King's Court: State of the Power Conferences as League Play Begins

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King's Court: State of the Power Conferences as League Play Begins
USA Today

When Sean Miller was hired at Arizona in 2009, the Pac-10 was in a state of flux. Only two teams from the conference earned NCAA tournament bids that season. Miller’s squad wasn’t one of them, as the Wildcats were left out of the Big Dance for the first time in 25 years.

Four seasons later, things have changed.

The league—which is now the Pac-12—was awarded five NCAA bids last spring, and two schools (Arizona and Oregon) reached the Sweet 16. Things could be even better this year.

With top-ranked and undefeated Arizona leading the way, three Pac-12 schools are listed in this week’s Associated Press poll and another is receiving votes.

“There are anywhere between five and seven teams that could be a part of the NCAA tournament,” Miller said. “In my time at Arizona, I don’t know that our conference has ever been that deep.

“The days of everyone looking at us differently are over.”

As much as it has improved, the Pac-12 isn’t the only league that appears loaded from top to bottom in 2014. Here’s a look at how the nation’s biggest conferences rank as league plays begins across the nation this week and next.

 

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1. Big Ten—How could anyone not be excited about this conference after what we saw Tuesday? Third-ranked and undefeated Ohio State was pushed by unranked Purdue. Penn State (the team picked to finish last by some media outlets) led No. 5 Michigan State at intermission. Illinois beat Indiana in overtime.

Even though I think the Big Ten’s NCAA title drought will continue—the league hasn’t won a championship since 2000—there’s no question that this is the deepest league in the country. Heck, I haven’t even mentioned undefeated Wisconsin or an Iowa squad that’s poised to make the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2006. Or much-improved teams at Minnesota and Nebraska.

Definite NCAA Tournament teams: Ohio State, Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan State, Illinois

Strong chance: Michigan, Indiana

On the bubble: Purdue, Minnesota

 

2. Big 12—Back in early April it didn’t appear the Big 12 would be all that strong in 2013-14. But then Oklahoma State’s Marcus Smart announced he was returning to school. Kansas signed Andrew Wiggins and Baylor’s Isaiah Austin tore a shoulder muscle, forcing him to go back to Waco instead of turning pro. All of a sudden, there was hope.

Still, no one would’ve thought Texas and Iowa State would actually get better after losing three double-digit scorers each. Or that Oklahoma would be this competitive following the graduation of Romero Osby, Steven Pledger and Andrew Fitzgerald. Or that Kansas State would be on an eight-game winning streak—with a victory over Gonzaga—without Angel Rodriguez and Rodney McGruder. But it’s happening. The coaching in this league is phenomenal. The Big 12 has four Top 10-caliber teams.

Definite NCAA Tournament teams: Oklahoma State, Kansas, Baylor, Iowa State

Strong chance: Kansas State, Texas

On the bubble: Oklahoma

 

3. Pac-12—No. 1 Arizona and No. 10 Oregon are undefeated. Colorado boasts a win over Kansas. Arizona State has one of the most dynamic point guards in America in Jahii Carson and UCLA finally appears to have some direction under new coach Steve Alford. Not only is Utah no longer a pushover, the Utes (11-1) are frickin’ good.

The bottom of the league isn’t all that strong, although Washington State owns a nice win over Purdue while Stanford is one of just two teams to beat Connecticut thus far. It’s a fun time to be a Pac-12 fan. Let’s hope it stays that way for a while.

Definite NCAA Tournament teams: Arizona, Oregon Colorado, UCLA

Strong chance: Arizona State

On the bubble: Cal, Utah, Stanford

 

4. ACC—The thought entering the season was that the addition of Syracuse, Notre Dame, Pittsburgh and Louisville (next year) would make the ACC the nation’s most dominant conference for years to come. But so far the “new ACC” has been a mammoth disappointment. Syracuse and Duke are NCAA title contenders. North Carolina has some great wins (Louisville, Michigan State and Kentucky) and some atrocious losses (Belmont and UAB).

