RTC Weekly Primer: The Wait is Over, Conference Season is Here…

Posted by Henry Bushnell on December 30th, 2014

The wait is over. The wait is finally over. For a month and a half now, college basketball has kept us intermittently engrossed. There have been glimpses of the beauty, sniffs of the joy. But beginning today, we get to dive in. We get the full dosage. We get to bask in all the glory. The beginning of conference play is important, not just because attention ratchets up and the momentous games come in droves, but because these first few weeks are full of realizations. This is when we start to get a true feel for individual teams. This is when preseason “underrated” statements are validated and gaudy records against weak competition are exposed. It’s too early to make sweeping judgments about conferences as wholes, but at last, the balance of power within those leagues will start to reveal itself. We’ll learn a lot these next few weeks. Or at the very least, we’ll think we have. And right now, that’s good enough.

Three for the Money

We’re actually going to bypass this section for now because there aren’t many single games that stand out this week. There are no clashes between conference heavyweights. In fact, there are only a couple of contests between two ranked teams. Instead, this week is about collections of games. It’s about the Big Ten tip-off event on Tuesday. It’s about the quintet of Big East games on Wednesday. It’s about the first full west coast Friday night in the Pac-12. And it’s about a jam-packed Saturday all across the nation.

A Juicy Big Ten Triple-header

Maryland Begins Its Opening Big Ten Season Today (USA Today Images)

Maryland Begins Its Opening Big Ten Season Today (USA Today Images)

The two worst teams in the league, Northwestern and Rutgers, actually get things started today at Noon, but we can pretend that game isn’t happening. The real curtain-raiser is the afternoon tripleheader on ESPN2. First, Iowa travels to Columbus to take on Ohio State in a rematch of last year’s upset of the then-No. 3 Buckeyes. Without Roy Devyn Marble in the lineup, though, the Hawkeyes aren’t the same team they were a year ago, more closely resembling the team that closed last season on a 1-7 slide. They lack consistent scoring punch in the backcourt, and that could mean trouble against an Ohio State team of which perimeter defense is a legitimate strength. KenPom only gives the Hawkeyes a 19 percent chance to enter Value City Arena and get a win.

Jammed in the middle of the two big match-ups of the day is an intriguing game between Illinois and Michigan. Once all the Jim Harbaugh hullaballoo subsides, the Wolverines will desperately need a win after a four-game December losing streak that resulted in a plummet down the polls and computer rankings. The game of the day, however, comes at 5:00 PM ET when Michigan State initiates Maryland into the Big Ten. The Terrapins are definitely the league’s surprise team so far. They rolled through non-conference play, picking up wins away from home over Arizona State, Iowa State and Oklahoma State, and lost just once, to top-five Virginia. Dez Wells, Jake Layman and freshman Melo Trimble are as formidable a trio as any in the league. The Spartans, on the other hand, do not appear to be a vintage Tom Izzo squad. Even if Branden Dawson returns at 100 percent from a wrist injury, they lack a consistent post presence that has been a staple of the Izzo era. Neverttheless, a trip to East Lansing will be a major test for Maryland. If the Terps come away victorious this evening, they can make a legitimate claim as the second best team in the Big Ten behind Wisconsin.

Time to Start Dissecting the Big East

The Big East is going to be awesome this year. Just flat out awesome. Of the nation’s top six conferences, it is by far the most puzzling. Right now, we think we know two things: 1) that Villanova is at the top, and 2) that DePaul is at the bottom. But who will fall where in between those two is anybody’s guess. Starting on Wednesday at Noon ET, the unscrambling begins, and it begins in style with a quintuple-header on Fox Sports 1. The headliner is Butler at Villanova at 2:30 PM ET, but more on that later. Just as compelling is the early game between St. John’s and Seton Hall and the nightcap between Georgetown and Xavier.

Seton Hall and Isaiah Whitehead Tip Things Off For Us on Wednesday at Noon (USA Today Images)

Seton Hall and Isaiah Whitehead Tip Things Off For Us on Wednesday at Noon (USA Today Images)

Seton Hall is a team nobody is talking about, but the Pirates have compiled a 10-2 non-conference record, and have yet to lose at home. They’ve even cracked the KenPom top 40. The Johnnies come to town on Wednesday sporting a top-15 ranking and an impressive non-conference résumé, of which the only blemish is a loss to Gonzaga. These are two schools that we haven’t heard much from in recent years, but both have a chance to make some noise with a nationally-televised New Year’s Eve win. This match-up also features one of the nation’s top three-point shooters, Seton Hall’s Sterling Gibbs, against the Red Storm’s fifth-ranked three-point defense.

