What You Missed While Watching College Football…Posted by zhayes9 on January 8th, 2010
Zach Hayes is RTC’s resident bracketologist plus author of the weekly Ten Tuesday Scribbles and Bubble Watch columns.
With college football crowning another faux-national champion Thursday night in Pasadena, the college sports scene can officially shift its axis to basketball. While a number of college basketball diehards such as yours truly were knee-deep in mid-major box scores and enthralling non-conference tournaments since the season tipped off in mid-November, it’s perfectly understandable for our college football-fan brethren out there to have been entranced in the gridiron scene during this time. For many folks out there, college basketball truly begins when a football champion is crowned and conference play heats up, when Rece and the gang show up on our TVs every Saturday morning at 11 AM and the bubble begins to take its early shape. For those people, you sure missed plenty of exciting hoops action. To get you caught up in what has gone down thus far on the hardwood, here’s a summary for your enjoyment, divvied up into the six major conferences and all the rest:
What we’ve learned: There was much back-and-forth debate entering this season whether Duke or North Carolina represented the class of this conference. After two solid months of play, it’s fairly evident Duke has separated themselves from their bitter rival as the class of the ACC. While the Tar Heels may top Duke skill-wise up front, Carolina simply does not boast the backcourt to even contend with the Dukies’ tandem of Jon Scheyer and Nolan Smith. The primary knock on Duke heading into this season was point guard play with Elliot Williams transferring to Memphis. As a true sharp-shooting 2-guard who creates his shots coming off screens in Redick-like fashion, could Scheyer handle the responsibility of running the Duke offense? The answer has been resounding in the affirmative: 19.7 PPG, 46% FG, 92% FT, 43% 3pt and an otherworldly 4.8 A/TO ratio that currently leads the nation. Another key to Duke’s early season success has been Coach K’s willingness to adjust his defense to fit his roster. Rather than employing the normal Duke on-ball pressure attack, Krzyzewski is utilizing more of a sagging defense that plays into the frontcourt depth Duke enjoys with six players that receive time at 6’8 or taller.
What’s still to be determined: After Duke and Carolina (and let’s not go overboard following the Heels loss to Charleston, they’re still clearly the second best team in this conference), who will emerge as the third contender behind the top two dogs? An ever-shifting proposition, the current edge probably goes to Florida State despite their utter lack of point guard play. The Seminoles are one of the tallest teams in the nation and have a few capable long-range shooters that get open looks when defenses collapse on Solomon Alabi and Chris Singleton. Plus, they’re off to a head start with a December win at ACC foe Georgia Tech. Plenty of folks think Clemson could be that team behind powerful big man Trevor Booker, but they lack a second scoring option and I can’t stop thinking back to their collapse at home to an inexperienced Illinois squad. It would be unwise to count out Gary Williams, and the jury’s still out on Virginia Tech and Miami due to their soft schedules, so I’ll give the current edge to Wake Forest as that third team. The road win at Gonzaga’s on-campus arena stands out, Ish Smith has turned into a fine point guard and Al-Farouq Aminu has as much pure talent as anyone in this conference.
NCAA Locks: Duke, North Carolina.
Likely bids: Clemson, Florida State, Wake Forest.
Bubble teams: Georgia Tech, Maryland, Miami (FL), Virginia Tech.
Make other plans for March: Boston College, North Carolina State, Virginia.
What we’ve learned: The NCAA picture is shaping up quite similarly to last season when Louisville (regular season champion), Pittsburgh and Connecticut all received #1 seeds. There will be much back-and-forth debate about whether the top three teams this season — Syracuse, West Virginia and Villanova -- holds the edge in this conference, but does it really matter? Right now you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn’t think Kansas, Texas, Kentucky and Purdue are the likely #1 seeds (of course plenty could change, we have two months of games left), while those top contenders in the Big East are likely all on the second seed line. Even of greater importance though is the obvious revelation that Jamie Dixon can coach basketball. You wouldn’t be alone if you counted out Pittsburgh following a near-loss to Wofford, a 47-point output at home vs. New Hampshire and a second half butt-kicking at the hands of Indiana, but those losses came without their most athletic player, Gilbert Brown, and their best defender, Jermaine Dixon. Those two have returned to action with the most improved Big East player Ashton Gibbs (who recently broke the all-time Pitt record for consecutive free throws made) as a fearsome trio that has carried the Panthers to road wins over previously-undefeated Syracuse and fringe-top 25 Cincinnati. If Dixon is able to coax his Panthers into a NCAA Tournament team after losing such enormous production and leadership in Sam Young, DeJuan Blair and Levance Fields, there is little debate on his merits as National Coach of the Year.
