FanHouse Roundtable: College Basketball Pre-Conference Awards
Most college basketball teams are between 1/3 and 1/2 of the season being completed and we're a just over a week until everyone dives fully into conference play.
What better time, with the Christmas holiday looming and so many readers sitting at home looking for some reading material, to assess where we are. Everyone has thoughts on the best team, player and freshman in addition to the surprises and disappointments we've seen from college basketball in the latter few months of 2010. Three of those people -- FanHouse college basketball blogger Evan Hilbert and editors Ray Holloman and Matt Snyder -- submitted a selection in eight categories and provided some storylines to watch for the remainder of the season.
Most Impressive Team
Hilbert: While the obvious choice here is Duke -- with victories over ranked teams and overall dominance -- I'm going to go with Ohio State. The Buckeyes have avoided any real challenge -- the paper tiger that is the Florida Gators does not count -- and they have yet to be threatened.
Holloman: Duke. At the ACC's media days in October, a Blue Devil forward described the Duke program this year as having a "glow" about it. So far, that glow has been the headlight of a freight train bearing down on opponents. Six different players have led the Blue Devils in scoring in their 11 games, five different players have led in assists. They're the nation's best 3-point shooting team, and with point guard Kyrie Irving, the nation's best transition team as well. Of course, all this comes with one big (toe) proviso. Without Irving, who remains without a diagnosis or possible return date, the Blue Devils aren't nearly as dynamic. But Mike Krzyzewski's adjustments without Irving have shown, Duke is still a national title favorite.
"When you watch them on tape, you have to pick your poison. People were asking me, 'Well, how are you going to exploit their weakness?' Well, when somebody finds their weakness they can let me know because I certainly didn't see one," Jim Les summed up the Blue Devils after they beat his Bradley team in December. Relevant point: That was the first game without Irving.
Snyder: When I wrote in the preseason that Ohio State would be a better team than last year, despite losing the national player of the year, I felt like I had to justify it. A big thank you goes out to the Buckeyes for making my points for me. And then some. I could see a Duke selection here, but everyone who didn't have an agenda ranked the Blue Devils No. 1 to begin the season. Them being undefeated and No. 1 is merely meeting expectations. Sorry, it's much more impressive to me to see a team become elite after losing a player that carried the team at times last season. A team which was only a Sweet 16 team, by the way.
Most Surprising Team
Hilbert: San Diego State. The Aztecs are No. 7 in the country, and less than two percent of the nation can probably name an Aztec player. Though their early slate isn't too impressive, they were able to get through both Gonzaga and Saint Mary's en route to a perfect record so far.
Holloman: Frankly, San Diego State could've been the answer above as well. Who had the Aztecs pegged as the nation's No. 7 team in the preseason? They're experienced and talented and making the most of each (unlike, say, Virginia Tech or Kansas State). Kawhi Leonard and Billy White get most of the publicity, but point guard D.J. Gay is turning the Aztecs from talented fringe contender to Final Four threat.
Snyder: UConn entered the season picked to finish 10th ... in the Big East. Even in a 16-team league that looks to get at least eight berths into the NCAA tournament, that's NIT territory. Instead, the Huskies have been one of the most dominant teams in the nation and certainly have the best player (thus far). Undefeated and ranked No. 4 is nowhere near what most people -- likely including Jim Calhoun -- expected this team to be come Christmas.
Most Disappointing Team
Hilbert: Michigan State, even though I'm pretty sure this is all part of the plan. The Spartans often struggle through a difficult non-conference schedule before reaching the NCAA Tournament as a five seed and going to the Final Four. They, again, have all the tools for a deep run, but haven't been very impressive so far.
