As an attempt to avoid writing another column about how the Pac-12 is terrible, I’m going to exclude that conference from this discussion.
Sidney Lowe Division – Hope is on the Way
As a head coach you have to sell your fans on something. Either you sell them wins or you sell them hope. For years while Sidney Lowe’s N.C. State teams were blown out, the announcers would praise his next recruiting class and say, “Wait until next year!” These teams don’t necessarily have great recruiting classes ahead, but they do have new coaches, so that’s something.
Providence – First the Friars lost a game to St. John’s where they couldn’t stop the lay-up line. Then they lost a game to Georgetown when they couldn’t score. This is the life of a bad team.
Maryland – I’m not sure if Alex Len’s debut and P’shon Howard’s return will be enough to save Maryland’s season, but the 7’1” Ukrainian Len is 10-for-14 from the floor in two games, and Howard is averaging five assists per game since he returned to the hardwood.
Arkansas – Arkansas’ defense is back forcing turnovers, and the defense has improved from 111th to 52nd in the nation. In the SEC, that will win some games.
Penn State – Stephen Bardo put Tim Frazier on his early All-Big Ten team. And I was ready to dismiss it based on the “every bad team has a star” theory. Someone has to score for Penn St., but I’m not sure that means he would crack the rotation for a good team. But Frazier’s assist rate is ridiculous. How can he be earning so many assists when Penn St. is that poor at putting the ball in the basket?
Tennessee – Technically, this is the “unluckiest” BCS team in the land. But you have to wonder if their strong play in Maui was just a fluke. Since taking Memphis to double OT and playing Duke tough, this team has had some very questionable performances.
Texas Tech – Freshman forward Jordan Tolbert should be a nice building block for the future. I’ve already mentioned him twice this year, but when you play as poorly as Texas Tech has, you only get one factoid.
Pat Knight Division – Situation Quickly Becoming Hopeless
Georgia Tech – The Yellow Jackets made 10 threes and still lost to the worst team in the A10 this weekend. Technically, Georgia Tech has a new coach so they should fall in the Sidney Lowe Division, but no one seems to believe in Brian Gregory.
Boston College – I thought that as the former head coach at Cornell, Steve Donahue might have some insight into how to slow down Harvard. Instead BC got pounded by 21 at home. Look, I know this is basically the youngest team in the country, but there comes a moment in time where you realize you should have brought in a couple of junior college transfers to keep things competitive.
DePaul – A rumor spread recently that DePaul wanted the basketball schools to break off from the Big East. The rumor was that the Blue Demons wanted a new league setup because they have been unable to win in the current alignment. It may be ridiculous, but you have to ask how many losing seasons a team can take. DePaul has the basketball tradition to sell tickets and make money, but not if they are in 16th place every year.
Nebraska – In the first eight games in Big Ten play Nebraska faces Wisconsin (twice), Ohio St. (twice), Indiana, and Michigan St. Glad you could join us.
Auburn – After UTEP beat Auburn in the Diamond Head Classic, you have to wonder if Tony Barbee isn’t regretting his decision to leave his former team.
South Carolina – This is year No. 4 for Darrin Horn. It is hard to imagine a year No. 5.
Wake Forest – Wake Forest has improved to the point where they can beat Yale by one point at home. Sadly, this is progress.
St. John's – Amir Garrett has five points in three games. If you were hoping his debut would save the St. John’s season, look elsewhere.
South Florida – Augustus Gilchrist, Anthony Collins, Jawanza Poland, and Toarlyn Fitzpatrick have all missed games this year for USF, but with a full lineup, the team has beaten Cleveland St., played Southern Miss and Connecticut close, and defeated Rutgers. I’m not quite willing to endorse this team as dangerous, but I am pleasantly surprised with the recent trend.
