Most of the top conferences in college basketball begin league play this week.
I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait to see how things unfold in the Big 12, where Kansas’ string of 10 straight titles appears to be in jeopardy. Duke is the class of the ACC, but not by much, as North Carolina and Virginia aren’t far behind.
Utah and Washington are capable of challenging Arizona in the Pac-12, and even though Wisconsin (Big Ten) and Kentucky (SEC) appear to have a decisive edge in their respective leagues, their quests to go undefeated in conference play will command our attention for the next few months.
Also, don’t forget to monitor the Missouri Valley, where Northern Iowa is a threat to Wichita State. Those games should be among the more entertaining of the season.
Still, before we look forward, let’s also remember to look back. From Kentucky’s dominance to Duke’s stud freshmen to the flurry of upsets we’ve seen by schools from non-power leagues, the past two months have given college basketball fans plenty of talking points.
To tie a bow around what we’ve seen thus far, here are the King’s Court Awards for the nonconference portion of the 2014-15 season.
G Jerian Grant, Notre Dame: Grant has returned with a vengeance after missing the second half of last season because of academic issues. The senior is averaging 17.4 points, 6.2 assists and 1.6 steals for the AP's No. 14 Fighting Irish, who have been one of the nation’s biggest surprises.
G Delon Wright, Utah: No offense to Fred VanVleet or Marcus Paige, but Wright has been the best point guard in America to date. He’s averaging 15.8 points, 5.3 assists and 2.3 steals to spark the No. 10 Utes to their highest ranking since 1999.
SF Justin Anderson, Virginia: The 6’7” junior averages a team-high 15 points for the undefeated Cavaliers (12-0). Even more impressive is Anderson is shooting 56.8 percent from the field and 60.9 percent (28 of 46) from three-point range.
C Willie Cauley-Stein, Kentucky: The consistency and motivational issues that plagued the 7'0" junior during his first two seasons are a thing of the past. Cauley-Stein is averaging 10.1 points and 6.6 rebounds despite playing limited minutes in Kentucky’s platoon system. Defensively, he may be the best player in America.
*C Jahlil Okafor, Duke: The likely No. 1 pick in this summer’s NBA draft, Okafor has more than lived up to expectations by averaging team highs in points (18.3) and rebounds (8.8). A freshman, Okafor is arguably the best true center in Duke history.
Nonconference Coach of the Year
Tony Bennett, Virginia: The Cavaliers lost two of their top five scorers from last season’s ACC championship squad—and somehow got better. All but one of Virginia’s 12 wins have come by double digits and, defensively, only two opponents have scored more than 57 points. It’s time to start including Bennett in any conversation about college basketball’s elite coaches.
Also considered: John Calipari, Kentucky; Mike Brey, Notre Dame; Mark Turgeon, Maryland; Scott Drew, Baylor; Ben Jacobson, Northern Iowa; Bob Huggins, West Virginia; Larry Krystkowiak, Utah; Larry Eustachy, Colorado State; Lorenzo Romar, Washington.
Robert Upshaw, Washington: The Fresno State transfer has been one of the biggest keys to the Huskies’ 11-1 start. A 7-footer, Upshaw averages 10.8 points and a team-high 7.4 rebounds along with a national-best 4.6 blocks.
Also considered: Jake Layman, Maryland; Terry Rozier, Louisville; Daniel Ochefu, Villanova; Jonathan Holton, West Virginia; Kennedy Meeks, North Carolina.
Best Sixth Man
Tyler Ulis, Kentucky: No offense to Andrew Harrison, who is a fine point guard, but Kentucky is a better team when Ulis is in the game. The 5’9” freshman can score when needed, as he did in a 14-point effort against Louisville last Saturday. But he’s also content to share the ball with his teammates, as Ulis averaged 7.0 assists in wins over North Carolina and UCLA.
Also considered: Domantas Sabonis, Gonzaga; Josh Hart, Villanova; Taurean Prince, Baylor.
Kyle Wiltjer, Gonzaga: The former Kentucky Wildcat couldn’t be a better fit in Spokane, where he’s averaging a team-high 17.1 points while shooting 54.3 percent from the field and 43.4 percent from three-point range. Wiltjer has eclipsed the 20-point barrier six times.
Also considered: Bryce Dejean-Jones, Iowa State; Trevor Lacey, North Carolina State; Angel Rodriguez and Sheldon McClellan, Miami.
Best Team From a Non-Power Conference
Northern Iowa: No offense to Wichita State (which is still exceptionally good and will only get better), but Northern Iowa has been the best “small” conference team thus far. The Panthers drilled in-state rival Iowa Dec. 20, beat Stephen F. Austin on the road and also own wins over Power Five schools such as Northwestern and Virginia Tech.
Northern Iowa’s schedule hasn’t been nearly as tough as Wichita State’s, though. So it will be interesting to see what happens when these teams meet in Missouri Valley action.
Also considered: Wichita State, George Washington, Hawaii, Old Dominion, Wisconsin-Green Bay.
Best Player from a Non-Power Conference
Ron Baker, Wichita State: I just about used the phrase “best mid-major player,” but there is nothing mid-major about Wichita State—or Baker. The junior has taken on an increased scoring role following the departure of Cleanthony Early, but it hasn’t fazed him.
Baker averages a team-high 16.6 points and is shooting 45.1 percent from the field despite attempting nearly four more shots per game (12.8) than last season (8.9).
Also considered: D.J. Balentine, Evansville; Alan Williams, Cal-Santa Barbara; Brett Comer, Florida Gulf-Coast; Brad Waldow, St. Mary’s.
