With the new year in full swing, the pigskin no longer exercises a monopoly over sports discussion. After last night, when Clemson and Alabama met for the 500th time in a row in the College Football Playoff, intercollegiate athletics is centered on the hardwood. That’s right: you get to hear about Zion Williamson’s favorite anime, without respite, for the next three months!
Ok, perhaps that was an exaggeration. While ESPN will certainly provide your daily fix of Zion and Duke Basketball, I will make a concerted effort to highlight the most notable developments in college basketball. Here are seven (yes, I know, arbitrary) things I noticed in the past week of college hoops.
- A veritable top-4 of the sport seems to have emerged, consisting of No. 1 Duke, No. 2 Michigan, No. 4 Virginia, and No. 3… Tennessee? While the Blue Devils, Wolverines, and Cavaliers have cemented themselves as contenders over the past few years, the Volunteers are a newer addition to the elite. Led by reigning SEC Player of the Year Grant Williams (19.9 points per game, 8.3 rebounds per game) and perennial Name of the Year honoree Admiral Schofield (18.2 points per game, 6.2 rebounds per game), the Volunteers have a fearsome offensive duo to go along with an already-vaunted defense. Look for the Vols to take the SEC once more.
- The PAC-12… yikes. Though I am hesitant to insult Bill Walton’s favorite institution, I can’t help but wonder if the conference needs a serious overhaul. Namely, let Gonzaga in, you cowards! After a pathetic performance in the NCAA Tournament last year (three bids, no wins), it doesn’t look like the PAC-12 will have more than its automatic bid make the field of 68. Nobody, and at the same time everybody in the conference, is a contender to win. UCLA, which fired Steve Alford following a string of embarrassing losses to low-major opposition, still has a chance to leap back into March Madness. Arizona State has the best non-conference win of any PAC-12 team, taking down then-No.1 Kansas at home on December 22nd.
- The Big 12 is weaker than in years past, but in 2019 it could be as chaotic as ever. Following Kansas’ loss at Iowa State on Saturday, the Jayhawks announced that junior big man Udoka Azubuike is out for the season with a wrist injury. That leaves Kansas with no interior depth and at serious risk of seeing their stranglehold over the conference finally come to a close. Texas Tech is the most obvious choice to supplant the Jayhawks, as the Red Raiders boast a stingy defense and an All-American caliber performer in Jarrett Culver (18.7 points, 5.7 rebounds, 4.1 assists per game). Even Kansas State, which has gone 0-2 to start Big 12 play, is a tough out because of their suffocating defensive pressure.
- Could this be the year of the wolf? Both the Nevada Wolf Pack and the NC State Wolfpack have posted terrific starts to the year, with the former undefeated and the latter with just one loss at Wisconsin. Nevada is led by veterans Jordan Caroline (18 points, 9.7 rebounds per game) and Caleb Martin (incidentally, a transfer from NC State) to go along with terrific scoring depth. NC State is also a haven for transfer stars, as UNC Charlotte transfer Torin Dorn and Utah transfer Devon Daniels are contributors to a balanced offensive attack. While Nevada will run away with the Mountain Valley Conference, NC State will face stiff opposition with Duke, Virginia, North Carolina, and Florida State standing in their way in the ACC.
- Another mid-major standout is No. 17 Houston, which beat Memphis 90-77 on Sunday to move to 15-0 on the season. Yes, the Cougars have yet to face any ranked opposition, but they have fared impressively this season after losing the decorated Rob Gray. Starting with Houston, the AAC has some spunk this year: UCF and Cincinnati are also bona fide top-40 teams.
- Compared to recent memory, the Big East is somewhat of a ramshackle. Defending national champion Villanova has underwhelmed (though they have started 2-0 in conference play), while last year’s regular season champ Xavier is struggling with the departures of Trevon Bluiett and former head coach Chris Mack. However, conference play should be even more entertaining with several new names vying for the spotlight. No. 24 St. John’s prevailed over Georgetown in an overtime thriller at Capital One Arena, moving the Red Storm to 14-1 on the season. Seton Hall took down the Red Storm in their first conference game thanks to the heroics of Myles Powell and co., but followed that up with a poor performance at DePaul. This year, the Big East is truly up for grabs, and it is impossible to write off any team just yet.
- The No. 20 Buffalo Bulls have the distinction of being the best team in Buffalo and the best team in sports named the Bulls (sorry Chicago and Bills fans). Buffalo has already knocked off West Virginia and Syracuse on the road, and were undefeated prior to Markus Howard going unconscious from three in a 103-85 loss to Marquette. And, lest I forget, the Bulls also took down No. 4 seed Arizona, led by future No.1 pick Deandre Ayton, in the first round of last year’s NCAA Tournament. The Bulls may very well play themselves into a top-6 seed in this year’s Big Dance, so nobody should sleep on them. Just remember the name C.J. Massinburg and you’ll be ready for a show.
Wow, I managed to do that without name-dropping Zion even once! Be sure to check in next week to see which random number of points I’ve decided to cover (will it be eight, four, or even 15?) and get your fix of college hoops.