Playing Contender or Pretender for NCAA Basketball Teams off to Roaring Starts

Scott Polacek@@ScottPolacekFeatured ColumnistNovember 27, 2012

Playing Contender or Pretender for NCAA Basketball Teams off to Roaring Starts

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    The first few weeks of every college basketball season brings surprise teams that jump out to hot starts that the so-called experts didn’t really see coming.

    The 2012-13 campaign has been no different.

    Sure, the Dukes and Indianas of the world have been predictably successful, but what about the Wichita States and Northwesterns that aren’t supposed to be undefeated?

    Read on to see which NCAA basketball teams that are off to roaring starts are contenders and which are pretenders.

Illinois: Contender

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    It’s not as if there was a lack of talent at Illinois last season. After all, the Illini got off to a quick start and appeared primed to be a threat in the NCAA tournament.

    And then the team collapsed.

    Illinois’ finish last year cost Bruce Weber his job, Meyers Leonard went to the NBA and there was a certain sense of pessimism heading into the 2012-13 campaign, even though John Groce was a promising hire.

    However, Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson have embraced their newfound roles as leaders for Groce’s team, and the Illini are sitting at 7-0.

    When I say Illinois is a contender I don’t necessarily mean for a Big Ten title or a deep run into the NCAA tournament. I do think there will be a tournament berth this season though, which would be a great bounce-back from last year’s ending.

    The talent level is there, and there are plenty of opportunities (Gonzaga, Missouri and the deep Big Ten schedule) on the slate to make an impression on the selection committee.

Charlotte: Pretender

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    There are so many cupcakes on Charlotte’s early season schedule that the school may as well put on a bake sale.

    The 49ers are 6-0 and have defeated the likes of Charleston Southern, Georgia Southern, Lamar, Texas State, Oral Roberts and Northeastern thus far. However, that gravy train is about to come to an end.

    Davidson, Miami, Florida State and a conference schedule that features VCU, Butler, Temple, Saint Joseph’s and Xavier await this undefeated Charlotte squad.

    I don’t think the 49ers have the type of ability necessary to compete in the deep Atlantic 10 this year with the additions and strong holdovers.

    Although, if Chris Braswell continues to play at the level he has, they could certainly prove me wrong.

Oklahoma State: Contender

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    There were people out there singing Oklahoma State’s praises before the season started, and the rest of us may have made a mistake by ignoring them.

    Freshman Marcus Smart has the Cowboys rolling to the tune of a 5-0 mark that includes a 20-point smackdown of ACC-favorite North Carolina State and a 17-point victory over Tennessee of the SEC.

    As good as Smart has been, he is far from the only cog in this machine. Le’Bryan Nash leads the team in scoring with nearly 20 points a night, and Markel Brown has been effective in the scoring and rebounding departments.

    The Big 12, outside of the perennially strong Kansas Jayhawks, is relatively down so far this year, and Oklahoma State has as good a chance as anyone to challenge Bill Self’s squad for the conference crown.

Cincinnati: Contender

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    There may not be a more difficult task in all of college basketball the past few years than projecting how talented Cincinnati really is after watching Mick Cronin’s team play part of its early schedule.

    That is because the Bearcats have fallen into the routine of playing one of the nation’s weakest non-conference slates every year outside of the annual game against Xavier. However, UC was challenged a couple of times this season, which is why I am comfortable declaring it a contender.

    Sean Kilpatrick and company took down Iowa State and an underrated Oregon team on a neutral floor in Las Vegas, giving the Bearcats two non-league wins to fall back on come Selection Sunday.

    Cincinnati will probably not win the Big East, but Cronin has enough talent on his team to finish right behind Louisville and Syracuse.

Virginia Tech: Pretender

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    It will almost feel wrong in February and March when we are talking bubble teams that Seth Greenberg won’t be on the sidelines to campaign for his Virginia Tech team.

    Because if he was, he would once again walk away from Selection Sunday disappointed.

    Virginia Tech’s 5-0 record is mostly fool’s gold so far and is primarily the result of an easy schedule.

