Well folks, its that time of the year when we move from the non-conference to league play. For some teams, a gaudy record inflated by creampuffs will give way to a rough league slate. For others, just the opposite. Here are a few intriguing notes before we release our next bracket. Oh, obviously, hope you all had a fantastic holiday season. Sadly my New Year’s Day was spent watching the Badgers lose another nail biter in Pasadena. Se la vie.
Team to beat: Albany–The Great Danes went 11-3 through their non-conference slate but two of those losses were by a combined five points. Their lone blowout was to Ohio State and they have a win over a power league team (Washington). They crushed UMBC in the conference opener.
Surprise team: Stony Brook–The regular season champ from last year is just 9-4. What is surprising is that despite a tough schedule, they didn’t knock off any of the big boys they faced.
Disappointing: Boston University went 12-4 last year, in-league, yet are a rough 6-8 right now with some ugly losses, including the league debut against a pedestrian Maine team.
Team to beat: Butler and Temple–both have marquee wins (Indiana and Syracuse) to their credit. They are riding high with confidence and will cause headaches for anyone. Another headache-inducing team is VCU with that ’40 Minutes of Hell’ defense.
Surprise team: Charlotte–the 49ers came out of nowhere to go 12-2 in the non-conference. It was aided by the 274th ranked schedule, but still.
Disappointing: Xavier’s loss to Wake Forest has dropped them to 7-6. That win over Butler seems like it happened sometime last decade, not sometime in November.
Team to beat: Duke, duh!
Surprise team: I thought Georgia Tech had some nice pieces but to go 10-2 is a lot better than I would have pegged. They lost both of their games against power teams (Illinois and Cal) so that could cause some concern, but the early going is encouraging for a program that had become a punchline.
Disappointing: Paging Florida State. 8-5 with losses to South Alabama and Auburn, yikes. On the plus side, they do not face a team from the Yellowhammer State the rest of the way.
Team to beat: Mercer–The early season favorites are already 2-0 and outside of Florida Gulf Coast, no one managed a non-con record above .500.
Surprise team: Jacksonville was roughed up out of league but is tied with Mercer at 2-0. A trip to FGCU looms large.
Disappointing: Kennesaw State is a two-point, overtime win away from being 0-14. Only the three remaining winless D-I clubs have had a worse start to the year.
Team to beat: Rock-Chalk for the 95th season running.
Surprise team: Oklahoma State was supposed to be improved, but 10-2 and nationally ranked?
Disappointing: Even with the distraction of Myck Kabongo’s ordeal, Texas still should be better than 8-5. Losses to Chaminade, USC and the 23-point spanking at home to Georgetown stand out.
Team to beat: Cincy, Louisville and Syracuse are all 13-1 and 1-0 to start the season, but when they get that defense to crush your soul, Pitino’s club is downright scary.
Surprise team: Seton Hall had its doubters to match last year’s hot start and Pitt became a running joke last year, yet both have already won 12 games this year.
Disappointing: Other than the league itself completely imploding and on death’s door, things have been pretty good.
Team to beat: Weber State and Montana, the two titans of the league, are both 2-0 in league.
Surprise team: Since making The Dance in 2001, Southern Utah has had a dismal decade. A rough start to the season has given way to a 2-0 start in-league though, whodathunkit?
Disappointing: Eastern Washington has a fantastic football program, yet their hoops team always seems stuck in neutral. Despite having a pretty soft road before league play, they are just 3-9 (1-0).
Team to beat: Gardner-Webb was the early season favorite and are currently one of just two teams above .500 overall.
Surprise team: UNC-Asheville lost a ton of pieces and in a league like this they are usually cannon fodder. Yet despite having the odds stacked against them, they survived it relatively well to sit at 6-7. Maybe they aren’t quite ready to relinquish control of this league.
Disappointing: Coastal Carolina may be 5-6, which, considering the pieces they lost, isn’t too bad. However, they beat two D-III teams to pad that. For shame.
