Football season is still in full swing, with bowl season kicking off for the college ranks this past weekend, and two weeks of the regular season left in the NFL, but as each day goes by, we inch closer and closer to the start of conference play in college basketball (way to mess things up with those two conference games the other week Big Ten…), and things are starting to heat up!
I, for one, am ready to get fully invested in a sport where simple rules aren’t constantly confused and debated (other than block/charge of course), and pieces of paper aren’t used to determine outcomes (although once the football season ends and Gene Steratore starts officiating basketball games, I am sure he will make an attempt).
We are approximately a month into the college basketball season, and even though I haven’t been fully invested due to football, I have observed a few things thus far.
- Villanova is the best team in the nation.
The Wildcats won the title in 2016, and they had a team capable of going back-to-back in 2017 but got a really tough Tourney draw. And now, once again, Jay Wright’s squad is a National Title contender. And not only that, but they are definitely the best team in the country. They have fantastic guard play, led by National Player of the Year candidate Jalen Brunson and surefire NBA lottery pick Mikal Bridges. They have a freshman stud in big man Omari Spellman. They have Phil Booth, the star of the 2016 title game, back after an injury derailed him last season. And they have fantastic role players in Eric Paschall and Donte Divincenzo that will be key to making a deep run in this year’s Tournament. They shoot threes extremely well, they get to the rim with ease and they play suffocating defense. Villanova is the most complete team in the country, and they are built to contend for another championship.
- Duke is awesome, but they are not without their flaws.
There isn’t a team this season with more pure talent than Duke. Say what you will about the type of person Grayson Allen is, but there’s no denying that he is an extremely good basketball player. Marvin Bagley should be a senior in high school right now, but instead, he is dominating everyone he faces, and you can easily argue that he’s the best player in the nation. Gary Trent, Trevon Duval and Wendell Carter are all fantastic freshmen, and each would be the best player on a large number of Division I teams. I haven’t even mentioned sophomores Javin DeLaurier and Marques Bolden, two big men who play significant minutes. Despite all of the talent they have, they have already gained a reputation as a slow-starting team who becomes unstoppable down the stretch of games. Their play in the last five minutes of contests is going to get them a lot of victories, but they’re also going to dig themselves some holes that they won’t be able to get out of. They also struggle on the defensive end, which is apropos for a young team, but if they can’t make shots, they can’t rely on shutting the other team down. They are one of the five best teams in the nation, but they could have their difficulties during ACC play.
- Trae Young is the best player in the country.
If you are a casual college basketball fan, you probably haven’t heard this name. But if you are fully invested in college basketball this season, you definitely know about the 6-2 freshman point guard from Norman, Oklahoma that is lighting up the scoreboard for his hometown team. The Sooners, who won 11 games all last season, are off to an 8-1 start that includes wins over Oregon, USC and then #3 Wichita State, and they have Trae Young to thank. He leads the nation in scoring with just under 29 points per game, and he’s not just a scorer, averaging nearly 9 assists per game, which is also among the country’s leaders. He is drawing comparisons to Stephen Curry, which is high praise. I think it’s difficult to compare him to Curry now, but he is definitely reminiscent of Curry at Davidson. Young takes a lot of shots, but he makes a lot of them, and he is good enough to single-handedly carry Oklahoma to a very good season. *UPDATE: This was written on Monday, before Young decided to go for 26 points and 22 assists against Northwestern State on Tuesday night. Yes, TWENTY-TWO assists. Just incredible. Oklahoma games might be must-watch.*
- The Big Ten is…
Well, I’m not really sure what to make of the Big Ten. Michigan State is easily one of the top five teams in the land, but after them, the league is mediocre when compared to the other major conferences. Purdue is probably the second best team, and they are a very good team, but they had some struggles at the beginning of the season, losing to Tennessee and Western Kentucky in the Battle 4 Atlantis. ESPN’s Joe Lunardi had just five Big Ten teams in his most recent Bracketology, with the aforementioned Spartans and Boilermakers joined by Minnesota, Michigan and Maryland. After a storybook season last year, there were very lofty expectations for Northwestern, but they have stumbled out of the gates, their best win thus far coming over Illinois in overtime. Wisconsin has played in 19 consecutive NCAA Tournaments, tied with Gonzaga for the 4th longest current streak, but that streak appears to be in jeopardy, as the Badgers are just 5-7 thus far. They have played one of the most difficult schedules, but they will need to really ramp it up in Big Ten play if they are going to reach another Tourney. Penn State is off to a 9-3 start, but they lack a signature win. Archie Miller is going through some growing pains at Indiana, as the Hoosiers are just 6-6, the same record as an Iowa team that has been consistently near the top of the Big Ten standings in recent years. Michigan State and Purdue are two National Title contenders, but beyond them, the league just isn’t very good.
