I wanted to try to start posting weekly at the very least, but sometimes life gets in the way, so I apologize for that. But I am back, and more has changed over the last three weeks in college basketball than anyone could have imagined.
Since the last time I posted (December 20th), the teams I had in my Top-10 are a combined 30-16. Yes, you read that correctly. The teams that I believed were the 10 best teams in the nation have lost 16 games over the last three weeks. That is unheard of.
A staggering number of those losses are to unranked teams as well. Villanova was upended at Butler, Michigan State got dominated by Ohio State, Duke was pretty soundly defeated by NC State, Miami lost games to New Mexico State and Georgia Tech and Texas A&M was dealt with a number of key injuries and suspensions, resulting in losses to Alabama, Florida and LSU.
“Parity” is an overused term in sports, but it may just be the perfect word to describe the Division I college basketball scene in 2018. Villanova and Michigan State are pretty clearly the top two teams, and Duke is definitely the most talented, but we’ve already seen that all of those teams are susceptible to losses on any given night.
With conference play now in full swing, this week I’m going to look at each of the major conferences and choosing who I believe are the current favorites, as well as the early surprises, disappointments and sleepers in each. The conferences will be in order of their ranking on KenPom.com.
Preseason Favorite – Kansas
Current Favorite – West Virginia
Biggest Surprise – Oklahoma
Biggest Disappointment – Baylor
Sleeper – Oklahoma State
When a team has won a conference in 13 consecutive seasons, they have to be considered the favorite, especially when they are once again extremely talented. That being said, this year’s Kansas team has a few cracks, and they have shown in multiple home losses, a rarity for a Bill Self-coached Kansas team. The current Big 12 favorites are Bob Huggins’s Mountaineers, who have rattled off 15 consecutive wins after a season-opening loss to Texas A&M in Germany.
It has been very surprising to see Texas Tech win all these games, but they were expected to be a good team, therefore, Oklahoma has to be the biggest surprise thus far. Nobody expected the Sooners to compete for a Big 12 title, but that’s because nobody realized just how good freshman Trae Young was going to be. He leads the nation in points and assists per game, and I can’t wait to watch him perform in March.
It was hard to pick a disappointing team from this conference, but I’ll go with Baylor, who is off to a 1-3 start in conference play. Road losses to Texas Tech and West Virginia are nothing to be upset with, but they should have beaten TCU at home. With a non-conference SOS rank of 317 by KenPom, the Bears will need to play better in conference if they are going to reach the NCAA Tournament.
Oklahoma State is a bit under the radar right now, but that is exactly what makes them a sleeper in my eyes. Their four losses this season are to teams ranked in the Top-25 by KenPom, and they have a nice win over Florida State. They are loaded with upperclassmen, and that experience could lead them to some big wins in conference play.
Preseason Favorite – Duke
Current Favorite – Virginia
Biggest Surprise – Clemson
Biggest Disappointment – Duke
Sleeper – Boston College
Duke is the most talented team in the country, but they have struggled at times this season. They do not play a lick of defense, and that has hurt them in losses to Boston College and NC State. Duke is still a title contender, but they haven’t met their potential yet. For this reason, I believe Virginia is the current favorite to win the ACC. They have the best defense in the country, and their lone loss this season is at West Virginia, which is not a bad loss at all. They will need to get better on offense, but they are an extremely talented team.
I’m not sure if Clemson can sustain their red-hot start, but it’s that red-hot start that has them as the biggest surprise in the ACC they are 14-1, with their lone loss coming to Temple in the Charleston Classic. They have 10 straight victories, including wins over Florida and Ohio State, which both came away from home. They are another team loaded with upperclassmen, and that should prove extremely valuable as the season progresses.
Boston College announced their presence this season with the huge win over Duke back in early December. They don’t have any other major wins yet this season, but they will benefit by having one of the easiest schedules in the ACC. They are done with Duke, Virginia (who they lost to by just one point in Charlottesville) and North Carolina. They will have to play Notre Dame, Miami and Florida State on the road, but they are set up to have success in ACC play.
Preseason Favorite – Villanova
Current Favorite – Villanova
Biggest Surprise – Seton Hall
Biggest Disappointment – St. John’s
Sleeper – Marquette
Villanova was expected to be among the best teams in the country again this year, and they have lived up to those expectations. Mikal Bridges looks more and more like a lottery pick, and Jalen Brunson has taken the keys to the Porsche and handled it with relative ease, looking like a Naismith Player of the Year candidate. Nobody will be surprised to see the Cats win the Big East yet again.
Many had high expectations for Seton Hall and their seniors Desi Rodriguez, Angel Delgado and Khadeen Carrington, but I’m not sure if those expectations included a run to the Final Four, but they look every bit the part of a Final Four team. They have wins over Indiana, Texas Tech, Louisville and Creighton, and I could easily see them ending the year at the top of the Big East.
