College Basketball: 50 Questions That Will Be Answered During Conference Play
The beginning of the college basketball season can sometimes create more questions than it answers, thanks in part to some soft schedules and unexpected happenings.
With that being said, there are more than a few teams from all over the country that have yet to be truly tested and a bunch of other teams that weren't expected to be nearly as good as they've been thus far.
Then again, there are also those teams that were supposed to be great this season but have floundered in the early going and left many fans scratching their heads trying to figure out what's going on.
Thankfully, conference play has just gotten underway, which pits many of the top teams in the nation against each other on a nightly basis and should put almost all of these questions to rest.
But since conference play has just started and won't be over until early March in most cases, let's take a look at which questions will be answered over the next two months that will no doubt help clear things up for all of us college basketball fans around the country.
Can Kemba Walker Get Enough Support from His Teammates to Keep Their Run Going?
At the start of the season, the Connecticut Huskies were nowhere to be found on any Top 25 rankings and weren't seen as a threat to any of the top teams in the Big East.
Fast forward about two months into the season and not only has Kemba Walker established himself as one of the elite players in the country, but on the heels of some impressive victories over Kentucky and Michigan State, Jim Calhoun's squad found itself ranked in the top five.
But before everyone anoints this UConn team as one of the best in the country, the Huskies' 78-63 loss to Pittsburgh during their first game of Big East play and then a 73-70 loss to Notre Dame showed that they have their share of weaknesses.
Perhaps the biggest weakness is that the rest of the Huskies roster outside of Kemba Walker needs to step up and be more productive if UConn is going to contend in the Big East.
During their loss to Pittsburgh (granted, Pitt is an extremely tough team playing at home), players like Alex Oriakhi, Shabazz Napier and Jeremy Lamb, who had previously given UConn some great secondary production to Walker, were nowhere to be found.
There's no doubt about it, Kemba Walker's a great player, but without enough support from the rest of the guys on this team, they will have a tough time keeping their surprising early-season run going.
2. Will Kansas State Find Some Leadership?
Last year's success for Kansas State was supposed to be the precursor to another deep tournament run and even a national title in 2011.
Despite the fact that the Wildcats were losing one of their best players and leaders in Denis Clemente, there were plenty of reasons to believe that Kansas State was going to be one of the best teams in the nation without him.
And while the Wildcats currently sit at 12-3 with a few nice wins over Gonzaga and Virginia Tech earlier in the season, it's become clear that leadership is a serious issue for Frank Martin's team.
Two guys who were supposed to take on a bigger role for K-State this season were Curtis Kelly and Jacob Pullen. But after both players were suspended for accepting impermissible benefits during a recent trip to a department store, it seems that Frank Martin may have to look elsewhere for leadership.
Pullen has since returned to the lineup and Kelly will be coming back soon, but with an extremely tough Big 12 schedule looming, Kansas State may find itself in a lot of trouble if these guys (or others) don't step up to lead this talented squad.
3. Is Cincinnati for Real?
Of the seven teams that are currently unbeaten, the Cincinnati Bearcats have the most doubters about whether their record is legit.
These doubts are certainly not unfounded as Mick Cronin's squad hasn't played a single team in the Top 25 yet and their only impressive win was their most recent 20-point thrashing of Xavier.
At the same time, it's hard to blame a coach for not scheduling the most competitive out-of-conference games when he knows that his team will be tested on a nightly basis in the Big East.
There's no doubt that Cincinnati has handled the teams it was supposed to beat early on, which has the Bearcats sitting at 15-0. But with games at Villanova, at Syracuse and at Notre Dame all coming up before Jan. 20, we should find out relatively quickly if Cincinnati is for real.
4. How Will Northwestern Measure Up Against the Extremely Tough Big Ten?
Much like Cincinnati, the Northwestern Wildcats have gotten themselves out to a nice early season start and while many have predicted that they will earn their first tournament berth in the history of the program in 2011, it's not going to be easy.
Of Northwestern's nine wins thus far, none will have much weight come Selection Sunday. The Wildcats lost to the only quality out of conference opponent they played when St. John's beat them 85-69 just a few days before Christmas.
Northwestern has already dropped its first three Big Ten games against Purdue, Michigan State, and Illinois and they're looking at a host of other games against ranked teams, not to mention six more against Wisconsin, Michigan and Minnesota.
While the rigors of Big Ten play will no doubt hand John Shurna and Co. a dose of reality, it will also give them ample opportunity to impress the selection committee by notching an upset or two over some of the best teams in the country.
If the Northwestern Wildcats want to score their first tournament berth in school history, they will have to get a few quality wins over some Big Ten opponents.
5. Can Anyone in the ACC Beat Duke?
By now I'm sure we're all sick of hearing about whether Duke will run the table in the ACC, but the fact that there's been so much talk about the subject means that it's not out of the question.
Even without Kyrie Irving, the Blue Devils have a roster loaded with talent. And if anyone had any questions about what this team was made of, you need look no further than the early-season wins over Kansas State, Michigan State and Butler to see that these guys mean business.
When you throw in the fact that some of the biggest threats to Duke in the ACC haven't played up to potential thus far, it seems that Duke has at least an outside chance of going wire-to-wire during conference play.
Of course, North Carolina, Maryland, Florida State, Miami, and Virginia Tech won't make it easy on them.
6. Will North Carolina Be Able to Live Up to Preseason Expectations?
Even though North Carolina fans were still trying to shake off their underwhelming 2009-10 season which saw them miss out on the tournament for the first time since 2003, things were looking up for Roy Williams squad entering this season.
