College basketball: Conference play is here, and it looks like we’re in for a wild ride in 2017
We’re all of two days into conference play, and college basketball is already out of its mind.
In the most endearing way possible, of course.
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Here’s what’s great about college basketball: the expected result occurs often enough that when an upset goes down, it’s still special. Craziness ensues on a nightly basis, but you never know which game will provide the drama. Each contest is a ticking time bomb.
Buzzer-beaters never get old. And they’re particularly captivating when they come off of the fingertips of someone like Brooks.
Oregon’s star bulldozer of a wing was supposed to return this season and lead the Ducks to the Final Four. That still very well may happen, but there’s been turbulence along the way. Brooks injured his foot early in the summer and was sidelined for several months; though he only missed the Ducks’ first three games, it’s taken him a while to return to 100 percent. Oregon, the consensus pick to win the Pac-12 going into the season, is currently ranked 21st after suffering two early defeats. Brooks is averaging just a shade over 20 minutes per game.
Spoiler alert: he’s back. Not just back as in ‘present,’ but back. The Bruins were (and perhaps still may be) the darlings of college basketball in 2016-17, and Brooks ruined their perfect season. One hundred percent or not.
You know he’s practiced that exact shot countless times. And in front of tens of thousands of screaming fans, against the No. 2 team in the nation with the clock approaching zero, he hit nothing but the bottom of the net. Social facilitation at its finest.
“We wanted him to get the last shot,” Oregon coach Dana Altman said after the game, “because he’s not afraid to take it.”
Last season was a year of parity in college hoops. National champion Villanova was an excellent team, but it was certainly beatable. There was no juggernaut peering down at the rest.
Thus far, 2016-17 has been defined by the bluebloods’ dominance. UCLA, Kansas, Duke, Kentucky and North Carolina currently find themselves in the top 10 of the AP Poll. All of these teams are incredible, and all of them have star power. In fact, each is likely more talented than any 2015-16 was squad was.
The Bruins lost last night, but they still have the most electrifying offense in the sport. Lonzo Ball is transcendent, T.J. Leaf is as skilled of a freshman as you’ll see, and the Bruins surround them with capable veterans. But UCLA has a glaring weakness: its defense ranks 76th in the country. Catch the Bruins on the right night, and they’re ripe for an upset.
Kansas might have the best perimeter trio in the country in Frank Mason, Devonte’ Graham and Josh Jackson. The Jayhawks are seeking their 13th conference championship in a row, which becomes more and more amazing each time you read it. But Kansas’ frontcourt is young and unproven, and Bill Self’s teams generally play inside-out; not the other way around. The Jayhawks are excellent, but they’ll lose a few we won’t suspect.
Duke is the most talented team of all, but we haven’t seen the Blue Devils at full strength yet. And we probably won’t any time soon. This was supposed to be a (relatively) easy coaching year for Mike Krzyzewski. It may prove to be his most difficult in a long, long time, and if Duke’s close calls against Tennessee State and Elon are any indication, don’t be shocked to see a few middle-of-the-pack ACC teams nip the Blue Devils this season.
Kentucky has two thoroughbreds in the backcourt in De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk, crazy athletes in the frontcourt, and Calipari roaming the sidelines. Apparently, the Wildcats are supposed to run through the SEC this season. But Monk is their only reliable outside shooter, and if he’s off, UK can be had. Kentucky can beat anyone, but given their youth and lack of perimeter punch, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the Cats fall to someone like Arkansas on the road.
North Carolina boasts stud veterans in Joel Berry and Justin Jackson and a dominant trio of big men in Kennedy Meeks, Isaiah Hicks and Tony Bradley. The Tar Heels can beat you in a variety of ways, but in the past year and change, UNC has suffered several heartbreaking defeats. Northern Iowa. Texas. Villanova, obviously. North Carolina will win plenty of games in 2016-17, but its losses usually tend to err on the dramatic side. We’ll see if that holds true this season.
To reiterate: despite their warts, all five of these bluebloods are awesome. And that’s good for college basketball. These schools will win, like, a lot, in 2017.
But when they don’t, it’s only going to amplify the upsets. It’s one thing when your run-of-the-mill top 10 team loses on a Tuesday in February. It’s another when that program is Duke. More than 10 years after the fact, we’re still talking about George Mason. They needed a blueblood adversary in Connecticut to reach that stature. If any of these teams lose earlier than they should in the NCAA tournament, the victors can transform from unknowns into legends.
Wednesday night was a taste of what’s to come this season. The prestigious programs are the story of 2016-17 to date, but it's only going to make the inevitable Cinderella that much more meaningful.