The assumption in early November was that the ACC would be the best conference in America, but two months later, it doesn’t even rank among the top three.
Kansas guard Andrew Wiggins isn’t the No. 1 player in the nation. Heck, with the emergence of center Joel Embiid, he may not even be the best player on his own team.
Then there’s Kentucky. The Wildcats, who opened the season atop the Associated Press poll, aren’t nearly as good as we thought—yet there are hints they could be by March.
No one can deny that the 2013-14 season has been fun—and unpredictable—thus far. Even more exciting is that there is plenty more to come, as teams across America begin to dive into their league schedules.
Still, before we jump ahead, let’s look back at some of the highs and lows of the nonconference season and hand out a few awards for the players and teams that made it so memorable.
The North Carolina Tar Heels have been the most enigmatic team of the season thus far. They couldn’t beat Belmont or Texas at home, yet they were able to curb stomp then-No. 1-ranked Michigan State 79-65 in East Lansing.
J.P. Tokoto led the way with 12 points and a then-career-high 10 rebounds for North Carolina.
The victory over Michigan State was especially impressive considering the distractions that had hovered over the Tar Heels’ program for months. Top player P.J. Hairston and key reserve Leslie McDonald had not been cleared to play because of alleged off-court violations (McDonald was later re-instated; Hairston was not) and the team appeared to have lost confidence after its early-season defeats.
Williams’ ability to re-focus his team during that stretch is the perfect illustration of why he’s a Hall of Fame coach.
For Michigan State, the loss was the first in more than a decade against an unranked nonconference opponent at home.
“We looked soft,” coach Tom Izzo said.
Honorable mention: Memphis over Oklahoma State; Baylor over Kentucky; Villanova over Kansas; Kansas State over Gonzaga
Trailing by eight points with 50 seconds remaining and fans filing out of Madison Square Garden, the game seemed all but over for Ohio State. The Buckeyes offense had struggled all game, at one point going nine minutes and 10 seconds without a field goal.
Ohio State, though, never abandoned its gritty, trademark defense, and that proved to be the difference during a rally in which the Buckeyes scored six points in less than a minute off of three Notre Dame turnovers to prevail 64-61.
“I really don’t know what happened,” point guard Aaron Craft said. “It was a big blur.”
The victory allowed Ohio State to continue an unbeaten streak that’s still alive as of Jan. 3. The Buckeyes are 14-0.
Honorable mention: Iowa State rallies from an 18-point deficit to defeat Northern Iowa 91-82 in overtime; Syracuse battles back from an 18-point hole to blow out Villanova 78-62.
Russ Smith would’ve rather had the win, but at least the diminutive Louisville guard will be able to savor the YouTube clip of him dunking over a future lottery pick in the Cardinals’ loss to Kentucky at Rupp Arena.
Smith, generously listed at 6'0" and 160 pounds, dribbled to the top of the key and then attacked the lane, soaring over the 6'9", 260-pound Julius Randle for a right-handed tomahawk slam. Considering it came against a player who many project as an NBA all-star, Smith’s flush gets the nod in this category.
Honorable mention: Memphis’ Joe Jackson against South Florida on New Year’s Eve
Not that anyone was predicting gloom and doom for Villanova, but an 11-0 start with wins over ranked opponents Kansas and Iowa in the Battle 4 Atlantis? Um, yeah...that would’ve seemed like a stretch.
Give Jay Wright credit, though. He lit a fire under forwards JayVaughn Pinkston and James Bell, who are giving maximum effort while combining to average 31.3 points. And while no one is ready to compare them to Randy Foye and Allan Ray, the Villanova backcourt of Ryan Arcidiacono and Darrun Hilliard is one of the saltiest in the Big East.
Things will certainly get tougher for Wright and the Wildcats in a conference defined by parity. There won’t be any nights off with schools such as Creighton, Marquette, St. John’s, Butler and Georgetown on the schedule. Still, Villanova has to feel good about its chances after an excellent nonconference campaign.
Honorable mention: Massachusetts, Iowa State, Illinois, Missouri
BYU returns many of the key pieces—including 22-point-per-game scorer Tyler Haws—from a squad that reached the semifinals of last season’s NIT. So the prevailing thought was that Dave Rose’s squad would be much-improved and contend for an NCAA tournament berth.
Instead, BYU is reeling. The Cougars are 8-7 after dropping their first two conference games to Loyola Marymount and Pepperdine. They also suffered a 17-point defeat to Utah and lost their last four games in December.
With Haws and Matt Carlino in the backcourt and one of the nation’s top freshmen (Eric Mika) down low, there is no excuse for BYU to be struggling in this fashion.
Honorable mention: Boston College, Alabama, Stanford, Maryland, Louisville
The Orange wouldn’t be 13-0 and ranked No. 2 in America if it weren’t for C.J. Fair, a 6’8” senior wing who is averaging 17.4 points, 5.5 rebounds and 1.6 assists per game.
Fair, who shoots 46 percent from the field, has played his best games against marquee opponents. He had 17 points against Villanova, 21 in a win against St. John’s and 24 in the Maui Invitational championship victory over Baylor. Fair, who considered entering the NBA draft after last season, has reached double figures in all but one game.
One of the most accomplished players in NCAA history has saved his best for last.
Doug McDermott, who earned All-American honors as a sophomore and junior, is averaging a career-high 24.3 points for a Creighton squad that has realistic hopes of winning the Big East title in its inaugural season.
McDermott’s shooting percentages—48.8 percent overall and 42.9 percent from three-point range—are down a bit from last season. But Creighton is also playing a tougher schedule than it has in past years.
The Connecticut Huskies guard certainly has a flair for the dramatic, as Shabazz Napier hit game-winning shots against Indiana and Florida (at the buzzer) to help his squad open the season 9-0.
