Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Big-League Breakdown

With the calendar turning to 2008 last week, college basketball fans from across the country rejoiced – yes, it’s that time, it’s time for conference play. The next two months could mean more this year than most seasons, too, as there are plenty of teams from around the country that have eerily similar resumes – you know, the ones with 11 or 12 wins, including maybe one over a decent team and then a bunch of cupcake victories. League play in the “Big Six” conferences aims to separate the pretenders from the legit contenders. It started with a bang last week, as five top-25 teams already have at least one conference loss, with several more likely to fall this week as conference play heats up and the temperatures drop.

While many of the major conferences this season are one or two-team races, every “BCS” league has a multitide of contenders and sleepers that are difficult to differentiate. That’s what makes projecting the NCAA Tournament so difficult to do right now – there are too many teams that could potentially contend for bids come Selection Sunday. As a result, it’s time for me to take a stab at breaking down the big conferences. There are just enough games played already and enough left in the season to make an educated guess as to what is going on in the major conferences. Next week, I will breakdown the mid-major conferences.


Favorite: North Carolina – The Tar Heels came into the seasona as one of the top two teams in the country and have not disappointed. They are arguably the best offensive team in the nation, especially with they are getting out in transition for easy baskets. Tyler Hansbrough is a dominant big man down low, while Wayne Ellington has developed into a go-to option on the perimeter. Ty Lawson is an outstanding point guard.

Sleeper: Florida State – Every season, it seems that the Seminoles are in the mix for an at-large bid but fall short come Selection Sunday. It looks like a very similar situation this season. FSU looked very impressive in its win at Georgia Tech to open ACC play, but the Seminoles don’t have depth down low and need bodies. However, FSU has an experienced and athletic perimeter group and Uche Echefu is developing down low.

Bust: Maryland – This pick could come back to haunt me in a few weeks. Prior to a recent four-game winning streak, the Terrapins were just 6-6 with four home losses – including ones to American and Ohio. Maryland was predicted to be a middle-of-the-pack ACC team with a chance to make the NCAA Tournament, but its non-conference performance makes that very difficult right now unless UM has a big ACC season.

Team to Watch in the Conference Tournament: North Carolina State – Although the Wolfpack were one of the early-season disappointments and have losses to New Orleans and East Carolina, they are still a talented group. NC State has won six in a row, including an impressive win at Seton Hall. J.J. Hickson is one of the best freshmen in the country, while Gavin Grant and Brandon Costner are very good up front. They need a point guard, though.

Surprise So Far: Miami (Fl.) – The Hurricanes, as they are annually, were projected to finish in the bottom third of the ACC. However, they are one of the biggest surprises in the country, starting the season 13-1 with the lone loss to Winthrop two weeks ago. They have wins over Mississippi State, St. John’s, VCU and Providence. Jack McClinton has developed into one of the better guards in the conference.

NCAA Tournament Teams: North Carolina, Duke, Clemson, Miami (Fl.)

Bubble Teams: Florida State, Virginia, Boston College, North Carolina State

Big East

Favorite: Georgetown – The Hoyas were supposed to see stiff competition from Louisville in the race for the Big East crown, but the Cardinals have been a major disappointment, leaving Georgetown as the clear favorite atop the conference. Roy Hibbert is one of the best big men in the country and freshman Austin Freeman has been a pleasant surprise on the wing. This team has more balance and options than in previous years.

Sleeper: Syracuse – The Orange were another team that struggled at the outset of the season, but have really come on strong lately. They allowed at least 79 points five times in the first nine games of the season, but since have given up less than 70 points per game. Donte Greene and Jonny Flynn are one of the best freshmen duos in the country, and Paul Harris and Arinze Onuaku are much-improved up front.

Bust: Louisville – The Cardinals were expected to compete for the Big East title and a potential Final Four or Elite Eight berth. It hasn’t quite worked out that way, though. There has been a mixture of injuries (Juan Palacios, David Padgett), suspensions (Derrick Caracter, Earl Clark), and players in the doghouse (Edgar Sosa). Whatever the problem is, though, the Cardinals shouldn’t be losing at home to Cincinnati.

Team to Watch in the Conference Tournament: Connecticut – The Huskies don’t have any marquee wins just yet and haven’t shown they are capable of beating some of the top etams in the country, but they have talent and size – two key components for success. UConn hung with Memphis, Gonzaga and Notre Dame before falling late, but the young Huskies should be able to win the close games as the season goes on.

