The Biggest Lessons from the NCAA Basketball Season So Far

Doug BrodessCorrespondent IJanuary 9, 2013

The Biggest Lessons from the NCAA Basketball Season So Far

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    The 2012-13 College Basketball season is almost halfway completed, and, so far, we have learned a lot.

    Teams that we are used to seeing in the Top 25 have dropped out of the rankings. Some players that came back for another season are ramping their performance up as conference play begins. Many coaches are seeing the fruit of their hard work on the recruiting trail and on the practice floor.

    Let's look at 20 of the biggest lessons learned so far in this season.

This Is Not Your Father's North Carolina Tar Heels

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    A game almost slipped away against East Carolina.

    An embarrassing loss to a mediocre Texas Longhorns team.

    And, now, losing to Virginia in the ACC opener...Not exactly the first half of a season that Roy Williams and the Tar Heels expected when they started this fall.

    North Carolina has talent. Lots of talent, but they just don't seem to play well together or have a killer desire to dominate their opponents.

    The Tar Heels usually have strong inside play. But this year's squad lacks anyone who wants it down on the block. 

    It's becoming more apparent that James Michael McAdoo doesn't like to bang, which may hurt his NBA draft stock. 

    And without JMM down low, UNC has virtually no inside game.

Jamaal Franklin Is the Most Versatile Player in the West

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    San Diego State's Jamaal Franklin is one of the most versatile SG's in the nation.

    He leads the Aztecs in just about every major statistical category: scoring (17.2 ppg), rebounding (9.9 rpg), assists (3.5 apg), and steals (1.5 spg).

    Jamaal Franklin doesn't get nearly the love that he deserves from college basketball fans and the media.

    One aspect of his game that most people don't know much about is his ability to throw down.

    Check out this dunk. I don't care if it is in a scrimmage.

Butler Is the Best Team in the Atlantic 10 in Year One

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    Butler has it goin' on in their inaugural season in the Atlantic 10.

    The Bulldogs are 12-2 going into conference play, with quality wins against Marquette, UNC and Indiana.

    Rotnei Clarke (pictured; 16.2 ppg) is a fearless shooter, ready to pull up and let it fly from anywhere on this side of half court.

    Head coach Brad Stevens will have his team ready to play any of the other 15 teams in conference play.

VCU's Briante Weber and Darius Theus Are the Best Back-Court Defensive Duo

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    Shaka Smart's teams create havoc. No, really. That's what he calls their defense... HAVOC.

    The Rams apply intense pressure on their opponents from the time that they leave the locker room.

    The two leaders of the VCU defensive mayhem are Briante Weber and Darius Theus, Shaka's starting backcourt.

    These two are both in the Top 10 in the nation in steals at the same time.

    Weber is averaging 3.33 steals per game, and Theus is right behind him with 2.93 spg.

    With two pickpockets like this working out top, it's no wonder that VCU is the only team in the country that has more steals than turnovers per game.

Jack Cooley Is an Offensive Rebounding Maniac

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    Notre Dame's Jack Cooley may not be able to jump out of the gym or beat opponents from end-line to end-line in a running race. But, if you want a truck-load of offensive rebounds, he's your man.

    Cooley is tied for the lead nationally in offensive rebounds per game. He pulls down just shy of five per contest.

    The 6'9" senior has an uncanny sense of where missed shots are coming off the rim, and he works tirelessly to get position.

    Notre Dame head coach said that Cooley "might be the best offensive rebounder in the nation:"

    It's just his will to go after that thing. And he's very underrated as an athlete. He's quick off his feet. His reach is long. Certainly he has great strength. And he has great hands. Just super hands. When he gets near it, it's usually his.

The Big Ten Season Will Be Brutal

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    With six teams in the Week 10 AP Top 25 - Michigan (No. 2 ranked), Indiana (No. 5), Minnesota (No. 8), Illinois (No. 12), Ohio State (No. 15) and Michigan State (No. 22), the Big Ten is officially the most insane conference in 2012-13 college hoops.

    With half of the conference's teams ranked in the national polls, the Big Ten in college hoops compares with the SEC in football.

    Playing through the league's slate will be the equivalent of running a gauntlet, being continuously struck and beaten as you move along.

    Whoever wins the conference championship will be battle tested and ready to make a run in this year's March Madness.

Larry Drew II Is an Important Part of UCLA's Success This Year

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    Yes, Shabazz Muhammad and the rest of UCLA's Fab Freshmen class grab most of the Bruins' headlines, but Larry Drew II's play at PG is a huge reason why UCLA (12-3) has turned the corner in the 2012-13 season.

