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First-half review: During football, an interesting hoops season unfolded

by | College Basketball Insider
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Everyone knew Alabama was going to win another national football championship, but college hoops is different. It's not only up for grabs because of the unpredictability of the NCAA tournament, but because there's just no powerhouse team this season. It's now time to focus on college hoops. Sure, the NHL is back -- but who really cares. March Madness is exactly 70 days away -- and this is the best way to play catch-up on anything you've missed over the first two months of the season. We've got you covered with some college hoops first-half reflections. On Wednesday, colleague Gary Parrish will tell you what to look for the rest of the season.

 The Duke Blue Devils are No. 1 in the nation. No one predicted this. Not even Mike Krzyzewski. Seriously. Many predicted Coach K & Co. would finish third in the ACC, but this Duke team has improved chemistry and ball movement, quality leadership and a now-confident star in senior big man Mason Plumlee. It began with a win in Atlanta over Kentucky and also includes victories over Louisville, Minnesota, Ohio State, Virginia Commonwealth and Temple. Duke has accomplished more than any other team and sits atop the polls. Does that mean the Blue Devils are the most talented team in the country? No, but one worthy of its ranking.

 While Duke may be No. 1 in the land, there's no dominant team, as was the case last season with Kentucky and maybe even a full-strength North Carolina team. This season, as many as 10 teams have a legitimate shot of reeling off six consecutive victories to cut down the nets in Atlanta. The top six teams that should be the favorites to win it all: Louisville, Indiana, Michigan, Duke, Kansas and Syracuse.

 There's also no dominant player. A year ago, we had Anthony Davis. We've had guys like Blake Griffin, Kevin Durant and Tyler Hanbrough in recent years. This season the National Player of the Year Award also is fairly wide-open. Everyone expected Indiana sophomore big man Cody Zeller to emerge, but he hasn't set himself apart thus far. Three players have established themselves in the top-tier for now: Duke's Plumlee, Creighton's skilled junior forward Doug McDermott and Michigan point guard Trey Burke. This one will likely go down to the wire.

 Speaking of Burke, his return to college has made Michigan a legitimate national championship contender. Remember all of us questioning whether John Beilein could recruit in Ann Arbor? Well, he's evaluated guys like Burke and even freshmen Nik Stauskas and Glenn Robinson III -- and assembled arguably the most efficient offensive team in the land.

 Louisville beat Kentucky. Finally. It's true. John Calipari had owned Rick Pitino since arriving in Lexington three-plus years ago, but the Cardinals finally got one just before the New Year -- and it wasn't an upset, either. Louisville has more overall talent, experience and had home court.

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 Syracuse lost four of its top six and is still rolling. Jim Boeheim watched as Dion Waiters and Fab Melo left early, and Scoop Jardine and Kris Joseph graduated. However, Syracuse hasn't missed a beat with the emergence of sophomore point guard Michael Carter-Williams and a solid group that includes Brandon Triche, C.J. Fair, James Southerland and young big men Rakeem Christmas and DaJuan Coleman.

 Boeheim passed Bob Knight and now trails only Mike Krzyzewski on the list of all-time winningest D-1 men's basketball coaches. Is Boeheim the second-best coach in the history of the sport? No, but he's won a ton of games (903) -- and he's done it all in the same place. Pretty cool.

 Connecticut athletic director Warde Manuel handed interim coach Kevin Ollie a five-year contract after just a few months on the job. Manuel didn't have much of a choice because of the support Ollie was getting from the community and former players. Now Ollie will have an easier time recruiting, but it's still difficult to imagine him getting this program back to where it was in the Jim Calhoun Era.

 News Alert: Kansas is still really good. Again. We need to just put the Jayhawks atop the Big 12 every single year, no matter who they lose. It was Thomas Robinson and Tyshawn Taylor from this past season, but Bill Self has the top interior defender in the nation in Jeff Withey and redshirt freshman Ben McLemore has emerged as a star and the team's go-to guy. KU is 12-1 and one basket against Michigan State is all that separates Kansas from being undefeated.

