New Year's Day is the semi-official turning point of the college basketball season. Teams are either finishing their nonconference action or beginning conference play when the old year's hourglass runs out.
If your team is in the Associated Press Top 25 on January 1, you're certainly optimistic about your chances of celebrating a conference title. But what are the factors that can put your team over the top in its league?
Let's dig in to each of the nation's top vote-getters and see what pieces of the puzzle will lead your team to some league hardware come March.
Stats accurate through games of January 1. Most KenPom.com links require subscription.
While the Missouri Tigers haven't played the most dangerous nonconference schedule, they have played some teams who know how to stroke the ball from long range.
Hawaii and West Virginia are both among the top 70 three-point shooting teams in the nation according to StatSheet.com. Both, however, struggled in their meeting with the Tigers.
Mizzou held the Rainbows (37.8 percent on season) to 23 percent from the arc. West Virginia (39.6) fared even worse, making only 21 percent of its long shots.
The SEC isn't a conference whose members live and die on the long ball, but opponents will need the shot in their arsenal to rally from big deficits against Missouri. Only six SEC schools rank in the top 150 nationally in three-point percentage.
The Gonzaga Bulldogs are struggling with injuries as West Coast Conference play begins, but league MVP candidate Kevin Pangos is still logging his usual heavy minutes.
Dealing with an injured toe himself, Pangos has nevertheless sat for only 17 minutes in the six games since spraining the digit before GU's game against New Mexico State.
The WCC's fourth-leading scorer will need to step up that part of his game while backcourt mate Gary Bell Jr. rehabs a broken hand and burly forward Sam Dower deals with a lower back injury. Pangos has missed double figures only once this season and erupted for 26 points per game at the Maui Invitational.
Nine times in the UMass Minutemen's first 12 games, four or more players have scored in double figures. Seven men average at least 6.9 PPG on the season. With one of the nation's top distributors, point guard Chaz Williams, pulling the strings of the offense, UMass is a difficult team to defend.
If coach Derek Kellogg's team can improve on its hefty 19.6 turnover percentage—third from the bottom in the Atlantic 10—it will be hard to outscore. "That's something we definitely have to work on, and if we turn the ball over, hustle back on defense and stop them from scoring," center Cady Lalanne told MassLive.com after UMass' win over Providence.
The Minutemen only go seven deep, but all seven have at least three double-figure-scoring games this season. Pick your poison, Atlantic 10.
Another supremely balanced team, Iowa has an advantage over UMass—and most other teams in the nation.
The Hawkeyes rank sixth in the nation in effective height according to Ken Pomeroy's formula. They trail teams like New Mexico State and UC Irvine, but there are no 7'5" monsters on the Iowa roster. UI's size is spread up and down the roster, with eight members of the primary 10-man rotation standing 6'6" or taller.
Indiana and Illinois are the only other Big Ten schools that rank in the national top 75.
Where the Hawkeyes can truly loom over their opponents is in the occasional lineup that features 6'6" senior Roy Devyn Marble as a primary ball-handler. He's worked as an occasional point guard in relief of the smaller Mike Gesell and Anthony Clemmons, both 6'1".
If Marble spends a substantial amount of time matched up on the diminutive likes of Keith Appling, Tim Frazier or Yogi Ferrell, he may get his pocket picked a few times, but those talented scoring guards could seriously struggle to get their shots off.
San Diego State's Josh Davis hasn't been the double-double machine that he was in his two seasons at Tulane, but he's a constant threat.
Davis has put up four games of 10-plus points and rebounds after posting 19 in 35 games last season. He's been the Aztecs' primary force on the offensive glass, contributing to his RPG average of 11.1, which ranks sixth in the nation according to StatSheet.
Where he hasn't been particularly needed is in the scoring column. Returning cogs Xavier Thames and Winston Shepard have handled the bulk of the shooting against legitimate competition. Davis' best games have come against the likes of San Diego Christian and McNeese State.