After that, there’s nothing to get excited about. Pittsburgh is 12-1 but lost to the only decent opponent (Cincinnati) it played in the nonconference. Notre Dame is reeling after the loss of Jerian Grant to academic issues. Maryland and Boston College have regressed and, as always, Florida State is inconsistent. And the bottom of the ACC is just plain bad. This is as top-heavy of a conference as you’ll find in the country.

Definite NCAA Tournament teams: Syracuse, Duke, North Carolina

Strong chance: Pittsburgh

On the bubble: Notre Dame, North Carolina State

 

Andy Lyons/Getty Images

5. SEC—Much like the Pac-12 a few years ago, the SEC takes a lot of hits. But I honestly don’t think the conference is nearly as bad as people make it out to be. Kentucky and Florida are both NCAA title contenders. By the end of the year I’m guessing I’d take the Wildcats and Gators over any team in the Big Ten. And I don’t think that’s all that bold of a statement.

What no one talks about are the sneaky-good teams that fall just behind Kentucky and Florida in the pecking order. Missouri is ranked No. 25, with its only setback coming in a one-point loss to Illinois on a neutral court. No shame in that. Tennessee is beginning to look like the squad we were excited for in the preseason and, I’m telling you, LSU is going to be good this year and really good next season. After that ... I’ll admit it: the bottom of the SEC is pretty sketchy. But I really like the top five teams.

Definite NCAA Tournament teams: Kentucky, Florida, Missouri

Strong chance: LSU

On the bubble: Tennessee, Ole Miss, Arkansas

 

6. American Athletic Conference—Two of the last three NCAA champions compete in the AAC. Still, while Connecticut and Louisville are the headliners, this is hardly a two-team affair. No. 18 Memphis is as talented as it has been since the days of John Calipari, and Mick Cronin’s Cincinnati squad has swagger under the leadership of experienced guard Sean Kilpatrick. More than a few people chuckled when Hall of Famer Larry Brown took over at SMU, but in just his second season, Brown has the Mustangs relevant again.

Houston had been a disappointment until Tuesday, when they upset Connecticut in the conference opener for both schools. And the Cougars did it without top player Danuel House, who is out with an injury. Looks like we're in store for some exciting games in the AAC.

Definite NCAA Tournament teams: Louisville, Connecticut, Memphis

Strong chance: Cincinnati

On the bubble: SMU

 

7. Big East—Despite Saturday’s lopsided loss to No. 2 Syracuse, Villanova appears to be legit after a few years of mediocrity. Jay Wright’s team beat Kansas in the Battle 4 Atlantis and is considered the favorite to win the league title. But things are iffy after that.

Georgetown’s Josh Smith is decent, but he’s not Otto Porter. Injuries have plagued Marquette, which is 8-5 after opening the season ranked No. 17. Doug McDermott is making the basket look like a hula-hoop at Creighton, but the Bluejays miss Greg Echenique’s presence inside. No Big East team has more talent than St. John’s, but it’s all going to waste. The good thing about the Big East is that, other than DePaul, there are no truly bad teams.

Definite NCAA Tournament teams: Villanova, Creighton

Strong chance: Georgetown, Marquette

On the bubble: Xavier, St. John’s, Butler

 

This Week's Grades 

Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

A: Rodney Hood—The only shame of Jabari Parker’s emergence as the nation’s best player is that it’s overshadowing an outstanding season by Hood, a Mississippi State transfer who has been of the biggest keys to the Blue Devils’ 10-2 start. Hood is averaging 17.6 points and 5.3 rebounds while shooting 54 percent from the field. He’s scored in double figures in 10 of 12 games. You won’t find another 6’8” forward in the country who is as difficult of a matchup as Hood, whose best trait is versatility.