    It’s not as if the Hokies don’t have talent. They just don’t have enough to compete with many of the teams in the ACC, including Duke, North Carolina, North Carolina State, Maryland or Florida State.

    We will know more about Virginia Tech in a couple of weeks because the next three games are against Iowa, Oklahoma State and West Virginia from power conferences.

    If the Hokies escape from that stretch unscathed, I will officially change my mind.

Wichita State: Contender

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    I think VCU is much better than its record indicates, so naturally I think the Wichita State team that knocked off the Rams early in the year is a contender.

    The Shockers appear to be a formidable defensive squad this season and haven’t given up more than 63 points in a single game. What’s more, Wichita State held VCU to a measly 51 in that early contest.

    The Shockers are balanced in the scoring department and are led by Cleanthony Early and Carl Hall. Those two also lead the team in rebounding.

    Defense and a balanced offensive attack is a great formula for going deep into March. Depending on how the brackets play out, the Shockers could surprise some people in the NCAA tournament.

    They can at least challenge Creighton in the Missouri Valley Conference.

Northwestern: Pretender

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    Chicago sports fans have been forced to deal with a devastating injury to Derrick Rose, season-ending injuries to Jay Cutler and Matt Forte (last season) and of course the incompetence of the Cubs in the past year.

    Unfortunately for those that also support the college basketball program near town, the Northwestern hoopsters will once again pull the rug from out under them and do nothing to change that luck.

    It seems as if the Wildcats jump out to quick starts (thanks to easy schedules), cool off, then pull off a major upset in conference play and ultimately fizzle out every season. That’s exactly what will happen in 2012-13.

    Basically, if this squad couldn’t make the NCAA tournament the entire time John Shurna was there, it isn’t making it the first year without him, especially in this Big Ten. Drew Crawford is talented, but when the schedule heats up Northwestern will begin to fade.

    That doesn’t mean the win over Illinois State wasn’t impressive though.

California: Contender

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    Pacific was riding high at the DirecTV Classic. The Tigers had just defeated Xavier and Saint Mary’s, two teams that appeared better than they were on paper, and were ready for the finals.

    That’s when California entered the picture.

    The Golden Bears destroyed Pacific by 20 points to take home the tournament title. California also picked up a solid victory over Georgia Tech from the ACC that week.

    Allen Crabbe and Justin Cobbs are two of the best players in the entire Pac-12, and both are averaging 20-plus points a night thus far. If that continues, the ceiling is much higher for this team than many previously thought.

    What’s more, UCLA doesn’t appear as dominant as expected, meaning the league is ripe for the taking.

    A conference crown in basketball may help Golden Bears fans forget about the disastrous football season this past fall.

New Mexico: Pretender

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    The Mountain West is really good this year, and that will ultimately be the detriment of this season’s New Mexico squad.

    The Lobos are off to a 6-0 start that includes a victory over an overrated Connecticut team. It also features a more impressive win against Davidson in the season opener.

    Unfortunately for New Mexico fans, the squad will struggle to keep up with the likes of UNLV and San Diego State by the time conference play gets under way.

    The question of contender or pretender depends on what type of ceiling you envision for New Mexico. If the ultimate goal is to simply qualify for the NCAA tournament, then the Lobos should definitely be considered a contender.

    However, I think the program wants more than that, but the Mountain West is too deep, which will stand in the way of the conference title it so desperately craves.

Colorado: Contender

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    The Pac-12 has some serious depth this season, and it’s not only because of the recruiting prowess of UCLA and Arizona.

    Colorado and the previously mentioned California are both legitimate contenders for the NCAA tournament, and that was never more apparent than during the Buffaloes' victory over Pierre Jackson and the Baylor Bears.

    What’s more, Colorado beat Dayton the game before and Murray State the game after, proving that it will be more than capable of handling a difficult stretch once conference play begins.

    Andre Roberson is one of the most overlooked players in all of college basketball, and Askia Booker is scoring at an impressive clip. If that continues, the Buffaloes will be dancing in March.