Team to beat: Based on what Minnesota did against Sparty, they look pretty scary but Indiana’s talent is still the cream of the crop.
Surprise team: Michigan is really, really talented but when you saw Pitt, K-State and NC State as well as a few other decent clubs on the schedule, did you think they would be heading into 2013 at 13-0 and the second ranked team in the land?
Disappointing: We knew losing Josh Gasser to a torn ACL would be tough for Wisconsin. But losing at home to an unremarkable Virginia team and letting the Creighton game slip away en route to a 9-4 start leaves a little to be desired for the Badger faithful.
Team to beat: Unknown: The team with the best non-con mark, Cal State Northridge, dropped their league opener. Trust in the power of Long Beach? I guess …
Surprise team: Cal State Northridge going 9-3 out of league raised plenty of eyebrows for Big West fans.
Disappointing: The once-proud Pacific program is under .500 yet again after dropping their league debut.
Team to beat: Drexel and Delaware were ravaged by injuries to start the year; as they get healthy, they’ll round into form.
Surprise team: Old Dominion was one of the teams you could bank on for a top-half finish almost every year. Well, they are 2-12 thus far — ouch. Towson should also be applauded. After going 1-31 a year ago, they currently sit at 6-8.
Disappointing: Old Dominion.
Team to beat: On paper, Memphis is still the most talented team. On the court however — wow, this league leaves a lot to be desired.
Surprise team: Houston has taken advantage of a laughably easy schedule to go 10-2 to lead the league as it currently stands.
Disappointing: Conference USA gets my vote for most disappointing league on the whole thus far, so you know a lot of schools fit the bill here. Marshall losing to Delaware State at home was downright hilarious; Maybe I’ll slot the 7-7 Herd here for giving me a good chuckle.
Team to beat: Illinois-Chicago had some nice wins out of the league and still seem to be full of confidence.
Surprise: Loyola Illinois is 10-3 (1-0) and tied with the Flames atop the league. Not bad for a club that went 7-23 last year.
Disappointing: Cleveland State was supposed to thrive in the Butler-less Horizon. Instead they are 8-6 with blowout losses to Kent State (18), Akron (30) and St. Bonaventure (34). When Butler owned the league, they didn’t lose like that to anybody, let alone to teams the caliber of that trio.
Team to beat: Harvard still has the best collection of talent in the league despite a ho-hum 7-5 start.
Surprise team: Columbia is also 7-5 and tied with Harvard. ‘Woah’ is the reaction most Ivy fans might have at that revelation.
Disappointing: Penn might not win the league every year, but they always have a say in who will — but they are just 2-12 to start the year.
Team to beat: Loyola (MD) and Canisius were the odds-on favorites to win the league and both are playing well early.
Surprise team: Iona lost a lot of pieces yet are 1-1 early and above .500. The Fairfield Stags are also playing some good ball now.
Disappointing: Siena has completely fallen apart without Fran McCaffery (now in his third season at Iowa). The backslide may have hit rock bottom though as they are 0-2 early in the league and just 2-11 overall.
Team to beat: Akron, Kent and Western Michigan all have eight wins, the same as Ohio. This race could have a lot more horses than anyone would have guessed.
Surprise team: Ohio being just 8-5 with all that talent isn’t just disappointing, it is downright confusing. I know they lost their coach, but at some point you need to just go out there and win. Too much talent to be barely above .500.
Team to beat: Norfolk State won the league a year ago and despite a rough start to the season sit atop the standings after a 2-0 league start.
Surprise team: North Carolina Central is 1-0 and the only team at .500 right now.
Disappointing: It is pretty tough to go winless in college hoops. Yet through 11 games, Maryland Eastern Shore still has yet to pick up a ‘W’.
Team to beat: Creighton and Wichita State are simply so clearly head and shoulders above everyone else.
Surprise team: Bradley and Indiana State are both 2-0, joining Creighton and Wichita atop the leaderboard early.
