This week in college hoops: The Volunteers are very real

The chaos continues in college basketball.

Gonzaga, the former No. 1 team in America, lost in a thriller against Tennessee on Saturday. Several Top 25 teams have endured key injuries. The NCAA isn't making any moves on post-FBI investigation sanctions. Multiple players, it seems, could win the Wooden Award.

Here's this week's version of "What's real?" and "What's fake?" in college basketball.


Schofield's go-ahead 3 knocks off No. 1 Gonzaga

Admiral Schofield's 3-pointer late in the fourth quarter is the difference for Tennessee as it defeats top-ranked Gonzaga.

What's real?

Rick Barnes in the early lead for national coach of the year

In 2015, I rode through Austin with Barnes in his final months at Texas. At that time, the vibe around the former Longhorns coach -- who'd led the program to a Final Four and missed the NCAA tournament just once in 17 seasons -- had soured. And Barnes knew as much.

The Longhorns had grown weary of consistency and moved on. At Tennessee, a job he accepted hours after Texas fired him, Barnes continues to exceed expectations.

Last season's squad was picked to finish at the bottom of the SEC, but the Vols shared the SEC title with Auburn. This season, Barnes might have the best team in America when "One Shining Moment" blasts through U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis next April.

Saturday's gutsy, come-from-behind win over Gonzaga in Phoenix showcased the durability of the Vols, who finished the game without the reigning SEC Player of the Year, Grant Williams, who fouled out. Admiral Schofield's 30 points led the turnaround, and Tennessee's defense held Gonzaga to 1.07 points per possession, the team's lowest tally of the season thus far.

The Vols have only one loss this season, to currently top-ranked Kansas in overtime.

This is a team playing top-15 offense and defense, according to KenPom.com. Schofield (17.9 PPG, 6.0 RPG, 3.1 APG, 41 percent from beyond the arc) is a top-five candidate for the Wooden Award. Barnes, at this early juncture of the season, is the leading contender for national coach of the year and could lead the Vols to both an SEC crown and a national title.

The Tennessee Volunteers, under Barnes, are real.

Early injuries (and pending returns) will impact teams in coming weeks

We can't ignore the role significant injuries have already played this season.

The Kansas team that tussled with New Mexico State until the final minutes of Saturday's win didn't have Udoka Azubuike, who is nursing a right ankle injury. Kansas is blessed with depth and versatility this season, so the Jayhawks can still compete with the best.

But they are a more dangerous team with Azubuike. Although he isn't an ideal fit for any team competing against the small-ball specialists flourishing in college basketball, he's a proven contributor who changes the Jayhawks when he plays. The Jayhawks have played 268 possessions with Azubuike and 314 possessions without him this season, per hooplens.com.

In that stretch, the team has made 51 percent of its 3-pointers with Azubuike, who is a threat around the basket and opens the floor for his teammates, and just 29.6 percent of their shots from beyond the arc when he's on the bench. They're also a better defensive team around the rim when he's available.

Sure, Kansas is a great team even when Azubuike -- whom Bill Self hopes to have back for conference play -- is sidelined. But his influence is tangible.

Gonzaga is missing a key big man, too, as Killian Tillie, the 6-foot-10 forward who made 48 percent of his 3-pointers last season, recovers from an ankle injury. His presence forces opponents to alter defensive schemes because he's a verified threat from the perimeter. The Bulldogs could have used Tillie, who might return in the coming weeks, against Tennessee on Saturday.

In the ACC, Virginia is more vulnerable without freshman guard Kihei Clark, who is averaging 2.9 assists per game. He's out indefinitely after undergoing Monday surgery to correct a wrist injury suffered in a recent game against Morgan State. Florida State is without last year's leading scorer, Phil Cofer, who could return soon after missing the first portion of the season with a foot injury.

In the Big 12, Iowa State, which was dominated by Iowa last week, should have Lindell Wigginton (13.0 PPG, 3.0 APG) and Solomon Young (7.2 PPG, 5.9 RPG in 2017-18) back soon.

Five-star freshman Louis King scored 11 points for Oregon on Saturday in a win over the Omaha Mavericks, his first live action in nearly a year after he suffered a serious knee injury during his senior season of prep basketball.

The good news for all of these teams is that these players will return soon, which should enhance their short-handed rosters in their respective pursuits of conference crowns and NCAA tournament berths.

Nevada might not lose again

Caleb Martin leads a foursome of Nevada players averaging double figures. This team is ranked third in adjusted offensive efficiency on KenPom.com. Nevada has had a couple of tight games in recent weeks; both Arizona State and Grand Canyon pushed the Wolf Pack. But they won, and the rest of their schedule does not feature a top-50 team on KenPom.com.

