Thursday, December 13, 2012

What We Know About College Basketball Right Now

By Charlie Scaturro

I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t know nearly as much about college basketball as I think I do, and this harsh reality is compounded by the fact that we’re just a month into the season. At this point, we’re still trying to figure out which teams are for real, which teams are only off to an undefeated start because their schedule was front loaded with teams like Campbell, and which players have what it takes to carry their teams deep into March.

In a lot of ways, the first month of the college basketball season is like your first few classes with a new professor in college. Maybe you’ve browsed his page (the equivalent to looking at the pre-season Top 25), maybe the professor’s name came up at a welcome week party in between keg stands for some unknown reason, and maybe you looked over the syllabus, but you really won’t know if you have to show up to every class or actually do the assigned reading until a few weeks in. At that point, you’ve figured out if this class is going to be the bane of your existence for the next few months or if you can write your papers with minimal knowledge about the subject matter, and a feigned attempt at structuring grammatically correct sentences.

Seeing as we’re about a month into the college basketball season and conference play hasn’t started yet, I’d say we’ve had about three classes worth of knowledge about this years college basketball season; which means there’s still a lot we don’t know about the teams and players that we’ll be watching into April. That being said, here’s what we know about college basketball thus far:

Marcus Smart and Ben McLemore don’t look like freshmen

Source: Jamie Squire/Getty Images North America
With the exception of a select few, most freshmen take some time to adjust to playing at the collegiate level. They’ll have their moments when they show flashes of brilliance, and they’ll also make plays that remind everyone they have very limited college basketball experience. While even the most talented freshmen might not be able to lead their teams right away, what we’ve seen out of Marcus Smart and Ben McLemore thus far has been very impressive.

Both players haven’t needed any time to adjust to playing at the next level, and they’ve been the driving force behind the early season success of Kansas and Oklahoma State. Both teams are currently ranked in the top 25 and they sport identical 7-1 records at the moment thanks in large part to the contributions of Smart and McLemore.

Smart’s play for the Cowboys has gotten rave reviews, and he quickly announced he was a force to be reckoned with by posting 20 points, 7 rebounds, 7 assists, 4 steals, and 4 blocks in an upset over a North Carolina State team that everyone had extremely high expectations for coming into the season. There’s nothing the powerfully built 6’4’’ guard can’t do on a basketball court, and whether he’s grabbing rebounds, dishing to teammates, or looking for his own shot, Smart is a huge difference maker for the Cowboys.

McLemore hasn’t been quite as dazzling as Smart, but if you’ve watched Kansas play you know that he’s just as important to his teams success. Now, I should clarify that McLemore is a redshirt freshmen, but even though he’s been in college for a full year, it doesn’t make the fact that he leads the ninth ranked Jayhawks in scoring any less impressive. On another characteristically deep Kansas team, McLemore stands out as the one guy whose star power could help them make another run through the tournament when March rolls around.

College basketball fans better enjoy watching Smart and McLemore now, because freshmen that play like this won’t be around for very long.

We should keep an eye on Brandon Paul and Erick Green 

Source: Andy Lyons/Getty Images North America
If any college basketball fans are looking for a few guys who can carry their teams to victory and go for 30 on any given night, Brandon Paul and Erick Green should be right at the top of that list. Neither Illinois nor Virginia Tech were ranked in any pre-season polls, but both teams have gotten off to great starts with a little help from their explosive guards.

All Green has done thus far is score at least 20 points in each of the Hokies first nine games, including a 28-point effort in Va Tech’s 81-71 victory over the aforementioned Marcus Smart and Oklahoma State. The senior guard trails only C.J. McCollum by a faction of a point for the NCAA scoring lead, and teams around the ACC have no doubt taken note of the numbers he’s dropped in the early going.

Brandon Paul hasn’t been as consistent as Green, but his 35-point explosion in Illinois upset victory over Gonzaga this past weekend has to rank right near the top of the best early season performances in college basketball. I watched this entire game the other night, and although the box score says that other guys on Illinois hit a few shots, the only thing I remember from this game is Paul hitting seemingly every shot he took, and icing the game down the stretch. On an Illinois team that relies heavily on the three, Paul is jacking up close to seven long-range attempts per game, and hitting them at a 41 percent clip.

Thanks to an 11-0 start, Illinois has jumped up to 10th in the polls, and although Virginia Tech remains unranked after winning eight of their first nine games, the Hokies and Green certainly shouldn’t be taken lightly. Both of these explosive scorers have the potential to go off on any given night, and I doubt this is the last we’ve heard from either of them.

We’re witnessing some great point guard play in college hoops this season 

Source: Mike Stobe/Getty Images North America
While doing some research for this article, one thing kept standing out to me; there are a ton of great point guards this season. From Michael Carter-Williams to Trey Burke to Pierre Jackson to Erick Green to Matthew Dellavedova to Isaiah Canaan, college hoops fans have no shortage of elite point guards to watch right now.