Clemson – This team had lost a number of close games, so I was willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. Then they played in the Diamond Head Classic and lost to UTEP and Hawaii while squeaking by Southern Illinois in OT. I no longer hold much hope. Thanks to Brad Brownell’s defense (and a brutal pace) they’ll be competitive in the ACC. But this is the worst offensive team at Clemson in the last 10 years.
Villanova – This is the worst defensive team at Villanova in the last 10 years. I understand that the team lost some key players to graduation, but Jay Wright is a much better coach than what we have seen so far.
Tim Welsh Division – Not terrible, but not good enough that I care
Rutgers – In Rutgers' upset victory over Florida, Bill Raftery was trying his best to praise both teams but you could tell it was just little more sincere when Rutgers made a big shot. People talk about how referees suffer from a subconscious bias in favor of the home team, and I think it isn’t just the referees who can get swept up in the moment. But you know what? I don’t think there is a coach in America that gets more out of emotion than Mike Rice. He gets his team playing with an “us-against-the-world” attitude in so many games, and with former Rutgers player Mike Rosario coming to town, it was almost too easy for him to motivate his team against Florida.
Iowa – I am now a huge fan of Roy Marble. After his technical cut a 12 point lead to 6 points against Wisconsin, he knew he needed to hit a clutch basket, and he did. But I’m not quite sold on Iowa yet. Iowa is the fastest paced team in the Big Ten, but I fear they are doing it the wrong way. The easiest way to get a fast tempo is to let the other team get wide open shots early in the possession, and for most of the season, that’s what Iowa has done. Even in the upset of Wisconsin, the Badgers got plenty of wide open looks. Iowa’s defense has to get better for this team to become a consistent winner.
Georgia – This team has talent. I still love PG Gerald Robinson and freshman Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is fantastic. But Mark Fox may have over-scheduled. You can’t lose two players to the NBA at Georgia and play this tough a schedule.
Ole Miss – There is no shame in losing to Southern Miss. There is no shame in losing to Dayton. And there is surprisingly no shame in losing to Middle Tennessee this year. But an SEC team can’t go 0-3 against those teams if it wants to make the tournament.
LSU – Don’t look now but LSU has a top-25 defense.
Iowa State – Don’t read too much into the narrow one point win over Mississippi Valley St. Royce White had the flu and played only three minutes.
Minnesota – Against Illinois, the Gophers led by two in the final minute and missed the front end of a one-and-one, allowing Illinois to tie the game. Illinois eventually won in double overtime. At Michigan, trailing by one with 64 seconds left, the Gophers had a chance to take the lead. But Minnesota was called for a shot-clock violation and the Wolverines hung on. I’ve watched Tubby Smith for a number of years, and I’ve never seen him look more angry than he did after that shot-clock violation. The Gophers have now lost 12 of their last 13 Big Ten games, and right now they cannot find a way to win a league game.
Northwestern – Penn St.’s basketball team is usually in the lower half of the Big Ten. But they’ve owned Northwestern. Northwestern had lost six straight to the Nittany Lions. And in the last 11 games, Northwestern had only beat Penn St. one time, by two points in 2007. So while Sunday’s game, a 68-56 win for Northwestern over Penn St. might not mean much to you, it meant a lot to the folks in Evanston.
NC State – I rarely say that coaches are playing the “wrong” players. They see all the hustle plays and the hard work in practice that we miss. But I think Sidney Lowe clearly had no idea how to manage this team. Mark Gottfried has turned NC State’s offense around this year by simply featuring two guys that were already on the roster, CJ Williams and Richard Howell. Now if only Gottfried could only do something about the team’s hideous lack of defense.
Notre Dame – Watching Bob Knight call Notre Dame’s upset of Pittsburgh, he frequently called Notre Dame’s shots “bad shots”. They were unnecessary jumpers early in the shot clock. Of course those shots are the Mike Brey offense.
Texas A&M – The Aggies have been puzzling terrible since Khris Middleton returned. And senior Dash Harris is still not very good.
