frustration. Playing against Virginia is no fun.
Best offensive team
Duke Blue Devils: The Blue Devils are beyond talented on the offensive end. With Marvin Bagley III, Wendell Carter Jr., Gary Trent Jr., Trevon Duval and Grayson Allen, Duke has five legit NBA players in the starting lineup. Duke is averaging 92 PPG, shooting over 51 percent from the field and leading the ACC with better than 19 assists per game. Duke makes almost nine 3-point field goals per game. It is the best offensive rebounding team in the country, grabbing 41 percent of its misses. You aren't going to beat Duke with a game scoring in the 50s or 60s, unless you are Virginia.
Coach of the year
Is there anywhere else to go from the trio of Purdue's Matt Painter, Villanova's Jay Wright and Virginia's Tony Bennett? What teams have performed at a higher level? This award is not necessary and almost silly. Is the award for the coach that does the most with the least? Is it for the guy who can take yours and beat his, or take his and beat yours? Is it just about the coach who has the title team or the best record? Over the past five years, very few coaches have done a better overall job than Wright has at Villanova. From culture to performance to consistency of excellence, I go with Wright.
Best toughness plays
With his team down 10 points on the road at West Virginia, Kansas' Devonte' Graham picked the pocket of Jevon Carter and took it the other way for a 3-point play. That play changed the game and put Kansas on a trajectory to win it. It was one of the best plays I have seen this year. Then, with Oklahoma State down three points to Oklahoma and things looking grim, Mitchell Solomon knocked the ball away from Oklahoma's Trae Young. The loose ball was rolling toward the Oklahoma basket when Solomon dove onto the floor to get it, then flipped the ball to teammate Tavarius Shine for a dunk that totally changed the game. It was an amazing play.
Most unguardable player
Trae Young, Oklahoma Sooners: Look, I get it. Young can make better decisions -- and I believe that he will. Turnovers and bad shots included, Trae Young is an absolute savant. It is not unfair, unreasonable or wrong to compare Young to a young Steph Curry, because that is exactly what his game is like. His numbers compare favorably to Curry's at Davidson -- when Curry was a JUNIOR. Here is how unguardable Young is: He was checked by Kansas star Devonte' Graham for 40 minutes (a few switches, but very few) on Tuesday night. Graham worked his tail off shadowing Young, and Young had 26 points, 9 assists and 2 steals while taking only nine shots. While Graham was expending energy guarding Young, Graham went 4-for-19 from the field, 1-for-9 from deep. Young put up numbers and wore out one of the nation's best players. Next in line for unguardable is Duke's Marvin Bagley III.
I love to discuss issues surrounding the game. I just love it. But, like you, I grow tired of some of our dumb arguments. For example, I am tired of the one-and-done debate. I am tired of every perceived ill of college basketball being blamed on the game's best players, as if their very presence is a problem. I get tired of the experience vs. freshman talent debate. The uber-talented freshmen against experienced veteran player discussion is totally useless. It is trotted out when some get tired of talking about the most talented players and wish to harken back to a simpler time when freshmen waited their turn and seniors were in the spotlight. Sometimes, the argument goes to facile interpretation of results, by saying that experienced teams have won titles. Well, duh.
Of course, experience is preferable to youth, all other things being equal. It always has been, and it always will be. But all other things are NOT equal and never have been, nor ever will be. No reasonable coach would settle for experienced players without that experience coming with winning talent. Of course, one can always point to more "older teams" that do well during the regular season and postseason. There are simply more veterans than legit freshmen and more veteran teams than teams with NBA lottery-type freshmen. Still, teams that have early-entry players are hardly suffering or going out of business. They are winning at the same level as any veteran teams. They are going to Final Fours and winning league titles. Duke and Kentucky are winning on the same level as any veteran teams. Several veteran teams are winning on the same level as Duke and Kentucky. So what? Here is the bottom line: Coaches recruit the best players they can get. Nobody recruits the lesser player. Not every team or coach can get the best NBA lottery-type talents out of each recruiting class. So it is not an issue. If they could get the best players, they would take them! If you don't want one-and-done talents in your program, don't recruit them. But let's not blame people for being captivated by the talent and skill of these young players.
They are compelling for a reason: They win now. They put up huge numbers now. They impact winning in a big way now. They will be the stars of the NBA draft in June. They will be the future of the game. We can appreciate the most talented freshmen and praise the cagey veterans. It is not a zero sum game.