December Month in Review and Conference Play Preview

Another month of college basketball, another month filled with random outliers and fun statistical surprises.  Apologies for the delay in sharing this with everyone.  The holiday season brought a lot of time with friends and family.  As a consequence, my timeliness in sending this out before all conferences began their play was poor.  I’m excited to offer that I will be more diligent in sharing conference updates weekly towards the end of January!

Fastest Games of December

  1. Wyoming 96 – Drake 89 (2OT) [95 Possessions]
  2. Portland State 94 – Loyola Marymount 85 [93 Possessions]
  3. Colorado 112 – San Diego State 103 [92 Possessions]

Slowest Games of December

  1. Saint Mary’s 69 – Dayton 54 [56 possessions]
  2. Utah 66 – Oregon 56 [55 possessions]
  3. La Salle 58 – Holy Cross 54 [54 possessions]

Conference Play is Upon Us – What Should We Expect?

With conferences changing up how their schedule is laid out because of when conference tournaments are played, some teams have already begun their conference play. I’m saying this because the results do adjust how I perceive the conference play will turn out.  I’ve gone ahead and ranked teams how I predict they will finish based on what I’ve seen, rankings/ratings of statisticians, and other factors like personnel injuries.  Due to the amount of time it has taken me to complete this write up, I have not ranked a few conferences or only mentioned ones that have a legitimate chance of winning the conference.

ACC – After watching Boston College through November, I thought the Golden Eagles had a fighting chance to upset a good Duke Blue Devils team. Turns out that Duke’s sustained underachieving defense and transition defense is liable to good three-point shooting teams. Boston College made their long distance shots and that turned out to be the significant difference in the game. Duke kept it close which is encouraging for the Blue Devils. How should we expect the conference expect to shake out over the course of the winter?

Big Ten – Well this seems like a down year for the Big Ten after what they’ve shown in non-conference play. Minnesota and Northwestern have been disappointing in my opinion. They are great teams that have shown long stretches of consistent play. However, there are droughts of scoring or continued mistakes on defense that have allowed opponents to walk away with victories. The biggest surprise? Ohio State was predicted to finish last in the conference this year, but after going to Wisconsin and playing at home against Michigan, the Buckeyes are sitting atop the conference at 2-0. Chris Holtmann’s first year as head coach of the Buckeyes can be considered an overachievement already in my opinion. Having eight scholarship athletes and developing a new structure of offense and defense for these players takes time. I’m not surprised at all. Holtmann demonstrates time and again a unique ability to connect with athletes he coaches far beyond the court. His understanding of strengths and playing to them is what got him to Ohio State and will keep him there for a long time. By the time the Big Ten tournament comes around, this is how I see the Big Ten shaking out during conference play:

