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Conference crystal ball could forecast March's map to Houston

Jared Trexler
College Basketball Contributing Editor


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Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - We turned the page.

Last year felt like a transition; 365 days of adjustment, a perceptual shift from Wall Street's unbridled greed to a nation's re-devotion to faith and family. We spent more time cherishing people than possessions -- mostly because as a collective whole we didn't have the financial means to purchase "things."

We instead had large family dinners. Sports brought about conversation and fellowship, and I expect more of the same as basketball fans turn their collective eyes to college hoops as conference play defines contenders from pretenders. And with that transition, we look ahead to the conference season (and 2011) with pecking orders and things to watch for over the next three months.

Big East

1. Syracuse

2. Pittsburgh

3. Georgetown

4. Villanova

5. Notre Dame

6. Connecticut

7. Louisville

8. Marquette

9. Cincinnati

10. St. John's

11. West Virginia

12. Rutgers

13. Seton Hall

14. South Florida

15. Providence

16. DePaul

THOUGHTS FOR A NEW YEAR:

I have been bullish on the Orange since November, but their offensive efficiency and toughness are traits of a winner, especially in a conference of heavyweights prided on stout defenses. The Huskies' failure at Petersen Events Center was due in part to difficult surroundings, but it also speaks to a larger point about UConn's inadequacies. The Huskies are a poor on-ball defensive squad and their offense doesn't run through Kemba Walker... it is Kemba Walker. UConn's surprise early-season success was predicated on role players stepping up their games. That didn't happen in Pittsburgh and hasn't been indicative since Maui. Georgetown looked sluggish at Notre Dame last week, but its upside outweighs Notre Dame's head-to-head edge. Though, make no mistake, these Irish play on the opponents' waist line, not giving an inch, a valuable trait in a long, grueling slate. Ben Hansbrough forced Georgetown's Chris Wright into a 1-for-9 shooting night, and Notre Dame pounded the Hoyas' thin frontline with 11 offensive rebounds and 27 trips to the charity stripe last week. I'm just concerned about the minutes Mike Brey's starters are logging this early in the season. Brey played just six regulars more than 15 minutes, including three 37-minutes plus.

The main surprise above may come by my placement of unbeaten Cincinnati so far down the conference ladder. The Bearcats' next two games, Xavier and at Villanova, will clear what are murky waters regarding their potential.

ACC

1. Duke

2. North Carolina

3. Florida State

4. Boston College

5. Maryland

6. Miami-Florida

7. Virginia Tech

8. Virginia

9. North Carolina State

10. Clemson

11. Georgia Tech

12. Wake Forest

THOUGHTS FOR A NEW YEAR:

The Atlantic Coast Conference is simply Duke and everyone else, and while that speaks volumes for Duke's talent and national championship aspirations, it also exposes what is a down year for the conference. North Carolina is starting to find more minutes for Kendall Marshall at the point, and Harrison Barnes is slowly working his way out of a prolonged shooting slump, yet the Tar Heels still have little frontcourt depth and long-range shooting issues. An early February rundown of three road games in 12 days (Boston College, Duke and Clemson) will show plenty about UNC's maturity and overall growth.

Who is next? The portfolios point to Boston College, a surprise in Steve Donahue's first season in Chestnut Hill. The Eagles already have victories over Texas A&M and California and road wins at Massachusetts, Maryland and South Carolina. The NCAA Tournament Selection Committee loves road and neutral floor victories, but this prognosticator sees one major red flag: rebounding. All other peripherals point at a dangerous team with league longevity, but the Eagles get beat up on the backboards, averaging just over 31 rebounds a game -- a staggering 307th in the nation. Part of that stat is predicated on Boston College's plodding style, but after Josh Southern, it doesn't have a big man by definition on the roster. Miami is talented, but maddeningly inconsistent. Virginia Tech has been ravaged by injuries. Virginia's Jekyll- Hyde act includes victories over Minnesota, Oregon and the previously- mentioned Hokies and losses to Iowa State and Seattle. This looks like a four- bid year for the conference unless Gary Williams' Terrapins get on their high horse over the next dozen games. Maryland doesn't have a single non-conference victory to hang its hat on.