Not only were the Tar Heels ranked in the preseason top 10, they had just signed one of the best incoming freshmen in the country in Harrison Barnes and their returning players figured to be much improved after enduring some growing pains last year.
Unfortunately for North Carolina, the Tar Heels lost four of their first 11 games, Harrison Banes and the team's guard play has struggled and the program has fallen out of the Top 25 all together.
Even with all of these unexpected roadblocks, North Carolina has played better after stumbling early on, notching a huge win over Kentucky and taking Texas right down to the wire.
As many have already mentioned, the ACC isn't as strong this season as it's been in years past, which should give Roy Williams and the rest of the Tar Heels a little more time to work out the kinks.
7. How Will Bruce Pearl's Eight-Game Suspension Affect Tennessee?
It's been an eventful season in Tennessee to say the least.
Not only has the Volunteers' play been erratic, but they recently learned that Bruce Pearl will be forced to miss the first eight games of conference play because he committed recruiting violations and subsequently lied about his actions to the NCAA.
While Pearl's fiery demeanor will no doubt be missed on the sidelines during this period, the controversy surrounding his absence might be even more of a detriment to this Tennessee squad.
Conference play in the SEC is tough enough without your players having to deal with the distractions that come along with your head coach being suspended. Pearl will miss games against Florida, Vanderbilt, and Kentucky while serving his suspension.
On the other hand, when you consider that four of Tennessee's five starters are upperclassmen, things could be worse for the Volunteers.
However things play out in Tennessee, the Pearl controversy will definitely have an effect on how his team fares during conference play.
8. Which Freshman Will Distinguish Himself Against Better Competition?
Through about two months of play, we've seen some impressive debuts from freshmen all around the country.
But over the next few weeks, the teams with the most talented freshmen in the nation will be transitioning from generally soft out of conference schedules to much tougher conference play.
There's no doubt that freshmen like Jared Sullinger, Terrence Jones and Tobias Harris have made a name for themselves in the early going.
But we'll really see what these guys are made of when they enter conference play and are going up against quality opponents on a nightly basis.
9. Is the Balance of Power Shifting from Gonzaga to Saint Mary's in the WCC?
In the last two decades, the Gonzaga Bulldogs have gone from a relative unknown to a consistent NCAA tournament threat, all the while being the class of the West Coast Conference.
Not only has Gonzaga put together some extremely impressive tournament runs which have showered the program with plenty of national attention, but they've also either won the regular season or WCC tournament in 16 of the last 20 seasons.
Meanwhile, an unassuming Saint Mary's program which is only 10 years removed from a 2-27 season has steadily improved under the guidance of head coach Randy Bennett, culminating in a run to the Sweet 16 just last year.
In addition to Saint Mary's being one of the more surprising teams in last year's tournament, the Gaels' 19-point thumping of Gonzaga in the WCC tournament showed that there might be a changing of the guard coming soon.
With their upward-trending performance in the past few seasons and their impressive Australian pipeline, which has delivered players like Patrick Mills, Matthew Dellavedova, Mitchell Young and Clint Steindl, it seems like the Gaels are here to stay and could pose a serious threat to Gonzaga's WCC domination.
10. Is Derrick Williams Enough to Keep Arizona Near the Top of the Pac-10?
The Arizona Wildcats are currently enjoying a 12-3 start to their season and while a fairly bland early schedule has certainly contributed, the play of Derrick Williams under the basket has been just as vital to the team's success.
The 6'8'' sophomore forward has not only become a YouTube sensation thanks to his high-flying dunks, but he's also leading Arizona in scoring and rebounding and has both opposing teams and NBA scouts taking notice.
Unfortunately for Arizona, Williams is the only player on the team scoring in double figures and has been their only consistent offensive threat thus far.
When the season started, most experts didn't think too highly of the Pacific-10 Conference, but teams like Washington State, USC, and UCLA have all shown that they have some talent, not to mention Lorenzo Romar's Washington Huskies team which was the preseason pick to run away with the conference.
Arizona has played well thus far, but they're going to need Derrick Williams playing some of the best ball of his life to keep them near the top of the Pac-10 and it should be entertaining to see if this super soph is up to the challenge.
11. How Will Jared Sullinger Play Against Some Much Tougher Big Ten Frontcourts?
We've all marveled at the seemingly effortless transition that Ohio State's Jared Sullinger has made to start off his freshman season.
The 6'9'' forward has looked like a man among boys up to this point and Sullinger has essentially done whatever he's wanted in the post through the Buckeyes' first 15 games.
There's little doubt that the wide-bodied Sullinger is not only one of the top freshman in college basketball, but he's been one of the best players in the country as well.
At the same time, Ohio State hasn't played the toughest out-of-conference schedule to start the season and the Big Ten might very well be the most brutal conference in the country this season.
Not to take anything away from what has been a magical and extremely impressive start to the season for Sullinger, but it's going to be interesting to see how he plays against the bigger and more experienced frontcourts of teams like Minnesota, Purdue, Wisconsin, and Michigan State as Big Ten play picks up steam.
12. Will Wisconsin Get Any Respect in the Big Ten?
Every year it seems like Bo Ryan and his team are either overlooked because of their grind-it-out style of play or overshadowed by all of the talent around them in the Big Ten.
And while the Wisconsin Badgers might not get as much attention as some of the other teams in their conference, they're one of the most dangerous squads in the Big Ten this season, and they are almost impossible to beat at home.
Featuring Jon Leuer, Jordan Taylor and Keaton Nankivil, the Badgers have been hovering right around the Top 25 all season and once again will pose a formidable challenge to whoever is on their schedule.
In their first Big Ten game, the Badgers showed that they will be a tough out in 2011 as they defeated an impressive Minnesota team 68-60 in another one of their patented low-scoring slug-fests.
