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Mike Lopresti | | December 22, 2021

7 questions facing college basketball prior to conference play

2022 March Madness bracket predictions, less than 3 months to selections

This is a quieter week in college basketball, between Christmas and COVID. Time to pop a few questions, looking ahead to when the season picks up momentum with conference play — assuming the virus allows it.

Is the game back in the grip of the pandemic?

This week came with some depressing déjà vu. More than 100 games have been scrubbed for both the men and the women since Saturday, and scheduling on the run is back in fashion, with impromptu matches arranged 72 hours before tipoff.

One difference this season is more leagues have policies in place which mandate forfeitures in conference play. The Seton Hall men both won and lost a Big East game by forfeit this week. The Horizon favorite IUPUI women, who upset Iowa Tuesday, officially are tied for fifth in the league with a 2-2 conference record. They won two games by 35 points each, and lost two by forfeit.

RANKINGS: Latest men's AP poll

In other words, no, this will not be a normal conference season. And now the Omicron variant has to be on the radar of the NCAA tournament.

How long will the No. 1 teams stay No. 1?

There isn’t much doubt at the moment about who should be at the top of the polls. The Baylor men and South Carolina women were unanimous selections this week for both Associated Press and the coaches, except for one AP vote for Arizona on the men. Both teams apparently intend to stay a while.

Baylor has won all its first 11 games by at least eight points. The last defending national champion to do that was UNLV, 31 years ago. The Bears’ next big test will be New Year’s Day at unbeaten Iowa State, one of three Big 12 teams ranked in the top nine this week. They don’t see Kansas until February. If Baylor does lose a grip on No. 1, it likely won’t be in Waco. The Bears have won 20 consecutive home games by an average margin of 26.7 points.

Nobody has come close to the heavy lifting the South Carolina women have had to do. They’re 12-0 and five of the victories — 42 percent of the schedule — have come against top-10 opponents. They have already won two No. 1 vs. No. 2 matches, needing rallies in both. They were down 13 to Connecticut and 18 to Stanford, but then showed their steel, outscoring the two No. 2’s 77-40 after halftime. The comeback to beat Stanford 65-61 was the largest in program history. Ahead is more tough duty; an SEC schedule that includes four ranked league opponents, plus a rematch against UConn.

STILL UNDEFEATED: No. 1 South Carolina fends off No. 2 Stanford | Unbeaten teams tracker

What’s with the ACC men?

It has not been a stellar non-conference season for the ACC. Duke is now the only member in the top-25 of the rankings, or the NCAA’s NET power ratings. Virginia is 319th in the nation in scoring offense, recently having been held without a point for 9 ½ minutes in a loss to James Madison. North Carolina is 305th in turnover margin and 246th in scoring defense, having been shelled 98-69 by Kentucky. Florida State recently dropped three in a row and in its biggest test so far, was blown away by 28 points at Purdue. The most impressive non-Duke start has come from 11-1 Wake Forest, picked to finish 13th in the conference.

Virginia has struggled at times this season.

Albany . . . Furman . . . Monmouth . . . The Citadel . . . UMBC . . . Colgate . . . James Madison . . . all have beaten ACC teams. The Atlantic 10 is 8-2 against the conference. Presumably, some of the other teams will move up and Duke won’t be alone in the rankings. But remember March of 2021: Not one ACC team made it to the Elite Eight.

Who loses first, the Arizona men or the Arizona women?

Together, they’re 21-0, but feature different strong suits. The No. 6 men lead the nation in scoring with 91 points a game and are No. 1 in the latest NET rankings. The No. 4 women are tied for eighth in the nation in scoring defense and ninth in field goal percentage allowed.

RANKINGS: Latest women's AP poll

Using the schedule as a guide, the men are more likely to take the first blemish. Their game at Tennessee Wednesday is the first of four consecutive road dates, three against ranked opponents. The women are off until Dec. 31. Southern California might see a lot of Arizona unbeaten basketball to open the new year. From Dec. 30-Jan. 2, both the Wildcat men and women are playing at UCLA and USC.

How good are the Big Ten men?

Purdue is a genuine national championship contender. Michigan State is coming on with strong defense, right on Tom Izzo’s schedule. Ohio State beat Duke, and nobody else has. The most recent NET rankings have 10 Big Ten teams in the top 42, and the latest ESPN projections have the same 10 in the NCAA tournament bracket, which would be 15 percent of the entire field.

But now we’ll see what happens when they start bashing on one another’s heads twice a week. The Big Ten season can be a demolition derby. And in the end, the same ol’ stat will be what gets discussed in March — 21 years without a national champion from the league.

What top-10 stalwarts are curious cases as the calendar is turned to 2022?

Both call the Big East home.

For the men, that would be Villanova. The Wildcats were steamrolled by 20 points by Creighton, missing their last 12 shots. That was after being handcuffed by Baylor 57-36. It was the first time in the golden era of Jay Wright that Villanova had lost consecutive games by 20-plus points. The Wildcats normally thrive from the 3-point line but went 23-for-100 over three games. Their offensive is usually impeccable in its teamwork, but they had only nine assists in two games.

All problems might get worked out. They often do at Villanova, which is why the Wildcats have owned the Big East, and the 71-58 win over Xavier Tuesday certainly was an upward trend arrow. But we’ll have to see how that works on the road.

This conference race is starting to have a screwball look to it. Seton Hall was picked to finish fifth, and has charged up to No. 15 in the AP rankings, highest spot for a Big East team. Providence was picked to finish seventh, and is 11-1 with wins over Texas Tech and Wisconsin. Creighton was tabbed for eighth place, but beat BYU by 12 points before taking apart Villanova. And Xavier, who finished seventh last year and missed the NCAA tournament, has on some nights looked better than anyone.

As for the women, when’s the last time there was so much wondering about Connecticut? We’re talking rare air: The injury-wrecked Huskies have already lost three games. They lost seven during the regular season in the previous eight years combined. They’re out of the top-10 for the first time since 2005. Their defeat by Georgia Tech snapped a 240-game winning streak against unranked opponents.

BRACKET SZN: Here are the latest March Madness predictions ahead of 2022

This was forecast to be the deepest Huskies team in recent memory. Remember when Geno Auriemma’s big problem was supposed to be finding minutes for all his talent? That was yesterday. Four players have been injured — national player of the year Paige Bueckers is likely gone until February — and the lack of depth and staying power have clearly showed. In their three defeats, Connecticut was outscored 61-27 in the fourth quarter. The bench has contributed only 13 points the past three games.

The injured will start trickling back soon, except for Bueckers, and the Big East schedule should offer every chance at revival. No other conference team is in the top-30 on the NET power ratings, and only three are above 120. Still, South Carolina and Tennessee are also on the schedule, and until Auriemma gets his roster back, nothing is a given. Such as the visit to 11-2 DePaul, the second place pick in the Big East, on Dec. 31. It would be a most unusual pastime in January and February, counting UConn losses.

What state can’t wait for a new year to maybe change the karma?

Easy one. Oregon. The Oregon State men have gone from Elite Eight to a 2-10 record. The Oregon men were once ranked No. 12 and are now 7-6. They can’t wait for a fresh start in 2022. Now is the time — with most of the non-conference work done and league play at hand — that all of college basketball looks forward.

Virus willing.

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