Surprise So Far: West Virginia – Most experts felt that the Mountaineers wouldn’t be able to adapt to Bob Huggins’ new style as well as they have. WVU started the season 10-1, and although it has lost two of three since then, the Mountaineers are clearly one of the better teams in the Big East. Joe Alexander is a tough player to match-up with, and the Mountaineers are far more explosive and tougher than they were last year.

NCAA Tournament Teams: Georgetown, Marquette, West Virginia, Syracuse, Pittsburgh

Bubble Teams: Villanova, Connecticut, Notre Dame, Louisville

Big 12

Favorite: Kansas – The Jayhawks, despite being picked in the top-four by most experts and sitting at No. 3 in the country right now, are much better than expected. KU is 15-0 and has been dominating opponents lately, winning its last eight games by an average of more than 26 points per game, with only one win by less than 18 points. Brandon Rush and Sherron Collins lead a loaded perimeter, while Darrell Arthur and Darrell Jackson anchor the paint.

Sleeper: Oklahoma – Who would have thought the Sooners would be one of the hottest teams in the country, especially after they lost to Stephen F. Austin at home last month? Since then, OU has won five in a row, including victories over Arkansas, Gonzaga and West Virginia (on the road). Blake Griffin is one of the most impressive freshmen in the country, and the perimeter players are beginning to contribute consistently.

Bust: Kansas State – This is sort of misleading; I never thought that Kansas State would be that good this season, mainly because of its lack of point guard play or a true post player. However, I was in the minority, so overall, the Wildcats could be looked at as a disappointment. KSU is just 9-4 on the season and 1-4 against the five toughest teams on its schedule. Michael Beasley is an unbelievable talent, but he can’t do everything by himself.

Team to Watch in the Conference Tournament: Missouri – The Tigers are in a similar boat to Kansas State, but I think they are better suited to beating some of the top teams in the conference. They are only 10-5 on the season, and have lost most of their marquee games. However, Stefhon Hannah is a very solid guard, DeMarre Carroll is a productive forward and the Tigers have plenty of perimeter shooters. Plus, Mizzou implements the “40 Minutes of Hell” defense, putting pressure on its opponents from the opening tip.

Surprise So Far: Baylor – The Bears were projected to finish in the middle-of-the-pack and were expected to be maybe a year or two away from truly competing for an NCAA Tournament berth. Well, the future has come early in Waco. Baylor is 12-2 on the season, with the lone losses to Washington State and Arkansas. Curtis Jerrells leads a deep and talented perimeter group, while Kevin Rogers anchors the frontcourt.

NCAA Tournament Teams: Kansas, Texas, Texas A&M, Oklahoma

Bubble Teams: Baylor, Kansas State, Nebraska

Big Ten

Favorite: Michigan State, Indiana – One of only two conferences that will feature a legit title race, the Big Ten has two of the best teams in the country at the top. Michigan State had lowered expectations after losing an exhibition game to D-II Grand Valley State. The Spartans, though, are 14-1 with their lone loss to UCLA. On the other side, Indiana is 13-1 and features one of the best inside-outside duos in the country in guard Eric Gordon and big man D.J. White.

Sleeper: Ohio State – The Buckeyes started the season slow, losing to D-II Findlay in the preseason and going 4-3 to begin the campaign. Since then, though, Ohio State has won seven in a row, including victories over Florida and Illinois. Freshman Kosta Koufos is a tough match-up up front, while Jamar Butler has been playing unbelievably well in the past couple of weeks. This team is only going to get better.

Bust: Illinois – Michigan has been far worse than expected under John Beilein, but no one really anticipated much from the Wolverines anyway. On the other hand, Illinois was supposed to fight for an at-large bid and a top-four finish in the conference. The Fighting Illini have lost three (including one to Tennessee State) in a row and have five home losses on the season. At 0-2 in the conference, Bruce Weber needs to turn it around quickly.

Team to Watch in the Conference Tournament: Purdue – Similar to Ohio State, the Boilermakers are an extremely young team that will only get better as the season moves towards March. Losses to Wofford and Iowa State halted the team’s progress, but Purdue has wins over Louisville and Missouri State and close losses at Clemson and Michigan State. The Boilermakers have five newcomers in their top seven, which bodes well for the future.

Surprise So Far: Penn State – The Nittany Lions started the season very poorly, losing four of five at one point to drop to 3-4. However, they have won seven games in a row, including an overtime victory over Seton Hall and two Big Ten road games against Northwestern and Illinois. PSU isn’t expected to contend for a league title, but Geary Claxton and Jamelle Cornley are a very productive forward tandem.

