Knee-Jerk Reactions to the Start of College Basketball Conference Play
After roughly two weeks of college basketball conference play, it's only natural to have some knee-jerk reactions to what we've witnessed.
Before we dive into those, though, a hearty welcome to the college football fanatics in the crowd. You could have turned your attention to the 2017 offseason/preseason, the NFL playoffs or The Bachelor, but we're glad to have you and hope to get you caught up to speed on what you've missed over the past two months.
Here's the TL;DR rundown: There's chaos in the ACC every night. Both Indiana and the Big Ten are nowhere near as good as we expected. The Big East might be the country's best conference—even though the Big 12 has the top two teams in the AP Top 25. And do yourself a favor by watching Lonzo Ball and UCLA as much as you possibly can.
Oh, and Oregon State might be the worst major-conference team ever, so make sure to adjust your Rutgers and DePaul hot takes accordingly.
For each of the nine conferences likely to send multiple teams to the 2017 NCAA tournament—and one slide for the minor conferences—we've got a knee-jerk reaction to the past two months, particularly the past two weeks.
Why can't North Carolina State perform on the road? Could the Pac-12 be a three-bid league? And is there a single West Coast Conference game worth watching outside of the games between Gonzaga and Saint Mary's?
Knee-Jerk Reaction: This is a two-bid league. No more. No less.
Since its inception in the summer of 2013, the AAC has been in a purgatory of maybe being a seventh major conference, depending upon whom you ask. It has consistently been a step below the established six major conferences, but it is usually a step above the other mid-majors—Atlantic 10, Missouri Valley, Mountain West and West Coast.
But this season is not going to help the AAC's case to be considered a major conference, as it is Cincinnati, SMU or bust.
The Bearcats and Mustangs are a combined 7-0 in conference play and were barely even challenged in most of those games. They'll play each other on Thursday and shouldn't lose another game until they meet again on Feb. 12—unless Cincinnati loses its late-January nonconference game against Xavier, which wouldn't do the AAC's collective RPI any favors.
Memphis, Houston and UCF each has a 12-4 record with only one conference loss, but not one of those three teams has a tournament-worthy resume. Memphis has the best win of the bunch (vs. South Carolina) and doesn't have any terrible losses, but it played so many games against dreadful competition that its RPI is never going to recover.
And then there's Connecticut with a 6-9 record and losses to Wagner, Northeastern, Auburn and Tulsa. Before the season began, it felt like Connecticut and Cincinnati were near-locks for the NCAA tournament with SMU as a potential third team. With the Huskies performing this poorly, the conference as a whole looks even worse than it is.
If there's a third NCAA tournament team in this league, it's probably Temple. Despite a 10-7 record with losses to New Hampshire, Massachusetts, George Washington and UCF, the Owls scored two of the biggest wins of the entire season on back-to-back nights, beating Florida State and West Virginia on a neutral court to win the NIT Season Tip-Off. They'll need to rebound from their 0-3 start in conference play to win at least 11 or 12 AAC games, but that's about the only hope this league has for more than two bids.
Knee-Jerk Reaction: Rhode Island is forgotten, but not gone.
After spending the first few weeks of the season ranked in the AP Top 25, things went south for Rhode Island in a hurry. The Rams lost four games in a span of six and unwittingly (and unfairly) became the poster boys of the struggles of mid-major conferences.
Taken individually, there's nothing wrong with the losses they suffered. They lost by 10 to Duke on a neutral court, lost by a single possession at both Valparaiso and Providence and came out on the wrong end of a back-and-forth battle at Houston. Of the bunch, the Valparaiso loss was probably the least forgivable, and the Crusaders are a Cinderella candidate that no team wants to draw in March.
Taken collectively, though, bye bye Rams. The neutral-court win over Cincinnati was nice, but it was nowhere near enough to keep this team among the ones worthy of national attention.
So, let this serve as a reminder that Rhode Island remains a force with which to be reckoned.
After ending the losing skid, the Rams won four straight games by double-digit margins—including opening A-10 play 2-0 with an average margin of victory of 32.0 points—and nearly won a road game against Dayton.
That might be their final loss of the regular season. Without a road game against VCU on the docket, Rhode Island is the KenPom.com favorite in every remaining game. Whether that will be enough to sneak back into the Top 25 remains to be seen, but it would be plenty to break the program's NCAA tournament drought, which dates back to 2000.
Knee-Jerk Reaction: N.C. State's home-road splits must be historically awful.
