Midseason Catchup: 10 surprises, 10 disappointments ... and UNC
You can list or guess a few of these, no doubt, but let's go into details some of the best and worst of the season so far.
We've had a bundle of midseason content for the diehards and casual fans alike to gobble up here in the past few days on the blog. We hope you're enjoying it and buckling down for the second half of the season, which is setting up to be absolutely fantastic.
As with every year, we get to the halfway marker and look back and what's transpired. Step away and see the trends and patterns from the season. Here, I'll list off the 10 biggest surprises from the past two months, as well as the 10 biggest disappointments. After that, I'll have a blurb on North Carolina basketball, because that fascinating aberration of a team falls somewhere between the two genres.
-- Iowa State. Now at 14-0, the best start/longest winning streak in the history of the program. The Cyclones were expected to be good, but not this good, and not anything near the No. 2 seed they're on track to nab.
-- Joel Embiid's draft stock. Go back to the preseason. We thought of Embiid as a possible top-five pick -- in the 2015 draft. But now he's showing so much improvement -- and savvy on offense, something that's rare at this age for a true center -- that some are now tossing out his name before teammate Andrew Wiggins as the No. 1 pick for the upcoming draft. At worst he's now a top-five pick, and what makes his story all the more remarkable: He's only been playing basketball for three years.
-- San Diego State. Steve Fisher's team was expected to have a big dip this season. Instead, the Aztecs have just one loss to this point. You know who it came against? No. 1 Arizona. If NFL football took up your time this past weekend, know that SDSU won at Kansas, something that hadn't been done since 2006 by a non-conference opponent. Fisher is the midseason coach-of-the-year pick in the minds of many, and with good reason.
-- Andy Enfield's comments. This goes back to the fall. First he said UCLA plays slow. Then he said some bad things about El Paso, Texas, and insulted Tim Floyd. He also took another shot at Steve Alford, bringing up his NCAA tournament resume. Uh, I love it? The quotes were so shocking because we seldom get coaches on record in the manner Enfield was captured. Alford got the first return serve, as his Bruins walloped USC 107-73 on Sunday.
-- Villanova. I went to Nova for its Midnight Madness event in October. Jay Wright admitted he wasn't sure where in the top five of the new Big East his team would fall. He said the league was a total crapshoot, as unpredictable a major conference as he could remember. Well, now the Wildcats are 13-1, the only loss at undefeated Syracuse. They've beaten Kansas, Iowa and Butler. From perceived fringe NCAA tournament team to surefire top-five seed.
-- Tyler Ennis. Ennis was primarily responsible for that Villanova loss. Here's what gets me about him. So Syracuse loses Michael Carter-Williams at the point to the pros. Carter-Williams is now a favorite to be the NBA Rookie of the Year. And yet Ennis is somehow an upgrade at the 1 for Jim Boeheim's team. C.J. Fair is the more productive and better player for SU, but Ennis has been the team MVP.
-- Wisconsin. Similar to Iowa State in that this team was a projected single-digit NCAA tournament team, but it's now started off with the best record in school history (15-0) and is in the discussion for a No. 1 seed. The Badgers will enter this NCAA tournament -- regardless of what happens in Big Ten play -- with as much expectation as they've ever had. Bo Ryan's never missed an NCAA tournament but also never made a Final Four and been to just one Elite Eight.
-- Big 12. OK, so this is the best league in the country? Iowa State, Baylor, Kansas, Oklahoma State and Oklahoma are all cruising toward the NCAAs. Texas only has three losses, TCU isn't dreadful and West Virginia has the Bob Huggins factor. The league hasn't been this good at the top in a very long time. With four Final Four hopefuls, it's as stacked as any on the top shelf.
-- Casey Prather. The absolute breakout player of the year. Prather's performance has been totally out of the blue. Prather's putting up more than five times his combined average from his first three seasons in scoring. At 17.3/game, he's Florida's leader and looks like an entirely new player. He's also entirely healthy, which has led to 5.8 rebounds and 2.1 assists as well.