What’s still to be determined: Anyone else not convinced Georgetown is a good team yet? They’ll make the NCAA Tournament, sure, but keep in mind this is the same roster that finished 16-15 last season and dropped their first-round NIT contest against Baylor. Their non-conference wins turned out to be less impressive than originally imagined with Butler and Washington both falling out of the polls and playing well under preseason expectations. They were also fortunate to play Temple in mid-November on their worst shooting night of the season, so their Saturday game with Connecticut will show us plenty. Also concerning me down the stretch is the Hoyas’ total lack of depth. In a game with any semblance of importance, John Thompson III won’t go any deeper than seven players and four of his starters — Chris Wright, Greg Monroe, Austin Freeman and Jason Clark -- all play over 33 MPG with the true grind of the Big East yet to get underway. With three of their last five contests against Syracuse and road trips to Louisville and West Virginia, I fear the Hoyas will wear down as a unit. I’m nowhere near ready to place them in the same class with the aforementioned top three teams and even Connecticut and Pittsburgh just yet. They have plenty to prove in my eyes.
NCAA Locks: Syracuse, Villanova, West Virginia.
Likely bids: Connecticut, Georgetown, Pittsburgh.
Bubble teams: Cincinnati, Louisville, Marquette, Notre Dame, Seton Hall.
Make other plans for March: DePaul, Providence, Rutgers, South Florida, St. John’s.
What we’ve learned: This is the best conference in the nation, hands down. There isn’t a single “easy” out as bottom-feeders Nebraska is at 12-3 and Colorado, who took Gonzaga down to the wire at Maui and feature a stud in Cory Higgins, could challenge even the three top-ten teams in their home gyms. Eight of the 12 teams (and I’m not even including pesky Iowa State) have a legitimate shot to make the Tournament. The Big 12 also boasts the top two teams in the land in Kansas and Texas, two teams on a collision course for February 8 in Austin and quite possibly early April in Indianapolis. Both the Longhorns and Jayhawks are top-three teams in defensive efficiency, are extremely deep and have the offensive weapons to score 90 points on any given night, evident by Kansas torching Temple’s stingy defense last Saturday in Philly. The Big 12 also features the biggest surprise team in America outside of Syracuse in Kansas State. Their backcourt of Jacob Pullen (20.1 PPG, 46% 3pt) and Denis Clemente (14.1 PPG, 2.8 A/T) ranks right up there with Villanova, Duke, Kansas and Ole Miss at the top of the charts. To go into Columbia and knock off the fast-paced Missouri Tigers on Saturday would show that the oft-doubted Frank Martin and his Wildcats have staying power.
What’s still to be determined: After Kansas, Texas and Kansas State, teams #4-8 in this conference are fairly muddled with Baylor, Oklahoma State, Missouri, Texas Tech and Texas A&M all able to make arguments for being the top club of the bunch. Baylor may be the most purely athletic team of the pack with LaceDarius Dunn’s shooting ability, Ekpe Udoh as a force blocking shots and rebounding in the paint and one of the best passing point guards in the nation in Tweety Carter (6.6 APG). It would be quite surprising if Baylor made the field during a season with barely any expectations after folding last year as a highly ranked preseason team. If the Bears continue to show a marked improvement on the defensive end (60.8 points allowed per game), they could shock some folks. Oklahoma State is a bit of an enigma as well. There’s no better scorer in the Big 12 than James Anderson, but will Obi Muonelo and Keiton Page be able to take some of the scoring pressure away from Anderson on a consistent basis (I vote no). Missouri is extremely young and should continue to improve as Big 12 play progresses. With an electric homecourt atmosphere and a constant full-court press, Mike Anderson’s team can never be counted out. Defense is an issue for Texas Tech and the jury’s still out on whether A&M can rebound from the hideous Derrick Roland injury to pose a threat.