- Kansas might actually not win the Big 12.
I know this sounds pretty farfetched considering the Jayhawks have won 13 straight Big 12 titles, tying UCLA for the longest streak of conference championships, but Kansas appears to be taking a step or two backwards while much of the league leaps forward. Don’t get me wrong, Kansas is still one of the best teams in the country, led by Devonte’ Graham, Lagerald Vick and Mississippi State transfer Malik Newman, but unlike in previous seasons, they lack a true dominant inside presence, something that has hurt them in early season losses to Washington and Arizona State. With the quality of the Big 12 this season, the Jayhawks will not have an easy road in attempting to win a 14th straight title. Kansas State, Oklahoma State and Iowa State, while not as good as they have been in recent years, still have the potential to beat top teams. Texas is led by freshman phenom Mohamed Bomba, and they could be a sleeper pick. Baylor is a Top-25 team yet again, and their size could give Kansas fits. Texas Tech is off to a 9-1 start, and they will be right in the mix. I already discussed Oklahoma and Trae Young, so you know they are a threat. TCU is one of just four undefeated teams remaining in America, and with Jamie Dixon manning the fort, they’ll be right there. And oh yeah, can’t forget about Jevon Carter and the West Virginia Mountaineers. They’ve been tough for Kansas in recent years, and will be yet again. It’s hard to pick against Kansas here, but they will have a tougher trek this season than any that I can remember.
In coming weeks, that previous section will be a wrap-up of the previous week in college basketball, and it will be followed by my Top-25 and a look at the week ahead. In keeping with that theme, here is my Top-25 teams (here is a link to the current AP Top-25).
- Michigan State
- Miami (FL)
- Texas A&M
- North Carolina
- West Virginia
- Arizona State
- Wichita State
- Texas Tech
- Notre Dame
- Florida State
We have one more taste of early March Madness coming up this weekend with the Diamond Head Classic taking place in Honolulu, Hawaii this Friday, Saturday and Christmas Monday (bracket here). The most likely championship game would pit the USC Trojans and the Miami Hurricanes, but those teams could get tripped up. Middle Tennessee faces Princeton in the First Round, and the Blue Raiders are led by Giddy Potts, the man who helped lead them to a massive 15-over-2 upset against Michigan State in the 2016 NCAA Tournament. They would face USC in the semis as long as the Trojans get past Akron. Miami will be playing a road game in the opening round against the host Warriors of Hawaii, but they should easily get past them. They will take on the winner of Davidson facing New Mexico State. The Aggies have been the class of the WAC the last few seasons, and they will be right there again this season. Davidson is off to a 4-4 start this year, but with Bob McKillop still at the helm, they have to be respected. A Davidson-Miami semifinal clash would be a fun game to watch.
Other games to look forward to this weekend include…
Connecticut at #18 Arizona, Thursday 12/21 9:00 pm ESPN2
The Wildcats were expected to be one of the top teams in the country, but after going 0-3 in the Battle 4 Atlantis, everybody wrote them off. Rightfully so I’d say, but they have bounced back with six straight wins, including a win over Texas A&M. UConn doesn’t have the talent they normally do, but Kevin Ollie is a fantastic coach, and they could go into Tucson and give Arizona some trouble, especially if they get caught looking ahead to their Pac-12 opener against rival Arizona State.
#12 Gonzaga at San Diego State, Thursday 12/21 10:00 pm CBS Sports Network
You can count on Gonzaga being one of the top teams in the land year in and year out, and after coming one victory away from a National Championship last season, Mark Few has another team that can get to the Final Four. They have a tough road test here against a San Diego State team looking to return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2015 under first year coach Brian Dutcher.
Northwestern at #17 Oklahoma, Friday 12/22 7:00 pm ESPN2
Oklahoma has cracked the Top-25 thanks to a road win over Wichita State, and they’ll look to continue their momentum with a big home game against Northwestern. The Wildcats have had a little hangover this season after reaching the NCAA Tournament for the first time in school history last season. I do think they are still a talented team, and could easily come in and knock off the Sooners.