B: Seniors—Talk about standout freshmen such as Parker and Julius Randle all you want—but don’t forget about the old guys, either. This senior class is one of the best in recent memory with standouts such as Doug McDermott, Aaron Craft, Russ Smith, Cory Jefferson, Cleanthony Early, Adreian Payne, C.J. Fair, Mike Moser, Markel Brown, Joe Jackson and plenty of others.

C: BYU—Expectations were high for the Cougars after finishing 24-12 and reaching the NIT title game last season. High-scoring guards Tyler Haws and Matt Carlino returned along with forward Nate Austin, and BYU added standout post player Eric Mika. The Cougars, though, have floundered thus far. Monday’s loss at Pepperdine extended a four-game losing streak that has featured setbacks against Utah, Oregon and Loyola Marymount. At 8-7 overall, BYU appears to be a longshot to make the NCAA tournament.

D: Mitch McGary’s injury—Michigan’s 6’10” sophomore forward entered the season with a ton of hype following his breakthrough performance in last season’s run to the NCAA title game. Some publications even tabbed McGary as a preseason first-team All-American. McGary, though, is likely out for the season because of a lingering back issue that will require surgery. He averaged 9.5 points and 8.3 rebounds in eight games for the Wolverines (8-4), who clearly aren’t the same team without a healthy McGary.

F: Chane Behanan—It’s hard to feel sorry for someone like the former Louisville forward, who was kicked off the team Monday after yet another violation of university policy. Cardinals coach Rick Pitino stuck up for Behanan multiple times when the school probably would’ve preferred to disassociate itself from the troubled star. Behanan’s latest and final dunce move was a blatant slap in the face to his coach, and also to the teammates and school that supported him. Behanan went to two Final Fours and won an NCAA title with the Cardinals. When motivated, he’s an excellent player. It’s a shame he’ll be remembered more for his boneheaded moves off the court than his success on it.

 

Starting Five: Overshadowed Players Who'll Become Household Names

Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Spencer Dinwiddie, Colorado—Even though he leads the Buffaloes in points (15.8) and assists (3.8), Dinwiddie has flown under the radar because of some early-season struggles with his shot. Those problems are fixed, as Dinwiddie—likely a future first-round NBA draft pick—is averaging 19 points in his last five games while shooting 54.2 percent.

DeAndre Kane, Iowa State—A Marshall transfer, Kane has helped make up for the loss of Korie Lucious and Tyrus McGee in the backcourt by averaging 14.9 points, 7.5 rebounds and 5.5 assists for the undefeated Cyclones. He’s as versatile of a guard as there is in the Big 12 and the key reason Iowa State could contend for a league title.

Johnny O’Bryant, LSU—The sophomore forward leads the underrated Tigers in scoring (14.9 points) and ranks second in rebounds (7.9). At 6’9” and 256 pounds, Bryant is a load to handle in the paint, but he can step away from the basket and score, too. LSU could be the third-best team in the SEC if O’Bryant plays to his potential. 

Fred VanVleet, Wichita State—As good as senior Malcolm Armstead was in last season’s Final Four run, the Shockers have upgraded at point guard with VanVleet. The sophomore—who saw quality minutes as Armstead’s backup in 2012-13—is averaging 11.3 points, 5.2 assists and two steals for undefeated Wichita State. 

James Young, Kentucky—The small forward hasn’t received nearly as much attention as classmates Julius Randle and the Harrison twins, but he’ll prove to be just as valuable to the Wildcats in conference play. Young ranks third on the team in scoring with 13.8 points per game. He had 18 points in Saturday’s win over Louisville and 21 two weeks earlier against Boise State.

 

Thoughts From Press Row 

Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

Ariona is all in: Top-ranked Arizona will take a 13-0 record into Thursday’s Pac-12 opener against Washington State. That’s similar to a year ago, when the Wildcats opened league competition 12-0.

Still, coach Sean Miller said the differences between his current team and the 2012-13 squad are glaring.