In Mountain West competition, Davis should see more looks, especially if he shows signs of improving his iffy foul shooting. A 71 percent shooter last season with a nation-leading 282 attempts, Davis has regressed to 47 percent this year in only four tries per game.
He probably won't approach the 17.1 PPG he put up last year, but averaging close to 13 or 14 in MWC play will add another dimension to a streaky Aztec offense.
Point guard Spencer Dinwiddie is probably Colorado's best pro prospect and biggest celebrity, but it's the dangerous young frontcourt trio that will determine whether the Buffs can usurp the Pac-12 from top-ranked Arizona.
Sophomore Josh Scott is averaging close to a double-double, ranking in the Pac-12's top five in rebounds per game, offensive rebounding percentage (OR%) and defensive rebounding percentage (DR%) according to StatSheet.
Scott's classmate Xavier Johnson is a dangerous inside-out threat, putting up nearly 10 points and six rebounds per game while shooting 35 percent from three-point land.
Redshirt freshman Wesley Gordon serves as the resident rim protector, leading the team in blocks and trailing only Scott in rebounds.
While Scott is a conference player of the year candidate, CU coach Tad Boyle considers Johnson the most dangerous matchup for opponents. Boyle told The Denver Post:
"He can make 3s, he can put the ball on the floor, he can post up, he rebounds. Everybody kind of knows you have to put a big guy on Josh (Scott), but you put a little guy on Xavier, he's going to take him down low and abuse him. You put a big guy on him, and he'll take him out and shoot 3s or drive around him. That's what makes his game so special."
When North Carolina guard Leslie McDonald was reinstated following a lengthy inquiry, the sigh of relief from Chapel Hill was audible far and wide.
Finally, Marcus Paige had some help on the perimeter. McDonald ranked second on the team in made three-pointers after his first game, in which he canned four against Texas.
Finally, a veteran foul shooter was returning to a team that truly emphasized the "foul" and not the "shooting." Of course, whatever bad mojo is afflicting the rest of the Tar Heels (does Durham have a resident witch doctor, by chance?) is giving McDonald some early fits as well. A nearly 80 percent shooter last season, McDonald has made only 10 of his first 19 attempts from the line.
He's still third on the team in eFG% behind sparingly used reserves Jackson Simmons and Desmond Hubert. The Heels need McDonald to continue his solid shooting and give the offense the versatility it's been sorely lacking.
Thanks to the presence of a quartet of talented, athletic senior guards, the Memphis Tigers are a nightmare for shaky ball-handlers everywhere. Memphis' defense ranks seventh in the nation in steal percentage and 11th in overall turnover percentage according to Ken Pomeroy.
Among the teams in the American Athletic Conference, only Louisville forces more than UM's 17.6 turnovers per game. Five different Tigers rank among Pomeroy's top 300 in individual steal percentage, and David Pellom would also qualify had he played enough minutes.
The AAC has several members with inexperienced point guards, and Memphis should look forward to preying on those players. Pellom and Shaq Goodwin have shown an ability to force turnovers in the frontcourt, which will come in handy against the green bigs of UConn.
Now that we know Memphis can actually beat ranked teams, the potential is there for a conference title, even if it has to go through Louisville or Storrs, Conn.
Now, the one point guard who shouldn't be susceptible to any amount of Memphis pressure is UConn senior Shabazz Napier. The veteran playmaker has ridden the highs and lows of the program's recent past, and he's come out a better player for it.
Napier's become an efficient scorer, one of the nation's top creators, a frequent defensive pest and yes, still the Huskies' top rebounder, as he has been all season.
Instrumental in rallying a team with no postseason future last season to win 20 games, Napier was already redefining clutch before he scored the winning basket against Florida last month. Remember, this is a man who scored 55 points over nine overtime periods last season, leading the Huskies to five wins in those seven games.
When he doesn't play well—see whole halves against Stanford and Houston—the Huskies are in trouble. Still, he's become a hard player to bet against in a late-game situation. Who in the American would you trust more: Napier, Russ Smith, Joe Jackson or the field?
