Conference crystal ball could forecast March's map
College Basketball Contributing Editor
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
5. Notre Dame
10. St. John's
11. West Virginia
13. Seton Hall
14. South Florida
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.
2. North Carolina
3. Florida State
4. Boston College
7. Virginia Tech
9. North Carolina State
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.
1. Ohio State
2. Michigan State
9. Penn State
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.
4. Kansas State
6. Texas A&M
7. Iowa State
8. Oklahoma State
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
5. Washington State
6. Arizona State
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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.