NCAA Tournament Teams: Michigan State, Indiana, Wisconsin, Ohio State

Bubble Teams: Purdue


Favorite: UCLA, Washington State – Another league with a dogfight at the top. The Pac-10 might be the deepest conference in the country in terms of quality teams, and the elite of the league reflect that plethora of talent. UCLA has just one loss on the season, a two-point defeat at home to Texas. The Bruins have started conference play with a bang, winning back-to-back road games at Stanford and California. Washington State is one of six undefeated teams left in the country, a record that includes road wins over Baylor, Gonzaga and Washington. By the way, these two teams face-off this Saturday at Pauley Pavilion.

Sleeper: Stanford – The Cardinal were expected to finish in the top tier of the league in the preseason – then star big man Brook Lopez was suspended because of academics, the Cardinal lost to Siena and people wrote them off. However, Stanford has won eight of nine since then, with the lone loss at home to UCLA. With Brook and Robin Lopez down low, the Cardinal have the bigs to compete with anyone in the paint.

Bust: USC, Oregon – Disclaimer: I still think both of these teams have great shots at making the NCAA Tournament, but neither has lived up to preseason expectations. USC is just 9-5 and O.J. Mayo simply isn’t making the impact he was anticipated to make. The Trojans are young and talented, but they need to fix several areas in order to make a run. As for Oregon, it seems as if everyone underestimated the loss of Aaron Brooks. Prior to the Ducks’ road win at Arizona this past weekend, they had lost three of four, including one to Oakland. Don’t count them out, though.

Team to Watch in the Conference Tournament: California – The Golden Bears are going to be a load for any team to face the rest of the season. They have one of the best frontcourt duos in the country in Ryan Anderson and center DeVon Hardin, and two guards that can score in Patrick Christopher and Jerome Randle. If they can get consistent point guard play and perimeter shooting, they’ll be a tough group to beat.

Surprise So Far: Arizona State – The Sun Devils were expected to make noise in the Pac-10 this season, but most figured it would be a year before ASU made a big leap in the conference. However, ASU is 12-2 and has won eight in a row, including victories over Xavier and Oregon. The Sun Devils’ two blowout losses to Nebraska and Illinois seem like eons ago. Freshman James Harden and big man Jeff Pendergraph form a terrific duo.

NCAA Tournament Teams: UCLA, Washington State, Stanford, Arizona State

Bubble Teams: USC, Arizona, Oregon, California


Favorite: Tennessee – The Volunteers were projected to win the league by a wide margin, and it still seems like they will. Aside from a blowout loss at the hands of Texas, Tennessee has been one of the best teams in the country. It has won seven in a row, including impressive victories over Xavier and Gonzaga on the road. Chris Lofton and Tyler Smith lead an extremely that has some of the best collective talent in the country.

Sleeper: Arkansas – The SEC West, as it was last year, looks to be a wide-open division outside of Mississippi (and there are still plenty of doubts about the Rebels). The Razorbacks are as good of a bet as anyone to take the division. Guard Patrick Beverley’s numbers are down from last season, but Arkansas has a deep frontcourt that can create match-up problems. Arkansas is coming off of a win over Baylor in Dallas.

Bust: Kentucky – The plight of the Wildcats has been well-documented in the media this season, so I’m not going to pick on them too much more. Heading into the season, I thought UK had plenty of talent and would only improve with the addition of Billy Gillispie as its coach. Boy, was I wrong. Kentucky is just 6-7 on the season, with losses to San Diego, Gardner-Webb and UAB at home. There’s a chance Billy G will turn it around this year, but it’s unlikely.

Team to Watch in the Conference Tournament: Alabama – Sure, it lost to Florida at home last night and doesn’t look like much of a contender. However, outside of the top few teams in the league, the SEC is fairly pedestrian. Whoever gets hot can make a run. The Crimson Tide have one of the best big men in the country in Richard Hendrix and scoring wings in Alonzo Gee and Mykal Riley. They do need to get consistent point guard play, though.

Surprise So Far: Mississippi, Vanderbilt – Both undefeated teams deserve mention here. Mississippi is probably the bigger surprise, since many thought the Rebels would finish in last in the SEC West after losing most of their key contributors from last season. However, they are 13-0 with an impressive win over Clemson on a neutral court. Vanderbilt, on the other hand, is probably the better team overall. The Commodores are 15-0 and have one of the best inside-outside combos in the country in wing Shan Foster and freshman big man A.J. Ogilvy.

NCAA Tournament Teams: Tennessee, Vanderbilt, Mississippi, Arkansas

Bubble Teams: Florida, Mississippi State

1 comment:

  1. No arguments, really, outside of listing Alabama. They would be one of the least likely teams to get hot in the SEC tourney because of their poor coaching, I would have listed Florida.