It shouldn't be a hard decision.
Depending on who wins the NBA draft lottery, Cameroonian 7-footer Joel Embiid may actually do the unthinkable and wrest the crown of No. 1 pick away from teammate Andrew "Jesus Wigginsworth" Wiggins. NBADraft.net already has him atop the list, projected to the Milwaukee Bucks.
But first, Kansas fans need to see the freshman compete in Big 12 action. If he continues on the path he's been treading recently, he should see plenty of conference minutes.
Embiid got off to a slow start, primarily thanks to foul trouble. Over his first eight games, he played less than 19 minutes per game, committing 7.7 fouls per 40. Penciled into the starting lineup over the past four games, he's averaged 26.5 MPG and 4.9 fouls per 40.
His first three starts came against potential pro-caliber competition in Florida's Patric Young, New Mexico's Alex Kirk and Georgetown's Josh Smith. All he did in those three games was put up 41 points, 20 rebounds and eight blocks, while those three combined for 22, 11 and two against him.
Outside of Baylor's trio of Isaiah Austin, Cory Jefferson and Rico Gathers or Texas' Cameron Ridley, the Big 12 isn't exactly loaded with men combining size similar to Embiid's with any sort of skill level. If KU lets the big dog eat on a consistent basis, he could average a double-double and lead the league in blocks.
Most importantly, he'd remind the upstarts in Stillwater, Waco and Ames that the road to the Big 12 title still leads through Lawrence.
There aren't many teams that can match the sheer size on hand in the Kentucky Wildcats' lineup. Reserve point guard Dominique Hawkins is the only player in the nine-man rotation who's shorter than 6'6" and weighs less than 215 pounds.
Losses to Baylor and North Carolina came because those two teams could compete in terms of bulk. An earlier loss to Michigan State came because the Spartans were simply tougher.
The 6'6" Harrison twins dwarf nearly every backcourt they'll face, but their effort level often lags behind their talent level. They made life difficult for Louisville's stud backcourt of Russ Smith and Chris Jones, finally getting the Cats the signature win they've been lacking.
In the SEC, there will be opponents who can compete size-wise. Perhaps only Florida or Missouri can come close talent-wise. Many, however, will maximize their effort levels, itching to welcome Kentucky's hyped freshmen to big-boy college ball.
John Calipari has already had to sound an alarm about his players being out more for themselves than the team. If the players get the hint and learn to play together, they can still be a big national title threat in more ways than one.
Still ranked ahead of Kentucky despite the head-to-head defeat just before New Year's, Louisville's loss was quickly overshadowed by the dismissal of forward Chane Behanan.
Behanan leaves behind fellow low-post players lacking his experience level, but at least one far outstrips him in talent. The Cardinals will need sophomore Montrezl Harrell to keep tapping the potential that still has Draft Express touting him as a late lottery pick.
Against a nonconference schedule that wasn't exactly brutal, Harrell has put up only one double-double. Despite being one of the nation's top 20 field-goal shooters at 65.1 percent, Harrell gets fewer than eight attempts per game.
Cardinal coach Rick Pitino has indicated that junior forward Wayne Blackshear will occasionally spell Harrell at the 4, a position for which Blackshear is ill-suited. Senior Stephan Van Treese is a player whose work ethic far exceeds his skill. Freshman Mangok Mathiang is growing into a new starting role, while classmate Akoy Agau is still struggling to adapt to college ball.
This is the Louisville frontcourt, for better or worse. If the Cards intend to avoid getting worse when AAC play starts, Harrell needs to keep getting better.
Coming into the season, the Big 12 was expected to be a two-horse race between Oklahoma State and Kansas. As conference play begins, Baylor and Iowa State have come charging up from the outside.
"Charging" is actually an appropriate descriptor for the way the Cyclones have been playing this season. According to Pomeroy, ISU's offensive possessions are the 10th-shortest in America, while their opponents' possession length ranks in the 300s.