With teams like Ohio State, Michigan State, Purdue, Minnesota and Illinois, it's easy to see why a team like Wisconsin can get lost in the Big Ten shuffle, but it might be time for the Badgers to get a little more respect.
13. Can Notre Dame's Senior-Laden Lineup Do Any Serious Damage in the Big East?
The impressive play of guys like Ben Hansbrough, Tim Abromaitis and Carleton Scott towards the end of last year when Luke Harangody was injured has carried over to this season and currently has Notre Dame ranked in the Top 25.
The Fighting Irish have also gotten solid contributions from Tyrone Nash and Purdue transfer Scott Martin, who round out a starting lineup that is composed entirely of seniors.
This experience should help Notre Dame as Mike Brey's team ventures into Big East play.
While the Irish have already notched an impressive win against Georgetown and another over UConn, it remains to be seen if this team can consistently compete with some of the powerhouse programs they will be going up against on a nightly basis.
14. Will the Kentucky Newcomers Be Able to Guide Them Through the SEC?
It might be a new year for John Calipari and Kentucky basketball, but the story remains the same.
The Wildcats have yet another talented freshman class that they're depending on to do most of the heavy lifting if they're going to have a successful run through the SEC.
While Terrence Jones might be getting most of the national headlines (and rightfully so), both Brandon Knight and Doron Lamb have been equally as impressive in their own ways and are a big part of the reason why the Wildcats are currently ranked 10th in the country.
The trio of Jones, Knight, and Lamb are currently averaging 50 of the team's 80 points per game, and while the SEC might not be the most challenging conference in the nation, Kentucky will have its share of tough matchups.
Among those will be meetings with Florida, Vanderbilt and a Tennessee team that has shown both flashes of brilliance as well as played down to lesser competition.
The SEC schedule is far from murderer's row, but Kentucky will need its highly-touted freshman class playing at the top of its game if it is going to be successful. The question is will the Wildcats be able to?
15. Can Georgetown Get Enough Production from The Post Players?
With Chris Wright, Austin Freeman and Jason Clark manning the perimeter, the Georgetown Hoyas have one of the most explosive three-guard combos in the nation.
And while that trio has had plenty of success in the early going, it has also become clear that the Hoyas are going to need production from the guys under the basket to compete with the best teams in the nation.
John Thompson III has a few solid options in the post including Julian Vaughn, Hollis Thompson and Henry Sims, all of whom seem capable of doing the dirty work so Georgetown's perimeter players can shine.
At the same time, there have already been a few occasions when Georgetown's lack of a strong post presence has hurt them this season.
So unless Wright or Freeman are going for 30 on a nightly basis during Big East play, they will need some help from the guys under the basket if they're going to make some noise during conference play.
16. How Good Is UCLA's Tyler Honeycutt?
Honeycutt has some tantalizing intangibles with his 6'8'' frame and a versatile style of play that has made him look like one of the best players in the Pac-10 at times this season.
But the UCLA forward has also had his problems with consistency and as easily as he goes for 33 points and nine rebounds against Kansas, he has also disappeared in games against teams like Villanova, Montana and Montana State.
As Pac-10 play gets going, it will be interesting to see how Honeycutt, whose name has been mentioned as a potential mid-to-late first-round pick, performs.
It seems that his ceiling is about as high as anyone, but he has yet to reach his full potential and show the nation just how good of a player he can be.
17. Is Kansas Really Better This Season After Losing Three Players to the NBA?
While many of us are raving about how good Duke and Ohio State have looked thus far, the Kansas Jayhawks have (somewhat) quietly put together an impressive 14-0 record and are looking like a legit title contender after losing three of their best players from last season to the NBA.
Even though it's almost impossible to replace guys like Sherron Collins, Cole Aldrich, and Xavier Henry, the Jayhawks seem to have done just that in the early going by relying on a much more balanced and efficient offensive attack.
Bill Self's squad has a few solid wins thus far, including those against Memphis, Arizona, UCLA, and USC but the Big 12 figures to be much more challenging.
One team in the conference currently has a losing record and teams like Missouri, Texas, Baylor, Kansas State and Texas A&M will no doubt be waiting to take their best shot at KU.
They've definitely looked the part thus far, but we will absolutely find out whether or not this Kansas squad is better than last year's team once they've gone through the rigors of Big 12 play.
18. Is Baylor Ready for Big 12 Play with a Target on Its Back?
The Baylor Bears may have caught a few teams by surprise last season that weren't ready to deal with Scott Drew's up-and-coming program.
But after making the Elite 8 last year, returning LaceDarius Dunn, being ranked in the preseason Top 25 and signing the highest-rated recruit in the program's history in Perry Jones, Baylor won't be sneaking up on anyone this season.
The Bears will no doubt be entering Big 12 play with a target on their backs as they try to live up to the high expectations that have been placed on their very talented roster.
Not to mention, teams like Texas, Missouri, Kansas, and Kansas State were all either beaten by Baylor last season or narrowly escaped with wins.
It's hard to deny how much talent Baylor has on its roster, but the Bears have gotten off to a rather slow start, dropping games to Florida State, Gonzaga, and Washington State.
You can bet that no one in the Big 12 will be taking them lightly this time around.
19. Can Rick Barnes Get an Extremely Talented Texas Roster to Play As a Team?
After last year's amazingly disappointing season with one of the most talented rosters in the country, it seemed like head coach Rick Barnes had a hard time getting the Longhorns to play as a team.
As Texas enters conference play in 2011, the Longhorns are once again loaded with talent up and down their roster and it would stand to reason that the heat is on Barnes to get the 2011 version of the Longhorns playing more like a unit and less like a collection of high school all-stars.
