As the real conference season for college basketball begins (a few low-division 1 programs/mid-majors have already played a game or two), we take a look at what has happened so far and what will likely happen going forward. To start, the idea that no teams from this year could have been in this year’s Top 5 or 10 from last year (words uttered by one of the idiots of CBS or ESPN, who really cares) is really just a joke. While there is certainly no dominant team akin to Kentucky’s team of last year (though few compare historically), there are several teams with the kind of depth and well-roundedness that suggests they will won’t be susceptible to early-round upsets when March Madness rolls around.
Upsets were all around as teams that started the year with promise quickly became teams that really need to impress in the conference schedule to make up for a few blips on the radar. Teams like Vanderbilt and Gonzaga, who have weathered injuries and defensive woes come to mind. Or Notre Dame and California, who have nice starting groups but not anyone beyond that. And then there’s teams with a collection of high 4 or 5 star guys that are nice in theory but either don’t gel or just don’t fit the system, like Ohio State or Georgetown.
But then those same teams manage to play big when needed and stay in the picture until this point. And while you can contend that everyone is still in it until we are on “Bubble Watch”, there really are teams that have to prove they belong or else is sayonara-see-ya-later. Take Florida State, who had a top-level recruiting class added to a seasoned group with a legitimate talent in Xavier Rathan-Mayes. They’ve struggled to stop anyone on defense and it’s got them struggling right now to find an identity. A win against VCU is okay this year, but a weak schedule doesn’t help if you don’t take care of the games you are expected to win.
The injury bug can’t be controlled, but good coaches find a way to win. Wisconsin did it for so long until this year (and they will continue to struggle), but not much was really expected from those guys no matter who their coach was going to be. Wichita State, on the other hand, was expected to make another deep run into March (and still can). No one expected Fred Van Vleet to go down with an injury and for Ron Baker to miss a little time along with Evan Wessel AND Anton Grady. The Shockers have some depth but not against the Power 5 conference teams that can win with athleticism. Now at full strength again, they really need to win just about every game in conference and the conference tourney.
And speaking of said Missouri Valley Conference tournament, Northern Iowa has dug themselves a hole that will take some time and several blowouts to make up for. Wins against George Mason and Washington State may very well look better in a month, but losses to Colorado State and New Mexico aren’t very good this year (two years ago we might be singing a different tune). Wins against Iowa State and North Carolina were big no matter who was healthy, but having a 7-5 record is only good if the Panthers win 14 or more conference games. And those losses can’t come to anyone other than Wichita State, Evansville, and maybe Southern Illinois.
Now looking at the Power 5 let’s make a few things clear, the Big East teams currently towards the top aren’t as good as their rankings. This conference has more depth than many give it credit for. But there aren’t any teams with the right mix of depth and talent that really jump out or that look built for a deep run in March. Xavier and Butler really look like the best two teams, though. Both are legitimate teams with role players and an identity. Providence has their star player (and Ben Bentil too I guess), Seton Hall has a couple guys with talent and recruiting rankings, Georgetown has so many nice pieces but don’t really fit yet, and then there’s DePaul who may not be at the bottom again. If I’m looking for one surprise it will be with Marquette. They’ve got a lottery-pick in freshmen Henry Ellenson and several other talented guys to be continue to build the program back up on.
The Big Ten and Big 12 are both top-heavy but here are two teams I think will surprise. We’ve got Northwestern, who finally has some skill mixed with the right amount of athleticism to take advantage of their system. And then there’s a Kansas State ball club with a really under-rated win over a solid squad in Georgia (who’s my surprise team in the SEC-though there are potentially many). The Pac-12 has a few intriguing teams (and everyone except Washington State currently in the RPI Top 100), but I’m sticking with my original assessment of Oregon State and their potential as a surprise team. Lots of length and shooting to add to an already impressive defensive team. Texas A & M (or South Carolina for that matter) isn’t going to creep up on anyone, so let’s go with Ole Miss (who has Stefan Moody back to bombs away all year long). The only other big conference worth mentioning is the ACC. And while there aren’t any programs that haven’t been known for basketball at some time or another there is one that hasn’t been near the top in quite a while. Wake Forest doesn’t have any bad losses but does have wins against UCLA and Indiana plus some experience to lean on.While this season will have less dominant teams, and thus less dominant players, something tells me that this year’s draft won’t be as weak as expected when all is said and done.