Who's Hot, Who's Not Early in Conference Play of NCAA Basketball Season
The start of conference play ratchets up the intensity of NCAA basketball, and not every team (or player) is ready to handle it. If you have any doubts, you can ask all the formerly undefeated teams that didn’t last a week without taking their first loss in league action.
For other squads, though, the conference opener is a chance to put a shaky start in the past and establish themselves as contenders again. The Wisconsin Badgers have done just that in the loaded Big Ten, knocking off a pair of Top 25 foes in posting a 4-1 record to start conference play.
Read on for a closer look at Bo Ryan’s squad and more of the teams and players who have soared or sunk the farthest against conference competition.
Hot: Ole Miss
Even though Ole Miss entered the SEC schedule at 11-2, it was hard to tell just how seriously to take the Rebels. After all, its best win (such as it was) had been a home defeat of an unremarkable Rutgers squad.
After four games in conference, there’s no more doubt that Ole Miss is a team to be reckoned with. The Rebels’ 4-0 start has included a road win over Tennessee and convincing home victories over Arkansas and then-No. 10 Mizzou.
The Rebels boast the top scorer (Marshall Henderson) and rebounder (Murphy Holloway) in the SEC, so don't expect them to cool down anytime soon, either.
Not: Grambling State
To be fair, Grambling State hasn’t actually gotten any worse during SWAC play, but only because that would’ve been mathematically impossible.
The Tigers are the last remaining winless team in all of Division I, with a record of 0-16 overall and 0-7 in conference action.
The culprit isn’t hard to find: Grambling State has the absolute worst scoring offense in the country at 48.4 points per game. There may be hope on the horizon, though, as the Tigers host 2-14 Mississippi Valley State in just over a week.
Hot: Treveon Graham
Defense gets most of the headlines for Virginia Commonwealth, but the Rams’ spot in the Top 25 owes a great deal to red-hot team scoring leader Treveon Graham.
The 6’5” sophomore is one of the few Ram guards who doesn’t boast a gaudy steals total, but he more than makes up for it on the other end of the floor.
During VCU’s 4-0 start in its Atlantic 10 debut, Graham has exceeded even his impressive season average of 16.2 points per game.
Saturday’s win over Duquesne was his third 20-point effort in his last four tries, and he’s also shot an enviable 11-of-23 from beyond the arc in that stretch.
For an agonizing few minutes on January 3, Colorado had a season-defining win in its grasp. But when Sabatino Chen’s would-be game-winner at Arizona was ruled to have come after the regulation buzzer, the Buffaloes’ season took a nosedive.
Instead of starting the Pac-12 season with a dramatic road win that would have put them at 11-2 overall, Colorado lost that game to the Wildcats in overtime.
The Buffs have also dropped road games to very beatable Arizona State and Washington squads, falling to 2-4 in the conference.
With such a slow start, next weekend’s homestand against Stanford and Cal becomes a must-sweep for a team that briefly cracked the Top 25 back in November.
The departure of mighty Virginia Commonwealth has left the Colonial Athletic Association hurting for a signature team, but Northeastern is making a surprising effort to fill that void.
Although the Huskies had dropped six of seven heading into conference action, they’ve found their groove at a good time.
Led by the senior backcourt of Joel Smith and Jonathan Lee, Northeastern has reeled off six consecutive wins to start its CAA season.
With preseason conference favorite Drexel floundering, the Huskies could be well on their way to their first NCAA tournament bid since 1991.
Georgetown’s biggest loss to date came not on the court, but in the classroom. Standout sophomore Greg Whittington, who had been second on the team in scoring and rebounding, is likely done for the year after being ruled academically ineligible.
Of course, the Hoyas have had plenty of problems on the floor as well. Their already anemic offense has vanished entirely against Big East defenses, averaging a microscopic 58.4 points per game in conference play.
A trio of early defeats, including an embarrassing home rout by unranked Pitt, has dropped the Hoyas from No. 15 in the nation at the start of Big East action to an unranked also-ran at 2-3 in conference.
Nonconference play was not kind to the Huskies, who had lost at home to lowly Albany before the season was even a week old.