Early returns have been very good for Barnes and Texas, as they've scored big victories over Michigan State, North Carolina, and Illinois.
But Texas started last season 17-0 before going 10-8 in conference play and free falling out of the Top 25.
Despite all the talent that this Texas roster has, it would be hard to see them excelling in a conference as tough as the Big 12 if they're not playing together. As the head coach, it's Rick Barnes' job to get everyone on the same page.
20. Can Cleveland State Challenge Butler in The Horizon League?
Butler gave college basketball fans everywhere one of the greatest tournament runs anyone has seen in a long time this past March, and while the Bulldogs lost Gordon Hayward to the NBA, they're still an extremely talented team.
After last season's heroics, Butler has become one of the more recognizable mid-majors in nation, but most casual college basketball fans probably have never heard of the Cleveland State Vikings.
Despite the fact that it is not a well-known program, Cleveland State has won 15 of the first 16 games and will be battling for first place in the Horizon League when it travels to Butler for a Jan. 7 showdown.
The Vikings obviously haven't played the toughest schedule thus far, but their lone loss is to a solid West Virginia team and Butler has looked vulnerable at times in the early going.
When you add in the fact that Norris Cole is a fantastic play-maker and scorer who is capable of carrying Cleveland State, Brad Stevens and Butler would be well served to take notice of the Vikings, who just might be able to pull off an upset and make Butler work for their Horizon League crown.
21. Will Anyone in the Big East Travel to Pittsburgh and Come Away with a Win?
Not only is Pittsburgh one of the best teams in college basketball this season, the Panthers also have one of the best home-court advantages.
Since its opening in 2002, the Petersen Events Center has become one of the most hostile environments for opposing teams to travel to and the Panthers have only lost five games at home in their last four-plus seasons of basketball.
Things started off on the right foot for Pittsburgh when it easily dispatched of Connecticut at home by the score of 78-63.
While the Panthers will welcome some extremely talented Big East foes into The Zoo this season, those teams had better be at the top of their games if they're even thinking about leaving the city of Pittsburgh with a W.
22. When Will Michigan State Wake Up?
After reaching the Final Four in each of the last two seasons and not losing very much to graduation, the expectations were extremely high for Tom Izzo's Michigan State Spartans coming into this season.
So it's fairly understandable that a narrow victory over Oakland (Mich.) and early losses to the likes of Connecticut, Duke, Syracuse and Texas have left fans shocked and asking what's wrong with Michigan State.
Spartan fans might be feeling a little uneasy about their team right now, as they've slipped all the way to 19th in the Top 25.
But unless Kalin Lucas, Durrell Summers, Draymond Green and the rest of a loaded roster forgot how to play basketball, this Michigan State team will wake up at some point.
The only question is when.
With Big Ten play already under way and teams like Illinois, Purdue, and Ohio State looming further down the schedule, it seems like a few old conference rivalries might be just the thing to kick Tom Izzo's kids into gear.
23. How Much of a Boost Will Tracy Smith's Return Give to NC State?
Everyone around the N.C. State program was a little on edge when the team's star player, Tracy Smith, went down with a knee injury towards the end of November, which sidelined the 6'8'' senior for over a month and caused him to miss 10 games.
Over that 10-game span, the Wolfpack went just 6-4 while clearly missing their best post option and most experienced player.
Fortunately for a young N.C. State team, Smith made his triumphant return to the lineup on New Year's Day against San Diego, where he played 25 minutes and scored a team-high 16 points in helping lead the Wolfpack to a 76-54 victory.
In just his first game back, it was pretty clear that Smith's presence in the paint made life easier for the rest of his teammates.
While Sidney Lowe's impressive recruiting class has had its share of growing pains thus far, it will be interesting to see just how good this N.C. State squad can be when Tracy Smith is back at 100 percent.
24. Does Harrison Barnes Find His Stride During ACC Play?
One of the more disappointing freshman debuts has been that of North Carolina's Harrison Barnes, who was supposed to not only be the best first-year player in the country, but also one of the best players period.
But things haven't gone according to plan thus far for the only freshman ever to be selected as a preseason All-American.
Barnes has not only struggled to live up to the hype which surrounded his much-anticipated debut for North Carolina, but he's struggled to simply adjust to playing college ball altogether.
The 6'8'' forward, who has all of the tools to be a great player, has looked lost at times while on the court and even though he's the Tar Heels second-leading scorer, he hasn't been very efficient on the offensive end of the floor.
Now that we've gotten the bad news for Tar Heel fans out of the way, here's the good news. There's still plenty of time for Barnes to start playing better and help North Carolina finish as one of the top teams in the ACC.
And when you consider the kind of player Barnes was expected to be coming out of high school and the fact that the ACC isn't nearly as tough this season as it normally is, maybe Barnes can hit his stride during conference play and start living up to the extremely-high expectations many had for him.
25. Will Washington Dominate the Rest of the Pac-10?
At the beginning of the season, the Washington Huskies were expected to easily run away with the Pac-10. While this prediction was based partly on the players at Lorenzo Romar's disposal, it was also because of how weak the conference was overall.
It's pretty clear that with players like Isaiah Thomas, Matthew Bryan-Amaning and Justin Holiday, Washington is currently the class of the Pac-10, but a few Pac-10 schools had very solid starts to their seasons.
Arizona, Washington State, USC and UCLA played fairly well in out of conference play and looked like they might be able to give Washington a run for their money in the Pac-10.
However, after the first few games of conference play, Washington has already beaten USC and UCLA in a span of three days, with both victories coming on the road.
