The Mountain West’s top three.
New Mexico: Turn away Iowa fans because the man you ran out of town has the Pit and the Lobos formidable again. Steve Alford has led New Mexico to a 9-0 including a win over Cal at home. Although that may be the only signature win thus far, the Lobos have a handful of games before conference play begins including home games against Creighton, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, and Dayton which could solidify their return. The pleasant surprise has been Darington Hobson. The JC transfer has averaged 17pts, 4ast, and 8rbs per game through the nine games, including 22 and 15 against Cal.
BYU: The Cougars of Mormon University are off to a 7-1 start and had a nice beat down of Arizona State earlier in the week. They have a nice balance in scoring from their second tier of players and are led by Jimmer Fredette. The junior has picked up where he left off last season averaging 18pts, nearly 6ast, and is shooting 40% from behind the arc. They’re non-conference games coming up at Arizona and UTEP may not sound daunting, but they aren’t easy places to play.
UNLV: The best of the “big 3,” the Runnin Reb’s are making people reminisce of the early 90’s. They have beaten quality opponents Louisville and Southern Illinois at home, and Arizona on the road. Tre’Von Willis leads the team with 17ppg but has been streaky scoring 25 one night and then 14 the next. The Rebels also lack ideal size, which could hurt them when they face a team with size in March (then again it didn’t hurt them when facing Samardo Samuels). This weekend they get another surprise team in Kansas State before the non-conference slate goes into snooze mode. They open the conference schedule in rough fashion heading to BYU and New Mexico in the opening week.
Kentucky and Florida
The SEC is getting a large boost in conference respectability thanks to these top two teams. Kentucky was expected to be good, but this good? Beating UNC and UCONN in successive games and they will probably be undefeated when they head to Florida on Jan. 12th. Florida meanwhile went from the unranked to a top 15 team. UF has beaten Michigan St. and Florida St. in convincing fashion before losing to a real good Syracuse team last night. The rest of the non-conference should be a cakewalk for the Gators before heading to Vandy to open conference play and then the aforementioned home date with the Wildcats. The depth and lack of size for the Gators was exposed a little versus the Orange, but if super frosh Kenny Boynton can improve his outside shooting to his high school level, look out for this team come spring.
Speaking of super frosh, John Wall, WOW. Everyone knew he had the talent, but he is Carmelo reborn as a guard (not going to compare him to Derrick Rose because Wall is better). Anthony led the Orange to a national title as a frosh with a nice compliment of role players and Wall could have a similar scenario for himself at UK. The Big Blue’s wonder kid needs to cut down on the turnovers but that will come with experience. In the game against UCONN, Wall struggled in the first half, picking up two fouls and riding the pine for the majority of it as the Huskies pulled into the lead. But, Wall came out in the second half and put on a show finishing with 25pts and 6stls, hitting big shots late in the game. He’ll be the number one pick next year and Kentucky fans better enjoy him while they have him.
The Big East
This was supposed to be a down year for this league that is widely considered the best year in and year out. But with the emergence of the ‘Cuse, West Virginia, and Cincinnati this league looks like the best again. The Orange have been the most impressive with wins over UNC, Florida, and Cal, all of which they dominated. The Bearcats have a couple of nice neutral court victories over Vandy and Maryland. West Virginia has beaten both Texas A&M and an upstart Portland team, but we’ll find out if this team is great when they head to Purdue on January 1 and then of course in conference play. Combine these three teams with a superb Villanova team, an undefeated Georgetown, and an athletic UCONN team this league easily has the best top six teams in the country.
The surprise team thus far in the rough and tumble Big 12 has gone undefeated in the non-conference with one big win over Washington in the Hardwood Challenge. The Red Raiders have amazingly balanced scoring with seven players capable of going for double digits on any given night. They have two non-conference games that should continue to give them a litmus test in a game at home versus Stanford and at New Mexico. The preseason poll put the Raiders at 9th in the conference, but it’s hard to see this team finishing in the bottom half of the league with this start.
For a mid-major that was suppose the make a run for the final four this team has done zero to prove that they were worthy of such lofty expectations. In the 76 Classic they played two teams ranked at the time and lost to them both while just getting by a horrible UCLA. They were given their next chance against Georgetown and were beaten in a game that wasn’t as close as the final score in the Jimmy V Classic. How is this team still ranked? The only quality win was over a Northwestern team who had just found out that they would lose their top player Kevin Coble for the year and had yet to figure out how to win without him. They’ll have one more chance to beat a big time program tomorrow versus Ohio St. Even if they can get that victory in Hinkle, it wont be as highly regarded as it could’ve been now that Evan Turner is out for a while with the two broken vertebrate. Their lack of depth has been exposed and when they face a team with size they will be in trouble come March.
The Wolverines were a top-15 team heading into this season and with Manny Harris and DeShawn Sims coming back, why not? But year 3 under John Beilein has not gone as expected for the maze and blue. They started out 3-0 before falling on their face in the Old Spice Tourney losing to Marquette and then Alabama. They then dropped a tough one at home to Boston College in the Big 10/ACC Challenge and, after stalling the bleeding with a win over Arkansas-Pine Bluff, got shellacked by an average Utah team on the road. With a date in Lawrence with the number one Jayhawks coming up Michigan should enter conference play at 6-5. It’s tough to see this team going better than 9-9 in conference play so this team seems to be NIT bound.
This team was supposed to compete for an at large tournament spot if they didn’t win the Missouri Valley championship, but with home losses to Iona and Xavier the Blue Jays cannot count on an at large bid in any way shape or form. Their under .500 mark may not evaporate soon with games at George Mason and at New Mexico in two of their next three. The Jays did get a nice win over a scrappy Nebraska team this past Sunday and could put themselves in good position in the conference if they can beat Northern Iowa at home in the opener.
I went back and forth about adding the Sooners to this list because they have recently turned things around with thrashings of Arkansas and Arizona. However, the three consecutive losses they took at Coach Cable’s old school VCU and two defeats in Alaska got them in. The biggest alarm from the losses at the Great Alaska Shootout was that they blew an 18point lead and gave up 100pts to Houston following a double-digit defeat to San Diego. This team has the best opportunity to turn things around of any of the teams named (and again, they may have already started), especially with the superb backcourt combination of Warren and Crocker.
I could rip into UCLA again but, nah, too easy, other honorable (or dishonorable depending on which you make) mentions; Good: Texas A&M, William & Mary, Miami-OH’s balls (check out that nonconference schedule!), Isiah Thomas’ recruiting, Wisconsin beating Duke, St. Mary’s and Jimmy Dykes announcing ESPN primetime games. Bad: Kansas’ nonconference schedule (you’re the top team in the country, play someone!!), post 76 Classic semifinals Portland (blown out by West Virginia in the finals and then losses to Portland St. and at Idaho), Isiah Thomas’ 3-8 record, Wisconsin losing at Green Bay, and Dick Vitale speaking…….ever.