Big Ten

1. Ohio State

2. Michigan State

3. Purdue

4. Wisconsin

5. Illinois

6. Minnesota

7. Northwestern

8. Michigan

9. Penn State

10. Indiana

11. Iowa

THOUGHTS FOR A NEW YEAR:

Ohio State has established itself as the clear conference favorite thanks to an emerging star on the interior (Jared Sullinger) and a triumvirate of assassins on the perimeter (led by Jon Diebler). Ohio State gives opponents a "pick-your- poison" option, but both are deadly. My ship will evidently sink or swim to shore with the Spartans, who have been beaten up by the national media for failure to live up to lofty preseason expectations. I believe Kalin Lucas gets healthier with each day his Achilles injury is in the rear view mirror. I believe the trio of Durrell Summers, Delvon Roe and Draymond Green is too experienced and too talented to not eventually hit a consistent stride. Michigan State is the one team I'd rather play tomorrow than next week, and next week rather than two months from now. The Spartans will get better, gel into a cohesive unit and not give away THEIR conference without a fight.

Purdue has two of the league's best players, but what happens in late February in East Lansing or Columbus when JaJuan Johnson gets in foul trouble? You know Ohio State head coach Thad Matta and Michigan State coach Tom Izzo's first order of business will be to attack a sometimes overly-aggressive Johnson and get him to the bench. Otherwise, Purdue has acquitted itself well after the devastating injury to Robbie Hummel in the preseason. This conference's line of demarcation sits after Illinois. Throw in Wisconsin and the top five are all NCAA Tournament quality clubs with star players and sound bench guidance. Minnesota leads a shallow second tier with a deceiving 0-2 conference record thanks to road losses at Wisconsin and Michigan State. Northwestern looked to be in good position for an at-large opportunity two weeks back, but then squandered signature victory opportunities versus St. John's and Purdue.

Big 12

1. Kansas

2. Missouri

3. Texas

4. Kansas State

5. Baylor

6. Texas A&M

7. Iowa State

8. Oklahoma State

9. Colorado

10. Oklahoma

11. Nebraska

12. Texas Tech

THOUGHTS FOR A NEW YEAR:

Talk about preseason perceptions thrown off kilter by November-December events. Texas threw itself onto the national stage far before many believed possible. The Longhorns grew up quickly because of a Goliath out-of-league schedule that included victories over Illinois, North Carolina and Michigan State. Jordan Hamilton has blossomed from a "me-first" scorer into Texas' best overall player, a talented athlete with a scorer's mentality who has learned to play within the game's flow. Two of the next three leading scorers are freshmen, Cory Joseph and Tristan Thompson. Both have been thrown in the fire (logging the second and third most minutes on the team) and have survived with minimal burns. Unlike Texas, Missouri relies on upperclassmen without a freshman in its top five in scoring. Everyone knew the Tigers wanted to play fast, but the question was whether they could accomplish that with some sense of control. Results? A total of 28 assists to just 13 turnovers for Marcus Denom and a nearly 3-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio for point guard Mike Dixon, Jr. (57 assists to 22 turnovers).

When two teams ascend someone must fall. Kansas State had legitimate Final Four aspirations before the season's outset, and while it still has the talent to turn the tide, there are major warning signs. Jacob Pullen's switch to the point has not helped his shooting stroke; the Wildcats turn the ball over far too often and shoot free throws worse than most middle school teams. And then there was the off-court issues involving Pullen and Curtis Kelly. The turn of the calendar could not have come soon enough for head coach Frank Martin. In a league looking at five or six tournament spots, Kansas is the cream of the crop. Josh Selby's fluid entry into the rotation has made the Jayhawks more dynamic on both ends of the floor. Kansas' most under-appreciated strong point may be its depth. Ten players average 4.7 points per game or more and all average over 15 minutes per contest. This will be one talented, fresh team come March.

Pac-10

1. Washington

2. Arizona

3. USC

4. UCLA

5. Washington State

6. Arizona State

7. California

8. Stanford

9. Oregon

10. Oregon State

THOUGHTS FOR A NEW YEAR:

The Pac-10 was overrun with fresh faces last season, resulting in a developmental year for the league. Growth has brought about renewed competitiveness and possibly four or five NCAA Tournament teams by season's end. Washington is the class of the league with its best player, guard Isaiah Thomas. The Huskies have already stated their conference supremacy with road wins at USC and UCLA. Matt Bryan-Amaning and Justin Holiday have provided a frontcourt scoring punch to complement Thomas on the perimeter. Derrick Williams' added muscle has given him, and Arizona, physicality on the interior missing from the last few versions of the Wildcats. Arizona needs either Kyle Fogg or Lamont Jones to provide more consistent perimeter scoring to take some of the load off Williams, who has played 27 minutes per game as the focal point of a defense's game plan.