Meanwhile, Washington State has lost their first two conference games and Arizona just suffered a puzzling loss to an average Oregon State team.
Some of their competition might be struggling a little right now, but Washington got bad news of their own recently when it was announced that Abdul Gaddy would miss the rest of the season with a knee injury.
The loss of Gaddy is a pretty significant blow to the Huskies whose depth will now be tested as they will be without their starting point guard, which will force some shuffling along the starting lineup.
26. Does San Diego State Deserve to Be in the Top 10?
The San Diego State Aztecs are currently ranked sixth in the nation and are one of the few undefeated teams left in the country.
Even though they're far from a traditional powerhouse program and haven't played the toughest schedule thus far, the Aztecs are getting plenty of love in the polls and have garnered their share of national attention.
Their best win of the season was a three-point victory over the then 11th-ranked Gonzaga Bulldogs on the road. While San Diego State has also triumphed over solid St. Mary's and Wichita State squads, the team's schedule as a whole isn't all that impressive.
On the other hand, there's definitely plenty of talent on this Aztec roster as Kawhi Leonard and D.J. Gay have both emerged as the leaders of the team and have taken care of business through the first 15 games.
Their upcoming Mountain West schedule, which features four games against UNLV and BYU, should give a much better indication of whether or not the Aztecs really deserve their top 10 ranking.
27. Will We Ever Get a Resolution in the Enes Kanter Appeal?
By now we've all heard about Kentucky's Enes Kanter and his subsequent suspension because he received improper benefits while playing for a club basketball team in Turkey.
And while Coach Calipari and Kentucky filed an appeal on this ruling over a month ago, we have yet to get any word on Kanter's status or what's taking the NCAA so long to make it's final ruling.
Obviously, Kanter's presence would further bolster what has been a fantastic Kentucky squad up to this point. He could, perhaps, even make them a contender for the national championship, but his status remains very much in doubt.
Even without Kanter, the Wildcats have been humming along this season and currently stand at 12-2 and are ranked 10th in the nation. But it would certainly be a huge shot in the arm if Kentucky was able to add the 6'11'' Turkish import to their already impressive young starting lineup.
28. Will Anyone in the SEC West Put Up a Fight?
When looking at the distribution of the teams in the SEC East and West, it's pretty easy to see that the two divisions are far from equal.
On one hand, the SEC East boasts the likes of Kentucky, Vanderbilt, Florida, and Tennessee, all of whom have been ranked at some point this season, while the teams in the SEC West haven't had nearly as much early season success.
Mississippi and Arkansas have posted good early-season records but they've only played two ranked teams in 27 combined games and lost to both of them.
Mississippi State might have the most talent out of all of the teams in the SEC West but the Renardo Sidney incident coupled with the absence of Dee Bost has them out to a mediocre 8-6 start.
Finally, Alabama, LSU and Auburn all have some talent on their rosters but it would be hard to see any of these three teams giving most of the SEC East squads trouble.
Out of all of the SEC West teams, Mississippi State probably has the best chance to make things competitive if Sidney and Bost can come back and be productive. But even then it looks like the SEC East will once again dominate the conference in 2011.
29. How Will the Prolonged Absence of Kyrie Irving Affect Duke?
Duke is currently 14-0, ranked No. 1 in the nation and has absolutely rolled through most of the out-of-conference schedule.
But the thing that might be most impressive to Blue Devil fans at this point in the season is how well they've been playing since Kyrie Irving went down with a toe injury.
In the first eight games that he did appear in, Irving looked like the best player on a Duke roster which features Kyle Singler and Nolan Smith, in what was truly an impressive collegiate debut.
Without Irving for the last six games, Duke has leaned more heavily on seniors Kyle Singler and Nolan Smith to carry the load and both players have responded beautifully.
At the same time, Duke hasn't played the best competition in these last six games and they will soon be going up against some solid ACC teams without Irving.
No one is doubting that this Duke team, even without Irving, is one of the best in the country, but in his absence, it would seem that there will be a lot more pressure on both Singler and Smith when Duke finds itself going up against tougher opponents.
Being two of the more talented players in the country, Singler and Smith shouldn't have much of a problem handling this, but their margin for error is definitely smaller with Irving out of the lineup.
30. Is Temple the Class of the Atlantic 10?
The Temple Owls started out the season as the only ranked team in the Atlantic 10, but that doesn't mean they won't be challenged during conference play.
Other A-10 teams like Dayton, Richmond, and Xavier have all shown that they have enough talent to run with Temple, which has since dropped out of the Top 25 after three tough early-season losses.
While Temple fans are no doubt disappointed about losing their national ranking, the team has played much better of late, upsetting Georgetown a few weeks ago and nearly beating the eighth-ranked Villanova Wildcats on the road.
The play of junior guard Ramone Moore has been superb and has not only provided the Owls with another viable scoring threat to go along with Juan Fernandez and Lavoy Allen, but he has also become the kind of player who can take over a game like he did against Georgetown.
With Moore leading the way, Temple looks like the team to beat in the A-10 at this point in the season but you can bet that the rest of the conference won't go down without a fight.
31. Can Steve Lavin and St. John's Keep Up Their Surprising Play?
When Steve Lavin took the head coaching job at St. John's, there was plenty of excitement surrounding the once-proud program that had lost its way in recent years.
Lavin inherited a roster which featured 10 seniors and while they hit a few speed bumps to start out their season, the Johnnies seem to be hitting their stride just in time for Big East play.
Impressive wins at West Virginia and Providence coupled with their most recent upset of Georgetown at Madison Square Garden has St. John's with a 10-3 record and sitting atop the Big East.