Holloman: So many worthy candidates, so few inches of cyberspace. North Carolina and Gonzaga screamed overrated in the preseason, the Tar Heels because it was clear they still had issues at the point guard and needed time for their roster to develop, the Bulldogs because they simply weren't that good last year. Florida proved that despite a sensational first-round matchup with BYU in the NCAA tournament, they're equally as erratic as always and Kansas State's offense is sputtering without Denis Clemente. We'll take the Hokies. Virginia Tech returned all five starters, including the ACC's leading scorer last season, Malcolm Delaney. True, injuries have hit the Hokies hard. Allan Chaney, a power forward transfer from Florida, is out with a heart condition and sixth man J.T. Thompson is out for the season with a knee injury. Still, the Hokies looked like the second best team in the ACC to start the season. Now, at 6-4, they seem destined for another year on the bubble. Delaney has played just under 96 percent of his team's minutes this year, more than any other BCS-level player, and his efficiency has suffered. The good news, though, is that second place in the ACC remains wide open and if anyone deserves a break on wins and losses, it's the Hokies, who were snubbed by the NCAA selection committee despite a 10-6 league mark last year.
Snyder: Most of the disappointing teams thus far have only been slightly disappointing, like North Carolina and Florida, or had circumstances like Gonzaga (brutal schedule), Michigan State (ditto) and Kansas State (suspensions). So I'm gonna go off the board a bit and take Tennessee. A week and a half ago the Volunteers may have been named the most impressive team, but if you've got Final Four aspirations and lose three straight games to Oakland, Charlotte and USC, well, that's a pretty disappointing 10 games. Even with the Villanova and Pitt wins, no one else that was thought to be UT's caliber has lost three straight should-be slam dunks.
Team in Biggest Hole
Hilbert: Gonzaga. They have played a brutal schedule so far, and the Bulldogs may have to get through Saint Mary's and an upstart Portland team in order to receive an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. They got a big win over Baylor last week, but they'll need more than that after suffering five early-season losses.
Holloman: Butler. The Bulldogs' losses range from not particularly bad (at Louisville, vs. Duke, at Xavier) to explainable (against Evansville, without defensive whiz Ronald Nored), but the problem is they're running out chances to prove themselves outside of the Horizon League. Unless they play, and beat, Baylor, Florida State or Washington State in the ongoing Diamond Head Classic, the only remaining opportunities for an RPI top-100 win are likely going to be against a dangerous Cleveland State team. And no one in the Horizon League is going to take it easy on the defending national runner ups.
Snyder: Butler. I do think the Bulldogs right the ship and cruise into the NCAA tournament after shredding the Horizon League again, but the hole comes in what kind of seed they'll be looking at in March. It's realistic that they could enter Selection Sunday with Cleveland State or Stanford being the best win. That's not likely to garner a top seed, no matter the record. In fact, Butler's probably looking at an underdog (ninth or worse) seed if that happens. Not exactly what was the plan after a national runner-up finish.
Early Trend to Continue
Hilbert: Everyone fawning over Duke. This is actually a trend that has continued for my entire life. The major difference, though, is that Duke may actually be that good. Sure they could slip against UNC or Maryland, but they got through the hard part already. Is it completely irrational to believe that they could seriously threaten going undefeated?
Holloman: Michigan State's turnover problem. Tom Izzo called it "ridiculous" after the Spartans coughed the ball up 20 times in a loss to Duke. But Michigan State's ball control is in line with previous years. The Spartans simply haven't done a good job taking care of the basketball in recent years. They're 255th in the nation in turnover percentage now, but were 221st last year and 197th the year prior. The raw numbers may seem higher because the Spartans have increased their tempo dramatically over a season ago, but it's unlikely Michigan State becomes much more frugal with the basketball. Once the Spartans start rebounding the ball as well as usual on the offensive end, however, it won't seem like as much of a problem.
Snyder: Harrison Barnes is not an All American. See storylines below for more, but there is no way anyone who has watched Barnes play on a regular basis thinks he's going to end up as the top freshman, let alone the top player in the nation or an All American.
Early Trend that Won't
Hilbert: Louisville assuming the role of an actually competitive, upper-level team. There's something fishy about the Cardinals. They had somewhat impressive wins over UNLV and Butler, but then they go and score 46 points in a loss to Drexel. They don't have the horses this year, and they will really, really struggle in the Big East.
