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Mike Lopresti | | December 18, 2017

Giving the CBB world another look before conference play gets underway

  The Spartans are right where we thought they'd be. What about everyone else?

First, came the pre-season polls of early fall. Then, non-conference games in a flurry. And now that league play is imminent – or has already started – any second thoughts?

A peek at seven major conferences, upon further review.


In the beginning . . .

Cincinnati was picked by the width of a shoelace over league newcomer Wichita State.

What’s changed . . .
The two are bruised a bit, but still seem on a collision course. Wichita State took a rare home loss over the weekend to the Oklahoma Trae Youngs, but the Shockers are still 8-2 with wins over Baylor and Oklahoma State. And that’s without one minute from last year’s leading scorer and rebounder, Markis McDuffie, who should be back soon from a foot stress fracture. Among its many glowing numbers, Wichita State is 43-6 in true-road games since the start of the 2013-14 season.

But the Bearcats are still right there, too, now that they’ve gotten over the Xavier game. Last week they handed Mississippi State its first defeat and went west to throttle UCLA. Houston, at 9-2 with a 26-point win over Arkansas, is getting interesting. So is 7-3 SMU, having beaten Arizona and USC by 17.

What’s next . . .

It’s going to be fun when Wichita State and its 86.5 points a game go against Cincinnati and its 36.6 field goal percentage defense. But they’ll have to deal with the rest of the league before that. They don’t meet until mid-February.

RELATED: Oklahoma Sooners stun No. 3 Wichita State behind Trae Young's 29 points

American fact to know . . .

Winning on the American road is asking a lot. The two longest active home court winning streaks in the nation both reside in this league; Cincinnati’s 31-gamer and SMU at 29. Wichita State will visit both within seven days in late February.


In the beginning . . .

Duke! Duke! Duke! North Carolina next, and then Notre Dame. Way down at 14 in the pre-season poll was Boston College.

What’s changed . . .

Boston College 89, Duke 84. That’s the only ACC result to date, so until late December, BC is first in the league and the Blue Devils are last. No need for anyone to go leaping off the Duke bandwagon as if it were on fire, though the Blue Devils’ defense has been curiously suspect. Marvin Bagley III is still stacking up double-doubles. But the ACC – an incandescent 124-31 in non-conference play -- has a lot of potential trouble-makers for Duke.

Miami is one of the nation’s four remaining unbeatens and has yet to trail in the second half this season. Florida State just lost its first game, by one point. Virginia Tech is leading the country in scoring, shooting and margin of victory, and chased Kentucky to the wire at Rupp Arena. Virginia is best in the land in points allowed at 53.3. And anyone thinking North Carolina would take long to retool was mistaken. Luke Maye has hiked his scoring average 14 points in one season, from 5.5 to 19.5. The largest increase in Tar Heels history is Donald Williams’ 12.1. That was 25 years ago.

What’s next . . .

Florida State better be ready for league play. The Seminoles’ first three ACC games are at Duke, home to North Carolina, and at Miami. Three opponents ranked in the top seven in nine days. North Carolina also has a tricky start; three of its first five ACC games are trips to Florida State, Virginia and Notre Dame.

ACC basketball: Late three lifts UNC to comeback win over Volunteers

ACC fact to know . . .

Notre Dame has had a lousy time in the state of Indiana this month, getting shocked at home by Ball State and losing a tough one in overtime Saturday to Indiana. But something to remember for league play; Mike Brey is the prince of darkness when he shows up in the state of North Carolina, going 8-2 his last 10 ACC games on Tobacco Road.

BIG 12

In the beginning  . . .

Kansas last year, Kansas this year, Kansas forever. The streak is now 13 regular season Big 12 titles in a row, as any first grader in the state knows.

What’s changed . . .

The Jayhawks'  early-season display of being mortal. They lost by nine to Washington in Kansas City and 10 to Arizona State in Lawrence, giving up 95 points. They barely got by Nebraska Saturday night. Is that truly Kansas blood in the water, or just a mirage?