NCAA Locks: Kansas, Kansas State, Texas.
Likely bids: Texas A&M.
Bubble teams: Baylor, Missouri, Oklahoma State, Texas Tech.
Make other plans for March: Colorado, Iowa State, Nebraska, Oklahoma.
What we’ve learned: For the last few years, the Big 10 has been severely underrated. Fans and analysts fail to give this conference their due credit mainly because of the slower pace and defensive mindset. Entering 2009-10, due to a truckload of talented sophomores and juniors, the Big 10 was finally receiving the respect they deserved on a national platform. Unfortunately, the conference has grossly underachieved relative to the expectations that the Midwest would possess the best conference in the nation this season. The Big 10 ranks fifth in conference RPI headed into Saturday (although that does come with the second highest SOS of any conference) with teams like Michigan, Illinois and Ohio State (they have an excuse) disappointing in the early going. Michigan compiled a grand total of zero quality wins in November and December but could find themselves at 4-1 in the Big 10 with home wins over Northwestern and Indiana. Illinois is playing with two freshmen in their backcourt (and neither is a true point guard) while Demetri McCamey has not exploded into stardom like I expected. But with Evan Turner returning to Ohio State, overachieving teams like Northwestern and Wisconsin, and two of the top ten teams in the land in Purdue and Michigan State, the conference is still respectable as a whole.
What’s yet to be determined: I’m not sold on Purdue winning this conference. And that’s not necessarily a knock on how the Boilermakers have played — nobody defends with such ferocity and no single unit has as much experience on the floor together as Matt Painter’s club. I’ve watched Tom Izzo-coached Michigan State teams far too long improve and improve as the season wears on to label Purdue the Big 10 favorite just yet. With a focused Kalin Lucas running the point, swingman Chris Allen starting to find his stroke from three-point range and Raymar Morgan at 100 percent, the defending Big 10 champion Spartans are still the team to beat in the league. If you asked Matt Painter, I think he’d agree.
NCAA Locks: Michigan State, Purdue, Wisconsin.
Likely bids: Ohio State.
Bubble teams: Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, Northwestern.
Make other plans for March: Indiana, Iowa, Penn State.
What we’ve learned: This conference is historically bad. Pretty much every single team has underachieved through the first two months of the season other than maybe Oregon and USC, and those two teams are a less-than-inspiring 20-9 combined. Just when it appeared the preseason favorites, Washington and California, would take off and separate themselves from the foul odor the rest of the pack releases, the Huskies were punched in the face by Oregon at home and California is stunned by a UCLA team that has already lost eight games. And when it appeared USC might surprise everyone and earn a bid on the back of transfers Mike Gerrity and Alex Stepheson, the O.J. Mayo-Tim Floyd fiasco prompted the AD to prevent his basketball team from participating in any postseason play as punishment. I still believe Washington and California will rise to the top, but the fact we’re even discussing an Oregon team that lost to Montana, Portland and Missouri by 37 as a contender for the conference crown just about sums it up.
- An Unfortunate Ending to a Feel-Good Story at USC
What’s yet to be determined: I hate to continue to rag on the Pac-10, but it’s incredibly deserved in similar fashion to the harassment a pathetic SEC obtained last season. The question is: How many non-BCS conferences will receive more NCAA bids than the Pac-10? The Mountain West and Atlantic-10 are the prime candidates and currently rank higher in conference RPI than the Pac-10. The MWC could garner as many as four bids depending on how San Diego State performs in conference play while Temple, Rhode Island, Xavier, Dayton and Richmond all have legitimate shots out of the A-10 (I expect three in and another as one of the last teams out). If the Pac-10’s worst nightmare comes to fruition- Washington and California blow away the competition to the top of the standings leaving a cluster of 10-8 and 9-9 teams in the middle and the Pac-10 only receives two bids- they could be matched by the Missouri Valley (Northern Iowa and Wichita State?), WCC (Gonzaga and St. Mary’s?), Conference USA (four candidates) and even the Ivy League (Cornell and Harvard). Now that would be embarrassing.