Oklahoma State – Freshman Cezar Guerrero made eight threes in Oklahoma St.’s miraculous comeback against Texas - SA, and he’s also made big shots in other game this season like the double OT victory against Southern Miss. Now I realize he hasn’t been dominant in every game. And I realize he wants to be a true PG and set his teammates up. But why wasn’t he taking the big shot late in the game against Virginia Tech? I’ve seen enough Keiton Page misses to last a lifetime, and Le’Bryan Nash’s late three point attempt was completely unnecessary. Le’Bryan Nash may have received all the hype, but Guerrero is the freshmen who I want to see more of in Stillwater.
Kelvin Sampson Division – Nice start, but the ending could be rough
Oklahoma – A classic Ken Pomeroy idea is that good free throw shooters eventually become great three point shooters. But Steven Pledger’s transformation into a dominant shooter from beyond the arc still qualifies as remarkable. Unfortunately he missed a shot that would have won the game vs Cincinnati. And I suspect Big 12 play will bring his percentage down further. But for now, Oklahoma fans are enjoying the ride.
West Virginia – With no other veteran options to turn to, I think Deniz Kilicli and Daryl Bryant might just cause Bob Huggins to go insane this year.
Seton Hall – I still have no feel for the Pirates. The blowout win against West Virginia was nice but given all the freshmen in the Mountaineer’s lineup, I don’t want to give Seton Hall too much credit for that win. And Seton Hall’s loss to Syracuse didn’t tell me much either. The Pirates actually lost that game last season when they went to Syracuse and took the Orange behind the woodshed. The Orange were all too eager to get revenge.
Virginia Tech – Virginia Tech might be on the bubble again this year, but at least it feels like they upgraded their non-conference schedule. Two games against Oklahoma St., a game against Kansas St., a game against Minnesota, and a February date with BYU should give the committee some data to work with even if the ACC is down.
Illinois – I’ve made a big deal of the fact that Bruce Weber’s teams are perennially “unlucky”. But for the first time since 2005, Illinois has a positive “luck” rating on kenpom.com. After years of lacking clutch performance, Illinois has actually won the close games this year.
Kansas State – Kansas lacks depth, Missouri lacks size, and Baylor lacks toughness, so I am very curious to see how many games Kansas St. can win with its great offensive rebounding this year.
Marquette – I had trouble paying attention to the Marquette vs Vanderbilt game because it was such a blowout win for Vanderbilt, but one theme seemed to be that zone defense could shut down Marquette’s drive-centered offense. That seems plausible, particularly given that this is Marquette’s worst three point shooting team under Buzz Williams. And the biggest zone test of the season, Syracuse, is coming up on Saturday.
Mississippi State – There is every reason to be optimistic about this team, but then you see Renardo Sidney get a technical that essentially cost the team the game against Baylor and you shake your head. I almost feel sorry for Sidney at this point. I hate that when a sports figure becomes a villain (as he did when he fought a teammate in the stands last year), that we just look for every excuse to criticize. But Sidney really has brought this on himself.
John Chaney Division – Better than their record
Miami (FL) – If I was a Miami fan, I would be happy to see Reggie Johnson return to the floor, but nervous to see DeQuan Jones back on the court. Jones has been a turnover machine on offense, and unless he accepts a role as a defensive stopper, I would be concerned he will cause more harm than good.
Alabama – Great defense and no offense is a recipe for an inconsistent season. Just ask Florida St.
Florida State – Once again Florida St. has one of the top defenses in the country, and once again the offense is letting the team down. The 3rd OT against Princeton on Friday was a nice metaphor. Even though various players had hit big shots to send the game to a 3rd overtime, Florida St.’s players seemed reluctant to take the big shot. Instead they tried to make one pass too many, and three live ball steals by Princeton finally sealed the upset for the Ivy league squad.