Holloman: John Shurna's shooting. The Northwestern ace has a 78 percent effective field goal percentage (which adjusts for the added value of a 3-pointer), which is as statistically unlikely over the course of the season as, oh, Jim Boeheim playing man-to-man for 40 minutes. By comparison, the top wings and guards in the Big Ten typically finish in the high 50s or low 60s. Shurna himself posted a 54.8 effective field goal percentage last year. Ohio State's Jon Diebler typically hovers around 60. Shurna may still lead the league by a fair margin, after all, the Northwestern offense is immensely patient to find open looks and Shurna is an effective, if not aesthetically pleasing, jump shooter, but Shurna and the Wildcats' red-hot shooting will cool down.
Interestingly, the second-best effective field goal percentage in the nation belongs to Indiana point guard Jordan Hulls, whose usage rate is only ninth on the team. Find that man more shots, Coach Crean.
Snyder: UConn's dominance. Sure, I touted the Huskies above, but I think it comes crashing back to Earth pretty soon for them. They survived a neck-and-neck game against disappointing Michigan State due to an absurd performance from Kemba Walker. That was followed up with an incredibly impressive dismantling of a very young Kentucky team with very little post presence. Both of those teams will probably beat UConn if given another chance in March and the next best team the Huskies have played is Vermont. Expect UConn to lose its first game Monday against Pittsburgh and drop several more in Big East play. This team is better than was expected coming into the season, but the one-man Kemba Walker show can only carry the team to around .500 in Big East play. A team needs depth to survive that schedule.
Most Outstanding Player
Hilbert: Kemba Walker. Though he has cooled off a bit after being absolutely unconscious early in the season, he has led what was believed to be an inconsequential Husky team to an impressive start. He has been unstoppable at times, and if his shot stays true, there won't be many teams able to shut him down.
Holloman: Kemba Walker. The UConn junior has 10 pounds of stat line in a five-pound bag. He's averaging 26.5 points, four assists, 4.8 rebounds and 2.1 steals per game. If it seems like he's disappeared since upsetting Michigan State and Kentucky, he hasn't. Blame the Huskies' awful scheduling. Since beating the Wildcats, UConn has played a bunch of batting average teams, squads with computer rankings that look like something off of a Tony LaRussa lineup card. The Kenpom rankings for UConn's last four opponents: 246, 333, 300, 315. Wednesday, they stepped up a notch against Harvard.
Snyder: Kemba Walker. Only one teammate averages in double figures, and none contribute more than 12 a game. Walker averages more than 26. And this is for an undefeated team ranked No. 4. An absolute no-brainer.
Most Outstanding Freshman
Hilbert: Jared Sullinger. Without Sullinger, Ohio State is just a top 25 team hoping to crack the top 15. With him they are a legitimate threat to take down the Dukies. He's already gone for 40 in a game, and he had 30 points and 19 rebounds against a not-so-soft South Carolina front line.
Holloman: Kyrie Irving, who, like John Wall, will be a painful player to see go one-and-done. Like Wall, Irving is a unique talent at an impact position on a national title contender that just happens to be one of college basketball's great blue bloods. Irving is followed closely by Sullinger, though we nominate a new law that color commentators (we're looking at you, Jimmy Dykes) stop talking about the man's rear end. Even Jennifer Lopez thinks his well-publicized posterior is generating too much conversation.
Snyder: Jared Sullinger. Sure, there's a nice supporting cast, but the reason those guys are putting up such good numbers alongside Sullinger is because he does so much heavy lifting of his own, commanding much of the defense's attention. Oh, and his numbers aren't too shabby either (17.6 points and 10.2 rebounds a game through Wednesday).