Maryland: No one expected much from Maryland following the transfer of four scholarship players during the offseason. In fact, most believed that coach Mark Turgeon’s job would be in jeopardy following what was sure to be a dismal 2014-15 season. Turgeon doesn’t have to worry about that now, as No. 12 Maryland is 13-1 following Tuesday’s double-overtime victory at Michigan State in its Big Ten debut.
Also considered: West Virginia, Notre Dame, Baylor, Washington.
Michigan: I could’ve actually called out the entire Big Ten conference in this space, but no team in the league has been more disappointing than the Wolverines. Once ranked as high as No. 17, Michigan lost four straight games in December, including two inexplicable home defeats against NJIT and Eastern Michigan. John Beilein is hoping Tuesday’s overtime win against Illinois will get his squad back on track.
Also considered: LSU, Florida, Kansas State, Purdue, Colorado.
Gonzaga: The chemistry between Kevin Pangos (11.5 points, 5.0 assists) and Gary Bell Jr. (8.1 points, 3.2 assists) is invaluable. Both seniors are shooting better than 41 percent from three-point range. The addition of combo guard Byron Wesley, a senior transfer from USC, has made the unit even more potent. Wesley ranks second on the team in scoring with 12.0 points per game.
Also considered: Duke, Wichita State, Notre Dame, Iowa State, Villanova, Indiana.
Kentucky: So talented and deep are the Wildcats down low that it almost isn’t fair. Cauley-Stein and Karl-Anthony Towns are elite shot-blockers and surefire lottery picks in the upcoming NBA draft. Dakari Johnson would be the best player on 75 percent of the teams in America. Trey Lyles and Marcus Lee are also making huge impacts.
Also considered: Texas, Gonzaga, North Carolina, Wisconsin.
Most Improved Player
Nigel Hayes, Wisconsin: The strides made by the sophomore forward are one of the main reasons Bo Ryan’s squad is considered a Final Four favorite. Hayes’ scoring stats (7.7 points to 11.9) and rebounding totals (2.8 boards to 7.8) have risen dramatically. And he worked hard in the offseason to add range to his jump shot, which keeps defenders from sagging off him on the perimeter, thus opening lanes for his teammates.
Also considered: Norman Powell, UCLA; Josh Smith, Georgetown; Wayne Blackshear, Louisville; Willie Cauley-Stein, Kentucky; Darius Carter, Wichita State.
No. 4 Duke over No. 2 Wisconsin, 80-70, in Madison on Dec. 3: The Blue Devils shot 65.2 percent overall (and 58.3 percent from three-point range) en route to a victory over a Badgers squad that should win the Big Ten title and contend for a Final Four berth. Making the performance even more impressive is that Duke’s three freshmen starters were playing in their first college road game.
Also considered: Utah becomes the first team since 2012 to beat Wichita State in the regular season; Iowa upsets North Carolina in Chapel Hill; Kentucky stymies Louisville on the road; Arizona staves off Gonzaga at home; Villanova rallies to beat Syracuse.
No. 10 Kansas falls at unranked Temple, 77-52, on Dec. 22: Ranked No. 10 at the time, the Jayhawks were absolutely humiliated by a Temple squad that will probably be in the NIT. Aside from a loss to TCU in 2013, never in the Bill Self era had Kansas looked so soft and ill-prepared.
Also considered: UCLA scores seven first-half points in a blowout against Kentucky; Nebraska falls to Incarnate Word at home; North Carolina falls to Butler in the Battle 4 Atlantis; Michigan drops back-to-back home games against NJIT and Eastern Michigan; Michigan State loses to Texas Southern in East Lansing.
Ohio State’s Sam Thompson vs. Morehead State: Thompson streaked through the lane for a perfectly timed baseline inbounds pass from teammate Shannon Scott. Thompson snared the ball in mid-air with one hand and flushed it through the rim, sending fans into a state of euphoria. The Buckeyes won the game 87-71.
Texas Southern over Kansas State: Texas Southern turned a two-point deficit into a 58-56 win in less than a second. Chris Thomas’ offensive rebound and putback tied the game 56-56 with 0.9 seconds remaining, and Texas Southern regained possession with 0.4 left after K-State threw away the inbounds pass. The Tigers capitalized when Jason Carter hit a jumper as time expired.
The Dec. 28 victory came just eight days after Texas Southern (which is led by former Indiana coach Mike Davis) shocked Michigan State in East Lansing.
Also considered: Florida’s Jacob Kurtz scores the winning basket for the wrong team in Florida State’s 65-63 victory over the Gators Dec. 30. While attempting to snare a rebound, Kurtz accidentally tipped in a missed three-pointer by Florida State’s Devon Bookert.
Best Freshman Not in a Duke or Kentucky Uniform
Stanley Johnson, Arizona: A small forward, Johnson is more than living up to expectations by leading the nation’s No. 8-ranked team in points (14.5) and rebounds (6.8). He’s also averaging 1.8 steals while shooting a commendable 43.2 percent from three-point range. Johnson’s swagger sets the tone for a Wildcats squad that some have pegged as a Final Four favorite.
Also considered: James Blackmon Jr., Indiana; Kevon Looney, UCLA; Myles Turner, Texas; Melo Trimble, Maryland; Dillon Brooks, Oregon; Rashad Vaughn, UNLV; Isaiah Whitehead, Seton Hall; D’Angelo Russell, Ohio State.
Jason King covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @JasonKingBR.