Yes, Nevada could run the table.

The offensive potential was clear when the team made a run to the Sweet 16 and lost to Loyola-Chicago last season after squandering a double-digit lead. But this team is now listed as "very good" defensively on Synergy Sports one year after it failed to crack the top 100 on KenPom.com. With guard Jazz Johnson (54 percent from the 3-point line) on the floor, Nevada's opponents have made just 28 percent of their 3-point attempts.

The defensive improvement could help Nevada reach the Final Four. The only thing stopping the Wolf Pack from entering the NCAA tournament with an unblemished résumé is a slate of middling Mountain West opponents. Yes, it's unlikely, but an undefeated season is not a crazy possibility for this Nevada team.

What's fake?

We should expect the NCAA to move faster on post-FBI trial penalties

Gonzaga coach Mark Few expressed his frustration about the NCAA's response to the corruption scandal when he told Yahoo! this week that Mark Emmert's group should "make decisions and roll with it."

Three individuals tied to the widespread bribery scandal have already been found guilty, and the four Division I assistants who were arrested last year are set to go on trial in the coming months.

Emmert previously said he doesn't think the NCAA will announce any punishments prior to the conclusion of all trials. That's why Few's sentiment is fair.

The NCAA already has enough evidence and testimony from the first federal trial to make decisions about punitive measures against some of the schools involved. At this point, the folks with the NCAA either believe what they've heard in that New York courtroom or they don't. They've punished schools, coaches and players for much less in the past.

Have teams named in the trial won games with ineligible players? There's a penalty for that if the NCAA believes they have. Have coaches offered and supplied significant amounts of money to recruits? If yes, there is a penalty for that, too.

The NCAA adopted the Commission on College Basketball's recommendation to use outside investigations to make punitive decisions. That's why Few and others anticipated an expedited process that might render a series of fateful decisions prior to the NCAA tournament.

That's a surprising expectation for an organization that enters every basketball season without finalizing its decisions on the eligibility of certain incoming players and those who've sought waivers to play immediately after transferring. Why would we expect the NCAA to do anything fast? Why would Few expect that?

There is a difference between what the NCAA should do and what the NCAA might (eventually) do. The folks in Indianapolis have never been noted for their speed, though. Why, in the aftermath of the greatest scandal in recent history, would anyone assume that might change?

The truth is the NCAA will take its time. And we might not know the full effect of the bribery scandal for years.

Zion Williamson, RJ Barrett are Duke's most important players

Both Williamson and Barrett -- a pair that could secure the top two spots in the NBA draft next summer -- are contenders for every reputable award. The duo has combined to average 44.6 PPG and 16.2 RPG thus far. They're the collective flash for a Duke team that could win the national title. But Tre Jones, much like his brother Tyus four years ago, has emerged as an MVP candidate on this roster, too.

The team averages 1.30 points per possession with Jones on the floor, a greater individual impact than Williamson and Barrett have had. Now, that duo contributes to everything Duke has achieved thus far, but Jones helps Duke get the most out of its best lineups.

The Blue Devils make 43 percent of their 3-pointers when Jones is the floor and 28.7 percent when he isn't. He won't top Williamson, Barrett or Cam Reddish in scoring this season. The Jones Effect, however, is a real thing. You could make the case, without sounding crazy, that Jones is the most valuable player on this roster right now.

Fred Hoiberg will definitely succeed if he coaches in college again

Minutes after the Chicago Bulls announced the firing of Hoiberg, many said they expected him to return to the collegiate ranks, where perhaps he's more comfortable.

At Iowa State, Hoiberg led his alma mater back to relevance and the NCAA tournament. He recruited overlooked players such as Georges Niang, and he made Royce White, a 6-foot-8 forward, a point guard. Hoiberg was innovative.

That will be his strength if he decides to coach in college again.

Iowa State was the perfect scenario for him. He had the full support of administrators in large part because he was such an icon on that campus. He wasn't challenged when he signed players with red flags. He knew he had unrivaled job security.

Those factors helped him acquire the talent necessary to reach four consecutive NCAA tournaments. If that's his strategy at his next stop, however, he could get pushback he never faced in Ames.

And he won't necessarily be a hero. Even if he ends up at a place such as Minnesota -- he played for the Minnesota Timberwolves for multiple seasons -- he won't arrive on the cloud that carried him to Iowa State.

Hoiberg can coach. Hoiberg can recruit. But Hoiberg also needs the freedom to do things his way. If he accepts a collegiate job without that freedom, his success could be impeded.