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Joe Boozell | | December 23, 2016

Storylines to monitor as conference play is set to begin

  After a hot start, Northwestern has a prime opportunity to reach the NCAA tournament.

Conference play is set to tip off on Dec. 27, and in what’s shaping up to be one of the most entertaining college basketball campaigns in a decade, several leagues are worth monitoring.

So let’s dive right in. Fans of the sport at large should be mindful of these key storylines as the countdown to March Madness begins.


Duke is the most talented team in the country, but will it be the best?

In time, probably. But the Blue Devils aren’t exactly dominating lesser opponents; Tennessee State and Elon gave them all they could handle to close out the nonconference schedule.

Luke Kennard is a serious Naismith Award candidate, and that’s splendid, but there could come a time when simply too many chefs are occupying the kitchen in Durham. Duke has about seven players that could realistically lead an NCAA tournament team in scoring. So how would you feel if you were, say, the seventh option?

If the Blue Devils play for one another and pay no mind to their stats, they’ll be just fine. But that’s not guaranteed. Comparing 2016-17 Duke to 2015-16 Maryland is an insult to the former, but the Terrapins had one of the most talented rosters in the country last season. They certainly weren’t one of the best teams.

Duke will almost certainly figure this out. But if a few unlikely upsets go down, don’t be surprised. The rest of the ACC is loaded, too.

How many ACC teams will make the NCAA tournament?

As of Dec. 22, KenPom has an astounding eight ACC schools in its top 30. Like, what? No other conference has more than four, and at No. 36, Virginia Tech is within striking distance.

Those nine teams are likely to make the NCAA tournament. Not only is this league strong, but its middle-class is leaps and bounds ahead of any other conference.

Will either team score more than 50 points when Virginia takes on Louisville?

The two best defenses in the country, statistically, are Virginia and Louisville. They square off on Dec. 28 and Feb. 6. If you’re a fan of grit-and-grind basketball, tune into these games; the Cavaliers and Cardinals should each contend for the conference crown.

Big East

Is this the year somebody other than Villanova wins the conference title?

Probably not, but let’s at least open our minds to the possibility. The Big East has four teams ranked in the top 17 of the AP Poll; Butler and Creighton have their best squads in years, and though Xavier has gotten off to a bit of a rocky start, the Musketeers figure to rebound.

Villanova’s run in the past three years has been ridiculous. The Wildcats boast an astonishing 48-6 record in regular season conference play during that span; right now, they’re Kansas East.

Can Creighton keep up its torrid shooting pace?

The Bluejays are making 45.5 percent of their 3’s, which leads the nation. Their 61.7 effective field goal percentage also paces the pack.

Creighton has excellent shooters, but whether or not this kind of accuracy from distance is sustainable remains to be seen. Here’s what it means: the Bluejays can beat any team on any given night. But if they go cold, they’re ripe for an upset.

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Creighton takes on Villanova in Omaha on New Year’s Eve. This might be the game of the year in the Big East, and we’ll see just a few days into conference play if that's the case.

Outside of the top four, can another school emerge?

Ed Cooley doesn’t have the talent at Providence he had last season, but he’s got the Friars sitting at 10-2. Marquette looks decent. So does Seton Hall. And of the things I never expected to write today, this might top the list: St. John’s beat Syracuse by 33 on Wednesday.

If any of these teams pop, half of the Big East will likely make the NCAA tournament. If that happens, as many have been saying, this is probably the second-best league in America.

Big Ten

Will Michigan State make the NCAA tournament?

Right now, it’s hard to say yes, but Tom Izzo has done more with less. The Spartans have been decimated by injuries, and they were young to begin with. But with five losses going into conference play, Michigan State will either need to go 12-6 or 13-5 in league play to go dancing. As of now, it’s hard to see that happening.

Is Caleb Swanigan Limitless?

Yes, with a capital ‘L.’ Biggie went for 32 points and 20 rebounds on Wednesday, and after an up-and-down freshman campaign, Swanigan looks to be the Big Ten Player of the Year favorite as a sophomore.

The problem for Purdue is that Swanigan and Isaac Haas are two of its best players. However, the team plays best when they don’t share the floor. Using Vince Edwards as a small-ball four has been a revelation in West Lafayette; expect to see more of it in Big Ten action. But it might come at Haas’ expense, because Swanigan is a two-way beast.

Will Northwestern make its first NCAA tournament ever?