“I don’t want to paint a negative picture of last year’s team,” Miller said, “because we had a lot of great things happening. But (at this time) a year ago, we were really struggling as a team.

“I think we had certain players who would’ve loved to have played more. They cared more about that than the success of the team.”

Miller said his group also became complacent after sweeping its nonconference schedule, adding that it was like “pulling teeth” to get some of his players to go hard in practice. That’s not the case this year, he said.

“One of the best qualities about this year’s team,” Miller said, “is that we have a great group of guys, great people, in terms of who they are on and off the court. Everybody, to a man, wants to be a part of a winning team. There are some guys who can get big numbers and lose and, quite frankly, they’re happy. We don’t have that right now.”

 

K-State on the rise: One of the most impressive things about Kansas State’s eight-game winning streak is that most of it occurred without a true point guard.

The Wildcats were caught off guard when Angel Rodriguez transferred to Miami unexpectedly. And it wasn’t until last week that Rodriguez’s replacement, freshman Jevon Thomas, became eligible. Somehow, K-State managed to beat Ole Miss and Gonzaga with Will Spradling (who is more of a shooting guard) running the show.

Second-year coach Bruce Weber doesn’t want to expect too much of Thomas too fast. But he thinks his team will improve greatly thanks to Thomas’ presence. Thomas went through his fifth practice Monday before playing in Tuesday’s win against George Washington.

“He definitely brings quickness and energy to our team,” Weber said in a text Monday night. “He’s trying to get in practice shape and game shape at the same time. He has a lot to learn. He’s got to catch up on concepts on both ‘D’ and offense. He can go make plays! Gets better every day! Wants to be good!”

Thomas had six assists and no turnovers Tuesday.

 

Don't quit on Tennessee: Tennessee will enter SEC play riding high on momentum following an 87-52 victory over Virginia on Monday. The win over a quality opponent—the Cavaliers have spent time in the Top 25—was much-needed for the Volunteers.

Cuonzo Martin’s squad entered the season with high expectations with the return of Jordan McRae, Jarnell Stokes, Jeronne Maymon and Josh Richardson. But the Vols have already dropped games to Xavier, UTEP, North Carolina State and Wichita State.

“We needed this win,” guard Antonio Barton said. “This was a big statement game for us.”

Stokes said a players-only meeting last week may have been the turning point.

“Ever since then, guys have had their heads up,” Stokes said. “I had no idea it’d make that big of a difference, but the numbers don’t lie.”

Martin said he’s been stressing defense and rebounding in practice. 

“You’re talking about talented players,” he said. “Any time they don’t have the success they expected to have, there’s doubt. (Beating Virginia) showed our guys the level we’re capable of playing at when we play together and when we play hard.

“This is what we thought our team should and would look like.”

 

A.J. Hammons is a handful: Purdue may not be a Top 25-caliber team, but keep your eye on 7-foot, 251-pound center A.J. Hammons. The sophomore had a mammoth performance in Tuesday’s loss to No. 3 Ohio State with 18 points, 16 rebounds, five blocks and four assists. Those scoring numbers would’ve been even higher if Hammons—who was 6-of-16 from the field—had finished a few more of his shots around the rim.

“I know he wishes he could have a handful of those shots back,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said. “But A.J. played well. This is the first game that we’ve done a good job of getting him the ball in a position to either score or play out of the post.”

Hammons is averaging 8.8 points and 7.5 rebounds on the season.