The Big East is a gauntlet this year, and St. John’s is the first team to be seriously impacted by it. Not that many people expected a whole lot from Chris Mullin’s squad this year, but they are off to an 0-5 start in Big East play, which includes home losses to perennial bottom-feeders DePaul and Georgetown. Villanova and Xavier are next on the schedule, so it might only get worse for the Johnnies.
It’s hard to call Marquette a sleeper after their 20-point victory over Seton Hall last night, but I don’t think may people realize how good the Golden Eagles really are. Sophomore Markus Howard is on a tear, putting up 52 and 37 points last week against Providence and Villanova. Then senior Andrew Rowley put up 33 last night. With two guards capable of scoring in bunches like Howard and Rowley, this Marquette team could do big things this season.
Preseason Favorite – Kentucky
Current Favorite – Kentucky
Biggest Surprise – Auburn
Biggest Disappointment – Texas A&M
Sleeper – Georgia
This is easily the youngest, most inexperienced team John Calipari has had during his tenure in Lexington, so it’s not a surprise to see them struggle a little bit at times early this season. They have losses to UCLA and Tennessee, and they just barely beat a short-handed Texas A&M team. I still consider them the favorites to win the conference.
An FBI probe into college basketball has been tied to Auburn’s head coach Bruce Pearl and a couple of his players who have been held out this season. So nobody would be shocked if the Tigers struggled this season. Instead, they are off to a 15-1 start including a current 13-game winning streak. They already have two huge conference wins, defeating Tennessee in Knoxville and Arkansas at home. They only have to play Kentucky and Florida once, and they’re done with Tennessee, so this could be a big season for Auburn.
What a wild season it’s been for Texas A&M already. They opened the season with a win over West Virginia in Germany, defeated Oklahoma State and Penn State in Brooklyn and picked up a road win over USC. Then came injuries to Admon Gilder and Duane Wilson and DJ Hogg’s suspension, and the Aggies have started SEC play 0-4, including a home loss to LSU. Gilder and Hogg are back, and Wilson is expected back soon, so things could and should turn around, but it’s been a rocky few weeks.
I could very easily see Georgia at the top of the SEC standings come the end of the season. I believe they have the best player in the conference in 6-8 senior Yante Maten, who is looking to return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since his freshman year, where he played just 13 minutes in a 1st Round loss to Michigan State. The Bulldogs have non-conference wins over Saint Mary’s, Marquette and Temple, and they won’t have to play Kentucky again this season. This is a team that should end up on the right side of the bubble.
Preseason Favorite – Michigan State
Current Favorite – Michigan State
Biggest Surprise – Ohio State
Biggest Disappointment – Northwestern
Sleeper – Wisconsin
There are two teams at the top of the Big Ten, Michigan State and Purdue. Michigan State is probably the more talented team, but Purdue is red hot right now. It’s going to be fun to watch these two teams battle at the top of the conference standings and on the court. Mark your calendars for Saturday February 10th, when the Boilermakers will travel to East Lansing.
Ohio State shocked America over the weekend with an 80-64 victory over Michigan State, announcing that they are here to compete for a Big Ten title. They are off to a 4-0 start in conference play, and while they didn’t pick up a signature non-conference win, they look on their way to a great Big Ten season. Their losses this season are to Gonzaga (neutral court), Butler (in OT), Clemson and North Carolina (neutral court). None of those are bad losses. Avoid bad losses, and the Buckeyes will make the NCAA Tournament.
Oh Northwestern, what happened? The Cinderella story of last season was expected to come right back and do it again this year, but what has actually happened is far from that. The Wildcats are 10-7 with losses to Georgia Tech and Nebraska, and their best win is against DePaul. That is not how you make it back to the Big Dance.
Another team that has limped through the season thus far is Wisconsin, sitting at just 9-9 overall, 2-3 in conference play. I haven’t given up on them yet though. Ethan Happ is a future NBA player, and I think if some of his supporting cast improves a little, this team could make a late-season push and sneak into the Tournament. Keep an eye on the Badgers.
Preseason Favorite – Arizona
Current Favorite – Arizona
Biggest Surprise – Arizona State
Biggest Disappointment – USC
Sleeper – Colorado
There were a large number of people who expected Arizona to be the best team in the country. They have the coach, they have the experience, they have the talent. Then they went to the Bahamas and went 0-3, including a 25-point loss to Purdue. They bounced back upon returning to the states by winning nine in a row before suffering a setback to Colorado over the weekend. Sean Miller went after his team following the loss, and I think that could light a fire under them rather than alienate them. The Wildcats are still my favorite to win the league.