Cincinnati –Yancy Gates was struggling before the brawl, and I wonder if the suspensions didn’t happen at the perfect time. Early this season Cincinnati had wasted too many possession trying to force it to Gates in the post. There is plenty of talent on this team, and the suspensions helped the Bearcats to remember that there are other ways to score. It sounds crazy, but the brawl may have been a blessing in disguise.
Vanderbilt – Did Kevin Stallings over-schedule? I don’t think so. For a team that brought almost everyone back, the goal was to build a strong resume. But Vanderbilt’s opponents just didn’t get the message that the veteran team is supposed to win in November and December. With Ezili back, I expect Vandy to creep back into the discussion somewhere, but I’m not as optimistic as some people. They already lost to Indiana St. with him in the lineup.
Purdue – Normally, a close win at Iowa is a bad sign, but for a Purdue team that had blown leads and failed to execute in close games, the narrow victory last week was just what the doctor ordered.
Florida – I don’t want to pile on the Mike Rosario stories. Obviously he did not see himself sitting on the bench for Florida and watching the Gators lose to the Rutgers team he transferred out of. So I’ll move to the other Florida topic, Patric Young. Young was high on draft lists and was receiving a lot of hype this preseason. But Ken Pomeroy expressed doubt that Patric Young would live up to those expectations based on his willingness to defer to teammates, using only 10% of the possessions when on the floor last season. So now that Young is using 20% of his team’s possessions this year, does that count as a breakout season or not? Young’s late rebound and bucket against Rutgers was a huge basket for Florida and helped send the game to OT. But you can’t help but feel that if Young played better and more aggressively, Florida might have blown Rutgers out of the water.
Rollie Massimino Division - Teams that might still peak late
There’s nothing dominant on these team’s resumes, but give them time.
Michigan – Tim Hardaway Jr. was 1-for-14 from the floor, but with less than a minute to go at Minnesota and his team nursing a one point lead, he hit the game clinching shot. The computers don’t love this team yet, but I don’t think John Beilein’s offense was designed to blow out bad teams. Once this team frustrates Ohio St. and Indiana, the power ranking will go back up.
Texas – I am shocked Texas has remained ranked in the Top 30 of the Pomeroy rankings. And I still see a long month ahead as they learn to go on the road in the Big 12. But as I said a couple of weeks ago, if young teams peak late, keep your eye on Texas.
Connecticut – The poor Sagarin and Pomeroy rankings don’t bother me. This team is rapidly improving. Andre Drummond is 34 of 45 in his last 5 games and this team looks nothing like the squad that struggled in the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament earlier this year.
Gene Keady Division – Regular season dominance, post-season heartbreak
Virginia – I enjoyed listening to Tim Brando say that Virginia might be the third best team in the ACC while showing highlights of them barely squeaking by winless Towson.
Wisconsin – Somewhere a UNLV player was punching in his TV set and asking why Ben Brust had to hit 9 threes against them and yet the Badgers were only 3-for-28 from deep against Iowa. At what point in a 3 of 28 performance do you decide an open three is not the best shot and try for something else?
Duke – Everyone wants to criticize Duke’s point guard play. The real problem is that this is Duke’s worst defensive team in the last 10 years.
Bob Knight Division – Living off past glory
I don’t dislike any of these teams. (Well, maybe Pittsburgh). But I’d like to see more this season before I decide they are great.
Pittsburgh – Is there some sort of ACC curse? Ever since the announcement that Pitt was leaving the Big East, their amazing home court advantage has disappeared.
Michigan State – I remain annoyed at Wisconsin’s strategy when leading by 20 points in their victory over Nebraska. Wisconsin’s subs continued to run a methodical offense, probing for the best possible shot. It is a testament to Bo Ryan that his players never give in and play lazy basketball. But part of me feels it is also bad sportsmanship. A 51 possession game might be excusable when you are winning a close game and need to value every possession. But when you win by 24 as the Badgers did, I think it is bad form to hold the basketball and punish your opponent that way. So yes, this is a long way of saying that once again the margin-of-victory numbers like Wisconsin more than Michigan St. The Badgers beat the Huskers by 24, while Michigan St. beat the Huskers by 13. But I still need to see Wisconsin beat Michigan St. before I believe those margin-of-victory numbers are meaningful.