Who fills the third spot is still up for debate. Ben Howland's Bruins have shown glimpses (wins against BYU and Washington State), but for each step forward there seems to always be corresponding steps back (a four-game skid from November 24-December 5). Southern California is nearly as mind-numbing. Just when you think it has figured it out (wins over Texas and Tennessee), it falls back into bad habits of careless turnovers, poor defensive principles and a tendency to play down to competition (four odd losses to Rider, Bradley, Nebraska and TCU). Washington State seemed to fit the at-large profile a month ago with wins over Gonzaga, Mississippi State and Baylor. What has happened since December 24? Three straight losses, two games allowing 80-plus points (after no such occurrences in the first 11 games) and an 0-2 start to conference play. Five very winnable games come before a trip to Tucson to face the Wildcats. It is mandatory the Cougars win at least four of them.

SEC

I won't touch the SEC here because I will spend ample virtual space discussing Tennessee head coach Bruce Pearl's impending suspension and what is looking like a very watered down conference next week.

FINE 15

1. Duke (13-0): Congratulations to Mike Krzyzewski for passing former UNC head coach Dean Smith for second on the all-time wins list. Next up: his mentor Bob Knight. At the rate these Blue Devils are rolling, the 22 wins necessary to reach the top of the summit are possible this year.

2. Ohio State (14-0): High-octane Buckeyes have reached 75 points in every game since November 29th. With a little more seasoning, Sullinger and his gunslingers may be on a crash course with the team right above them.

3. Kansas (13-0): Bill Self can afford to send Marcus Morris a message (the guard didn't start one game after getting ejected for throwing an elbow against California). The depth of the Jayhawks (discussed above) will be evident as the season progresses.

4. Syracuse (15-0): We all may need to stop throwing caveats about Fab Melo into any conversation involving the Orange. This may be a lost season for the work-in-progress freshman. It is not a lost campaign for the rest of a very talented team.

5. Pittsburgh (13-1): Suffocating is an apt word to describe its dissection of UConn and Kemba Walker. Panthers' defense, which failed them against Tennessee, is back in full force.

6. San Diego State (15-0): Are the Aztecs this season's Butler? We take a stab at answering that question next week. Until then, just being San Diego State is treating Steve Fisher's team well.

7. Villanova (12-1): Two big wins in a four-day span versus Temple and Rutgers. Yet, Corey Fisher's inconsistency will be this team's downfall in the Big East gauntlet unless it is rectified.

8. Missouri (13-1): Complete undressing of Old Dominion is just another reason to jot this team down on any Final Four short list.

9. Kentucky (11-2): Where has that been, Josh Harrellson? If John Calipari can get anything remotely resembling the big man's 23-point, 14- rebound line against Louisville, these Wildcats are more than just the weak SEC's best team.

10. Texas (11-2): Joseph will probably get the assignment of guarding Walker when the Longhorns continue their brutal out-of-league slate versus UConn next Saturday.

11. Purdue (13-1): Ryne Smith, if you can give 13 points (his scoring output against Northwestern) every game, good days are ahead in West Lafayette.

12. Connecticut (11-1): Am I being harsh with this position? I don't think so. By this time next week, (road dates at Notre Dame and Texas) I believe the Huskies will be out of this poll.

13. Notre Dame (12-2): The Irish are not flashy, but their playing style may very well stand the test of time. Barometer game on Tuesday versus UConn.

14. BYU (14-1): Circle your calendar: First of two dates with Aztecs is slated for January 26th in Provo.

15. Central Florida (13-0): The major misconception is that this team is just Marcus Jordan. Sophomore forward Keith Clanton is the team's leading scorer, rebounder and he shoots nearly 55 percent from the floor. Learn the name, nation. Countless stories will be written about his meteoric rise come March.

WHAT TO WATCH FOR THIS WEEK

Texas' young guards vs. UConn's Walker highlights an active week as conference play goes into full swing for most of the nation. St. John's has a chance to continue its winning ways with a Monday home tilt against Georgetown.


Trexler is the author of "99 Things You Wish You Knew Before...Filling Out Your Hoops Bracket." Click HERE to purchase the Kindle version...and stay tuned on an updated hardcopy edition this winter! Trexler also wrote "Penn State Football: An Interactive Guide To The World of Sports", a detailed look at the Nittany Lions' storied football history. It can be purchased HERE.

Comments? Criticism? Applause? Contact Jared Trexler at jtt128@comcast.net.

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