  1. Michigan State – The Spartans have the talent to win the whole tournament this year. What’s surprising is the lack of discussion about this team since they lost to Duke back in November. They will be challenged by Purdue.
  2. Purdue – The Boilermakers have the makeup of a dark horse and have the pieces to make it to the Elite 8. They have shown signs of weakness, allowing teams to make runs at them. However, their ability to play their brand of basketball and not rush has been key to them maintaining a strong resume to this point of the season.
  3. Michigan – Coach Beilein has his Wolverines operating at a high level defensively. Their defense will carry them when they lose their shooting touch during games.
  4. Ohio State – After a pleasant start to this season, the Buckeyes look to make some noise in the Big Ten. I’m already impressed with the road win at a down Wisconsin side and a home win against the Michigan Wolverines. If they continue to surprise with results, they have the potential to be a top 4 Big Ten team!
  5. Minnesota – The Wildcats have been disappointing to this point, not winning games they should have because they bring back nearly their entire team that made it to the NCAA tournament last year. They need to figure things out if they wish to repeat their success last year.
  6. Maryland – After a good start to the season, the Terrapins have fallen off a bit. If they wish to be a lock into the tournament in March, they’ll have to do some work in the Big Ten. Right now, I have them sitting as one of the last teams in.
  7. Penn State – Always a team that has at least one surprisingly impressive win most seasons, the Nittany Lions look to fight to call themselves one of the most c
  8. Ohio State –
  9. Indiana – Archie Miller has had an up and down start to the season and looks like it will continue that way. Playing closely against Duke at home and beating Notre Dame in an overtime game in Indianapolis gives a positive outlook, yet home losses to Indiana State and Fort Wayne show how much the Hoosiers have to continue to build.
  10. Wisconsin – Stagnant scoring and injuries will unfortunately play a large role in the Badger’s season. After taking a loss to Ohio State at home, this Big Ten season does not look great for Wisco.
  11. Nebraska – Perennial bottom tier basketball team continues to wallow in the depths of this conference. They could maybe win 5 or 6 games this season.
  12. Illinois – I thought this team had a great chance at surprising people this season and I still do. Brad Underwood’s tenure at Illinois looks like it can be great after pulling in some highly touted recruits. Mr. Basketball for Illinois will play a huge role in how the Fighting Illini go this season.
  13. Iowa – Fran McCaffrey’s Hawkeyes will try their best to not fall into the basement of the Big Ten this season, but I’m expecting lackluster play from this squad. Their offense was held up by the crutch of Peter Jok last season. He’s graduated and no one seems to have filled his place.
  14. Rutgers – Rutgers is getting better, but in a conference like this, it isn’t as noticeable. Don’t be surprised if they take down one or two top tier Big Ten teams.

 

Big East – Well, Villanova has found a way to continue to play an unrelenting consistent style of basketball. They are currently sitting ranked 1st in the polls. The nonconference season saw a few oddities judging from the predictions of how Big East teams were expected to fair this year. Providence struggled mightily at times, even needing a buzzer beater to win at home against Belmont. Creighton has been a pleasant surprise and the consistent play of St. John’s and Seton Hall elevates the conference. Transfer Max Strus from DePaul has been electric for the Demon Deacons, putting up as many as 30 points in a game. With the cushy schedule Georgetown played, I was surprised how close they were to beating Syracuse. Here’s how I foresee the Big East teams shaking out at the end of conference play:

 

  1. Villanova – The Wildcats have won 4 straight conference titles outright. With surprises by Butler in the past few years, it looks like Xavier is the closest challenger to Villanova this year.
  2. Xavier – With a strong nonconference showing, the Musketeers look to grab a high seed after earning an 11 seed last year yet making noise on their way to the Elite 8. A surprise loss to Arizona State which looks like a good loss now and struggling at home against East Tennessee State are of concern, but this team comes to play every night out.
  3. Seton Hall – A team led by reliable seniors is always fun to watch. It’s made even more fun when you have a double-double machine in Angel Delgado. This team has reliable scoring all over the place. If they stay healthy, they are a dark horse to steal the conference from the two teams listed ahead of them.
  4. Creighton – Kind of a surprise, and this is where things really get shuffled in the Big East. From fourth down to eighth is a tossup in my opinion. Creighton can run as usual, but can their shots fall? They’ve lacked the consistency they had the past few years.
  5. John’s – Chris Mullins has built what once was an eclectic, international team into a dangerous and lethal shooting team full of athleticism. The Red Storm have transitioned away from the international scene and kept it in-house, bringing in players from the New York boroughs.
  6. Butler – This finish is based on the inconsistent play that’s shown itself based on how this team executes against certain matchups. Most of the time, Butler will be the smaller team, so sharing the ball is important. The last two games, the Bulldogs have assisted on 21 and 23 baskets. They will have to be in the vicinity of those numbers if they wish to hand around the top 4 spots. I foresee close games and blowout losses for Butler this season. But it is Butler and they somehow always seem to find a way to win…
  7. Providence – The Friars have had a curious start to their season. As strong as they looked to be preseason, the numbers on paper aren’t translating to the court. I’m wary of putting the Friars higher than 6, but I think they end up at .500 in conference play.
  8. Georgetown – Thanks to the cushy nonconference schedule, playing the easiest one in the land according to Ken Pomeroy’s ratings, the Hoyas may struggle early in conference play, but don’t be surprised if they have a nice stretch of wins too.
  9. DePaul – The Demon Deacons have the firepower to put up points. They key will be defense. I think if DePaul can put things together, they can end up as high as Providence or Butler. I would love to see them get out of the cellar and feel success.
  10. Marquette – The Golden Eagles are curious. They can shoot the ball really well, but they rely on the three so much that they will struggle with the top half of the conference. I really think any of the teams 6 through 10 could finish in any one of these spots. Guess that’s how predictions go though. We’ll see how well these projections were as the season progresses.