    After Drew's widely publicized and much-criticized departure from the North Carolina program midway through his junior season, Sports Illustrated's Brian Hamilton said that Drew II was "looking for redemption" this year in Westwood.

    Drew II is No. 2 in the nation in assists, averaging 8.5 apg. As important as the number of dimes he's dropping is the fact that he rarely turns the ball over.

    On the year, the 6'2" senior has 128 assists and only 23 turnovers. That's a ridiculous 5.6 assist-to-turnover ratio (No. 1 in the nation among players that have played at least 20 minutes per game).

Michael Carter-Williams Causes Match-Up Nightmares

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    Michael Carter-Williams is a unique combination of point-guard skills in a SF's body.

    The 6'6" PG causes opposing players all kinds of difficulties as he runs Syracuse's show. MCW not only leads the nation in assists (9.8 apg), but he is No. 5 in the nation in steals (3.1 spg).

    But, don't think of Carter-Williams as only a distributor and a defender. The sophomore from Hamilton, Mass., scores 11.7 ppg.

Kentucky, UCLA and North Carolina Are Trying to Get It Right

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    For the third straight week, Kentucky, UCLA and North Carolina all were on the outside of the AP Top 25 looking in. 

    When was the last time that happened?

    All three legendary programs have had their struggles this season.

    UK (9-4) has no embarrassing losses, going down in defeat to Duke, Notre Dame, Baylor and Louisville. The fact remains that they have double the amount of L's on their record as they did all last year when they won it all.

    UCLA (12-3) lost early legit games to Georgetown and San Diego State, but...Cal Poly? Really?

    In the last six weeks, UNC (10-4) is 6-4, and at times looks totally out-of-sync.

    While the Wildcats and Bruins seemed to have figured out what ailed them earlier, the Tar Heels are still searching for answers (see earlier slide).

After a Shaky Start, K-State's Rodney McGruder Is Tearing It Up

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    K-State's Rodney McGruder was supposed to take over in his senior season.

    However, the 6'4" senior from Washington, D.C., stumbled out of the gate and struggled for the first part of the 2012-13 season.

    Fortunately for the Wildcats and first-year coach Bruce Weber, McGruder has fixed whatever was broken early and is playing like the confident, senior leader that everyone expected to see.

    He is averaging 20 ppg, 6 rpg and 2.5 assists over the last five games, leading KSU to impressive wins over No. 8 Florida and No. 22 Oklahoma State.

Senior Leadership, Maturity and Experience Make a Big Difference

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    Duke has Mason Plumlee, Seth Curry and Ryan Kelly.

    Kansas has Jeff Withey, Travis Releford, Elijah Johnson and Kevin Young.

    Missouri has Laurence Bowers, Alex Oriakhi and Keion Bell.

    These three Top Ten teams have significant talent and know-how on the floor with their seniors

    Sure, most of these players wish that they were already playing in the Association, but their respective coaches are excited that they have players who have "been there and done that" at the collegiate level.

    And, come NCAA tournament time, their level-headedness will pay off, too.

Minnesota Is the Rodney Dangerfield of the Top-Ranked Teams

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    Even though Minnesota is 14-1 and currently ranked No. 8 in the AP Top 25, they don't get very much respect.

    Their only loss came in the Bahamas against No. 1 Duke.

    They have nice pre-conference wins over Memphis, Stanford and Florida State. And, the Golden Gophers have already beaten Michigan State in Big Ten play.

    Sophomore guard Andre Hollins leads Minnesota in scoring (13.1 ppg). To get props in the league, though, Hollins will have to outplay Michigan's Trey Burke, Indiana's Jordan Hulls, Ohio State's Aaron Craft and Illinois' Brandon Paul if he wants to get recognition.

Shabazz Muhammad's Game Has Caught Up with His Hype

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    Shabazz Muhammad was hyped as much or more than any player coming out of high school in recent years.

    And little by little, the 6'6" SG is living up to the buildup and the publicity that he received before he actually put on a Bruins uniform. 

    Over the last seven games, Muhammad is averaging 22 ppg, while shooting 50 percent from beyond the arc. He's also hauling in 5 rpg.

    And, by the way, UCLA has won all seven of those games, including their first two Pac-12 games.

    Los Angeles Times writer Baxter Holmes says that Muhammad calls himself "a killer" because of a fierce competitive drive that helps him to push himself and is contagious with those that play with him.

    Can't wait to watch it all unfold over the rest of the Pac-12 season!

Creighton's Doug McDermott Continues to Elevate His Game

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    As Doug McDermott starts the second half of his junior year at Creighton, it's a little surprising that his game continues to progress and develop.