The best part about the glut of great point guards we have this season is the fact that there’s so much variety. Guys like Michael Carter-Williams and Trey Burke are fantastic playmakers, Pierre Jackson/Isaiah Canaan/Erick Green are capable of going for 30 and torching their opponents from behind the arc, and there are a lot of guys who fall somewhere in between.

Throw in the likes of Phil Pressey, Aaron Craft, BJ Young, Tray Woodall, Quinn Cook, Eric Atkins, Keith Appling, and the fascinating Peyton Siva/Russ Smith combo in Louisville, and there’s plenty to love about this year’s crop of point guards. The best part is, I just listed 13 guys and I probably forgot at least 10 more who are doing great things at the point. It’s tough to say what we’re going to get on a nightly basis from 18-22 year-old basketball players, but college basketball fans won’t have to try very hard if they want to watch some fantastic point guards this season.

Duke’s seniors make them dangerous, but Cook/Sulaimon make them title contenders 

Source: Streeter Lecka/Getty Images North America
A few days before Duke took down Ohio State and notched their third win against a top-five opponent before the month of November was out, I was all set to write an article about how we shouldn’t be surprised by the Blue Devils impressive early season victories because they had three very talented seniors leading the way.

I probably would have spent around 2,500 words praising the Plumlee/Kelly/Curry trio, before coming to the tired conclusion that Duke “should have” won those games because they’re experience is a huge advantage over a freshmen-laden team like Kentucky. A similar sentiment was expressed by many over Twitter during that Duke-Kentucky game, and the common narrative went “if Duke is only beating Kentucky by seven points in mid-November, things could be a lot different if these teams were to meet in March.”

Of course, work got in the way and I never got to write the article, so when I sat down to watch Duke-Ohio State a few days later I did so with my article in mind. True to the sentiment of my unwritten article, Duke managed to pull out a hard fought 73-68 victory over the Buckeyes, but it wasn’t just because their seniors dominated and led the way. Sure, Mason Plumlee had 21 points and 17 rebounds while hitting 9 of 12 free throws (I’m still not sure how he’s hitting so many of those based on the way they look coming out of his hand, but results over style points, I guess), and Ryan Kelly drilled a couple of big three-pointers, but the play of freshman Rasheed Sulaimon and Sophomore Quinn Cook gave Duke a huge boost against a tough Ohio State team.

Overall, Cook and Sulaimon combined for 29 points and 10 rebounds, and they made a number of key plays while Stephen Curry was less visible on the court than his mom was in the stands. Through the first month of the season, it’s become abundantly clear to even the saltiest of Duke haters that this team is one of the best in the country and a serious threat to win yet another National Championship, but I believe the reason why is because the Sulaimon/Cook combination gives this team much more than just three seniors. Because of what we’ve seen from Sulaimon and Cook in the early going, it’s clear that this team can survive a quiet game from one of their seniors and still beat some of the best teams college basketball has to offer.

Does this mean Duke is winning the championship? Absolutely not, but with Sulaimon and Cook chipping in for 12 and 11 points respectively, not to mention both guys shooting over 40 percent from deep as well as Cook’s great play at the point, this team is definitely a title contender.

Conference play in the Big 10 is going to be a bloodbath 

Source: Andy Lyons/Getty Images North America
Like all college basketball fans, I can’t wait for conference play to start, but I bet a lot of teams in the Big Ten can. With the strong play of Minnesota and Illinois further strengthening an already stacked group, conference play in the Big Ten looks downright frightening. As things stand right now, half of the teams in this conference are ranked 19th or better, and nine of them have three losses or less through the first month of the season. Even disregarding the fact that nearly a fourth of the Top 25 teams in the nation currently reside in the Big Ten, there are plenty of other tough teams in this conference like Wisconsin and Nebraska, just waiting to pull an upset.

Rather than list off the teams and their current rankings (because as bad as conference realignment is getting, I think we all know who is in the Big Ten) I’m going to rattle off the upcoming conference schedules of a few teams (current ranking in parenthesis):

Michigan’s schedule from January 13th- February 12th:

@ Ohio State (7)
@ Minnesota (13)
Vs. Purdue
@ Illinois (10)
Vs. Northwestern
@ Indiana (1)
Vs. Ohio State (7)
@ Wisconsin
@ Michigan State (19)

Michigan State’s schedule from January 27th-March 2nd:

@ Indiana (1)
Vs. Illinois (10)
Vs. Minnesota (13)
@ Purdue
Vs. Michigan (3)
@ Nebraska
Vs. Indiana (1)
@ Ohio State (7)
@ Michigan (3)

Wisconsin’s schedule from January 22nd- February 17th:

Vs. Michigan State (19)
Vs. Minnesota (13)
@ Ohio State (7)
@ Illinois (10)
Vs. Iowa
Vs. Michigan (3)
@ Minnesota (13)
Vs. Ohio State (7)

The truth of the matter is you could look at any of the upcoming conference schedules of any team in the Big Ten and break out in a cold sweat thinking about what awaits (my favorite might be a four game stretch for Penn State who plays at Michigan, at Illinois, vs. Michigan, and at Minnesota). There are a number of teams in the Big Ten that could challenge for a title (or at least make a deep tournament run), but that’s only if they aren’t completely exhausted and beat up from the bloodbath that awaits them in conference play this season.  This is something we should probably keep in mind when we're filling out our brackets in a few months.

