Preview and Predictions for Conference Play in 2013-14 NCAA Basketball Season
Two months ago, Kentucky and the greatest recruiting class of all time was close to a consensus No. 1 and Louisville was thought to have a decent shot at repeating. The Cardinals were also a heavy favorite in the American Athletic Conference.
What's my point?
A lot can change in two months. Kentucky and Louisville are far from the top of the polls, and I'd argue neither should be the favorite in their league now.
With conference play beginning this week, it's time to reevaluate the conference races and take a redo on preseason predictions.
American Athletic Conference
Better Than Expected: SMU
Larry Brown has built a contender quickly with transfers and the Mustangs are 10-2. They don't have any great wins, but they are winning the games they should.
Former Illinois State point guard Nic Moore, who followed Tim Jankovich to SMU, is one of the best in the league. And look out next season when Moore will be paired with Emmanuel Mudiay, one of the top recruits in the 2014 class.
As for this year, the Mustangs could end up as a surprising bubble team if they continue to take care of business in the games they should win.
AAC Title Contenders: Louisville, Memphis, Connecticut
League Champ Prediction: Memphis
Before the season, I thought Louisville would win the league easily. The Cardinals, however, have had a hard time replacing the playmaking skills and leadership of Peyton Siva. Chane Behanan is now gone, and Montrezl Harrell has disappeared in Louisville's two big games (North Carolina and Kentucky).
The top three teams are significantly better than the rest of the league—Cincinnati is the only one even close—and it will likely come down to how they do against each other.
All three teams have really good guards, so the difference could be inside play. That's why I like the Tigers. Shaq Goodwin has become a reliable scorer and makes Memphis the most complete team in the league.
Better Than Expected: Florida State
The Seminoles have been a pleasant surprise after a rough offseason. They graduated star Michael Snaer, missed on Andrew Wiggins—both of Wiggins' parents went to FSU—and top recruit Xavier Rathan-Mayes did not qualify. Even without a big name on the roster, Florida State has impressive wins over VCU and Massachusetts and looks to be a NCAA tourney team.
Leonard Hamilton is winning how he usually wins: with defense. The Seminoles rank eighth nationally in effective field goal percentage defense (42 percent), per KenPom.com (subscription required), and are forcing a turnover on 21.7 percent of opponents' possessions.
ACC Title Contenders: Syracuse, Duke, North Carolina
League Champ Prediction: Syracuse
Not only is Jim Boeheim's squad the best team, this will be the first time for a lot of the ACC schools to see the Syracuse zone.
But the Orange offense is their greatest strength. In fact, it might just be the league's best, even better than that team with Jabari Parker.
Freshman point guard Tyler Ennis is starting to play at an extremely high level—good luck to ACC point guards staying in front of him. Trevor Cooney (50.6 percent from distance) is the best shooter in the league and veteran C.J. Fair is always consistent—he's scored at least 14 points in 11 of Syracuse's 12 games.
Better Than Expected: Butler
It's still early, but it looks like Brandon Miller was a great choice to take over for Brad Stevens. It's hard to envision that Stevens would be doing any better with this roster.
The roster was a lot better in the offseason before do-everything forward Roosevelt Jones injured his wrist on a trip to Australia, which forced him to redshirt.
Miller deserved a pass without Jones, but he's had two role players off last year's team turn into stars, sophomore guard Kellen Dunham and senior Khyle Marshall, and the Bulldogs are 10-2. Their only losses—Oklahoma State and LSU at the Old Spice Classic—were by a combined four points.
Big East Title Contenders: Marquette, Georgetown, Creighton, Villanova
League Champ Prediction: Villanova
You can pretty much throw out the preseason predictions from the Big East. Marquette was the preseason pick to win the league, but Buzz Williams has had inconsistent guard play and had a tough time replacing Vander Blue.
Villanova was picked fourth in the preseason and is now the favorite after nonconference wins against Kansas and Iowa. Jay Wright is doing a great job of mixing defenses and senior James Bell is playing the best ball of his career.
Do not count out Creighton. Doug McDermott is the best player in the league and it runs great offense. If you want to see great ball movement, check out the Bluejays. If anyone can score against 'Nova, it's the Fightin' McDermotts.
Better Than Expected: Iowa
The Hawkeyes play extremely fast and rank fourth in the country in points scored in transition (24.2 per game), according to Synergy Sports Technology (subscription required).
Iowa's only losses are to Villanova—in overtime at the Battle 4 Atlantis—and a three-point loss to Iowa State in a game the Hawkeyes led most of the way.
Roy Devyn Marble and Aaron White are names that Big Ten fans know, but they should start to get recognition nationally as one of the best duos in the country.
Another name to know is Jarrod Uthoff. The Wisconsin transfer is the best sixth man in the league and is making 52.6 percent of his threes.
