Conference Play Already Delivering Unexpected DramaPosted by Bennet Hayes on January 11th, 2014
We may still be in the nascent period of conference play, but early developments have hinted that a number of league races may not play out as planned. Heading into another good college basketball weekend, here are a few of the more surprising twists supplied by the early days of conference action.
The American Athletic Conference Is Up For Grabs
Remember when Louisville was supposed to be head and shoulders above the rest of this conference? Or when UConn was the Cards’ only real competition for the inaugural AAC crown? Yeah, me neither. Rick Pitino’s team may still be the AAC favorites, but after a non-conference season featuring just one victory over a top-100 team, the recent dismissal of Chane Behanan, and Thursday night’s home loss to Memphis, it’s safe to say that the Cardinals’ grasp on pole position has been significantly weakened. As for the Huskies, an ugly 0-2 beginning to conference play (losses at Houston and SMU) has altered the trajectory of their season. Shabazz Napier and company should be able to handle UCF later today, but with a trip to Memphis and a home date with Louisville looming next week, a 1-4 start to conference play is a definite possibility. It’s not the AAC we expected to see, certainly, but this unforeseen parity could give the league one of the better, more entertaining conference races the rest of the way.
Butler Still Seeking Its First Big East Win
Expectations were initially modest for Butler this season, but a non-conference campaign with just a pair of minor blemishes – two-point losses to Oklahoma State and LSU – gave hope that the transitions between coaches (Brad Stevens to Brandon Miller) and leagues (A-10 to Big East) might be smoother than expected. Not so much, however, as the Big East has so far proved daunting for the Bulldogs, dropping their first three games: on the road at Xavier, and home games to Villanova and (gasp!) DePaul. Three total overtime periods were needed for those two home defeats, but no number of extra sessions will excuse a loss to DePaul, a program that was 7-86 in the five-plus Big East seasons that preceded their successful trip to Hinkle Fieldhouse. The Bulldogs are better than that Big East record would indicate, but a brutal upcoming schedule has the potential to permanently sink the Butler ship. Georgetown visits Indianapolis tonight, and 11 of the 12 games that follow come against teams in Ken Pom’s current top-75. At least for a season, the Butler faithful may end up missing not only Brad Stevens, but also the Atlantic 10.
Tobacco Road Blues
The ACC is beginning to feel a lot like the Big East, no? A glance at the standings page shows conference newcomers Syracuse and Pittsburgh alone atop the league (3-0 each), and if you want to find that Tobacco Road duo most accustomed to occupying the top of the ACC standings, you will need to do a little scrolling down. North Carolina dropped to 0-3 in league play after today’s loss at Syracuse, while Duke is just 1-2 after Clemson knocked off the Blue Devils at Littlejohn Coliseum. Alarmists are definitely sounding the bell in Chapel Hill, and after loss number six of the season, it’s getting hard to blame them — no matter how good those early season wins over Louisville, Kentucky, and Michigan State may still look. The panic meter should and will be slightly more restrained down the road in Durham, but it might be time to seriously wonder how good these Blue Devils are. Wins over UCLA and Michigan in the non-conference slate are nice, but at least to this point, there’s a bit of a disconnect between public perception and paper resume when it comes to Duke. Can the Blue Devils – or more shockingly, the Tar Heels – rally in time to retake the ACC from the Northeast newcomers? Duke’s visit to the Carrier Dome (February 1) looms as a telling day.