The length of those possessions doesn't mean ISU's opposition gets better looks at the basket. Iowa State's defense ranks in the top 25 nationally in three of the "Four Factors" on Ken Pomeroy's scouting report. Opponents record only a 43.6 eFG%, the Cyclones pull more than 73 percent of available defensive rebounds, and they only surrender 26 free-throw attempts per 100 FGAs.
Part of the team's success is a refusal to sell out and force turnovers. Iowa State forces turnovers on less than 16 percent of opponents' possessions. It leads to fewer transition opportunities—although the Cyclones still get plenty—but it also results in defenders rarely caught out of position to contest shots.
Simply put, the Cyclones aren't beating themselves, a surprising statement to make about a roster that coach Fred Hoiberg has once again stitched together from D-I transfers, junior college recruits and freshmen. Only three players are returnees from last season.
The Florida Gators have limped their way through a tough nonconference schedule with only two losses, one coming on a buzzer-beating miracle putback by Shabazz Napier. Their offense isn't sexy, but UF has succeeded by maximizing its own chances.
Florida ranks 23rd in the country with a 38.7 OR% per Pomeroy. Forwards Patric Young and Dorian Finney-Smith both rank in the individual top 100 in the same category. In one of the Gators' signature wins of the season, Florida pulled 13 offensive boards against Kansas, a top-70 defensive rebounding team.
In the SEC, great defensive rebounding teams don't look too thick on the ground right now. Only Missouri and Tennessee rank in Pomeroy's top 100 DR% teams. Don't be surprised if Young and Finney-Smith both rank among the league's top offensive boardsmen.
We should also not be surprised if the veteran Gators pip the inconsistent Kentucky Wildcats and guard-oriented Mizzou Tigers for the conference title.
We should all be taught to share by the time we finish kindergarten. Most elite college basketball players struggle with the concept on occasion. Six Villanova Wildcats are former RSCI Top 100 recruits, but they're certainly blending well in 2013-14.
Nova is ranked ninth in the nation by Pomeroy in a stat that doesn't get a ton of press—assist percentage. An impressive 63.5 percent of the Cats' baskets come off of a pass, indicating a team's discipline and willingness to give up a shot to a teammate with a better look.
Seven of the nine players in coach Jay Wright's regular rotation have assist percentages greater than 10. By contrast, new Big East rival Xavier has four such players.
Hoisting three-pointers at any and all opportunities, the Wildcats took 86 percent of those shots off the catch in nonconference play according to VU Hoops.
Now, about the 32.6 percent success rate on those threes...
Apologies to teams like Memphis and Oklahoma State, but the headline didn't stutter.
Guards Johnathan Loyd, Joseph Young and Jason Calliste are all in Ken Pomeroy's national top 40 in true shooting percentage. Calliste, in particular, is getting his points anywhere and everywhere, sinking 58 percent from long range while also drawing 68 FTAs to 61 FGAs.
Young is sixth in the nation with an obscene 142.4 offensive rating, also ranking in the top 50 in eFG%, TS% and turnover percentage.
KenPom also lists Loyd 12th in the nation in assist percentage and has played so well that sophomore Dominic Artis isn't getting his starting spot back until he's a junior.
And we haven't even mentioned 6'5" sophomore Damyean Dotson, who was a Freshman All-American last season.
Ranking in the top 20 nationwide in three-point, two-point and free-throw shooting, the Ducks can get points from anywhere. The frontcourt's not exactly laden with household names, but it's guard play that's frequently cited as an important factor in March. If that's the case, Oregon could blaze a trail all the way to the Final Four.
Another team capable of getting its points from just about anywhere is the Baylor Bears. They're the only team in the country listed in Hoop-Math's top 10 in both mid-range and three-point shooting percentage.
The three-point marksmanship of Brady Heslip and Gary Franklin and the intermediate skill of Kenny Chery and Taurean Prince get the Bears points on the game's most difficult shots. Junior forward Royce O'Neale ranks in Pomeroy's top 12 in both eFG% and TS%.