If you would have asked me a couple weeks ago, though, I would have definitely said Arizona State. Bobby Hurley has done an incredible job with this team, which started the season 12-0 before opening Pac 12 play with losses to Arizona and Colorado. The Sun Devils have a win over Xavier and a road win over Kansas. That tells me that they can beat anybody, which will give them a chance to make a deep run in March.
Experts aren’t sure what to make of USC this season. They were a preseason Top-25 team, but they suffered three straight losses to Texas A&M, SMU and Oklahoma early in the season. Those aren’t bad losses, but they would later add home losses to Princeton and Washington, and they lost to Stanford on Sunday night. The Trojans have a lot of work to do if they want to reach the NCAA Tournament.
I’ve mentioned Colorado twice already here, with their wins over Arizona and Arizona State, arguably the top two teams in the conference, so that is why they are my sleeper team in the Pac 12. The issue is that they have losses to Colorado State, San Diego, Oregon State and Oregon on their resume, so they’re going to have to keep collecting big wins. I think they can.
Preseason Favorite – Wichita State
Current Favorite – Wichita State
Biggest Surprise – Tulane
Biggest Disappointment – Temple
Sleeper – UCF
Wichita State made the jump this season from the Missouri Valley Conference to the American, and it’s been good so far. Their only losses this season are to Notre Dame and Oklahoma, and they are 3-0 in AAC play. They’ve done it for the most part this season without junior Markis McDuffie, who has just recently returned from an injury that kept him out of the team’s first 11 games. Once he rounds into form, this team will look like the Final Four contender that many expect them to be.
After going 6-25 last season, I don’t think anybody expected to even remotely discuss Tulane with regards to the NCAA Tournament. But Mike Dunleavy’s Green Wave are 11-5, and despite a weak non-conference schedule, they have picked up wins over Temple and SMU in conference play, and who knows, maybe they can keep it up and shock the world by reaching the Big Dance.
Speaking of Temple… ugh, this is hard for me to write about. The Owls opened the season by winning the Charleston Classic with wins over Old Dominion (a top CUSA contender), Auburn (1st place in the SEC) and Clemson (1st place in the ACC). Temple is the only team to beat Auburn and Clemson. Owls’ fans were rightfully excited. They also have wins over South Carolina and Wisconsin. Those are five of their seven wins. They are 0-4 in conference play, and they play at SMU tonight. It’s about to be 0-5. I’m so upset.
UCF just dominated Temple to the tune of a 60-39 victory on Sunday, and I think they could be a surprise team to advance to the Tournament out of the American. They are one of the best defensive teams in the nation, anchored by 7-6 junior Tacko Fall. It’s hard to score at the rim with a man that tall in the paint. Pay attention to the Knights, they aren’t just good at football this year.
- Michigan State
- West Virginia
- Wichita State
- Texas Tech
- Arizona State
- Seton Hall
- North Carolina
- Miami FL
Must Watch Games
#10 Xavier at #1 Villanova, Wednesday 1/10 8:00 pm FS1
The top two teams in the Big East do battle for the first time this season at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia. Jalen Brunson and Mikal Bridges will look to lead the Wildcats to a massive victory, but Trevon Bluiett and JP Macura are looking to bounce back from a loss to Providence by handing the #1 team their second loss of the season. It should be a great one.
#19 Clemson at NC State, Thursday 1/11 9:00 pm ESPN
NC State is coming off a massive victory over Duke on Saturday, and they will look for a second consecutive upset win when they take on the 14-1 Clemson Tigers. Clemson is coming off an overtime victory over Louisville, and they will be highly motivated to extend their win streak to 11 games.
#16 TCU at #9 Oklahoma, Saturday 1/13 1:00 pm ESPNU
Trae Young. That’s why you should watch this game. That’s really all you need to hear, but on top of that, TCU is a team that could use a signature win, and beating Oklahoma in Norman would certainly accomplish that.
#2 West Virginia at #8 Texas Tech, Saturday 1/13 2:00 pm ESPN
The Mountaineers just barely hung on to defeat Baylor at home 57-54 on Tuesday, and they’ll have a much tougher test Saturday in Lubbock. The Red Raiders are off to a tremendous start this season, but they are coming off a loss to Oklahoma. A win over West Virginia would be a great way to bounce back.
#20 North Carolina at Notre Dame, Saturday 1/13 6:00 pm ESPN
The Tar Heels snapped a two game losing streak by destroying Boston College on Tuesday night. It’s been an up and down season for UNC, and they’ll have another tough test Saturday when they travel to South Bend. The Irish will be without Bonzie Colson, but they hope to have point guard Matt Farrell back in the lineup after he missed the win at Syracuse.