Of the 10 seniors leading the way for the Red Storm, they have gotten the biggest contributions from Dwight Hardy, Justin Brownlee and D.J. Kennedy, who will no doubt have their hands full with the team's remaining schedule.
The next seven teams that St. John's plays will be against ranked opponents, including games against Syracuse and Duke, both of whom are currently in the top five.
Steve Lavin's impressive start with St. John's has no doubt raised a few eyebrows, but things will only be getting tougher for the Red Storm from here on out, and it will be interesting to see if they're up to the challenge.
32. Will Missouri's Fastest 40 Minutes Work In The Big 12?
Mike Anderson's Missouri Tigers should be riding high right now as they're currently ranked ninth in the country and sport an impressive 14-1 record.
The Tigers run an extremely fast-paced offense in which they continually push the ball regardless of the score and have simply run circles around most of their competition thus far.
The most recent version of the fastest 40 minutes of basketball makes this Missouri team one of the most fun to watch in all of college basketball.
It will be worth keeping an eye on whether they can sustain this style of play as they take on some extremely tough Big 12 competition that will no doubt try to slow things down and take the Tigers out of their game.
With the likes of Texas A&M, Texas, Baylor, Kansas State, and Kansas all coming up on Missouri's schedule, the Tigers will be going against some of the best teams in the nation and may have some trouble keeping the pace of the game where they want it.
33. Can the Illinois Big Men Stand Tall Against Imposing Big 10 Front Lines?
Bruce Weber has some solid pieces on this Illinois roster, not to mention Demetri McCamey, who is one of the best players in all of college basketball.
A backcourt which features McCamey and D.J. Richardson can rival any guard tandem in the country, but there are some questions surrounding the Illini frontcourt.
Mike Tisdale and Mike Davis are two experienced seniors who have plenty of size, standing 6'9'' and 7'1'' respectively, but sometimes the tandem doesn't play as big as their height and it has hurt the team this season.
An example of this was during Illinois' shocking loss to Illinois-Chicago on Dec. 18 in which the duo combined for just six points and six rebounds on 2 of 11 shooting, offering little help to McCamey and Richardson.
In addition, Tisdale has struggled mightily staying out of foul trouble and has already fouled out in five of the Illini's first 15 games.
Tisdale and Davis got some redemption this past weekend as they held their own against Jon Leuer and Keaton Nankivil during Illinois' 69-61 win over a solid Wisconsin team.
As Big Ten play rolls on and the Illini go up against the physical frontcourts of Ohio State, Michigan State, Minnesota, and Purdue, Bruce Weber is going to need Tisdale and Davis playing tough under the basket if this team is going to survive one of the best conferences in America.
34. Can Anyone in the Atlantic 10 Stop Tu Holloway?
Tu Holloway has been on a tear for the Xavier Musketeers since the season started and has picked up where the departed Jordan Crawford left off.
The 6'0'' shooting guard is currently averaging 21.3 points per game and while he's had some big nights against lesser opponents, Holloway dropped 26 on both Florida and Gonzaga as he tried his best to keep things close.
As Xavier enters A-10 play, the Musketeers should feel comfortable knowing that whenever Holloway is on the court, they have a chance to win the game.
Meanwhile, Xavier's opponents will no doubt be trying to slow him down but that's proven to be a pretty tough task thus far.
35. Have the Young Memphis Tigers Learned Enough from Their Early Losses?
Having signed one of the best recruiting classes in the country, Josh Pastner and his young Memphis squad came into the 2010 season with the expectation that the Tigers would be able to challenge college basketball's elite.
And while the Tigers are currently 11-3 and are ranked 21st in the country, they've been beaten soundly by the three best teams they've played thus far.
A 13-point loss to Kansas, 17-point loss to Georgetown and 20-point waxing from Tennessee have all been bitterly disappointing for a Memphis team that at least hoped to keep these games competitive while some of their younger players continue to adjust to the collegiate game.
While these three losses have been hard to swallow for Memphis fans, they offer a multitude of teaching points for Pastner and should eventually make this team better if they're able to learn from them.
Memphis will no doubt be entering conference play with a chip on its shoulder after these tough losses and while they're not playing in the Big East or Big 10, Conference USA will present some talented opposition that should challenge Memphis.
At the same time, if the Tigers have learned enough from their early-season schedule, they should be just fine.
36. Is UCF for Real?
One of the most surprising stories of the young college basketball season has been the 14-0 start that UCF has gotten out to.
UCF is currently ranked 19th in the country after not being on anyone's radar coming into the season. And Marcus Jordan (yes, he's Michael's son) has emerged as the teams go-to scorer, having already had his share of big games.
The Knights do have an impressive three-point victory over Florida on their resume but other than that, this team hasn't played too many other quality opponents.
Much like Memphis, UCF will see some fairly challenging matchups in Conference USA, which should go a long way in telling their fans if their early season success is for real or not.
37. Which Conference Will Emerge As the Best in the Nation?
While it really doesn't matter very much, it's always entertaining to debate which of the major conferences is the best in the nation.
Before the season started, the general consensus was that the Big Ten would reign supreme. But early the early season struggles of Michigan State and the injury to Robbie Hummel have taken a fair amount of momentum from that movement.
Meanwhile, in what was supposed to be a down year for the Big East, teams like Cincinnati, UConn, St. John's and Notre Dame have all played much better than expected. When you combine their surprising starts with the performance of Syracuse, Pittsburgh, Villanova and Georgetown, it's hard to think there's a better conference out there.
Before all is said and done, it seems like the Big 12 might have a say in this debate as well, considering teams like Kansas, Missouri, Texas and Kansas State are four of the best teams in the country, not to mention the surprising play of Texas A&M and a talented Baylor team that will be looking to put things together as the season continues.