 The surprise team of the non-conference is ... Illinois. That's right, the Illini (14-2) already have beaten Gonzaga in Spokane, Butler in Hawaii and they pounded Ohio State in Champaign. New coach John Groce and senior guard Brandon Paul have been a terrific tandem, but we'll see if Illinois can continue to overachieve and be a legitimate threat to win the league. I'm still not buying the Illini.

 Conference-USA really, really stinks. Don't buy into what Josh Pastner is selling, either. Memphis' best win is against a Tennessee team that's likely headed to the NIT, and the rest of the league has virtually no shot of getting an at-large berth to the NCAA tournament. Marshall was supposed to be the top threat to challenge Memphis, but the Thundering Herd are 7-8 and lost to Ohio University by around 100 points. Forget about a one-bid league; let's make this a no-bid league.

 The SEC may be the elite football league, but it's brutal this year on the hardwood and checks in at eighth (behind the Mountain West and ACC) in the RPI. There's Florida, Missouri and Kentucky -- and that may be it in terms of teams that ultimately go dancing. Tennessee isn't deserving, Mississippi hasn't beaten anyone, Georgia has been dismal, South Carolina and Mississippi State are brutal. I'd keep going, but it would be wasting your time. Don't worry about paying much attention to anyone in this league if they aren't named Florida, Missouri or Kentucky.

 UNLV is a work in progress and shouldn't be judged until next month. The Runnin' Rebels have as much talent in Vegas as they've had since Tark's time. But second-year coach Dave Rice has to mesh a couple of talented transfers in big man Khem Birch (Pittsburgh) and Bryce Dejean-Jones (USC) with a quality freshman class led by Anthony Bennett and Katin Reinhardt. Rice will also have to find a way to play Mike Moser, Bennett and Birch together up front. The key will be figuring out roles, and keeping everyone happy.

 Missouri could have been a national title contender -- if the Tigers had Michael Dixon. However, Dixon is gone after a couple of sexual assault allegations -- and now Phil Pressey doesn't have enough help in the backcourt. Laurence Bowers came back from his torn ACL, but I'm just not buying this team as one that can reel off six straight. Not without Dixon taking the pressure off Pressey -- and also giving the nation's best pure point guard a much-needed shooter on the wing.

 Ohio State is a one-man offensive team with Deshaun Thomas. The Buckyes haven't beaten anyone yet -- and it's because there's just too much on Thomas' shoulders. With the loss of Jared Sullinger and William Buford, Aaron Craft has to be more of an offensive threat -- and he's been unable to do so. Thad Matta needs one of the young sophomores (i.e. LaQuinton Ross or Sam Thompson) to emerge -- and quickly.

 What the heck is going on in Chapel Hill? Roy Williams did lose four first-rounders from last season (Harrison Barnes, Tyler Zeller, John Henson and Kendall Marshall), but it's still somewhat surprising that the Tar Heels have already lost four games, were blown out by Indiana and dropped the ACC opener at Virginia. James Michael McAdoo has been unable to carry the load and freshman point guard Marcus Paige isn't quite ready. Leadership is also lacking with the Tar Heels.

 Butler and Brad Stevens took down then-No. 1 Indiana and the winning shot came courtesy of walk-on Alex Barlow. When the Bulldogs had to dismiss Chrishawn Hopkins in the preseason, it looked bleak for Boy Wonder. But Stevens continues to amaze -- and now Butler is 12-2 and has this team in the Top 25.

 Rick Majerus passed away on Dec. 1 at the age of 64. The former Utah, Marquette and Ball State head coach had been forced to step away prior to the season because of heart issues and spent most of the summer at a hospital on the west coast. He won 517 career games and was considered one of the elite X's and O's guys in the industry, although many were conflicted about his treatment of players and people in the business.

 Texas doesn't look like Texas. Sophomore point guard Myck Kabongo has been whacked with a 23-game suspension for not being truthful about an NCAA investigation, but it's more than just the absence of the Longhorns' Canadian floor leader. This team just doesn't have typical Texas talent and could struggle to get into the NCAA tourney.