When Pac-12 play began, though, the conference’s defending regular-season champs started to look a lot more like last year’s squad.
Although Utah handed Washington its first Pac-12 defeat on Saturday, the Huskies are still in third place in the conference at 4-1.
That mark includes an impressive string of three straight road wins (over Cal, Stanford and archrival Washington State)—a run sparked in part by senior center Aziz N’Diaye and his 10.2 rebounds per Pac-12 game.
Not: Cal State-Northridge
The Matadors of Cal State-Northridge weren’t exactly on anyone’s bracket-buster radar, but they did turn in a respectable nonconference effort.
True road wins over both Utah and San Diego highlighted a solid 9-3 record before Big West play opened.
In conference action, though, the Matadors defense has been, well, a matador defense. With opposing scorers charging past them at will, Cal State-Northridge has allowed 78.4 points per game in losing all seven of its Big West games.
The news is likely to get worse before it gets better for Stephan Hicks and Co., as they play their next four games on the road.
Hot: Davante Gardner
Big East Player of the Year Jae Crowder is gone, but Marquette’s recent opponents can be forgiven if they haven’t noticed. Junior Davante Gardner has done an impressive imitation of the current Dallas Mavericks rookie since the start of Big East action.
The 6’8”, 290-pound Gardner has bulled his way to 15 points and 7.4 rebounds per game in the Golden Eagles’ 4-1 conference start.
Even in Saturday’s heartbreaking OT loss at Cincinnati, Gardner recorded his second double-double of the season while shooting 13-of-15 from the charity stripe.
Even in a loaded Atlantic 10, Dayton had reason to believe that it would be able to stay competitive with the top teams. The Flyers’ nonconference schedule had included wins over Auburn, Murray State and Alabama (in Tuscaloosa).
The schedule-makers, however, were not kind to Kevin Dillard and his mates, opening their A-10 campaign with a visit to Virginia Commonwealth and a home date with Butler.
Unsurprisingly, the Flyers dropped both games. More worrisome, they couldn’t bounce back against vulnerable La Salle, falling to the Explorers in Philly on Wednesday to drop to 0-3 in conference.
It’s worth noting that of Dayton’s seven losses, four (including that La Salle defeat) have come by a margin of two points or less. If this team’s late-game luck turns, it could be a very dangerous foe by the time the A-10 tourney rolls around.
A daunting preseason schedule that included Florida and Creighton put some very large dents in Wisconsin’s record early on.
The banged-up Badgers entered Big Ten play at a thoroughly ordinary 9-4, but they’ve started to get healthy—metaphorically and literally—against conference competition.
Forward Mike Bruesewitz, back from both a lacerated leg and a teammate-induced whiplash suffered in practice, is averaging 7.6 rebounds per game in Big Ten action.
He’s helped spark a remarkable 4-1 start for the second-place Badgers, who slaughtered then-No. 12 Illinois at home before stunning then-No. 2 Indiana in Bloomington last week.
Not: South Florida
With an intimidating defense and one of the country’s top distributors in Anthony Collins (6.9 assists per game), South Florida has much the same tools that helped it sneak in off the NCAA tournament bubble last March.
You wouldn’t know it, though, from the Bulls’ awful start to Big East play.
Though it came into the conference schedule on a four-game winning streak, South Florida has dropped four of its first five, with the one win coming at home against struggling Georgetown.
Although lack of scoring has been a major issue, the vaunted defense also gave up an uncharacteristic 70 points to unheralded Rutgers. That result doesn’t bode well for this team’s upset hopes against the Big East powers.
Fans could have been forgiven for counting Xavier out after an overtime loss to Vanderbilt triggered a disastrous 1-5 December slide. Once the Atlantic 10 season opened, though, the Musketeers resumed their role as perennial conference leaders.
Xavier is 4-0 in the league so far, a streak that started with a clutch home win over Temple.
Star freshman Semaj Christon deserves plenty of credit, but don’t overlook the help he’s getting inside from 6’8” senior Travis Taylor (10.0 rebounds per game in A-10 action).