West Virginia has dusted itself off from the season-opening loss to Texas A&M to win nine in a row and push its turnover margin to a nation’s-best 9.5, while Jevon Carter puts up player of the year numbers -- 19.4 points, 5.4 rebounds, 6.0 assists and 3.8 steals. TCU has won 15 games in a row for the nation’s longest streak, climbed to No. 14 for its highest ranking in two decades and put together an offense where all five starters average in double figures, with each shooting at least 49.4 percent. The idea that one of those two teams could execute a coup on Kansas’ reign is not unimaginable.

Meanwhile, the name from the Big 12 everyone is getting to know is Oklahoma freshman is Trae Young, who leads the nation in scoring and is third in assists. He just torched Wichita State for 29 points and 10 assists, as the Sooners beat a top-three opponent on the road for the first time since 1949.

What’s next . . .

TCU should be 12-0 when Big 12 play starts. Then life for the Horned Frogs gets interesting. In the first 15 days of the conference season, they will see Oklahoma and Trae Young twice, go to Baylor and Texas, and host Kansas.

Baylor basketball: Jo Lual-Acuil goes for 31 points, grabs 20 rebounds in Bears' huge win

Big 12 fact to know . . .

Between its season-opening trip to Germany and being the distant eastern annex of the league, West Virginia will travel 28,254 miles this season. In other words, the Mountaineers must go around the world – and then some -- to try to pass Kansas.


In the beginning . . .

Villanova was the favorite. And the sun rose in the east over Philadelphia.

What’s changed . . .

Nothing. The Wildcats have rolled to a No. 1 ranking led by the immaculately efficient play of Jalen Brunson – with his 18.5 average, 62-percent shooting and 53-13 assists-turnover ratio. Villanova tore through the Big Five again with another sweep of its Philadelphia neighbors, running its winning streak to 22, and trailing barely 10 minutes out of 160. The Wildcats are now 60-3 in non-conference play since 2013-14. Two of those losses came in 2015-16, the season they ended up national champions. Anyone here come up with a reason not to think it won’t be Villanova’s league to own again?

One thing, though. The Big East looks like heavy lifting, never mind the recent bad weekend. Xavier is a top-10 team and crunched Cincinnati, even if the Musketeers just needed a condition-red rally to get past East Tennessee State. Seton Hall is up there too, beating Indiana, Louisville and Texas Tech. Oh, right. And losing Saturday to Rutgers. Creighton has wins over two ranked teams, Patrick Ewing finally just lost for the first time at Georgetown. And has anyone noticed Chris Mullin is 9-2 at St. John’s? At last check St. John’s was 10th in the nation in field goal percentage defense and 290th in shooting. Red Storm games are not the place to see a lot of baskets.

What’s next . . .

The first week of league play should be tasty. Seton Hall gets both Creighton and St. John’s at home, And Villanova is at Butler, where the Wildcats hope to serve revenge as a holiday dish. Last season, the Bulldogs swept Villanova, knocking the Wildcats out of No. 1 in January and ending their 48-game on-campus winning streak in February.

CBB: A full list of the undefeated college basketball team remaining in 2017-18

Big East fact to know . . .

Funny thing about Villanova. Until 2015-16, the Wildcats had never been No. 1 in the Associated Press poll in 96 years of basketball. Now they are, for the third consecutive season.


In the beginning . . .

The moment Miles Bridges decided to stay in school, Michigan State became the favorite in a league that has a whiff of change with three new head coaches.

What’s changed . . .

The 10-1 Spartans are even more monstrous on defense than thought. They are allowing only a 33.3 field goal percentage – the lowest in the nation by a bunch -- and one of every 7.6 shots taken by an opponent has been blocked. The 18-point wins over North Carolina and Notre Dame should have been clear enough messages. And remember those 25 Duke offensive rebounds that left Tom Izzo aghast? The Spartans have allowed an average of under 11 in the nine games since.

Michigan State even has the schedule going its way. When Big Ten play resumes, five of the Spartans’ first seven games are home. And they don’t even have to go to Purdue this season. Speaking of the Boilermakers, they're 11-2 and have regrouped nicely from those two nasty losses in the Bahamas, winning seven in a row. The victory march includes by 25 over Arizona, nine over Louisville and 15 over Butler. They have four players averaging at least 13.6 points, make life in the paint miserable with two 7-footers. Threat No. 1 to Michigan State.

And then there’s Mr. Double-Double from Minnesota. Jordan Murphy had 12 of them in his first 12 games, and leads the nation in rebounding – at 6-6.