Disappointing: Northern Iowa followed an ugly non-con run with a 0-2 league start. Illinois State, which was 9-3 out of league has also stumbled out of the gate in-league. Not good for the Valley, which was hoping to set a league record for Tourney bids this year and could have really used a good year from either marquee program.
Team to beat: New Mexico, SDSU, UNLV, Colorado State, Wyoming, heck even Boise. What a stacked league. When SDSU is on, however, they are dynamic enough to be a national factor come March.
Surprise team: Wyoming is undefeated, but how about Boise State going 11-2 early, and with a win at Creighton to help back it up.
Disappointing: Nevada isn’t bad by any stretch (9-5) but with some of those stout WAC clubs they had, I thought they would make the transition rather well. They haven’t looked very good yet and this league is going to be a tough one.
Team to beat: I still really like that Robert Morris team, as do most of the NEC followers.
Surprise team: For losing a lot, and I mean a lot, of talent, LIU-Brooklyn is hanging in there at 5-7 (RMU for instance is 8-5).
Disappointing: St. Francis (PA) has the unenviable task of staying at it and trying to win games despite looking at a brutal 0-11 mark so far.
Team to beat: Murray State has the single best player in the league but EKU and Jacksonville State are both playing good ball at the moment.
Surprise team: Eastern Kentucky didn’t have a lot of buzz to start the year, and rightfully so after posting a losing record in-league a year ago, but they are 10-3 now.
Disappointing: Not that 7-7 (1-0) is bad, but Tennessee State finished second last year and was probably expecting a little bit of a better start. Losing at home to Monmouth still has to burn the fans.
Team to beat: I really like that Oregon team, but come on, the smart money is on Arizona.
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Surprise team: Oregon State is 10-3 so far and quietly chugging along. Losing to Towson though was real bad. On the other hand, they gave Kansas a tight game.
Disappointing: USC might be the worst power league team in the country.
Team to beat: Bucknell was the preseason favorite, and at 12-3, they’re playing like it too.
Surprise team: Army is above .500?!
Disappointing: Frankly, everyone is where they should be (for the most part). None of the bottom teams are even that bad. American is dead last and 4-9 — that is far from being the worst record for teams in last place.
Team to beat: With all due respect to Missouri, that Florida team looks mighty tough.
Surprise team: I thought Ole Miss would have a nice season, but 10-2 through 12 is better than nice, it is breakthrough worthy.
Disappointing: Defending national champions Kentucky is sitting at 9-4 on the year. If The Dance started today, the Wildcats would be on the outside looking in, which would be shocking.
Team to beat: Davidson was the early favorite and is now the early leader.
Surprise team: Charleston has a pretty nice hoops history for the SoCon. So far this season they have been far better than simply ‘nice’, having knocked off BC and Baylor en route to a 9-4 (1-0) start. They could be the major hurdle for Davidson.
Disappointing: I don’t know what to make of the SoCon North division. Western Carolina leads it at 2-0 but is just 4-9 overall. Only Elon is above .500 in that entire division as the rest are a combined 18-45, yuck!
Team to beat: Stephen F. Austin was the popular pick to win and hasn’t disappointed with a 10-1 (1-0) start. That win over Oklahoma was the non-con feather in their cap. They almost picked off Texas A&M too. Good club.
Surprise team: Lamar lost the bulk of their core, but 2-10 is strikingly bad for a defending champion.
Disappointing: It wasn’t that long ago that TAMU-Corpus Christi was in the NCAAs and yet they are 1-10 this season. That team, as well as Lamar, shows why schools this small celebrate making The Dance so much, despite knowing the trip will be a short one.
Team to beat: Southern was .500 after their non-conference slate! Stunning!!
Surprise team: Any of these teams doing anything positive at all through their nomadic non-con schedules is surprising.
Disappointing: Another year, another SWAC embarrassment. Two winless teams, two one-win teams, a two-win team and two three-win teams pretty much sums things up.
Team to beat: North Dakota State and Western Illinois were supposed to do battle all year, and both are at the top of the standings.
