Jan. 06, 2018
College Basketball Non-Conference Season Obstructed Thoughts
The first part of the college basketball season is over. The non-conference portion at least. Of course you had some big games (the annual Champions Classic, Kentucky/UCLA, Big Ten/ACC Challenge), and of course your tune-up games for the powerhouses, that in some cases, get knocked out of tune (North Carolina losing to Wofford). Of course you have your surprises (Arizona State), disappointments (Florida), and of course your can't miss freshmen (Trae Young-Oklahoma, Collin Sexton-Alabama).
So let's get into the thoughts:
1. THE ACC IS THE BEST CONFERENCE IN COLLEGE BASKETBALL BY A WIDE MARGIN: 12 out of the 15 teams in the ACC already hold double-digit wins, including Boston College (who has a pretty darn good backcourt). Of course Duke leads the way at 13-1 (with their lone loss to Boston College in an odd early December tilt). Virginia, not too surprisingly is at 12-1 (who just eked out a win against Boston College yesterday), Miami is also 12-1, but the surprise 12-1 team isn't UNC, Syracuse, Louisville, but Clemson. Yes, Clemson's non-conference strength of schedule isn't wowing, but they took down Florida and destroyed Final Four participant South Carolina. One key is their defense as they have really frustrated opposing teams (have only allowed 70 or more points 3 times). Now can they continue it in conference play is the question. North Carolina, Florida State, and Virginia Tech each only have 2 losses and are either 11-2 or 12-2 to this point. NC State turned some heads in the non-conference despite their embarrassing home loss to UNC Greensboro. The major disappointment however has to be Georgia Tech, at 6-7 after making it to the NIT final a year ago. Not good for Josh Pastnor who has to fend off the same criticism like he had at the beginning of last year.
2. THE SEC IS NOT FAR BEHIND: You normally think Kentucky is the front & center of the SEC basketball club. They are, but they haven't looked as sharp doing so as perhaps there are too many freshman with the "one-and-done" minds on the team. Yes, they are 10-2 and until the Louisville beatdown they gave to their in-state nemesis, the Wildcats have struggled with the far weaker teams such as Utah Valley State, Vermont, and Troy. And the in-conference schedule is not going to be pleasant with the far improved squads of Georgia and LSU (which is in Baton Rouge) and then a road tilt in Tennessee and back to face Texas A&M the week after. But the teams who have been very impressive has been Auburn, Georgia, and Mississippi State while Texas A&M had held a top 10 ranking for a good bit until the Aggies got smoked by Alabama yesterday. Missouri and Arkansas have both stormed out of the gates and Alabama may have one of the most exciting teams in the nation. If Kentucky is to win the conference, it will be well-earned.
3. ARIZONA STATE IS LEADING THE WAY FOR THE PAC-12: Until the Arizona loss, the Sun Devils have been rolling, going undefeated in non-conference play. They have one of the more prolific offenses in basketball (6th nationally in total points with 90). Of course, it will be interesting to see if they can improve the defense (middle of the road nationally at 72 PPG). But the good news is they are in a conference where the defense is a bit sketchy from top to bottom. Gee, that sounds familiar for the PAC-12. At least Arizona State doesn't rank rock bottom in defense though.
4. KANSAS MAY LOSE THEIR GRIP OF THE BIG 12, AT LEAST FOR ONE YEAR: Speaking of Arizona State, one of their biggest wins in recent memory was a 10-point win in Kansas in Allen Fieldhouse. And what was also stunning was the game before Washington gut-punched them. So right now the PAC-12 is living large with 2 wins from the Jayhawks. Yes, Kansas exacted a measure of revenge against Stanford, but the Cardinal are at the bottom of the conference. But the Big 12 is loaded with West Virginia, Texas Tech, TCU, two vastly improved squads of Oklahoma with Trae Young and Texas with Mo Bamba. And the Jayhawks draw their former Big 12 foe Texas A&M albeit that game is in Lawrence. Like Kentucky in the SEC, if the Jayhawks win the Big 12 this year, they earned it.
5. IS THE BIG TEN REALLY DOWN THIS YEAR? Michigan State will likely be the consensus #1 team in the nation when the polls come out this week after Villanova & Arizona State fell. And honestly, they can beat any team in the nation. Yes, they lost to Duke, but compared to years past with the Blue Devils games, Michigan State was in it the whole way. But 11 of the 14 teams have double digit wins already. However most people point to the Big Ten/ACC challenge where the ACC thumped the Big Ten from top to bottom. The two teams to keep an eye on will be Ohio State, who has played better but has a couple of black eyes from the ACC (UNC, Clemson) and two more quality programs (Butler, Gonzaga) and Maryland who took a key hit losing Justin Jackson for the remainder of the season. Some think it may be Michigan State's conference to dominate, but so far, the rest of the conference will have something to say (save Rutgers & Nebraska).
6. THE BIG EAST IS STILL PRETTY DARN GOOD: 9 of the 10 teams have double digits in wins and save for Marquette & Providence the rest of the conference has 3 or fewer losses. Georgetown has been the surprise under Patrick Ewing, going 10-1 in non-conference, but have slowed up going into conference play with 2 losses already. Villanova, Xavier, Butler, and Seton Hall look to be the real deal this year. Is it going out on a limb that at least one of them get into the Final Four?
7. MIKE DUNLEAVY SHOULD GET EARLY COACH OF THE YEAR NOD: While Brad Brownell has turned heads early on in Clemson, Mike Dunleavy has made Tulane basketball relevant. The Green Wave is 10-3 and beat Temple by 10 in Temple. This is the same Temple that beat Clemson by the way. 2 of the 3 losses are somewhat forgivable as Tulane had road losses to North Carolina and Florida State (well, that game was played in St. Pete). If Tulane can hold their own in the conference and be near the forefront and get in the tournament it is hard not to give it to the former NBA Coach of the Year.
8. THE A10 CONFERENCE IS REALLY DOWN: Rhode Island and St. Bonaventure has done what many expect and Duquesne has been a surprise, but it seems like the rest of the conference has fallen flat. Dayton, a perennial power, has crashed when Archie Miller left. Richmond is irrelevant to the conference while even the likes of La Salle, Davidson, and VCU are languishing in the near-.500 mark. Not good when the A10 could put out a few teams in the tournament yearly. Right now an argument can be made that the Ohio Valley Conference has a shot at sending more than the A10. Heck, the "thrown-together" Western Athletic Conference has a better shot at sending two at this point.
9. I'M NOT SOLD ON WICHITA STATE BEING A FAVORITE IN THE AMERICAN OR A FINAL FOUR FAVORITE: Nothing against the Shockers and I love watching them play. But Missouri Valley is not the American and Missouri State & Loyola IL is not Cincinnati, SMU, or Houston. I think they will be near the top and get in the tourney, but playing more quality opponents may take its toll on them for at least a season. Sweet Sixteen at best in my eyes.
10. MY TOO EARLY FINAL FOUR PICKS: MICHIGAN STATE, WEST VIRGINIA, SETON HALL, PURDUE: Of course this will change weekly I bet.
-Fan in the Obstructed Seat