Remaining Storylines to Watch
• Irving's toe. Does anyone else feel like Irving's ailing digit should have its own website? But the most publicized toe since ... Toe Blake? ... is the difference between Duke as a national championship favorite and a national championship contender. - Holloman
• The emergence, or lack thereof, of Mississippi State. Yes, this is a pretty mediocre team in a pretty mediocre conference. But, if Renardo Sidney ever gets his act together, the Bulldogs can be a force in the SEC. In addition, they will be getting Dee Bost back from suspension in mid-January, which can make for quite an inside-outside duo. - Hilbert
• How does Josh Selby fit? One game in, the answer is spectacularly. It wasn't Kansas' best game of the season, but Selby certainly did his part in the near-upset against USC. How good can Kansas be when Selby is fully up to game speed?
No. 2: Will the streak survive? The Jayhawks are at 65 and counting at home, but survived two morning-shave close scares from middling UCLA and USC. Will it survive Kansas State, Missouri and Texas A&M? - Holloman
• Harrison Barnes' expectations compared to performance. The freshman was touted by some as the preseason player of the year and was the first player ever elected as a preseason All-American as a freshman. He's not awful, with 12.3 points and 6.0 rebounds a game, but he hasn't been anything resembling even an honorable mention All-American candidate. Quality teams like Minnesota, Vanderbilt, Kentucky and Illinois have made him look soft and he's still shooting just 36.7 percent from the floor (a dreadful mark for a big man, which again points to the softness). There's still time to turn things around, but right now he's headed for a season that would have to be considered a colossal failure if measured against expectations heaped upon him -- whether fair or not. - Snyder
• Will the Pac-10 ever be back? The league's list of quality wins begins and ends with wins by UCLA and USC, two teams that have combined to lose nine games, including to also-rans Bradley, Rider, TCU and Montana. But the Trojans and Bruins combined victories over Texas and Tennessee (USC) and BYU (UCLA) represent the only wins against teams ranked in the top 50 by Ken Pomeroy. The league could easily be a two-bid league again in 2011, though which two is anyone's guess. - Holloman
• Is Cincinnati back, or simply beating up on weaklings? The Bearcats used to be a lock to make the Big Dance, going there every year from 1992-2005. They haven't been back. This season, UC is 11-0, but the strongest opponents have been Dayton and Oklahoma -- not likely tournament teams. There are two more cruise control victories before the Bearcats face Seton Hall and Xavier (again, not overly tough). If they spot themselves a 15-0 record, you have to take them seriously, but still, what will happen the rest of the way when UC has to run the Big East gauntlet? If UC ends up, say, 22-9 with a 9-9 league record and drops the first game of the Big East tournament, the 'Cats probably make it. Then again, that will be with a 7-10 record in the last 17 games. - Snyder
• Enes Kanter's eligibility. Add Kanter to the mix, and the Wildcats are a Final Four contender. C'mon, NCAA, just blame the eligibility snafu on Cecil Newton and let's all move on. - Holloman
• Northwestern's quest. You may have heard, but the Wildcats have never made an NCAA tournament. This season they'll have a good shot, but it looks like it's going to be close. They looked the part in a home blowout over Georgia Tech and started 8-0, but the loss to St. John's puts a damper on any further celebrations. With a relatively weak schedule and only one win a quality one (which, again, came at home) outside the conference, Northwestern needs to do a number on the rest of the Big Ten to go dancing. Probably 11-7. And have you seen the Big Ten? Ohio State, Purdue, Illinois, MIchigan State, Wisconsin ... good luck, Northwestern. - Snyder
• Is Georgetown Duke, version 2010? Three great perimeter scorers (Austin Freeman, Chris Wright, Jason Clark), a brutally efficient offense and a great offensive rebounder (Julian Vaughn). Could they be better? Wright is a better pure point guard, though not nearly as even-tempered as Jon Scheyer, and Julian Vaughn has more offensive ability than either Brian Zoubek or Lance Thomas. The Hoyas don't have a Kyle Singler-styled matchup problem or the post depth (Miles, Mason Plumlee), but otherwise John Thompson III's team could take notes from last year's champs. - Holloman