After a thrilling first couple of months, we’ve reached the end of non-conference season. There are of course a few key non-conference games yet to be played (Indiana/Louisville on NYE, the oddly-timed SEC/Big 12 challenge) but teams across the country are now gearing up for the rigors of conference play.
We can predict and prognosticate all we want before the season, but we can’t draw actual conclusions until the games are played. So far, we can clearly see what teams were overrated (UConn, Michigan State, Syracuse) and what teams may have been overlooked (Baylor, USC, Butler). It will be interesting to see which teams will regress after hot starts and which teams will finish the season strong. All ten teams in these rankings remain the same, but the order has changed. Let’s get into it.
10. North Carolina (Last Week: 10)
Remember last year when Northern Iowa upset UNC in Marcus Paige’s homecoming? I guarantee you Roy Williams did. The Tar Heels rolled to a 43 point victory in the rematch–although to be fair UNI returned just one starter from last year’s team. I still think UNC has the deepest (if not the best) frontcourt in America, and that will keep the Tar Heels in every game in ACC play. A dangerous Monmouth team visits to finish non-conference play, before the Heels visit Georgia Tech to kick off its conference slate.
9. Kentucky (Last Week: 7)
John Calipari should thank his lucky stars that Malik Monk played out of his mind in the exhilarating win over UNC, because without that Kentucky’s best win would be over KenPom #53 Michigan State. The Wildcats missed another opportunity for a big win by falling to rival Louisville, aided in part by Monk’s 1-9 shooting from behind the arc (although I should mention that the one 3 he did hit almost helped Kentucky finish a miraculous comeback). Don’t get me wrong, Kentucky is still the overwhelming favorite in the SEC. But these sorts of things can really affect a team’s seed come March.
8. Creighton (Last Week: 9)
The Jays only played one game last week, and Creighton’s offense carried it to a win over Arizona State. Now that guys like Isaiah Zierden are coming off the bench (in a perfect world, Greg McDermott never would have started him), it’s so much easier for them to play loose–Zierdan and fellow bench player Toby Hegner combined to shoot 8-11 from deep against ASU. The problem is that the chasm between Creighton’s offensive and defensive abilities continues to widen. The only other “elite” team with a similar issue is UCLA, but the Bruins do have multiple future NBA players to pick up any slack–something that Creighton may or may not have. The Jays will get a couple of strong tests this week from Seton Hall and Villanova, as they seek their first top-50 win since November 16.
7. Louisville (Last Week: 9)
The Cardinals got the biggest win of last week by knocking off Kentucky 73-70, Louisville’s first win in the series since 2012. Quentin Snider, someone who has always struggled in this game, led the way with 22 points and was part of a sterling defensive effort. If not for a truly calamitous collapse against Baylor, Louisville would definitely be in the conversation for best team in America. Unfortunately for the Cardinals, they won’t get any respite, as they host Virginia and face IU in Indy this week.
6. UCLA (Last Week: 6)
UCLA completed a perfect non-conference slate by holding off Western Michigan, but a ton of credit has to go to TJ Leaf for his commitment to #ShootYourShot2016:
Hey @taylorswift13 when are you gonna come out to a UCLA game??😬
— TJ Leaf (@leafsquad22) December 18, 2016
5. Baylor (Last Week: 5)
Could the Bears be the team to finally end Kansas’ streak of Big 12 titles? An unblemished non-conference record suggests that they could, but conference play in the Big 12 always presents its fair share of challenges. Baylor will start its conference slate with a trip to Oklahoma to face the reeling Sooners.
4. Gonzaga (Last Week: 4)
Gonzaga routed South Dakota to cap a perfect non-conference season. Half of the Zags’ 12 wins have been over top-100 teams, but they’re still overrated, right?
The depth that Mark Few has assembled continues to amaze, with seven players averaging eight or more points per game. That kind of depth has allowed Few to spread the minutes around and will only help the team stave off fatigue as the season wears on. That’s especially important because it looks like the WCC could be pretty good this year. Saint Mary’s is another top-20 team, BYU looks like it’ll be a bubble team, and even San Francisco just picked up a couple of nice wins over Utah and Illinois State. Gonzaga will get every team’s best shot the rest of the year, so being able to keep guys rested is a huge difference from years past.
3. Duke (Last Week: 3)
Harry Giles finally made his college debut, so naturally Duke struggled mightily and barely beat Tennessee State. Additionally, the Blue Devils narrowly beat Elon as Grayson Allen strengthened his claim to having the most punchable face in college basketball. As a result, Coach K finally cracked and suspended Allen indefinitely (read: until the next time Duke plays a good team).
If only there was a better player Duke could lean on in Allen’s absence, someone who’s leading the Blue Devils with 20.4 points per game on 52/43/88 shooting splits, whose bandwagon I’ve been spearheading for the past two years. Can’t imagine who that might be.
2. Kansas (Last Week: 2)
The Jayhawks throttled UNLV last week, right as B Frank and I discussed how surprising it is that that program is struggling so much (Listen here; we’re also on iTunes now).
The quest for the 1,000,000th (rough estimate) Big 12 title in a row for Bill Self starts on the road against an actually kind of decent TCU team. I’m just as surprised as you are.
1. Villanova (Last Week: 1)
Villanova’s offense has been humming this season, with the Wildcat AdjO checking in at a ridiculous 1.21 points per possession (best in America). Now Jay Wright’s team faces a trip to Creighton to play in a venue that has already claimed Wisconsin as a victim. It’s a classic match-up of amazing offense vs. team that can’t defend. This one will likely come down to how significant a home-court advantage the CenturyLink Center is able to provide.