Between a concussion that cost Maverick Rowan seven games and Omer Yurtseven's nine-game suspension to start the season, North Carolina State wasn't playing with a full deck until mid-December. As a result, let's disregard some of the early-season struggles and just key in on what this team has done over the past four weeks.
At home, the Wolfpack have been downright sensational. They rounded out nonconference play with four consecutive wins by a margin of at least 21 points and kept that party going with a 26-point rout of Virginia Tech. They shot 54.7 percent from the field in those five wins, averaging 97.6 points per game while holding opponents to 69.6. Things have been great in Raleigh.
Elsewhere, things have been anything other than great. In road games against Miami and North Carolina, N.C. State was limited to an average of 59.5 points while allowing 94.0.
Granted, it's a small sample size, and games are supposed to be tougher on the road in conference play. Still, we're talking about a swing in average margin of victory from plus-28.0 to minus-34.5. Good luck chalking that up to crowd noise and familiarity with venue.
Factoring in the first six weeks of the season, N.C. State is 10-0 at home and 2-4 away from home with only one quality win. All four losses were by a margin of at least 14 points.
This team has the talent to make a serious run in the NCAA tournament. Dennis Smith Jr. is a legitimate candidate for the No. 1 overall draft pick this June. Yurtseven is having some issues adjusting to the college game, but he has first-round potential, too. Abdul-Malik Abu might be worthy of a draft pick. And Terry Henderson and Torin Dorn are putting up a ton of points on most nights. But N.C. State won't make the tournament—let alone do any damage in it—until it figures out how to take its show on the road.
Knee-Jerk Reaction: Oklahoma State's nonconference play was fool's gold.
When Big 12 play began, it looked like Oklahoma State was going to be a lite version of Press Virginia. The Cowboys had recorded at least seven steals in every game, averaging 11.0. They made statements in the Maui Invitational against Connecticut and Georgetown, recording 18 and 19 steals, respectively, in two of their three best wins of the season. (The Cowboys also won at Wichita State.)
But, evidently, a few seasons of dealing with West Virginia prepared the rest of the Big 12 for Oklahoma State's attack. Brad Underwood's club is 0-3 in conference play and has yet to record more than four steals in a game.
The Cowboys were blown out at home by West Virginia before losing to Texas, which might be the league's worst team this year. Even the four-point loss at now-No. 1 Baylor was less than encouraging, as they were unable to force the Bears to play at their tempo. The 59-possession game was their first of the the season that didn't have at least 71 possessions.
If Oklahoma State is going to turn things around, it needs Jawun Evans to show back up.
Through the first eight games of the season, Evans averaged 3.0 steals and 7.0 made two-point attempts. In the four weeks since missing one game with a shoulder injury, however, he has only contributed 1.0 steal and 2.5 two-point buckets. This is hardly groundbreaking information, but the Cowboys simply aren't the same when their star isn't shining.
Knee-Jerk Reaction: Big East's top half could take any conference's top half.
When they aren't playing each other, Butler, Creighton, Seton Hall, Villanova and Xavier have a combined record of 66-6 this season. Again excluding the games played against each other, that quintet is 14-2 against the RPI Top 50 and 30-4 against the RPI Top 100.
Seton Hall didn't quite break into the latest AP Top 25, but the Pirates are only nine votes away from inclusion. Meanwhile, Villanova is No. 3, Creighton is No. 8, Butler is No. 12 and Xavier is No. 15.
The league has been so good it seems people are finally done pining for the days of the "Old Big East" and are embracing the new one as solid, albeit not quite as deep.
The Big Ten, SEC and Pac-12 can't even hold a candle to the Big East this year. The Pac-12 does have a few great teams in UCLA, Oregon and Arizona, but top half means we also need to include USC, California and...Utah? At that point, it's a clear advantage for the Big East.
The Big 12 provides a compelling case with the top two teams in the AP poll (Baylor and Kansas), a third in the Top 10 (West Virginia) and two others right on the fringe of the Top 25 (Kansas State and Iowa State), but there's a considerable divide between the respective fourth- and fifth-best teams. In a round-robin, neutral-site tournament, Xavier and Seton Hall would fare better than Kansas State and Iowa State.
That just leaves the ACC, and it has always been a challenge comparing 10-team leagues to 15-team leagues. The only fair way to do it is to break the 15-team league into five tiers of three teams, eliminating the middle team in each tier. However you choose to rank Duke, North Carolina, Florida State, Louisville, Virginia, Notre Dame and Clemson, get rid of Nos. 2 and 5 and stack the rest up against the Big East. Should be a good duel.