The Wildcats look good, but we’ve seen this movie before. Northwestern is 10-2, and its two losses are perfectly reasonable: at Butler and on a neutral court against Notre Dame. Going .500 in conference play should be enough to do break the drought, but time will tell.

Big 12

Will the streak continue?

Twelve years, 12 Big 12 titles for Kansas. This season, it will have some stiff competition, but it’s nearly impossible to pick against the Jayhawks.

At 12-0, Baylor has as strong of a resume as anyone. And outside of a neutral court loss to Temple, West Virginia has dominated at every turn.

Still, we’ll believe it when we see it. But the Big 12 has some worthy adversaries to the Jayhawks.

Can Kansas win playing small?

Almost all of Bill Self's teams have used two big men at the same time, but that might not lend itself well to Kansas’ personnel this season.

The Jayhawks’ three best players are Frank Mason, Devonte’ Graham and Josh Jackson. They’re all perimeter players, but if needed, Self can slide Jackson to the four. That allows him to give Svi Mykhailiuk more minutes; Mykhailiuk is probably Kansas’ fourth-best player.

That lineup should prosper, but it’s something we haven’t seen in Lawrence under Self. The Jayhawks will need to evolve if they’re going to capture their 13th conference crown in a row, and they have the personnel to do it.

Will half of last year’s Final Four miss the 2017 NCAA tournament?

Syracuse and Oklahoma already have a combined 10 losses on the season. As expected, it’s been rough sledding for the Sooners without Buddy Hield, Isaiah Cousins and Ryan Spangler.



Final Four in Phoenix

It’s going to be tough for OU to rebound, but if any coach can lead an unlikely comeback, it’s Lon Kruger. The numbers don’t like Oklahoma’s chances, however. The Sooners rank outside of the top 60 in both offensive and defensive efficiency; Oklahoma needs to carve out an identity, and it needs to do so quickly.


Who’s going to be the first team to beat UCLA?

The Bruins are unblemished thus far, and they’ve absolutely dazzled on the offensive end of the floor.

But they rank 65th in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency, and there’s going to be a night when they don’t bring their A-game on offense. Can UCLA still beat a quality opponent when that happens? We don’t know.

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The Bruins will be tested on Dec. 28 when they travel to Eugene to face Oregon. We know this team can score points, but over the next few months, they could stand to improve their point prevention. It would give UCLA a wider margin for error when (if?) its shots aren’t falling.

Will Oregon rediscover its magic?

The Ducks have won nine games in a row, but they’ve fattened up on likely non-tournament teams. Oregon’s Dec. 28 showdown against UCLA will serve as a major test. Is Dillon Brooks fully back to form? Can Tyler Dorsey take a leap as a sophomore? Will the Ducks be able to replace Elgin Cook and Dwayne Benjamin? We need answers to those questions — and we’ll get them soon.

Will Arizona’s youth ultimately be its downfall?

The Wildcats are 11-2, but their three leading scorers are freshmen. This isn’t how Sean Miller drew things up, but Arizona is hitting its stride at the right time.

If you’re a believer in the rookie wall, the Wildcats could falter down the stretch. We’ll see. But for a blueblood like Arizona, it’s kind of fun to see it win while so shorthanded. These guys are underdogs right now, which is an unlikely plot twist.


Can Malik Monk score 50 points in a game this season?

If John Calipari gives him the green light, don’t be surprised. Even after a rough outing against Louisville, Monk is still the most electric scorer in the game, and it’s not close.

When will Florida earn national respect?

Florida isn’t ranked, but the advanced metrics love the Gators. Mike White’s team has three losses, but they’ve come against Duke, Gonzaga and Florida State – all were competitive games. Florida ranks in the top 25 in offense and defense, and the SEC isn’t as strong this season as it has been in years past. Expect the Gators to be the second-best suqad in the SEC in 2016-17.

Can Texas A&M figure out its imbalanced roster?

The Aggies probably have the most talent of any SEC team not named Kentucky, but the pieces are a bit out of whack. A&M has a glut of big men, but outside of Admon Gilder, it doesn’t have a particularly dynamic guard. The Aggies use DJ Hogg at the two right now; Hogg is a really good player, but he’d be better served playing at either of the forward spots.

In the past, Texas A&M has shown it can make things work in suboptimal conditions. We’ll see if the Aggies can win big in 2016-17 by playing big.

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