    Along with his elevated scoring average (23.1 ppg; No. 3 in the country), he is becoming a better passer (25 assists on the season) and he is shooting 87.1 percent from the free throw line.

    The 6'8" combo forward isn't just piling up empty numbers against weak teams from small conferences.

    Earlier this season, McDermott dropped 30 points on defensive-minded Wisconsin and he hung 34 on Cal.

If NC State Doesn't Go Far in 2012-13, Their Shooting Won't Be to Blame

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    NC State is the No. 1 shooting team in the nation, hitting a sizzling 53.1 percent from the floor.

    Whether the Wolfpack drop it down to Richard Howell or C.J. Leslie on the block or kick it out to Scott Wood or Rodney Purvis beyond the arc, they have a better chance than not of putting it in the hole.

    Freshman forward T.J. Warren leads the Pack by connecting on 68.7 percent of his FG attempts. Wow!

    Head coach Mark Gottfried has North Carolina State working hard to take good shots, and it is paying off.

The Mountain West Race Will Be White-Knuckle Time, Baby

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    Okay...So I went a little "Dicky V" in the slide title, but the fact is, the MWC battle is going to be something else.

    San Diego State (No. 16 in the AP), UNLV (No. 24) and New Mexico (No. 25) are all playing exceptionally.

    And, undefeated Wyoming (ranked No. 25 in the USA Today's Coaches Poll) has quality wins vs. Colorado and Illinois State.

    Then, add Colorado State (13-2) and Boise State (12-2), and you have a really competitive league.

    If you are looking for big-time players, the Mountain West has those too.

    UNLV's Anthony Bennett (pictured) is one of the best freshmen in 2012-13 college hoops.

    Jamaal Franklin (see earlier slide) is a legit All-American candidate.

    Jerry Palm, CBSSports.com's Bracketology expert, predicts that six MWC teams will make it into this year's NCAA Tournament, the same number that he expects from the Big 12 and Big East.

Cody Zeller's Toned-Down Playing Style Conceals How Good He Really Is

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    Low-key. Down-to-Earth. Understated.

    All words that could describe both Cody Zeller's personality and game.

    The 7'0" sophomore is so steady and stable that some people confuse his consistency with ineffectiveness.

    Zeller is (again) shooting over 62 percent from the field, 71 percent from the line and scoring 16.5 ppg.

    Not numbers that blow you away, but without him, Indiana is simply a good team, instead of a legitimate Final Four contender.

Michigan's Perimeter Trio Is Tough to Beat

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    Who has a better perimeter trio than Michigan? I'll wait...

    It's hard to beat Trey Burke, Tim Hardaway Jr. and Nik Stauskas.

    Combined, they score 48 points, grab 11 rebounds and hand out 12 assists.

    Each one shoots better than 40 percent from beyond the arc.

    No one shoots less than 76 percent from the line.

    Burke has stepped it up over the last five games, scoring 20 ppg and dishing out 9 apg.

    The biggest X Factor in this trio is Stauskas, a freshman. He was only rated as the No. 21 SF by ESPN.com in the Class of 2012.

    We don't know how long Michigan (15-0) will remain undefeated, but the Wolverines will rise or fall largely due to what these three do.

Arizona's Work on the Boards Has Helped Them Stay Undefeated

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    Sean Miller has done a fantastic job of assembling and developing this year's Arizona team that is currently 14-0 and ranked No. 3.

    One of the strengths of the 2012-13 Wildcats is their work on the boards.

    They currently have a +10.3 rebound margin, which puts them at No. 8 in the nation.

    Miller enjoys the benefit of having a team full of players who get into hitting the glass.

    Freshman Brandon Ashley leads the team in rebounding, but six players are averaging between four and six rebounds per game.

    If the Cats were not as strong on the boards, they may have lost two or three of their close games.

This Could Be the Best Gonzaga Team in the Mark Few Era

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    Mark Few's Gonzaga Bulldogs (15-1) have made the NCAA Tournament every year since he became the head coach in 1999.

    The Zags have made four trips to the Sweet Sixteen (2000, 2001, 2006 and 2009), but this might be the year that they get to the Elite 8 or beyond.

    Seven-foot forward Kelly Olynyk (pictured; 17.1 ppg; 6.6 rpg) anchors a robust front-line.

    Senior Elias Harris (6'8" 239 lbs) forward also continues to bring constant production down low.

    But Gonzaga is not just about front court force.

    Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr.. give Few a dynamic backcourt duo.

    The Bulldogs already have quality wins against three good Big 12 teams: Kansas State, Baylor and Oklahoma State.