The Big East maybe isn't the country's deepest or best top-to-bottom league, but it wouldn't be crazy to think this league could match what the ACC did last year with four Elite Eight teams and two Final Four teams.
Knee-Jerk Reaction: Indiana, Michigan and Ohio State are all in bubble trouble.
At what point in the year do you start legitimately considering a team's NCAA tournament resume? Because if you do it right now, you're not going to like what you find for three of the Big Ten's flagship programs.
The Hoosiers, Wolverines and Buckeyes aren't nearly as far removed from the projected field as Rutgers is, and they're still a small step above Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska and Penn State. However, they're looking like the seventh- thru ninth-best teams in a league that may max out at six bids this year.
Of the trio, Ohio State has, by far, the most work to do. The Buckeyes are 0-3 in conference play and 10-6 overall. They don't have any great wins, and they have one of the worst losses (vs. Florida Atlantic) of any major-conference team. They probably need to win at least 11 of their final 15 regular-season games to get back in the hunt for a bid.
Yet, the Buckeyes somehow entered play on Tuesday with a better RPI rank (82) than both Michigan (83) and Indiana (106). The Wolverines and Hoosiers can thank their schedule-makers for that. Michigan played home games against Howard, Kennesaw State, Central Arkansas and Maryland Eastern Shore, each of which has an RPI outside the Top 250. Indiana did even worse with seven games against the nation's 100 worst D-I teams.
[If you're wondering why there's such a colossal divide between Indiana's RPI rank and its KenPom rank (27), that would be because it won the aforementioned seven games by an average margin of 32.4 points. Destroying inferior competition is a great way to trick the margin of victory metrics into believing you're better than you are.]
Both Indiana and Michigan entered Tuesday with a 3-4 record against the RPI Top 100 and one relatively bad loss. For each, a 9-9 record in Big Ten play might be enough, given the quality wins they were able to pick up in the first five weeks of the season. But with each boasting a 1-2 start that includes losses to Iowa (by Michigan) and Nebraska (by Indiana), .500 might be asking too much.
Knee-Jerk Reaction: The divide between the haves and the have-nots is massive.
The Pac-12 has three legitimate threats to win the national championship.
UCLA is the country's most fun-to-watch team, capable of beating anyone with its offensive onslaught. Oregon is on a 13-game winning streak and looks every bit the part of a preseason favorite to win a conference now that Dillon Brooks is back to full strength. And Arizona has somehow withstood injuries and suspensions to get to 15-2 with just a pair of close, neutral-court losses to Butler and Gonzaga.
USC and California might be good enough to win a game or two in the NCAA tournament, provided they can get there. The former is 15-2 with only one remotely noteworthy win (vs. SMU) while the latter won a road game against the former after battling well in losses to Arizona, UCLA, Virginia and Seton Hall.
Beyond that, this conference is an atrocity.
Neither Utah nor Arizona State has a better win this season than its home games against Colorado, and the Buffaloes are 0-3 in Pac-12 play with little more on their resume than a home win over Xavier that gets more inexplicable by the day. Stanford hasn't even been competitive in the past six weeks, losing its last six games against KenPom Top 250 opponents by an average margin of 21.2 points.
And those aren't even the bad teams in the Pac-12. Washington has yet to win a game against a KenPom Top 200 foe. Washington State has two home losses to teams outside the KenPom Top 200, and Oregon State is giving 2011-12 Utah (6-25 overall, No. 303 on KenPom) a run for its money for the title of worst major-conference team of the 2010s.
Last year, this league sent seven teams to the NCAA tournament, largely because it performed so well as a whole in nonconference play. Unless Arizona, Oregon and UCLA start handing out wins to the likes of Cal, Colorado and Utah, there's no chance the Pac-12 sends more than four teams to the NCAA tournament this year. And if USC doesn't win at least one of its five remaining games against the top teams in the conference, three bids is a legitimate possibility.
Knee-Jerk Reaction: Texas A&M is toast.
Remember back in the preseason when there was a debate over whether Florida or Texas A&M would have the honor of finishing as a distant runner-up to Kentucky in the SEC?
Is that Aggies team ever going to show up?
Texas A&M is 8-6 and only has one win this season against a team in the RPI Top 180 (Virginia Tech). It is 0-3 in SEC play with a 10-point home loss to Tennessee and a 42-point loss to Kentucky. The Aggies were competitive in nonconference losses to Arizona, UCLA and USC, falling to three of the Pac-12's four best teams by a combined margin of 13 points. But when close losses are about the most impressive thing a team has done, it is in serious trouble.