 

Big 12 – Can Kansas make adjustments to continue their unbelievable string of consecutive regular season championships? They’ll be hard pressed by a quiet Texas Tech team and a not so quiet West Virginia squad. Oh, and Oklahoma has arguably the best point guard at the moment running the Sooners offense. Someone posed the question recently on the website reddit.com wondering if an entire conference could make it into the NCAA tournament. It’s never been done, and it likely never will, but could it happen? This year’s Big 12 Conference has every one of their teams in the top 74 in Ken Pomeroy’s ranking system. That is wild! If you take out Iowa State, the team that is ranked 74th, every team is in the top 49…As exciting as that is, I’m glad I don’t have to coach against these squads during conference play. I expect the top 6 teams to be jumbled by the end and the bottom 4 teams to be jumbled as well. Who knows what will happen this year in the Big 12. All I know is, I’m excited to see how this all plays out. TCU continues to make huge strides, a welcomed change of pace from the once bottom dweller of the conference.

  1. Kansas – Somehow, Bill Self will pull his team together and maintain control, but I think that Kansas ends up tying for a share of the conference title.
  2. Texas Tech – After a strong showing in the non-conference, this is my choice to upend Kansas. Their single loss to a good Seton Hall team isn’t of concern. Chris Beard, the former coach of the beloved Little Rock team that took down Purdue in the tournament, has a balanced team. Let’s see how high their ceiling is!
  3. West Virginia – We know the offensive prowess of a Bob Huggins team. Their lone loss in their opener to Texas A&M is excusable. Their win against Virginia was impressive. This should be a top 3 Big 12 team.
  4. Oklahoma – Freshman Trae Young is scorching the statsheet with impressive numbers. The young man is talented enough to raise his team to another level and give his teammates the confidence necessary to go into any game and believe they can win.
  5. TCU – Jamie Dixon did not waste any time in developing TCU into a dangerous team to play. With such a strong conference, I expect TCU to do some damage in the NCAA tournament this year.
  6. Texas – For as good as this team can play, they can similarly look lost and disorganized. Mo Bamba, in my opinion, has a lot of room to develop, especially in his choices of shot selection and aggression. When I saw him play in the PK80 tournament in Portland, Oregon, most of his points came off of open looks/dunks.
  7. Baylor – Baylor could finish as high as 3 and as low as 8. It all depends on the type of team that shows up for them night in and night out.
  8. Oklahoma State – They’ll give each opponent a tough go when they take the floor, but I think OK State falls short of the tournament this year.
  9. Kansas State – Bruce Weber hopes to have a winning season out in Manhattan this year. Will the Wildcats surprise some people and move up in the final conference standings? Their loss to Tulsa is considered their only blemish, but it’s not something that will keep them out of the selection process if they can win 10 games in the Big 12 this year.
  10. Iowa State – Unfortunately for Iowa State, they are in what’s been described as the third strongest conference in history dating back to the 1990 season. If

 

