Just under two months now until Selection Sunday.
While the college hoop season officially began in early November, for a lot of fans it begins now. Conference play. No longer playing on islands before a handful of folks taking a break from the sun and surf. You are playing on familiar turf – sometimes your own, sometimes your rival’s – and everyone is screaming at you. A lot of everyones.
I’ve had a number of folks comment both on and off the site they don’t follow collegiate basketball until Selection Sunday. I get it. It is hard to keep up with the daily onslaught of games involving 345 teams…every announcer you hear telling you today or tonight’s game is “THE game of the week.”
Top-ranked teams get beat and one says to oneself…“self, if they’re so highly thought of why did they lose?”
The truth is now is the time teams start to coalesce and form what they will eventually present come NCAA Tournament time. While wins are still the most prized possessions, coaches are looking for teams to make the most of each possession as they navigate their way through conference schedules when the lights are brighter and the stakes are higher. You find out the true essence of your squad in the crucible of conference play.
And it always helps to be playing in a strong conference when you’re trying to get to a National Championship.
“That which does not kill you makes you stronger” – Nietzsche
Which brings me to some thoughts midway to March Madness…
The Pac-12 looks to be the very worst of the major conferences. The Big Ten looks to be the very best. The Big East looks overrated. The Atlantic 10 looks underrated. If the Big East gets the most teams into the Dance this year it’s only because of the massive size of the conference, which is a sad reason indeed. Rutgers did manage to defeat two Top-10 teams in the same year for the first time in thirty years…but they’re also owning 10-7. (Those early rankings are just that…early) That being said, within the Big East Seton Hall…can ball. I have seen the Pirates a couple of times and at 15-2 it is nice to see the Hall in the conversation. The Atlantic 10 will beat each other senseless in conference play but do not look down on them. The cream of their crop will accumulate “L’s” here and there. This is an emerging conference and teams who make it through to the Madness will be dangerous. They should get four bids. They might get five. As many as the ACC should. It could be the weakest that conference has been in quite some time.
Surprise Team #1 – HC Tom Crean has Indiana way ahead of schedule in their return to basketball royalty. He’s got a rising (still growing?) star in 6-11 Freshman Cody Zeller. Big-boy home wins against Kentucky and Ohio State before New Year’s Day…but a home loss last night to Minnesota shows they’re still learning resiliency and toughness. They take a 15-2 mark into their next game Sunday – the rematch at Ohio State. The Buckeyes currently sit at 15-3 and want to get both their swagger back…and their revenge. We’ll see whether or not Indiana really is headed for a “Hoosiers” finale. Ohio State has many others besides Indiana to deal with in that power-laden Big Ten…but the Buckeyes should be on track for a top seed to the Dance.
Surprise Team #2 – HC Frank Haith has Missouri way ahead of expectations. Not because he didn’t inherit a good team (all five starters were scheduled to be back)…but because as he departed Miami some sand kicked up about improprieties there. There were whispers he would be sucked into that muck. Then, he lost his best player Laurence Bowers two weeks before practice even began to a torn ACL. With a record of 15-1, we’ll consider the Tigers’ transition to a new coach complete. They will challenge for a high seed to the Tournament.
North Carolina, 15-2 with losses to Kentucky and UNLV, still appears to be the team to beat come March. Kentucky’s Wildcats only have the one loss to Indiana to pair alongside 16 wins. They will also be a favorite to reach the Final Four. Syracuse, Murray State and Baylor remain the nation’s only unbeatens. The Orange have the deepest squad in the country and their second five could easily hold their own with many starting fives. If you’re not favoring Carolina or Kentucky to win it all, you’re down with the ‘Cuse.
Murray State and Baylor are having historic seasons for their universities with 16 and 17 wins respectively. Speaking of coaching transitions, Racers’ HC Steve Prohm is in his first year there. Another coaching transition we can say has been made successfully. As with the Bears’ HC Scott Drew…who brought a program back from essentially an NCAA-death penalty state to warranting strong consideration for a top seed come Selection Sunday.
Among “little guys” who could make trouble for the expected elite…one team nobody figured would remain in the national conversation was the San Diego State Aztecs. After losing four starters from last year’s super squad they sit at 14-2…awaiting another nationally ranked Mountain West foe this Saturday, those dangerous Runnin’ Rebs of UNLV…16-2 and owners of that win over Carolina. One lesser-known player nobody figured would be legitimately discussed as Player of the Year, Creighton’s Doug McDermott. 25 ppg, 8 rpg, 62% from the field, 56% from 3-land, 85% from the line. The nationally ranked Bluejays are 14-2…thanks to his play.
March 11th will be here before you know it. In the meantime, enjoy the prelude…to the Madness.