As we approach Christmas and are less than two weeks from conference play starting, it’s time for a little recap of what we believe are some of the big stories of the first five weeks of the season. For those who aren’t paying attention, Wisconsin has more losses in a month than they had all year when they lost in the National Championship game, and their coach just quit. That is one of many examples of how things can quickly change in College Hoops. Here’s the rest of what you need to know.
Michigan State is actually good before February for once.
The MO of Izzo’s squads typically is to struggle out of the gate, lose at home in January to Northwestern or Nebraska, turn it on in February, and then make a run at the Final Four. They typically do this with high expectations and multiple first round draft picks in the starting lineup, which makes it even more odd. Keep in mind, this team lost Dawson, Harris and Trice from last year’s Final Four squad.
Sparty started this year #13, mainly because of how good Denzel Valentine is. Well, he’s been incredible and has led a team with Matt Costello and Tum Tum Nairn in the starting lineup, to #1 after an 11-0 start. I have always liked Izzo and Sparty, but I am a bit worried that this year might be the reversal of the norm. It simply amazes me that they have started out so hot, especially when Eron Harris (transfer) really hasn’t done much of anything yet. While Valentine is amazing, I’m not sure that this is one of Izzo’s Final Four teams.
The Top of the Atlantic 10 Has Racked Up Some Serious Wins
Quality non-conference wins don’t grow on trees as the big boys tend to either play each other or the lousiest of lousy teams. Even confronted with this scheduling inequality, the A10 has managed to pull off some of the more impressive wins out there. George Washington’s win over Virginia looks the best so far and will probably look the best when the season’s over, too. GW has also beaten decent high-major teams in Seton Hall, Tennessee, and Penn State (That was a joke – Penn State isn’t decent). Not to be outdone, Dayton has racked up wins at Vanderbilt and on a neutral court over Iowa and Richmond notched wins over California along with two quality road wins over Wake Forest and Northern Iowa (something North Carolina couldn’t manage). There have been some other near-misses and mid-major wins, but this is a great start for a conference that deserves more respect from the national media – and the selection committee – than it has gotten for the past few years.
The National Champion Is Currently Residing among the Top 13
Both polls have the same top 13, albeit ranked slightly differently. These 13 teams – to varying degrees – look like they are far superior to any of the teams currently ranked 14-receiving votes. Much has been made over the past several years of the supposed parity in college basketball, but that has not showed up much once it gets to Final Four time. Where the parity really shows up is in that second tier of teams which has gotten fat and bloated. Is there a ton of difference between Indiana and Miami (the real one)? Between Providence and Dayton? Between Florida and Gonzaga? I don’t see much. However, if you asked whether there is a ton of difference between Maryland and Cincinnati or between Oklahoma and George Washington? I’d say definitely. There’s a pretty clear upper crust this year and I’m not sure conference play will change that a whole lot.
The Rule Changes Seem to Be Working…Sort Of
The NCAA’s wealth of rule changes this year was designed to speed up play, bolster offense, and reverse the trend of college basketball descending into unwatchability. For the most part, that seems to have worked. I’m going to keep this anecdotal for now, but there’s obviously data out there on the Interwebs to support or challenge this theory. I’m not delving into that yet because: 1) there’s not enough data available yet to draw any conclusions; and 2) conference play will be the true test of these rule changes.
What I can say from several hours (more than several) of watching games this year is that games are being called far more tightly which has led to an increase in fouls and a commensurate increase in free throws. That alone might account for some of any increase in scoring. While the games have been played at a brisker pace thanks to the 30 second shot clock, several games I’ve watched have featured so many foul calls that I have been tempted to start watching the NFL again just to see less officiating. That’s putting a serious drag on any improvements in pace of play and flow that the shot clock and looser defense might create. It’ll be fascinating to see how this progresses as the season continues.
There are some serious and surprising mid-majors.
The usual suspects are struggling a bit. Duke West is terrible. Wichita State appears to have things back on track after four losses without Van Vleet. Northern Iowa beat UNC, but then has since been blasted by Richmond and New Mexico. Stone Cold Stephen F. Austin lost by 42 to Baylor. However, there is some new blood in the mid-major field that could make some noise come March.
Arkansas-Little Rock (9-0) – The Sun Belt is going to be a battle as UT-Arlington and Georgia State are solid, but UALR remains one of the 8 unbeatens in America. Solid wins at San Diego State, Tulsa and DePaul.
Valparaiso (9-2) – Wins at Rhode Island, at Oregon St and at home against fellow mid-major darling, Belmont. Interestingly, they scheduled a home and home with Belmont, as they travel to Nashville on December 28.
Louisiana Tech (8-2) – They just were taken to the woodshed at Ole Miss, but Alex Hamilton is the real deal. Won at Ohio State (well, everyone has).
Chattanooga (8-2) – Won at Dayton, which is incredibly hard to do. Also won at Georgia and beat Illinois. Solid squad.
Monmouth (7-3) – Wins at UCLA (who has beaten Kentucky and won at Duke West), ND in Orlando (this loss doesn’t look so bad now), USC in Orlando (they stink), and most recently a complete beatdown of Georgetown in D.C. Wow. Justin Robinson is about 5’6 but is incredibly dynamic, especially in late game situations.
Speaking of Monmouth, their bench mob is all the rage.
Their bench is having a ton of fun. Noticeably, last night during their double-digit win at Georgetown, the apparent ring leader who fired imaginary arrows all over Orlando was missing. I’m certainly concerned. Here are some videos and you can make your own judgment…Tools or Not Tools?
Well, this guy appears to be a tool.