A&M's season went up in smoke in September when freshman point guard J.J. Caldwell was ruled ineligible for 2016-17. That left the Aggies with shooting guard Admon Gilder and Lipscomb transfer J.C. Hampton as their only backcourt options.
To his credit, Gilder has been solid as the lead guard. And D.J. Hogg has embraced more of a point-forward mentality with 3.5 assists per game.
However, this team can neither score from nor defend the perimeter. In their six losses, the Aggies have committed an average of 17.0 turnovers while forcing just 10.0. On the season, they're shooting worse from three-point range (34.3 percent) than their opponents are (36.1 percent).
As great as Tyler Davis and Robert Williams are in the post, it's nearly impossible to beat quality opponents in today's game with a makeshift backcourt.
Knee-Jerk Reaction: There are only two games left that matter.
Try as one might to keep BYU in the bubble conversation, its season is effectively over. The Cougars are 1-4 against the RPI Top 100 and also have a hideous home loss to Utah Valley on their resume. With only three remaining games against RPI Top 150 opponents (vs. Saint Mary's, vs. Gonzaga, at Gonzaga), even winning every remaining regular-season game might not be enough for a bid.
And don't even bother looking any further down the conference standings for a potential at-large bid. San Francisco has the "best" resume of the bunch, and it just lost both of its home games against Gonzaga and Saint Mary's by a double-digit margin.
As long as Gonzaga remains undefeated, each of its games carries a little bit of intrigue as the potential first loss of the season. However, there are only two West Coast Conference games worth making plans to watch this season: Saint Mary's at Gonzaga this Saturday and Gonzaga at Saint Mary's Feb. 11.
These are typically the conference's two best teams by a considerable margin, but the gap is even more pronounced than usual with the Zags at No. 5 in the AP poll and the Gaels lurking at No. 21. Unless you count the AAC (Cincinnati and SMU) as a mid-major, they are the only mid-major teams receiving more than three votes in this week's AP Top 25.
Those two battles will be a blast, though, and they should help turn some of the stars of Saint Mary's into more household names. Jock Landale against Gonzaga's frontcourt could be one of the best interior battles since Louisville's Montrezl Harrell took on Kentucky's 38-1 front line more than two years ago. The backcourt duel between Emmett Naar and Nigel Williams-Goss ought to be fun, too.
Knee-Jerk Reaction: UNC-Wilmington is the best team you're not watching.
The NCAA tournament is still more than two months away, but this is about the time of year when it becomes rational to start scouting the nation for potential Cinderella teams.
Maybe you like Middle Tennessee as a 13-3 team that upset Michigan State in last year's dance. Perhaps you've had your eye on Texas-Arlington—a veteran-heavy team with road wins over Texas and Saint Mary's that virtually everyone had pegged as one to watch out for this year. Or perchance you're still rooting for Monmouth and its bench mob. Those are all great choices.
But the minor-conference team you're going to want to start paying attention to is UNC-Wilmington.
The Seahawks gave Duke a run for its money as a No. 13 seed in last year's NCAA tournament and got back three of the most important players from that team: Chris Flemmings, Denzel Ingram and C.J. Bryce. They've also added a pair of key transfers—Ambrose Mosley from Old Dominion and JaQuel Richmond from MTSU—and have had Devontae Cacok blossom into the national leader in O-rating as a sophomore center who is shooting 82.8 percent from the field and dominating on the glass.
This is one of the nation's smallest teams—Cacok is the only regular taller than 6'5", and he's only 6'7"—but the Seahawks make it work by aggressively defending the perimeter (opponents only take 13.9 threes per game), owning the turnover battle (plus-5.1 per game) and shooting a lot of three-pointers (25.8 attempts per game).
The Seahawks are 15-2 overall and 4-0 in CAA play. They have yet to face the other two above-average teams in the conference (Northeastern and College of Charleston), but they should be favored in every remaining game.
It's also worth noting, UNC-Wilmington entered play on Tuesday with a RPI rank of 26 and a KenPom rank of 46. Those rankings will almost surely drop after a few more games against the likes of James Madison, Delaware and Drexel. However, if the Seahawks could get to at least 27-4 before slipping up in the CAA tournament, this is probably the minor-conference team with the best chance of stealing an at-large bid.
Kerry Miller covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @kerrancejames.
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