Biggest Lessons Learned from College Basketball Preseason Tournaments
Save for a pair of low-profile tournaments taking place in late December, college basketball's preseason tournaments are now in the record books, and it's time to figure out what lessons we've learned from them.
In the Battle 4 Atlantis, Villanova acquired a target for its back while Kansas' bandwagon got a little bit lighter.
The Wooden Legacy taught us that San Diego State is for real while the new Big East probably isn't.
In the NIT Season Tip-Off championship game we were all hoping for, Arizona became a legitimate national championship threat while Duke may have become the fourth-best team in its own conference.
Let's start things out by pulling a little further on that ACC thread.
Balance of Power in the ACC Has Shifted North
Just three weeks ago, Duke was ranked fourth in the country and widely regarded as the favorite to win the ACC regular-season title. North Carolina was ranked 12th and considered either the second- or third-best team in the conference.
Business as usual.
Right up until it wasn't.
Both of those teams currently have two losses and even more question marks. For the first time since Maryland won the 2002 National Championship, it's looking exceedingly likely that a school north of North Carolina will take the ACC crown.
Big East defectors Pittsburgh and Syracuse are the only undefeated teams left in the ACC, both entering play on Tuesday night at 7-0 after winning the Legends Classic and Maui Invitational, respectively. Critics will say that Pittsburgh hasn't played anyone great, but it's hard to argue with an average margin of victory of 23.7 points per game.
Don't sleep on Virginia, either. The Cavaliers are 7-1 after winning the Corpus Christi Challenge, as expected.
We'll have a better feel for the ACC's top teams after they've played their ACC/Big Ten Challenge games, but it's safe to say that this conference is no longer Duke's to lose.
Wichita State Is Ready to Be This Year's Gonzaga
One non-traditional team in the Top 10 of the AP poll has become the new normal.
Three years ago, Jimmer Fredette and BYU took the world by storm, climbing as high as No. 3 in the country. During the 2011-12 season, it was Isaiah Canaan and the Murray State Racers that made an appearance at No. 9 after winning their first 23 games of the season.
Last year, of course, Gonzaga finished the regular season ranked No. 1 and earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. Even though Gonzaga lost in the third round of the tournament—to Wichita State, coincidentally enough—the Zags broke the glass ceiling by proving that you don't necessarily need to play in a major conference to get preferential treatment from the AP voters or the selection committee.
Enter the 2013-14 Wichita State Shockers.
Looking at their schedule, it's very likely they won't play a ranked team this entire season, but they're already ranked No. 11 in the country. The Missouri Valley Conference definitely became weaker when Creighton left for the Big East, but Wichita State isn't complaining.
They probably won't go undefeated simply because no one does, but after watching the Shockers manhandle DePaul and BYU in the CBE HOF Classic, it's hard to imagine a scenario in which they lose more than two games or ever drop below 15th in the polls.
Led by Ron Baker and Cleanthony Early, the sky is officially their limit.
Michigan Needs a Full-Time Chiropractor on Staff
Mitch McGary entered the season with back problems. He missed Michigan's first two games and still hasn't looked quite right in its last five contests. McGary did record a double-double against Florida State, but he's averaging just 8.2 points and 7.8 rebounds per game. Perhaps just as alarming, he's committing 5.76 fouls per 40 minutes.
It's more than just McGary, though. There's something in the water on Michigan's bench that's causing crucial Wolverines to drop like flies.
In the loss to Charlotte in the championship game of the Puerto Rico Tip-Off, Glenn Robinson III played just nine minutes while dealing with back problems. In the same game, leading scorer Nik Stauskas injured his ankle. Stauskas sat out Michigan's next game against Coppin State and is currently questionable for the showdown with Duke on Tuesday night.
Even if he does play, he certainly won't be at 100 percent.
Unless you want to make an impassioned case for Caris LeVert, those are the three most important players to Michigan's success this season—each dealing with the type of injury that a chiropractor should be treating.
Considering Big Ten conference play is arguably the most physical in the country, the Wolverines desperately need to fix these ailments before it's too late.
The Top Half of the AAC Is Going to Be Incredibly Good
There will be no overreaction to Louisville's loss to North Carolina in the HOF Tipoff Tournament. The Cardinals are still the team to beat in the American Athletic Conference, regardless of what happened that Sunday night in Uncasville, Connecticut.
Instead, the developing story from the November tournaments is that there are quite a few teams in the conference ready, willing and able to actually beat Louisville.
Connecticut announced that it is back from its one year of postseason ineligibility and ready for a deep run this year by winning the 2K Sports Classic over Boston College and Indiana—and added a non-tournament win over Florida on Monday night for good measure.
Memphis rejoined the ranks of the nation's elite by exacting revenge on Oklahoma State in the Old Spice Classic.
Even Southern Methodist turned some heads by hanging with Virginia down to the wire before beating Texas A&M the following night in the Corpus Christi Challenge.
Throw in a 6-0 Cincinnati team that didn't take part in a tournament, and the top half of this new conference is looking quite formidable.
Big 12 Powerhouses Maybe Not as Powerful as We Thought
November tournaments created a fair number of losses for Top 25 teams. That's simply the nature of the beast.
However, there might not be any teams that lost as much luster as Kansas and Oklahoma State.