-- Positive conversation. Yeah, let's talk big picture here and take note of how nice it's been to see the media in general speak so well about the sport this season. The play of freshmen has been a lot of that, but overall we aren't getting the typical laments about one-and-done culture (and I find that a little ironic, given the impending exodus from the first-year guys) and the style of play, etc. Every few years it seems the nation just sits back and accepts college basketball for what it is and can be. Always refreshing.
-- BYU. This remains my most disappointing team, given the talent and the schedule the Cougars have played so far. A 9-7 team and 1-2 in the WCC. NIT-bound because it couldn't take advantage of a few good opportunities against UMass, Iowa State, Wichita State, Oregon and Utah.
-- Marshall Henderson's Twitter disappearance. The most polarizing player in college basketball has not tweeted since July 11, back around the time when he got into hot water and was disciplined by Andy Kennedy. It's been a long time since we've had a #whitegirlwednesday (and I still have no idea what that means). This is ultimately to his benefit, but Twitter's worse off in the meantime while Henderson's on hiatus.
-- Cornell. The only team in the country without a win! Poor Big Red. It's an 0-13 team that's going to get its first win this weekend, when it plays Oberlin -- not a Division I school.
-- Chane Behanan. Got kicked off the Louisville team due to repeated behavior that the school itself woud not tolerate anymore. Supposedly a very good teammate and overall enjoyable person to be around, but a pattern was not breaking, and so he had to go. Talented but troubled. Sad to see. Louisville's title hopes are gone, in my opinion. Can still make a run and reach a Final Four, but it's extremely hard for me to see this team winning six games, at least four of them against good-to-great competition, without its best rebounder.
-- ACC. Once upon a time, there was talk this year's conglomerate of the Atlantic Coast Conference could be the best single-season performance for any college basketball league in the history of EVA. Well, nope. Not even close. The Big 12's better. The Big Ten's better. The Pac-12's better. Duke and Cuse are title hopefuls, but after that there's a whole lot of questionable content. The league will send at least five to the NCAAs, but the bottom of the conference is putrid and the non-conference wins aren't that good on the collective.
-- Fran McCaffery's temper tantrum. Recent stuff here. You probably saw it. Watch it again, if need be. I love a coach with a passion streak, but there's a line and a history of behavior here. Bad look for the man.
-- UTEP's gambling. Also recent. School maintains the gambling was not on UTEP games and players were not shaving points. Cynics will bypass those details completely. Regardless, it's never good when college kids are wagering on sports, no matter the sports. It's against NCAA rules and can really pin down a program in a very bad way.
-- Boston College. Was expected by some to compete for an NCAA bid. Record? 4-11. Steve Donahue is skating on melting ice.
-- The big programs with the weak schedules. An annual gripe. Pittsburgh (294 overall, via KenPom.com) has the lowest non-conference strength of schedule of any team with one or fewer losses. Utah (350), Cincinnati (315), Arkansas (314), Illinois (291), Louisville (288) are two-loss teams that have miles to go in league play to prove themselves. These are numbers that will come into play when Selection Sunday comes around.
-- Mitch McGary. Back surgery this week means his sophomore season is almost definitely over. It's too bad, because he's a very nice college player -- and this procedure will also affect his pro prospects. He should return next season. But for now, Michigan's in a holding pattern of sorts. McGary's absence means the team isn't up to full potential, and now reaching the Sweet 16 will be an accomplishment a year removed from playing in the national title game.
And, finally, North Carolina. Could also be listed under disappointments -- and that's the surprise! The Tar Heels lost their best player, P.J. Hairston, yet don't look like they've truly missed him ... most of the season. Now at 10-4, UNC's beaten Kentucky, Louisville and Michigan State, but lost to Belmont, UAB, Texas and Wake Forest. They win the games they shouldn't and lose the games they shouldn't. In some ways, predictable. In other ways, a surprise. In all ways, fascinating. Please be a No. 8 seed.
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