 UCLA is starting to get it going, but the Bruins have still been a disappointment thus far. It's a collection of players that doesn't fit into Ben Howland's defensive-minded approach. In fact, this group is brutal defensively -- but can put points on the board. The Bruins lost to Cal Poly, Georgetown and San Diego State, but they have reeled off seven straight and freshman Shabazz Muhammad has been extremely productive after missing the first three games of the year due to an NCAA suspension.

 Arizona has re-established itself as an elite team, but I'm not sure Sean Miller's team can win it all without a true point guard. Xavier transfer Mark Lyons and natural two-guard Nick Johnson have the ball in their hands the majority of the time, and while Arizona has risen to the top five in both polls for the first time in a decade, the 'Cats will need Lyons to become more of a pass-first, take care of the ball guy to do damage come March. That's unlikely to occur.

 The Catholic 7 (Georgetown, Marquette, Villanova, St. John's, Seton Hall, Providence and DePaul) has split off from the rest of the Big East and is now looking to pluck a few more schools (i.e. Xavier, Butler) to warrant a lucrative television deal and move forward. This move was a long time coming because now this basketball-only league can maintain a sense of stability.

 Mike Rice got hit with a three-game suspension and a $50,000 fine by Rutgers and wasn't even allowed to be around his team for about two weeks. That's never good news for your future. Former employee Eric Murdock basically turned Rice in for his treatment of players. Rice is high-intensity and will need to be on his best behavior -- and also win games. He got off to a nice start with the team's home victory against Pittsburgh.

 Pittsburgh didn't play anyone. Again. Jamie Dixon scheduled a bunch of cupcakes in the non-conference slate and it's backfired as the Panthers dropped their first two Big East games and appear in jeopardy of not making the NCAA tournament for the second consecutive season.

 The most disappointing high-major team is Bob Huggins' West Virginia squad, in its first season in the Big 12. The Mountaineers are 7-6 overall and have lost to Duquesne, Davidson and twice to a mediocre Oklahoma team. The most disappointing mid-major team? A tie between Drexel and North Texas. The Dragons lost Chris Fouch, but still shouldn't be 5-9 and North Texas, which boasts a potential lottery pick in Tony Mitchell, is 6-10 under rookie head coach Tony Benford.

 Key Injuries: Lehigh has lost star guard C.J. McCollum for about two months with a broken foot, Miami will be without big man Reggie Johnson (broken finger) for most of ACC play, Wisconsin lost starting point guard Josh Gasser (ACL) prior to the start of the season -- and Penn State and Northwestern both are without their players, Tim Frazier (knee) and Drew Crawford (shoulder), the rest of the way. Tennessee also took a hit as Jeronne Maymon (knee) is done for the season and will redshirt.

 The jury remains out on North Carolina State. This is a team that was picked to win the ACC, but then came a 20-point drubbing to Oklahoma State back in mod-November out in Puerto Rico. Mark Gottfried's team has talent and a nice blend of youth and experience, but will they live up to the hype? The Wolfpack have yet to notch a victory over a Top 25 team.

 Wisconsin has been a virtual lock to go dancing in March since Bo Ryan arrived in 2001. That's 11 seasons -- and 11 NCAA tournament appearances. However, the Badgers are in danger of ending that streak. Jordan Taylor graduated, his replacement, Josh Gasser, went down with a torn ACL in the preseason and Wisconsin has lost four games and doesn't have a significant win. The Streak is in serious jeopardy.

 Even with the Badgers' struggles, the Big Ten is the top league in America and don't let anyone try and tell you differently. The conference still has a handful of teams that can go deep into the tournament: Michigan, Indiana, Michigan State, Minnesota and maybe even Ohio State.

 A trio of coaches that need to start winning -- and quick -- in order to save their jobs: Southern California's Kevin O'Neill, Wake Forest's Jeff Bzdelik and Rice coach Ben Braun. O'Neill's Trojans are just 6-9 overall, Bzdelik's team is 7-6 and Braun's Owls are just 3-10 and have been ravaged of talent this past offseason.

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