One day before Thanksgiving, the Jayhawks and Cowboys were on top of the world. Rock Chalk was 4-0 with a win over Duke and coming off a 30-point win over a Towson team that is going to strongly compete with Drexel for the CAA crown. OK State followed up a 21-point win over Memphis with a 26-point road win over South Florida.
Aside from Michigan State, they were the only two teams to receive first-place votes in the November 25 AP Poll, and deservedly so.
But then the Battle 4 Atlantis and Old Spice Classic happened, and neither school even looks like the favorite to win the Big 12 anymore.
Kansas raised some eyebrows on Thanksgiving night by struggling to put away Wake Forest, but it was at least possible to overlook that one by asking whether the Demon Deacons might actually be better than we thought. But then Kansas lost to Villanova, and darn near lost to UTEP despite jumping out to a 15-2 lead in the first 10 minutes of the game.
Previously considered the second-best team in the country, Kansas was fighting for its life on three consecutive nights against unranked opponents.
Let the record show that Kansas' next 11 games (at Colorado, at Florida, vs. New Mexico, vs. Georgetown, vs. Toledo, vs. San Diego State, at Oklahoma, vs. Kansas State, at Iowa State, vs. Oklahoma State, vs. Baylor) might be the most consistently difficult stretch of games that any team will face this season. If the Jayhawks don't fix what went wrong in the Bahamas, things could get ugly in a hurry.
Meanwhile, the Cowboys opened their tournament by allowing Purdue to claw back into what should have been a blowout with 58 second-half points.
The following night, Butler had approximately 28 chances to win the game in the final two minutes, but failed to win the game despite discovering the blueprint to beating the Cowboys—clog the lane on defense to keep Marcus Smart from getting to the rim and force them to beat you on the perimeter.
Memphis followed Butler's blueprint and left us with serious doubts about a team that seemed nearly unbeatable just a few days prior.
We Should Probably Stop Doubting Steve Fisher
Without question, the most surprising champion of a big-name tournament came in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off, which somehow went to Charlotte despite a field with Michigan, VCU, Georgetown and Florida State.
Not far behind the 49ers, though, the San Diego State Aztecs were pretty much an afterthought when the Wooden Legacy bracket was revealed. Picked to finish fourth in the Mountain West and third in this tournament, Steve Fisher's squad was merely supposed to be a speed bump separating the Arizona State vs. Creighton winner from a championship game against Marquette.
Xavier Thames had other ideas.
After scoring a total of 50 points in SDSU's first four games of the season, the senior guard scored 55 in the two pivotal games against Creighton and Marquette. JJ O'Brien, the team's second-leading scorer, played much of the championship game against Marquette with a heavily bandaged shooting hand, scoring just five points.
It's quite possible that we still haven't seen this team at its best, but the Aztecs impressed enough to go from zero votes to No. 24 in the country in just one week's time.
Circle January 5 on your calendars, because San Diego State at Kansas should be a fun one.
Villanova Is the Team to Beat in the New Big East
Kudos to Villanova for shocking Kansas and Iowa on back-to-back nights to debut in the latest AP Poll as the 14th-best team in the country, but this has less to do with Villanova's successes than it does the failures of the rest of the conference.
First, it was Georgetown losing to Northeastern—a bottom-feeder from the CAA that has just one other win to this point in the season, and it came against 1-5 Central Connecticut State. Great work by the Hoyas to subsequently destroy Kansas State and clip VCU in the loser's bracket of the Puerto Rico Tip-Off, but what was up with that first game?
Then Xavier went 0-3 in the Battle 4 Atlantis while DePaul lost each of its two games in the CBE HOF Classic by 18 points. Butler and Creighton each lost two games in their tournaments, and Marquette picked up its third loss of the season in the finale of the Wooden Legacy.
Not only is Villanova clearly the best-looking team in the conference right now, but also, Providence is in a distant second place simply by default. The Friars lost to Maryland in the championship of the Paradise Jam, but at least they played good defense and looked relatively competent in the process.
At this point, that's all it takes to sparkle in the new Big East.
Arizona Is the Team to Beat in the Country
If Villanova rocketed to the top of the Big East by playing well while everyone else struggled, the same could be said for Arizona ascending higher in the national pecking order.
Michigan State obviously remains the top dog until dethroned, but Arizona made some serious statements in its four games in the NIT Season Tip-Off—which I wrote about after the win over Duke on Friday night.
In short, there isn't a more complete team in the country right now.
Many will point to Kaleb Tarczewski as the weakest link in the Wildcats' primary seven-man rotation, saying he commits too many turnovers against competent teams and isn't strong enough to battle with a legitimate post presence.
However, find me a team that wouldn't kill for a 7'0" center who can average 9.9 points, 6.7 rebounds and 1.9 blocks per game while playing relatively limited minutes. With an inside presence like "Zeus," you'll live with the occasional dumb foul and silly turnover—especially when he's arguably the fifth-most intimidating scoring threat in the starting line-up.
Perhaps because they have similarly difficult-to-spell last names, Tarczewski vaguely reminds me of Taymon Domzalski's years at Duke.
During Domzalski's senior year (1998-99), Virginia's coach Pete Gillen said of Duke's ninth-best player, "He's a guy who's a high school All-American, and he can't even get on the floor. If he came to Virginia, we'd build a monument to him, right next to (Thomas) Jefferson."
Perhaps I'm also making that connection because Duke went 37-2 that year in advancing all the way to the national championship game, and it hardly seems crazy anymore to expect similar results from Arizona.