38. How Much Will Purdue Miss Robbie Hummel When the Going Gets Tough?
In one of the more heartbreaking developments of the young college basketball season, Purdue's Robbie Hummel tore the same ACL he injured last season in Purdue's first practice of this season.
The fact that Hummel's injury took place so early in the season has at least allowed the Boilermakers plenty of time to adjust to life without their star forward, and the duo of JaJuan Johnson and E'Twaun Moore has led Matt Painter's squad to a 14-1 start.
At the same time, Hummel's absence will no doubt be felt when Purdue enters an extremely tough stretch of games in the Big Ten which will feature six contests against Michigan State, Ohio State and Illinois.
Johnson and Moore are talented enough to lead this team through the Big Ten, but you don't lose a player as good as Hummel and not miss the guy when you go up against some of the best teams in the nation.
Purdue fans are hoping that the rest of the roster can pick up most of the slack when the going gets tough which would diminish how much the team misses Hummel's scoring, rebounding, and leadership.
39. Can Virginia Tech Work Out Of Its Early Season Slump?
The Virginia Tech Hokies started out the 2010 season with a flurry of high expectations and were included in the preseason Top 25 thanks in large part to Malcolm Delaney.
But it didn't take long for the Hokies to fall out of the national rankings after losing four of their first eight games, including an extremely disappointing 57-54 defeat at the hands of in-state rival Virginia.
In addition, the play of senior shooting guard Malcolm Delaney has been erratic at times, including his miserable 2 for 18 shooting performance during a three-point loss to Purdue in what could have been a signature win for this Virginia Tech squad.
As the Hokies prepare for conference play, there's still plenty of time and ample opportunities for Seth Greenberg's team to work out of their early-season slump.
The fact that the ACC isn't as strong as usual should give them a chance to get things together before a crucial late-February game against Duke which would be a huge win for this program.
40. How Will Renardo Sidney and Dee Bost Impact MSU?
Everyone's seen the video of Renardo Sidney and Elgin Bailey trading punches at the Diamond Head Classic in what was truly a disaster for the Mississippi State basketball program.
Both players have since been reinstated from their subsequent suspensions and while Bailey has opted to transfer, all signs are pointing to Sidney, a former McDonald's All-American, playing a significant role for a struggling Bulldogs squad.
Because of eligibility issues, the 6'10'', 270-pound sophomore has only played in two games for Rick Stansbury's squad. But it seems as though he can be a difference maker for the Bulldogs if he's able to put this ugly incident behind him and get into shape.
Another player who will be rejoining the team is junior guard Dee Bost, who was one of MSU's leading scorers and the team's best playmaker a season ago.
Bost will be returning from a semester-long suspension because he failed to withdraw his name from the NBA Draft before the NCAA's mandated deadline.
Partly because of the Sidney incident, Mississippi State has gotten off to a disappointing 8-6 start, but the returns of both Bost and Sidney will no doubt provide a huge shot in the arm for the Bulldogs, as long as they can put this controversy behind them and get down to business.
41. Which Tennessee Team Will Show Up Against the SEC's Best?
The Bruce Pearl issues aside, the Tennessee Volunteers have been an extremely inconsistent team through their first 14 games of the season.
Early in their non-conference schedule, they pulled off huge wins against two of the best teams in the Big East when they defeated Villanova and Pittsburgh.
They then followed up their extremely impressive start by losing four of their next six games to Oakland, Charlotte, USC and Charleston in what was an extremely puzzling stretch of losses for a team that looked like one of the best in the country in the first few weeks of the season.
On the heels of their most recent embarrassing loss to Charleston, the Volunteers responded with a 20-point drubbing of the 21st ranked Memphis Tigers in a game that wasn't even as close as the final margin indicates.
Obviously, this Tennessee team is very talented but they've had their share of lapses thus far. While they seem to be able to beat any team in the country when they're focused, they also seem capable of losing to almost anyone as well.
The obvious question that arises is which Tennessee team will come to play against the best the SEC has to offer?
I guess we'll find out soon enough.
42. Will Villanova Get Pushed Around in the Big East?
Villanova's glaring weakness last season was the lack of inside play, which essentially doomed the Wildcats in the tournament when St. Mary's Omar Samhan had a field day against them in the second round.
This season, Antonio Pena and Mouphtaou Yarou have the task of trying to give Nova a little more bite in the paint and prevent a pretty talented team from being taken advantage of by some of the better big men in the Big East.
Jay Wright knows that the strength of his team this season revolves around their three-headed guard combo of Corey Fisher, Corey Stokes and Maalik Wayns, but these three can't do everything by themselves.
As Big East play gets going for the Wildcats it will be up to Pena and Yarou to prevent this team from getting pushed around in what might be the most physical conference in the country.
43. Can Syracuse Get Any Kind of Production out of Fab Melo?
Before the season started, everyone in upstate New York was raving about a highly-touted seven-foot recruit named Fab Melo who was supposed to team with Rick Jackson to make one of the more intimidating frontcourts in the country.
But to say that Melo has been a disappointment through his first 15 games would be giving the Brazilian big man a pass.
Not only has Melo had little to no impact for the Orange thus far, he's averaging as many fouls per game as he is rebounds, in what accurately sums up what a disaster he's been for Jim Boeheim in the early going.
Obviously, when you're talking about freshman seven-footers, there's generally a learning curve that most players need in order to get the hang of the game. Because Syracuse has yet another extremely talented roster this season,it has the luxury of bringing Fab along slowly.
With players like Rick Jackson, Kris Joseph and Scoop Jardine leading the way, Cuse is 15-0 and ranked fourth in the country. But it sure would be nice to get a little production out of a player who was one of the top-rated freshman before the season started.