Not: Phil Pressey
SEC coaches picked Phil Pressey as the league’s preseason player of the year, and he certainly looked the part in leading Missouri to an 11-2 start in nonconference action.
The Tigers’ first year in the SEC, though, has not been an enjoyable one for their outstanding point guard.
Missouri is off to a shaky 2-2 start in league action after blowout losses to Ole Miss and Florida. In those two defeats, Pressey has totaled a mere 12 points while recording 15 turnovers against 11 assists.
The junior hasn’t helped matters any by shooting 2-of-14 from long range in SEC games.
Hot: Nerlens Noel
Kentucky’s current freshman sensation may not be quite as devastating as Anthony Davis, but Nerlens Noel was already putting together a fine season during the Wildcats’ rocky nonconference performance.
Since SEC play opened, though, Noel has been one of the best all-around centers in college basketball.
In four conference games, the 6’10” freshman is averaging 12.5 points, 9.0 rebounds, 2.5 steals and a ludicrous 5.8 blocks per contest.
He’s scored in double figures in all four games (the best such streak of his season), and he’s even improved his woeful free-throw shooting (.667, up from .571 overall).
Not: Marcus Smart
Oklahoma State has endured an up-and-down start to its Big 12 season, but for star PG Marcus Smart, it’s been almost all down.
The high-powered freshman did have one impressive scoring effort (25 points in a loss to Kansas State), but otherwise has really struggled to match his nonconference numbers.
Of course, that's a high standard to live up to for a point guard who's recording 13.3 points, 5.4 rebounds, 4.4 assists and 2.8 steals per game on the season.
Still, Smart has seen his assist average drop to a meager 2.0 a night in four Big 12 games. He’s also coming off a career-worst scoring effort of three points in a foul-plagued win over Texas Tech.
A horrific early-season loss to Florida Gulf Coast (at home, yet) didn’t exactly bode well for Miami’s 2012-13 hopes.
Neither did the broken thumb suffered by colossal center Reggie Johnson, which has kept him sidelined since mid-December while his team started off with a 9-3 mark.
In spite of all that, the Hurricanes stand alone as the only undefeated team in ACC action.
Their 4-0 start (including a convincing road win in Chapel Hill) has gotten a major boost from Johnson’s none-too-small replacement—6’10”, 250-pound senior Julian Gamble has averaged 6.8 rebounds and 2.5 blocks a night against ACC opposition.
LSU’s hot start under new head coach Johnny Jones was one of the surprises of the early season. However, the Tigers’ 9-2 nonconference record is looking more and more like a mirage as they scuffle against SEC foes.
Shavon Coleman and Co. have dropped their first four conference games (including a painful home loss to South Carolina in OT).
Leading scorer Coleman has been at the heart of the problem, as the JUCO transfer has been held to single digits by three of the Tigers’ SEC opponents.
The road doesn’t get any easier in the near future, as LSU must face the rising Texas A&M defense followed by a visit to towering Kentucky at Rupp Arena.
Despite an early win at powerful UNLV, Oregon was very much under the radar during nonconference play. Of course, a loss to disappointing UTEP (even in triple OT) is a good way to get yourself discounted as a power-conference contender.
Oregon wasted no time in making its mark in the Pac-12, handing Arizona its first loss of the season in Eugene on January 10.
The No. 21 Ducks followed up with Saturday’s solid road win over No. 24 UCLA, keyed by 14 points and six assists from standout freshman Dominic Artis.
Oregon not only stands at 5-0 in league play, but it's now beaten both of the presumptive title favorites before January is even over.
Illinois has been the most schizophrenic team in the country, bar none. The Illini opened the season with a 12-game winning streak, but in Big Ten action, they’ve fallen to 1-4 to drop out of the Top 25.
That one win was a 19-point home blowout of Ohio State, but lately, the Illini have found themselves on the wrong end of that kind of score.
Their current three-game slide has seen them lose by 17 points (at home), 23 points and 14 points (at home to unranked Northwestern).
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Illini three-point marksmen have been dying by the sword in recent games. In those last three losses, they’ve shot a combined 8-of-58 from beyond the arc.