Pac 12

  1. Arizona – They went from number 2 in the country to falling out of the Top 25 altogether. This team is loaded with talent. They’re on the upswing and have a much more disciplined defense than who I have finishing second and third in the Pac 12.
  2. USC – Bennie Boatwright continues to guide this team to success, but there were some questionable losses during the noncon portion of the season. The Trojans lost to Princeton and Washington, both I’d consider bad losses. They’ll have to turn it around and finish in the top 3 in conference to make the tournament.
  3. Arizona State – Not sure where the Sun Devils came from and I love the surprise! It’s fun to see a team shuffle up the top 5. I think they can win the conference but they will have to beat Arizona to do so!

 

SEC – The SEC is fun again because Kentucky can’t run away with the conference this year! Texas A&M looks to take the conference title this year but will be hard pressed to do so against Tennessee and difficult games ahead against good Auburn and Alabama teams.

 

Mid Major Teams to Watch

Loyola Chicago – The Ramblers went down to Florida and beat the Gators. They came home and lost to former conference foe Milwaukee – Wisconsin. Now in the Missouri Valley Conference, the Ramblers have a great opportunity to take the conference now that Wichita State exited for the American Conference.

 

Middle Tennessee – This team is so much fun to watch and they have a legitimate chance to win each game they play. With 4 losses on the season by a combined 20 points, the Blue Raiders are setting themselves up to be a dangerous opponent in the NCAA tournament again. Oh, and they have Giddy Potts – I love that name.

 

Nevada – The Wolf Pack boast a great win over Rhode Island, yet a questionable loss to San Francisco. To be fair, that was in a holiday tournament in Hawaii. Their three losses are by a combined 12 points (6 point overtime loss at Texas Tech, 4 point loss to TCU on a neutral court, and a 2 point loss to San Francisco). The Wolf Pack could run the table in conference play. Their toughest games standing between them and a perfect conference record are at Boise State on Valentines Day, at UNLV to close out February, and at San Diego State in early March.

 

Saint Mary’s – I’m hesitant to list the Gaels on here because they don’t have a signature win on the season yet. They’re going to have to be nearly perfect, taking a game from Gonzaga during the regular season and likely winning their conference tournament. I don’t feel good about them winning…

 

Rhode Island – The veteran Rhode Island team that was oh so close to making it to the second weekend in last year’s tournament brings nearly the entire squad back. With great wins against Seton Hall and Providence during nonconference play, the Rams will look to take hold of the conference and break down the wall to get further in this year’s tournament. With close losses to Nevada and Alabama, this team should be able to do some damage come tournament time.

 

St. Bonaventure – The Bonnies have been a lot of fun to watch this year, going on the road and snagging some great signature wins already! In a down year for the Atlantic 10 Conference, they’ll challenge the veteran Rhode Island team for both the regular season and tournament conference championships.

 

BYU – Playing in the same conference as Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s has to be difficult. BYU has a great win against Utah and no bad losses. They were in close games with UT Arlington and Alabama until the end of both games. The Cougars will most likely have to win the West Coast Conference to get into the tournament.

 

Boise St. – With a win over Oregon and playing a good Iowa State team close on a neutral court (that’s relative because they’re projected to finish last in the Big 12), the Broncos will have a time getting to the NCAA tournament. If they play UNLV and Nevada close, the Broncos could be upsetting a few teams come March. The key for this team is to not try and run with their opponent. They may have learned a touch lesson from an efficient SMU squad.

 

Ball State – Ball State had a rough start to their season. 4 of their first 5 games were away at Dayton, Oklahoma, Oregon, and Bucknell. All four of those teams have strong home atmospheres, making it difficult for visiting teams to win.

 

UT Arlington – The Mavericks will need to win their conference tournament, but playing Alabama, Creighton, and Northern Iowa close should be encouraging for Scott Cross’s team. With a heavily senior laden team, their experience ranks first in the nation on Ken Pomeroy’s website. I’d love to see this team make noise in March.

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