What’s next . . .

Wisconsin is at a critical point. The Badgers want to extend a 19-year streak of NCAA Tournament bids, but they’re 5-7 and desperately need a good January. Alas, five of their next seven Big Ten games are on the road, including hothouses Michigan State and Purdue.

Watch: St. Bonaventure's Matt Mobley drills buzzer-beating 3 vs. Vermont

Big Ten fact to know . . .

The league is Swat City. Seven of the top 29 teams in the nation in blocked shots are Big Ten members, including No.2 Michigan State and No. 3 Minnesota.


In the beginning . . .

Arizona looked like the team to beat – in the conference and maybe the nation -- with USC and UCLA in pursuit.

What’s changed . . .

Arizona went an unfathomable 0-3 in the Battle 4 Atlantis – the Bahamas Triangle – and USC also lost three in a row. So both Pac-12 teams in the preseason top-10 vanished entirely from the rankings. UCLA was having a nice visit to China, until some of the freshmen went shopping. Next thing the Bruins knew, the Ball brothers were in Lithuania. So the league needed some good news fast, and suddenly, there was Arizona State, 10-0 for the first time in school history.

The Sun Devils have been unsinkable, trailing Kansas, Xavier, Kansas State and San Diego State at halftime and beating all of them. Who falls behind Kansas 15-2 in Allen Fieldhouse and survives? Arizona State did, putting up 95 points, something no Lawrence visitor had done in regulation in nearly 30 years. The Sun Devils have soared to No. 5 in the rankings, their highest spot in 36 years. Tra Holder is a handful in big games, including 40 points against Xavier and 29 at Kansas. So they’ve become the nation’s hot new name, and the Pac-12 team to beat, right?

Well, maybe. Arizona is alive and well and winning five games in a row since its nightmare in paradise. The Wildcats in the Bahamas: 69.3 points a game, with 45.2 percent shooting. The Wildcats since: 85.2 points a game and 52.8 shooting. Deandre Ayton – 20 points and 12 rebounds a game—is one of the lions of the nation's freshman class.

What’s next . . .

Dec. 30, Arizona State at Arizona. Yeah, that should get league play bubbling in a hurry. With the way the Pac-12 schedule is constructed, it’s not going to be much fun for the rest of the conference teams, having to visit Arizona and Arizona State in the same weekend -- one the frying pan, the other the fire.

MORE: Blueitt caps 22-point comeback with game-winner for Xavier

Pac-12 fact to know . . .

Arizona State did not get one vote in the preseason polls. But Harvard and Ball State did.


In the beginning . . .

Kentucky, who else?

What’s changed . . .

The young Wildcats are 9-1 but have been very much a work in progress. Their numbers won’t awe anyone; seventh in the SEC in scoring offense and defense, 10th in turnover margin, 12th in free throw shooting, dead last in 3-pointers per game. But they’re getting better, as is custom for freshmen in Lexington, and now comes the holiday downtime when John Calipari increases the work load and looks for quantum leaps forward. Camp Cal, they call it.

Chasing Kentucky’s is an eclectic league. Texas A&M is a defensive stalwart, allowing only 35.9 shooting and just one opponent to score more than 67 points. Tennessee is a surprise; picked 13th in the league but now 7-2 with a win over Purdue and honorable losses to Villanova and North Carolina. Florida is a puzzle, having lost four of five. Auburn and Mississippi State each have one loss. Mississippi has dropped three overtime games at home. Missouri has gotten over the loss to Michael Porter start 9-2. And when in doubt, Alabama can always just hand the ball to arguably the SEC’s most dynamic player, freshman Collin Sexton, who scored 40 against Minnesota and 30 against Arizona.

What’s next . . .

More trial by fire for Kentucky’s kids, who still have UCLA and Louisville left in non-conference, and must then go to Tennessee and host Texas A&M in the first nine days of January. By then, Calipari will know more about this model year at the Big Blue factory, and so will the conference.

RELATED: Between fall and March Madness, student-athletes deal with finals week

SEC fact to know . . .

When sizing up anyone else’s chances of shoving past Kentucky in the SEC race, one fact always comes to mind: What Lexington is like for tourists. John Calipari is 142-6 in Rupp Arena.

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