 

Rapid Fire

Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Tougher than beef jerky: Cincinnati

Softer than a feather pillow: Maryland

Gave too much credit to: Alabama

Didn’t give enough credit to: Illinois

Scary if healthy: Harvard

Surging: VCU

Slipping: Saint Mary’s

Good on the mic: Greg Anthony

Press the mute button: Dan Dakich

Superior on the sideline: Holly Rowe

Get out of the booth and back on the court: Bruce Pearl

Get off the court and back in the booth: Steve Lavin

Rest in peace: Johnny Orr

 

A Dozen Words on My Top 12 Teams

  1. Arizona— Center Kaleb Tarczewski is healthy again—just in time for conference play.
  2. Syracuse—The Orange looked like the nation’s best team during their comeback against Villanova.
  3. Michigan State—Senior forward Adreian Payne is playing like a first-team All-American.
  4. Oklahoma State—How will Cowboys respond to the loss of injured forward Michael Cobbins?
  5. Wichita State—Shockers have a legitimate shot at going undefeated in a mediocre MVC.
  6. Kansas—It’s coming together, but allowing 83 points to Toledo at home? Eeesshh!
  7. Duke—Parker, Hood and Cook are solid. But the Blue Devils need more.
  8. Ohio State—Hold the phone. The Buckeyes beat a decent opponent (Purdue). About time.
  9. Wisconsin—Sunday’s game at No. 22 Iowa will tell us more about the Badgers.
  10. Florida—Mark it down. The Gators won’t lose for at least another month.
  11. Kentucky—I still won’t be surprised if the Wildcats win the NCAA title.
  12. Iowa State—Fred Hoiberg’s Cyclones were 3-6 in Big 12 road games last season.

 

Pit Stops

Pamela’s Diner, Pittsburgh—I’ve never been a big breakfast guy, probably because I can’t put wing sauce on pancakes. (Well, I suppose I could, but it wouldn’t taste very good). Most of the time, at breakfast places, all I’ll get is a double order of extra-crispy hashed browns, a slice or five of bacon and a Diet Coke.

Unless I’m eating at Pamela’s.

One day it may be the chocolate chip and banana pancakes, the next I may go with the croissant french toast or the crispy malted waffle. It doesn’t matter. I always walk out of Pamela’s feeling nice and bloated—both in the stomach and wallet. Pamela’s food is every bit as affordable as it is good. Other than a few gourmet salads, not a single item on the menu exceeds $8.

The biggest steal on the menu may be Pamela’s Famous Crepe Pancakes with ham, bacon or sausage links for $6.99. I never thought I’d one day pile meat onto a pancake, douse it with syrup and roll it up to eat like a fajita.

Then again, I never thought I’d like breakfast this much, either.

 

SAW’s Soul Kitchen, Birmingham, Ala.—When my friend and fellow foodie Andy Staples of Sports Illustrated suggested I try the signature dish at Saw’s, I was a bit hesitant. Something about a pond of cheese grits topped with collard greens and pulled pork didn’t sound all that appealing. But I trusted Andy and, as always, he was right.

The creaminess of the cheese grits was a nice contrast to the sharpness of the greens, but it was the smoky, tender pulled pork that won me over the most. I’ve never tasted pulled pork that was cooked to perfection quite like it was at Saw’s. Considering I live in Kansas City, that’s saying something. The dish was topped with a mound of shoestring onion rings, which tasted great after they were sopped up by the juices of one of the best meals I had in 2013.

So impressed was I with Saw’s that I went back two more times within the next 36 hours. The first time I ordered the smoked chicken wings. Instead of just tossing the bird in sauce just prior to serving, Saw’s cooks its wings with the sauce already applied and adds more at the end for extra flavor. Drizzling ranch onto the drummies and flaps once they’re on the plate is a nice touch.

On my third trip I chose the Saw’s burger over the sweet tea fried chicken breast. I couldn’t have gone wrong, but I was more than happy with my choice. Of all the things I had at Saw’s, the burger—dripping with cheese—may have been the best. The only problem was that it ruined the final night of my trip, as I was supposed to meet up with friends later that evening. I was too full and sleepy to make it.

Saw’s is tiny and the atmosphere isn’t great, but it doesn’t matter. You’ll never look up from your plate.

 

Jason King covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @JasonKingBR. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand. 

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