There are close to 10 teams that look like they could win it all right now, and that doesn’t figure to change

That little Sulaimon/Cook rant leads me perfectly to this next point; on any given night for the past month, it’s looked like close to 10 teams could win it all. Sure, you’ve got Indiana and Duke cementing themselves as the early season favorites, but looking a little further down the rankings, teams like Michigan, Syracuse, Florida, Louisville, Ohio State, and Kansas are all lurking and look like potential title contenders as well.

I’m sure we could make a list of a few reasons why those teams would fail in the tournament, but couldn’t we also do the same for Indiana and Duke? Like everyone’s been saying since the season started; this year looks wide open, and the first month of the season has done little to dispel that thought. Throw in the fact that preseason top 10 teams stacked with talent like North Carolina State and Kentucky have faltered in the early going and might be playing completely different basketball in three months, and we’ve got what looks like a wide open race from now until early April.

As we all know, it’s still early in the season and the top 10 may very well shuffle and reshuffle a number of times between now and the middle of March, but it seems unlikely that we’ll feel much differently about the number of possible title contenders by the time the brackets are set.

Kentucky will keep us guessing all season 

Source: Andy Lyons/Getty Images North America
Based partly on the fact that Calipari got the “title monkey” he refused to acknowledge off his back even after he’d won it last season, and based partly on how much talent his current team possesses, it’s hard to rule the Wildcats out even if they’ve already lost more games this season than they did all of last year and they’ve fallen out of the Top 25 completely.

Their first loss of the season to Duke was understandable at the time, and is even more understandable now considering the Blue Devils also beat Louisville (albeit without Gorgui Dieng) and Ohio State. However, losing by 14 at Notre Dame and by nine at home to Baylor aren’t exactly the kind of performances that have this team looking like much of a threat right now. Of course, with a team this young you could always play the “these losses will serve them well in a few months” card or the “this is a teaching moment Calipari will use to motivate his team” card, and it’s hard to say that’s the wrong way for a team this young and talented to spin a rough start.

It’s become clear that the point guard situation needs to be addressed, and it stands to reason that this team will get more mature as they go through conference play, but it’s also impossible to say where they’re going after a disappointing first nine games. Even if they continue to underachieve, the thought of this team coming together and realizing its talent will always be in the back of your mind. Likewise, if they get hot and start building momentum, it wouldn't be difficult to look back at their rocky start and question whether they’re for real. It’s tough to say where Kentucky goes from here, but the one thing I am sure of is that this team will keep us guessing all season long.

There are a lot of intriguing unranked teams lurking 

Source: Cooper Neill/Getty Images North America
Regardless of the fact that the overarching point of this article is to say that it’s early and we don’t know too much about the college basketball landscape just yet, and the above statement might be moot in a few weeks after a couple of changes in the polls, I couldn’t help but look at the teams that are currently unranked and be impressed. Here’s a sample of the unranked teams that caught my eye

Miami- They took care of business against Michigan State a few weeks ago, and they get great contributions from their starting five

UConn- Sanctions be damned, when you have Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright you can compete with pretty much anyone in the country

Marquette- I’ve learned to never count out Buzz Williams

Virginia Tech- That Green kid is pretty good

Maryland- They haven’t really played anyone with the exception of Kentucky, but the Alex Len/Dezmine Wells combo is intriguing

Baylor- They seem doomed to underachieve this season, but with Pierre Jackson and Brady Heslip bombing 3’s it seems like they can beat anyone on any given night

Kansas St- They return too many players from a solid team last year to not be better this year

Colorado- An under the radar team last year with a legit star in Spencer Dinwiddie (their recent 36 point loss at Kansas notwithstanding)

St. Mary’s- They’ve got Matthew Dellavedova, enough said

Iowa State- Royce White is gone, but they’ve still got a bunch of talented transfers headlined by Will Clyburn

Kentucky- Perhaps the biggest disappointment thus far, but does anyone expect this team to stay unranked for long?

UCLA- Like Kentucky, the Bruins have disappointed, but there’s a lot of time for them to figure something out

A bunch of teams from the A-10- I could go through the specific teams, but this is the lazy, all-encompassing way out

And much like with my list of point guards earlier, I’m sure I missed about 10 unranked teams that deserve to be mentioned here.   

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