Surprise team: In its first season at D-I from D-II, Nebraska-Omaha has won four games and a league game. By comparison, NJIT went 0-29 in one of their early D-I seasons.
Disappointing: Oakland had seemed to be passed by a couple, possibly even several schools in the league, but that 6-9 start shows that “seemed” should be replaced by “has been”
Team to beat: Western Kentucky is 4-0 and 10-5, they are also the best program in the league. They are always the team to beat, even when they have a rare down year.
Surprise team: Middle Tennessee State was pretty good a year ago but they picked up right where they left off and are going toe-to-toe with WKU as they stand at 11-3 (3-0).
Disappointing: Not sure what the Western division is trying to accomplish, but right now it is a whole lot of nothing. FIU has also yet to recover from the Isiah Thomas disaster.
Team to beat: For the 79th consecutive season ……. Gonzaga!
Surprise team: Not sure what is in the water in Santa Clara (12-3, 1-0), but I might have to drive up and get some considering they were 8-22 and lost all 16 of their WCC outings a season ago.
Disappointing: I thought the Dons were building something with a 20-win season a year ago and had them as high as fourth (behind Gonzaga, Saint Mary’s and BYU) but they are now 7-7 after losing their league opener to Santa Clara.
Team to beat: Utah State looks to have recovered from last year’s down season and Louisiana Tech continues to grow. This will be a fun race.
Surprise team: We all knew USU would be improved. The other Aggies are just too good of a basketball program to put together another bad season, and they are 11-1 (1-0) so far. Red hot.
Disappointing: New Mexico State has been the second most consistent team to Utah State, and possibly even a tick better in the conference tournament but they are just 6-8 (0-2) so far. Not what WAC observers were thinking.
If awards were handed out today …
Overall Conference to beat: Big Ten
Most surprising conference: Mountain West was going to be deep, but they are Marianas Trench-deep right now.
Most disappointing league: Memo to C-USA: You stink. Go away, you over-hyped, one-bid league.
Coach of the first half: Tubby Smith, Minnesota
Player of the first half: Mason Plumlee, Duke averages 20 points and 12 boards a night…I might faint.
Freshman of the first half: Anthony Bennett, UNLV gets 19 points and almost nine rebounds a night and he is a Canadian so you know that means he was in skates up until last year.
If the tournament started today …
Final four: Duke, Indiana, Kansas and Arizona knocking off Louisville
Cinderella: So cliche, but Butler or VCU. Wait a second, the A-10 is a power league masquerading as a mid-major. Here’s a real Cinderella: Bucknell Bison.
And finally the bizarre:
Central Florida’s Kasey Williams boasts the nation’s leading three-point percentage (66-percent on 20-of-33). Those 33 attempts are more than the next three players until you get to Michigan’s Nik Stauskas who has hit 39 of 69 threes. 69 threes in 13 games? YMCA chucker!
Vanderbilt is known for their academics, but evidently that doesn’t help from the charity stripe. They are tied for No. 343 in the nation as they hit just .586 from the line. Whoopsie-daisy.
Giving up that many freebies has led Vandy to be the worst power league team at scoring (59.3 ppg) but if you truly want agonizing basketball take in a Howard game. They average 53 points (bad enough) but shoot a horrible .225 from beyond the ark. Worse, they are a bunch of chuckers with 173 attempts in 15 games (almost 12 a night). They average 2.6 made a contest, meaning you have the privilege of watching nine bricks a game. At some point you gotta work the paint, folks!
Still, Howard’s two point shooting is a bit better; if you really want to watch the beautiful game turned ugly take in a Mississippi Valley State game. On an average night they’ll make 19 shots — while attempting 57. They are so bad they are 15 percentage points behind the next worst team. OH THE HUMANITY!
Last but not least, my 2013 hoops resolution:
I will not be sucked in by Missouri and will have them get eliminated in the second round … just like I did last year. Can you say bracket bait? Don’t let ‘em fool you in your office pool, folks!
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