Oddly enough, the Bears are in the middle of the national pack at the rim. A 59.9 percent success rate on inside shots should be much higher, considering the array of talented big men at coach Scott Drew's disposal.
If Isaiah Austin and Rico Gathers can join Cory Jefferson as true low-post threats, Baylor can score with anyone.
Not to demean veteran teams like Indiana State or Northern Iowa, but as currently constituted, it doesn't look like Wichita State should have a problem storming to the title in the Missouri Valley Conference.
The Shockers have defeated BYU, Saint Louis, Tennessee and Alabama. Except for Northern Iowa beating VCU and Indiana State winning at Notre Dame—and more bloom comes off of that rose daily—the rest of the potential league contenders have no major victories on their ledgers.
WSU leads the league in offensive and defensive efficiency, OR%, DR%, steal percentage, block percentage and offensive turnover percentage. And we could go on.
Expect Cleanthony Early to rack up conference player of the year honors, but Gregg Marshall's not likely to win Coach of the Year. After all, none of this is exactly a surprise.
Is it hyperbole to say Jabari Parker is the best offensive player in America? Perhaps, but if he's not, then the only player this writer would consider choosing ahead of him may be Doug McDermott of Creighton.
Let's examine a few figures and compare the two side by side. All stats per Hoop-Math:
|Player||eFG%||TS%||FG% Rim||FG% 2-pt J's||3FG%|
McDermott's abilities in the post have been somewhat underrated, and he's a superior foul shooter. Other than that, Parker's versatility easily makes him the ACC's most dangerous scorer, and arguably one of the nation's.
While I've written recently about the Blue Devils' prospects in the low post and on the wing, the duo of Parker and Rodney Hood is capable of keeping Duke in every game.
We all know who Marcus Smart is and why he's one of the nation's most important players. Markel Brown doesn't get enough love as a skilled, athletic Robin to Smart's Batman. Phil Forte can drain triples from the south concession stands at Gallagher-Iba Arena, if not the farthest sections of the parking lot. And Brian Williams is a defensive pest who's dangerous when attacking the rim.
These four veteran players are now the most essential quartet on any team in the country. In the wake of a season-ending injury to forward Michael Cobbins, frontcourt depth is precariously thin. Outside of Le'Bryan Nash and Kamari Murphy, there's no more proven talent up front.
The four guards will often be asked to play together, and there will be no relief for them if freshman Stevie Clark is forced to miss time. Clark was arrested Wednesday morning for marijuana possession, according to a report by Oklahoma City's News 9. A suspension is not out of the question, because Clark already missed four games earlier this season.
Smart is the kind of college player who can carry a team to wins by himself, and he's got plenty of able support. The Cowboys will still have to find answers for bigger teams like Baylor and Kansas if they intend to break the Jayhawks' stranglehold on the Big 12.
Health is always the great variable in sports. No preseason predictions make allowances for players missing time, whether it's flu-like symptoms costing them a game or a torn ACL destroying a season.
Michigan State hasn't had anything truly catastrophic befall it so far, mostly just nagging stuff.
Gary Harris is playing through an ankle injury that's lingered since summer. Adreian Payne is battling plantar fasciitis. Matt Costello has missed three weeks with mono. Keith Appling has fought through a hip pointer since crashing to the floor in Sparty's loss to North Carolina. Backup guard Travis Trice is even dealing with unexplained blisters on his feet.
That's five of the top seven members of MSU's rotation missing practices, skipping cupcake games and generally being limited when they did play.
The scary part for the Big Ten will come if the Spartans get better. They were preseason national championship favorites for a reason, after all. When Harris is able to drain jumpers, Appling gets to attack the rim and seek out contact and Costello gets to battle for more rebounds, MSU's top seven is among the best in America.
Now, if only everyone would get past the injury bug so they could prove it.
You have to beat Wisconsin, because the Badgers certainly won't beat themselves.