Napier’s scoring numbers are down a tad (17.1 points to 16.3) from last season, but his rebound and assists totals are up—and so are his shooting percentages. He’s become a consummate team player, and Connecticut has flourished because of it.
Even in Tuesday’s upset loss at Houston, Napier was phenomenal, scoring 27 points to go along with nine rebonds and five assists.
Somewhere amid the hype surrounding Kansas’ Andrew Wiggins and Kentucky’s banner recruiting haul, people seemed to forgot about Jabari Parker.
Parker has established himself as the jewel of the freshman class and, in some ways, all of college basketball. The 6’8” forward is averaging 21.4 points and eight rebounds for the Blue Devils, who seem most suited to challenge Syracuse for the ACC title.
Parker, who has a chance to be the No. 1 overall pick in this summer’s NBA draft, scored at least 21 points in 10 of Duke’s 13 games, including a season-high 27 in a loss to Kansas in the second game of his career.
I don’t know that I’ve ever heard television announcers gush over a player as much as they do Marcus Smart.
The praise is certainly justified.
Smart isn’t the best player in college basketball, but he is without a doubt the best leader.
The feisty point guard sets the tone for a Oklahoma State Cowboys squad that is playing with as much confidence and swagger as any team in the country.
Smart leads Oklahoma State in points (17.2), assists (4.1) and steals (2.6). His most impressive performance to date was a 39-point effort in a 101-80 victory over Memphis. Smart also scored 30 points against Purdue.
It will be a huge surprise if Smart isn’t on this list again at the end of the regular season.
Cameron Bairstow, New Mexico: One season after averaging 9.7 points, Bairstow leads the Lobos in scoring with 20.1 points per game. He averaged 23.3 points during a four-game stretch against against Kansas, Cincinnati, Marquette and New Mexico State.
Adreian Payne, Michigan State: Add Payne to the list of players who have made dramatic improvements from last season. Payne averages 17 points and 8.1 rebounds for the fifth-ranked Spartans, who are 12-1. He had 33 points and nine boards against Texas.
Casey Prather, Florida: A role player during his first three seasons, Prather has nearly tripled his scoring average from last season (6.2 to 17.8 points). He helped keep the Florida afloat when the Gators were without guards Scottie Wilbekin and Kasey Hill.
Julius Randle, Kentucky: Three nonconference losses by the Wildcats have somewhat overshadowed a brilliant start for Randle, who has been the nation’s best freshman behind Parker. A power forward, Randle is averaging 18.1 points and 10.6 rebounds.
Joseph Young, Oregon: The Ducks’ outlook changed in late October, when the NCAA granted Young immediate eligibility following his transfer from Houston. Young is averaging 19.3 points and shooting 54.3 percent from the field for the 10th-ranked Ducks, who improved to 13-0 with Thursday’s overtime win at Utah. Young scored 36 points against Western Carolina and 25 against BYU.
The potential No. 1 pick in this summer’s NBA draft is averaging 21.4 points while shooting 52.8 percent and 45.5 percent from three-point range. And with games against Arizona, Kansas, Michigan, Alabama and UCLA, it’s not as if Duke has played a soft schedule. Jabari Parker has been tested on multiple occasions, and he’s passed each time.
If Parker continues at this pace, he’ll earn strong consideration for national player of the year honors. But for now, only one award for the young lad.
Honorable mention: Julius Randle, Kentucky; Joel Embiid, Kansas; Andrew Wiggins, Kansas; Tyler Ennis, Syracuse; Aaron Gordon, Arizona; Jordan Mickey, LSU
The former Houston standout scored a season-low nine points in Thursday’s 70-68 overtime win at Utah. Still, that hardly diminishes what Joseph Young has done for the 10th-ranked and undefeated Ducks thus far.
Young is averaging 19.3 points on the season and has eclipsed the 20-point barrier on six occasions. Young averaged 18 points a game last season for Houston, where his father, Michael, was the director of basketball operations. Young decided to transfer after his father was demoted by coach James Dickey.
Honorable mention: Rodney Hood, Duke; Rayvonte Rice, Illinois; Mike Moser, Oregon; DeAndre Kane, Iowa State; Jordan Clarkson, Missouri; Nic Moore, SMU
The fourth-ranked Wisconsin Badgers are 14-0 with victories over Florida, St. John’s, Virginia, Marquette and Saint Louis.
That’s quite a feat for a squad that lost two of its top three scorers in Jared Berggren and Ryan Evans along with glue-guy Mike Bruesewitz. Wisconsin, though, has hardly seemed fazed, as Sam Dekker and Frank Kaminsky have picked up the slack by combining to average 28.4 points.
That’s how it’s always been for the Badgers under Bo Ryan. Players come and go, but there is rarely any slippage.
Ryan has never finished lower than fourth in the Big Ten since his hiring in 2001-02. Then again, he’s taken the Badgers past the Sweet 16 only once. Maybe this season things will be different.
Honorable mention: Roy Williams, North Carolina; Fred Hoiberg, Iowa State; Derrick Kellogg, Massachusetts; Rick Barnes, Texas; Dana Altman, Oregon
Hopefully Creighton’s move to the Big East—which means more television exposure—will help college basketball fans across the nation realize just how good Doug McDermott truly is.
McDermott is on pace to become just the eighth player in college history to eclipse the 3,000-point barrier (he currently has 2,532 points) for his career. He could actually finish as one of the top three or four scorers of all time.
The senior forward’s ability to score in a variety of ways from all parts of the court without ever forcing shots is almost unparalleled this season. McDermott’s attention to footwork and fundamentals have helped make him what he is today. It will be shocking if McDermott doesn’t have a long career in the NBA.
Honorable mention: Marcus Smart, Oklahoma State; Jabari Parker, Duke