To close out a whirlwind first day of Big East play, Georgetown visits Xavier fresh off of an impressive win over Indiana. The Hoyas cracked the Top 25 again this week, and if anybody is going to push Villanova for the conference crown, it might just be John Thompson III’s crew. Xavier, though, has enjoyed a red hot start to the season on the offensive end. How the Musketeers will adjust to heightened competition in Big East play, though, is still a pertinent question. Either of these teams could end up as a top five seed in March, but either could also find itself on the bubble. On Wednesday, things will begin to sort themselves out.

The First Full Saturday

There are games to watch all over the place, as the Big 12, Pac-12 (Friday), and ACC all get going with conference play. There’s Baylor at Oklahoma; there’s Minnesota at Maryland; there’s UConn at Florida; there’s Virginia at Miami. After it all ends, we’ll know a lot more about many of these teams than we know right now.

Unbeaten Watch

And then there were six. With Louisville, Washington and Arizona suffering their first setbacks last week, a mere six teams remain undefeated heading into conference play. This week, three teams are in the spotlight. First, there is Colorado State. Of the six remaining teams, the Rams have come the closest to losing, but snuck by with one-point wins at Denver and New Mexico State as well as a two-point win at Colorado. It seems that when a team often has a few close calls like those, that first loss is looming — and it very well could come this week. Colorado State gets Boise State at home and New Mexico on the road – both top-100 teams – to commence Mountain West play, and both games are far from guarantees. TCU (what with it’s nation’s worst non-conference schedule) will also be put to the test when the Horned Frogs host West Virginia on Saturday. As for the third team…

Upset Alert!

Villanova Needs to be on Upset Alert This Week

Villanova Needs to be on Upset Alert This Week

As with Colorado State, Villanova – although the Wildcats are a much better team than the Rams – is rather fortunate to still be perfect. As much as we – okay, I – fawned over their improbably late comeback against Syracuse, the Wildcats had no right to win that game. They also barely escaped Michigan in November, a result that looks a lot different now than it did then. The loss just seems like it’s coming, and two opportunities for such present themselves this week. First, Butler goes to the Pavilion on Wednesday. The Bulldogs have come back down to earth a bit after their early-season heroics in the Bahamas, but it would be right in character for Butler to produce a huge performance on a big stage. Villanova will be a double-figure favorite at home, but that’s just the kind of thing that could give the Wildcats a false sense of security. And then on Saturday, Villanova travels to Seton Hall, which we’ve already discussed. Villanova at times struggled away from home against middle-of-the-road conference foes last season. Could it be a similar story this time around?

Crunch Time for…

  • Butler: The Bulldogs have looked fairly ordinary of late. After back-to-back losses to Tennessee and Indiana, they labored past Belmont on Sunday. Now road trips to take on a pair of the Big East’s best teams, Villanova and St. John’s, await. One win isn’t imperative, but it would be a major coup for Chris Holtmann and his group as they look to get back on track.
  • Ohio State: Quietly, the Buckeyes have beaten absolutely nobody through a month and a half of basketball. They have only one KenPom top-140 win, and it came over No. 99 Marquette. It’s crunch time for the Buckeyes now because they need to show that they’re worthy of their KenPom No. 10 ranking. Iowa comes first later today. Illinois comes next on Saturday. If the Buckeyes are in fact legit, two wins are absolutely necessary. Anything else will bring about more of those lingering doubts.

Survivor picks

Rush The Court’s conference survivor game begins this week. I have entered the contest for all six leagues, and will be releasing my picks every week, even after I get knocked out.

  • ACC: Notre Dame – It’s not all about schedule when making these picks. It’s also about who’s hot, and I challenge you to find a team in America hotter than the Irish right now.
  • Big 12: Texas – OK, this one is about the schedule.
  • Big Ten: Wisconsin – Yeah, so is this one. Penn State and Northwestern are two of the three worst teams in the conference.
  • Big East: Marquette – It’s going to be absolutely impossible to survive in the Big East in this competition. Marquette is a very risky option.
  • Pac 12: Oregon – Only one game, and it’s at Oregon State.
  • SEC: Starts next week.
Henry Bushnell (39 Posts)

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