UW didn't shy away from challenges in the nonconference schedule, beating the likes of Florida, St. John's, Saint Louis, Virginia, West Virginia and Marquette en route to its current 13-0 start. That's been noted as writers praise the Badgers' early success, but there's another factor not getting quite as much run.
Wisconsin currently commits 8.5 turnovers per game, the fewest in the nation per StatSheet. Its turnover percentage is tied for third-lowest in the country. What might be surprising is how difficult that kind of ball security is against the schedule the Badgers have played, and not just against the brand-name programs above.
Seven of UW's first 13 opponents rank in Ken Pomeroy's top 100 in turnover percentage defense. That includes Florida, Marquette and Saint Louis, but there's also the likes of Green Bay, Bowling Green, Eastern Kentucky and North Dakota. The Badgers have kept the ball safe against defenses that love to get after it and exert pressure.
So how many Big Ten teams are among those top 100? A whopping three. Ohio State, Minnesota and Nebraska all sit in the top 60. More of the Big Ten teams will concern themselves with contesting shooters than harassing dribblers and passers. Wisconsin's shooting percentages may drop a bit, but don't expect a lot of 15-turnover nights.
Sports Illustrated writer Luke Winn scrupulously charts the turnovers Ohio State guards Aaron Craft and Shannon Scott have forced when he assembles his weekly power rankings. A national writer assembling custom graphics to track your harassment of ball-handlers is a great sign that you've arrived as a feared defensive force.
Even though forward LaQuinton Ross has started to find his offensive groove, the Buckeyes will go as far as their defense takes them. The team is tops in the country in defensive efficiency by nearly four points per 100 possessions according to Pomeroy. Both Craft and Scott stand in the national top 60 in steal percentage per StatSheet. No opponent has scored 70 points yet this season.
Points are very, very hard to come by when you're staring down the barrel of Craft and Scott.
The Big Ten does boast six of Pomeroy's top 50 offensive teams, so the Buckeyes will be tested in league play. If Ross keeps his roll going, though, expect a result similar to last season's Deshaun Thomas-led team.
Tyler Ennis is not a lengthy matchup nightmare like his Syracuse point guard predecessor Michael Carter-Williams. He's a more typical 6'2" and 180 pounds. In terms of this season's freshman class, however, no player looms larger in his team's conference outlook.
Ennis is a pass-first guard (5.4 assists per game, third in the ACC) who will help forwards C.J. Fair and Jerami Grant become NBA draft picks in June. He's a defensive pest, pulling 2.7 steals per game, ninth in the nation. He steps up his scoring against the biggest competition, dropping 28 against Cal, 21 against St. John's and 20 in a win over previously undefeated Villanova.
Freshman or not, Ennis is a player who often seems a step ahead of the game, more so than most seniors. Syracuse fans have to enjoy a creator like Tyler after the swashbuckling ways of MCW and Scoop Jardine. Ennis' assist-turnover ratio is a stellar 4.7, 14th in the nation per StatSheet. We thought Carter-Williams' 2.1 was strong.
If anything happens to Jabari Parker, Ennis may not only be the top candidate to supplant him as ACC Freshman of the Year favorite, but he could also draw support for conference Player of the Year.
The answer is two, with Arizona likely an unsurprising entrant. The other is Quinnipiac, in case you were really wondering and don't have a KenPom subscription.
The Wildcats have taken on nearly all comers and have yet to be outrebounded by any, including such solid rebounding clubs as San Diego State and UNLV. Remember, the Rebels boast national rebounding leader Roscoe Smith.
Among Pac-12 clubs, only Colorado is ranked among Pomeroy's top 75 in OR%, meaning the other 10 clubs will face an uphill struggle to beat Aaron Gordon, Kaleb Tarczewski and Brandon Ashley for second chances. The Cats are a team that forces a lot of missed shots, and empty possessions will lead to big deficits.
For more from Scott on college basketball, check out The Back Iron.