NCAA Locks: None.
Likely bids: California, Washington.
Bubble teams: Arizona State, Oregon, Washington State.
Make other plans for March: Arizona, Oregon State, Stanford, UCLA, USC.
What we’ve learned: Nobody will challenge Kentucky for the SEC crown. With Tennessee dismissing Tyler Smith today, Mississippi simply lacking any type of post presence, Mississippi State still mired in inconsistency and Florida fading, the Wildcats are clearly the class of the SEC. This doesn’t mean Kentucky won’t slip up in conference play. As talented as their roster happens to be, four of their top five scorers are still freshmen or junior college transfers and any roster that young and inexperienced will discover some hardships on the road in any halfway decent conference. Still, there isn’t a more gifted player in the nation than John Wall. Kentucky might have the two strongest rebounders in the entire country with DeMarcus Cousins (#1 in college basketball in offensive rebounding percentage) and Patrick Patterson crashing the boards. The Wildcats are shooting 42% from three and can go a legitimate 10-deep if DeAndre Liggins ever finds his way off the pine. Again, expect some slip-ups for Kentucky in raucous atmospheres like Gainesville, Nashville or Starkville with a target on their backs about as enormous as John Wall’s potential, but no single team in the nation has the capacity to continue to improve as the season wears on as much as Kentucky.
What’s yet to be determined: How will Tennessee respond to the New Year’s Day arrest that led to their leading scorer and playmaker Tyler Smith being booted from the team? It’s hard to describe just how devastating losing Smith is to Bruce Pearl’s squad. The 6’7 point-forward may have been struggling early developing a groove offensively, but with Bobby Maze unable to provide adequate point guard play, Smith often acted as the team’s crunch-time distributor and setup man. With backup point Melvin Goins’ status also in serious jeopardy, the Volunteer offense will live and die with the play of Maze. This team still has enough talent to make the NCAA Tournament even if Smith, Goins, Cameron Tatum and Brian Williams never step foot on the floor in orange ever again. Scotty Hopson is an emerging sophomore that will extend opposing defenses. Senior Wayne Chism is the team’s best rebounder and J.P. Prince is a slashing guard with scoring ability. Often times, a team can emerge from tough times like these stronger and hungrier to prove the doubters wrong.
NCAA Locks: Kentucky.
Likely bids: Mississippi, Tennessee.
Bubble teams: Florida, Mississippi State, Vanderbilt.
Make other plans for March: Alabama, Arkansas, Auburn, Georgia, LSU, South Carolina.
What we’ve learned: There’s more than enough quality basketball around the nation this season outside of the top six conferences. The Atlantic 10 is on their way to their most NCAA bids in a long while with Temple and Rhode Island surprising. The Mountain West is annually underappreciated and has three teams at the top that have the talent to make a run at the Sweet 16 in BYU, New Mexico and UNLV. The Missouri Valley was down slightly the last two years but Northern Iowa has emerged as the class of a strong league. And the usual suspects — Butler, Gonzaga, VCU, Memphis, Western Kentucky -- are formidable as always. It’s a shame these schools don’t receive the same national TV respect (i.e., contracts with ESPN and CBS rather than Versus and MTN).
What’s yet to be determined: How much respect will the committee give these teams in comparison to other BCS conference teams? The committee always touts that they judge each team on a case-by-case basis without factoring in how many teams receive bids from each individual conference. If so, we could see a record number of non-BCS schools littering our brackets come March, especially considering the plight of the Pac-10, disappointment of the Big-10 and question marks surrounding the SEC.
NCAA Locks: BYU, Gonzaga, New Mexico, Temple.
Likely bids: Butler, Dayton, Northern Iowa, UNLV, Xavier.
Bubble teams: Cornell, Memphis, Missouri State, Richmond, Rhode Island, San Diego State, St. Mary’s, UAB, UTEP, Wichita State, William & Mary.