Louisville – This week I heard a lot of people say how “there is no way Louisville is the 4th best team in America.” (Dick Vitale was a prime example, but he wasn’t the only one.) But what’s the point of this statement? The polls aren’t measuring the top teams in the country. No one believes that for a second. The polls list the teams that haven’t lost much, weighted some by preseason expectations. Shockingly, this does not line up with common sense. If you wanted to do something, criticize Louisville for not going on the road early in the season, but don’t insult kids for having won the games they played. The box score against Kentucky was insane. Russ Smith was 10-20 from the field, while everyone else on Louisville was 10-52.
Kansas – Because everyone loves Thomas Robinson’s dunking ability, I think people fail to realize how fantastic he is at grabbing defensive rebounds. And now that his free throw shooting has improved, he is the complete package.
Dean Smith Division
Georgetown – There is a lot of talk about the Hoyas' freshmen, but the real advantage they bring is height and wingspan. And because of that size, this year’s Georgetown team is playing the best defense since Roy Hibbert graduated.
Missouri – The Tigers refused to double-team Illinois’ Meyer’s Leonard and it almost cost them the game. And now I’m really curious to see how Missouri performs against some Big 12 front lines. If the Jayhawks had Wayne Simeon (circa 2005), I could see them absolutely demolishing the Tigers in the paint. But who is the dominant Big 12 player who can force the mismatch this year?
Indiana – After the Kentucky win, people wrote how Indiana was a little too dependent on threes to be a true national threat. But Indiana is shooting 45% from deep this year, and they should be taking a lot of open threes against a team like Kentucky. Jordan Hulls is as pure a shooter as there is in college basketball, and Christian Watford has been remarkably good from three point range this year. Sure, there will always be nights, like the loss at Michigan St. where Jordan Hulls is struggling, and the Hoosiers will get beat. But three pointers are only part of the equation. Indiana only needed five threes to beat Ohio St, and they now have the best two resumes wins of any team in the country.
John Wooden Division
Syracuse – Syracuse is first in the nation in block percentage and steal percentage. The steals aren’t a surprise. The whole point of the zone defense is to get steals. But after struggling last season, Fab Melo has become an elite shot blocker this year. Right now the only BCS player with a better block rate than Melo is Kentucky’s Anthony Davis.
Baylor – The win against Mississippi St. may not have been pretty, but when Scott Drew can get his team to win games 54-52, the sky is the limit for this team. Right now this is the best defensive team head coach Scott Drew has ever had. And unlike 2010, when Drew was depending on Epke Udoh in the middle to shut opponents down, this year’s squad is also great at forcing turnovers.
Ohio State – Ohio St. wanted Jared Sullinger to touch the ball late against Indiana, but those things are hard to force. Any opponent can take away a post player if they want to. Post players might win the game over 40 minutes, but you usually need a guard to make a special play to win in the final seconds. And while Aaron Craft is one of the best defenders in the nation and a solid facilitator in the offense, he is not really a shot-creator yet.
North Carolina – It feels like this team hasn’t played a meaningful game in a month. And arguably they have not. Long Beach St. was good, but is not really in UNC’s league, and Texas was way too young. The Tar Heels will probably eventually slide back into the top spot in the polls, but when will they get their credibility back with the national media?
Kentucky – Marquis Teague was hyped as the next John Calipari point guard. Anthony Davis was hyped as a block-machine and the #1 ranked recruit coming out of high school. Even Kyle Wiltjer was receiving extra hype since his dual citizenship allowed him to play for Canada in international events. But somehow, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist sort of slid under the radar in the hype machine. But after his 24 point, 19 point performance against Louisville, I think it is fair to say no one will overlook him anymore.