44. Will Texas A&M Be a Thorn in the Side of Other Big 12 Teams?
With all of the talent in the Big 12, it's not shocking that Mark Turgeon's Texas A&M squad has been overlooked for most of the early part of this season.
The fact that A&M generally plays a defensive minded, low-scoring brand of basketball won't make them a very popular team to watch outside of College Station. But the rest of the Big 12 should take notice of a team that has started 13-1 and climbed all the way to 16th in the nation.
The Aggies have already scored some impressive early wins over Temple and Washington and while they might not be quite as talented as teams like Kansas, Texas, or Kansas State, they definitely have the potential to be a thorn in the side of some high-powered Big 12 teams that might not have thought much of A&M before the season started.
45. Which Freshman Will Hit the Wall?
One of the most exciting things for all college basketball fans is seeing how much of an impact the incoming freshmen have on their respective teams.
These new faces keep have kept the college basketball landscape fresh and intriguing over the years, not to mention providing us with a look at future NBA stars who will soon be going pro.
At the same time, even the most talented first-year players can run into what is known as the freshman wall, which generally hits in February after the rigors of conference play begin to take their toll on guys who have never experienced anything like it before.
It shouldn't be much different in 2011 as plenty of talented freshmen are playing big minutes in major conferences all across America and may find themselves out of gas well before conference play ends.
46. How Is Tom Crean's Rebuilding Effort Going in Indiana?
It's been an uphill battle for Tom Crean since he took over the Indiana coaching job after yet another recruiting scandal sent Kelvin Sampson packing a few seasons ago.
Despite his best efforts, Crean posted a 16-46 record with Indiana in his first two seasons with Indiana, which included just five wins in the Big Ten. But things seem to be turning around in Bloomington as he continues to rebuild.
Thanks to a fairly soft schedule, Indiana started off 9-2 this season before Big Ten play brought them back to reality.
Indiana has gone 0-3 in the Big Ten thus far, with losses coming to Penn State, Ohio State, and Minnesota. But the Hoosiers were able to keep things close against both Penn State and Minnesota in what were encouraging efforts from a team that has played as hard as anyone in the country since Crean took over.
However, at some point this hard play has to turn into wins and the rest of Indiana's Big Ten schedule should give plenty of insight into just how well Tom Crean's rebuilding process is going.
With players like Christian Watford, Verdell Jones III, and Maurice Creek (when healthy), the future looks fairly encouraging for the Hoosiers and maybe they can pull off a few upsets in the Big Ten in 2011.
47. Can Jimmer Fredette Lead BYU to the Top of a Very Talented Mountain West?
There's no doubting the Mountain West Conference this season, which boasts an undefeated team, two members in the top 15 and six teams that already have double-digit wins.
The best player in a very talented bunch is BYU's Jimmer Fredette, who's garnered attention outside of the West Coast for his outstanding play. He figures to be in the mix for the National Player of the Year award when all is said and done.
But this doesn't mean that BYU will be running away with the conference, as a host of other teams (including San Diego State) will provide ample challenges to the Cougars before their MWC schedule is done.
Fredette is fresh off a 39-point explosion against a very good UNLV squad, and there should be a few more performances like that coming up as Fredette tries to lead the Cougars to the top of a tough Mountain West Conference.
48. Which Mid-Majors Will Distinguish Themselves?
Unfortunately for fans of most mid-major schools, conference play is a time when they're largely ignored by the media due to the fact that the major conferences are embroiled in some of the most entertaining ball of the season.
At the same time, we saw two prime examples of mid-major teams in Butler and Northern Iowa that crashed the NCAA tournament last season and sent shock waves across the country.
While pretty much everyone will be locked into the major conference battles in the coming weeks and months, don't forget about teams like Wichita State, Cleveland State, Oakland and others who may potentially get their shot at some of the big boys come March.
49. Is Vanderbilt a Contender or Pretender?
The Commodores have plenty of talent on their roster and they will enter SEC play having finally broken into the Top 25 after an impressive 11-2 start.
The scoring duo of John Jenkins and Jeffery Taylor has been extremely tough for opposing defenses to stop thus far and both players have established themselves as proven scorers that others in the SEC would be wise to pay attention to.
Meanwhile, Festus Ezeli has done a fantastic job of giving this team an interior presence after A.J. Ogilvy graduated last season.
At the same time, Vandy has consistently put together good regular seasons during Kevin Stallings 11-year tenure, which have only amounted to four wins in the NCAA Tournament.
The pieces seem to be in place for this Vanderbilt team to make some noise come March this time around, but games against Tennessee, Kentucky, and Florida should go a long way in determining whether they're a contender or pretender.
50. How Good Is Josh Selby?
The Kansas faithful had to wait a little longer for Josh Selby to make his Jayhawk debut, but his game-winning shot against USC in his first-ever collegiate appearance signaled big things for KU and their highly-touted freshman.
Selby has since played four more games for Bill Self and besides a hiccup against Texas-Arlington, the 6'2'' guard has been about as good as advertised.
Selby seems to have given an already-frightening Kansas squad a true superstar at guard who's capable of taking over a game and putting this team on his back if necessary.
But before we get too ahead of ourselves and anoint Josh Selby as the missing piece to another KU championship, it might be nice to see the kid play against some tougher competition.
With all due respect to USC and Cal, neither team figures to be contending for a national championship this season, so it's fair to say that Selby hasn't exactly proven himself against the best college basketball has to offer.
But with Kansas staring down the barrel of some extremely tough Big 12 teams, something tells me we're about to find out just how good Selby is.