Misperceptions and Missed Perceptions: Reviewing Some Preseason PredictionsPosted by Bennet Hayes on December 5th, 2013
With four weeks of basketball now in the books, it’s time to take a quick glance back at some of the things we thought we knew in the preseason. Some notions have proved accurate, but early results have tested a slew of preseason hypotheses that we once felt confident in. Here are a few examples, on both sides of the ledger:
We Thought We Knew…
Andy Enfield Was the New Coach Bringing Exciting Offensive Basketball to LA
We weren’t the only ones who thought it was USC, with Andy Enfield now at the helm – and not UCLA, with new head man Steve Alford — which was going to be lighting up Pac-12 scoreboards in the City of Angels this winter. Back in October, Enfield told his players, “if you want to play slow, go to UCLA.” Well, USC isn’t playing slow – they are 33rd nationally in possessions per game –but they are playing slower than the Bruins, which are six spots ahead of them in that category. And if this first month means anything, perhaps Enfield should have also advised any of his players who enjoy scoring, winning, or both, to plan that transfer across town. USC is 5-3, with just one win against a team in KenPom’s top 230 (!!!) and an offensive efficiency that ranks them 170th nationally. UCLA, on the other hand, is 8-0 and averaging more than 90 PPG behind the 7th-most efficient offense in the country. Now, there is a necessary asterisk here: Alford inherited significantly more talent at his disposal than Enfield did. Even so, it was Enfield – not Alford — who invited the cross-town comparisons. The Dunk City architect better have something besides his mouth working by the time USC visits Pauley Pavilion on January 5; otherwise, his Trojans are firmly at risk of getting run out of Westwood, and contrary to popular belief, there would be nothing slow about it.
The Complection of the Top of the Big 12
At this point, expecting Kansas to win the Big 12 generally equates to peeping out a Southern California window and looking for the sun in the morning. The Jayhawks may not have played their way out of the preseason expectation to win the Big 12 again this year, but they should have company at the top this time around. Marcus Smart and Oklahoma State, post play deficiencies aside, have looked every bit the part of Big 12 title contenders themselves, and many would now peg the Cowboys as Big 12 favorites (including yours truly). Kansas State and Baylor were next in line after the Pokes and Jayhawks a month ago, but the Wildcats have suffered through a miserable opening month, while Baylor has looked as shaky as a 7-1 team with two top-40 victories can look, with two of those wins coming against non-D-I competition and three of the other five earned with a final margin of victory of five points or fewer. Iowa State now looks like the team ready to take a step up in class. The Cyclones, 7-0 with a pair of top-40 victories of their own, could easily enter the Big 12 season undefeated and prepared to further shake up a suddenly unpredictable conference race.
VCU Was Now Entrenched Among the Game’s Elite
VCU’s lofty ranking in the preseason polls offered definitive proof that those Rams we once knew – the lovable, plucky underdogs that pressed their way into our hearts each March – yes, those teams were long gone. Shaka Smart’s program now came with expectations, but so far they are expectations that have gone unfulfilled this season. An opening victory at intrastate rival Virginia will shimmer both in March and on the recruiting trails, but the Rams have struggled since opening night in Charlottesville. They were thumped in Puerto Rico by Florida State and then lost a close one to Georgetown before heading back to the mainland, and the schedule since has provided no opportunities for eye-catching wins. Unfortunately, the nameless opponents will continue to swarm the VCU slate all the way up until mid-February (save for a January road trip to Dayton), so we may not find out too much about Shaka’s team until then. VCU should ultimately be fine, but after whiffing against marquee opponents in the non-conference last year and getting torched by Michigan on their way out of the 2013 NCAA Tournament, our preseason anointment of the Rams could have used a better beginning.
The Mountain West Would Struggle to Replicate Last Year’s Success
After a season for both fans and record books to remember in 2012-13, there was little preseason doubt that the Mountain West Conference would take a step back this time around. Now, just four weeks of basketball may be enough to eliminate any of that uncertainty. The three best teams in the conference a year ago – New Mexico, UNLV, and Colorado State – have all taken significant steps backwards, and that summary may be putting it mildly for a 3-3 Rebels team that has looked entirely lost thus far. On the flip side, Boise State is churning along at 7-0 and San Diego State has assumed banner-carrying duties for the league after an impressive Wooden Legacy performance, but good luck finding a signature victory from a team whose coach’s last name isn’t Fisher. Both Colorado State and New Mexico knocked off New Mexico State; that’s likely the best win the league has outside of the Aztec victories over Creighton and Marquette. We knew the Mountain West wouldn’t finish third in conference RPI again this season, but the first month of basketball has shown that the depth of the league’s plummet may yet surprise.
The New Big East Is A Good Time
If Big East purists frowned when news broke that Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Notre Dame were packing up their bags and heading south to the ACC, the fracturing of the remaining 12 teams had to bring them to tears. But once the weeping subsided and everyone took inventory of the new landscape, most folks realized that this new Big East, suddenly rid of the distraction that is football, might actually work out pretty well. True to expectation, everything appears to be running smoothly. Sure, a few teams expected to be in the league’s upper echelon have struggled a bit – I’m looking at you, Creighton and Georgetown – but the league appears rife with talented, competitive outfits. There may be no national title contender in the league, but at the very least, Villanova’s Battle 4 Atlantis title has made Jay Wright’s squad a team to watch moving forward. Outside of the Wildcats, seven other Big East teams look fully capable of dancing this March, with only Seton Hall and DePaul setting up as surefire non-NCAA teams. Good luck figuring out how the other eight teams will shake out over the next three months, but just as we expected a month ago, the Big East race will be fun to watch.
This is the Year of the Freshman
It was the dominant storyline heading into the year, and the narrative has retained its prominence throughout every minute of this early season. Whether it was the dazzling displays that Jabari Parker, Julius Randle, and Andrew Wiggins put on at the Champions Classic, Tyler Ennis’ steady hand in guiding Syracuse to an 8-0 start, or myriad star turns taken by Aaron Gordon, Zach LaVine and the rest of this talented class of newcomers, the impact of the freshman class has consistently been felt. Don’t expect it to change anytime soon, either. Freshmen are rarely at their best in November and December (important note for those prematurely pushing the panic button on Wiggins and his solid but unspectacular start), so unlike the other items on this list, no “subject to change” tag accompanies 2013-14’s youth movement – just buckle up and enjoy the ride.