Big Ten Title Contenders: Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan State, Ohio State
League Champ Prediction: Michigan State
Last year, the Big Ten race was not settled until the final day of the season. C.L. Brown of ESPN.com agrees with me that the group above could produce a similar finish. Go ahead and put Michigan State at Ohio State on March 9 as a must-watch game on your calendar.
The Spartans are the pick because they have the best talent and the most experience, although Wisconsin is close in both departments and has a schedule advantage. The Badgers get both the Buckeyes and Spartans at home.
The Buckeyes are great defensively, but they have issues scoring at times. Wisconsin doesn't really have any flaws, but again, Michigan State's talent should be the difference. With Adreian Payne and Keith Appling playing the best ball of their careers, Sparty will prevail in the end.
Better Than Expected: Iowa State
It's probably time to quit underestimating the Cyclones. As long as Fred Hoiberg is the coach, go ahead and include Iowa State in the preseason Top 25 and in the top three or four of the Big 12 no matter who is returning.
The Cyclones are less reliant on transfers than the last two years, but one of them, DeAndre Kane, was the missing piece that Hoiberg added in the offseason.
Kane is averaging 14.9 points, 5.5 assists and 7.5 rebounds for the undefeated Cyclones. Iowa State can score at all five positions and has already had five players win Big 12 Player of the Week, the first school to ever accomplish that.
Big 12 Title Contenders: Iowa State, Baylor, Kansas and Oklahoma State
League Champ Prediction: Kansas
Nine straight. How can you bet against a team that's won nine straight league titles?
Oklahoma State might be the best team in the league Kansas has had to go up against in the last 10 years, but Bill Self's team is starting to figure things out as the conference season begins.
Three weeks ago, the pick might have been Oklahoma State. That was before freshman Joel Embiid had broken out. He keeps getting more confident and the Jayhawks are starting to play inside-out through him and Perry Ellis, just like all of Self's best teams.
"We need to play through our bigs," Self said after a dominant win over Georgetown on Dec. 21. "That's the strength of our team."
It's really, really hard to bet against Marcus Smart and the best backcourt in the country, but...Self. Andrew Wiggins. Embiid. Allen Fieldhouse. Nine straight.
Better Than Expected: Utah
Utah is 11-1 after going 21-43 in Larry Krystkowiak's first two seasons.
The Utes have played the weakest schedule in the country, according to KenPom.com, so take that record with a grain of salt.
It's still progress, and even if the Utes manage to get close to .500 in the Pac-12, that would be exceeding expectations.
Pac-12 Title Contenders: Arizona, Oregon, UCLA, Colorado
League Champ Prediction: Arizona
The undefeated Wildcats were undefeated going into Pac-12 play last year too, but here's the difference: Sean Miller has a point guard in T.J. McConnell that is too good at setting up his teammates to allow for Arizona to be inconsistent, as last year's team was in conference play. The Wildcats underachieved at 12-6 in the Pac-12 last season.
Oregon and UCLA have great offenses and Colorado is really good on the defensive end, but Arizona is great on both ends and has the best talent in the league.
Better Than Expected: Missouri
Tulsa transfer Jordan Clarkson has been one of the best guards in the country this season.
At 6'5", Clarkson is an extremely difficult matchup at point guard. You can put your best perimeter defender on him, but then you still have to figure out a way to slow down Jabari Brown and Earnest Ross.
Frank Haith always does a good job of exploiting mismatches, and he has the perfect roster for that this year.
SEC Title Contenders: Kentucky and Florida
League Champ Prediction: Florida
Missouri, Tennessee and LSU all have nice teams, but Kentucky and Florida are on another level.
Billy Donovan has been to three straight Elite Eights and this team is more talented than any of the last three. The Gators have inside scoring (Patric Young), a great senior point guard (Scottie Wilbekin), an incredible slasher (Casey Prather), shooters (Michael Frazier and Dorian Finney-Smith) and a second point guard, freshman Kasey Hill, who might be the most talented point guard Donovan has ever coached. (Apologies to White Chocolate himself, Jason Williams.)
Kentucky has great talent as well, but Florida is just the better team because of its experience and consistency on the defensive end. Don't be surprised if both of these teams end up in Dallas at the Final Four.
Best of the Mid-Majors
Atlantic 10: VCU, UMass, Saint Louis, Dayton and George Washington could all be tourney teams. UMass is the league's only ranked team right now, but I like the Billikens to repeat as league champs.
Missouri Valley: With Creighton gone, the league is Wichita State's to lose. Could the Shockers go undefeated in the regular season? A road game with Indiana State on Feb. 5 is their toughest challenge left.
Mountain West: The MWC is not as strong as last season, but still has some solid teams at the top. San Diego State, New Mexico and Boise State are the best three and should all make the tourney. Keep an eye on UNLV and newcomer Utah State. The Aztecs are my pick to win the league.
WCC: Gonzaga is already 2-0 in league play and, like usual, just has too much talent for the rest of the league.