The turn of the calendars to a new year can mean only one thing for college basketball: Conference play is here!
The first two months of non-conference play can feel like the first quarter of a thoroughbred race. Jockeys move, shake, and jostle for positioning, but no mistake can truly cost a potential champion of their chance to win down the stretch. Teams from across the country play games that matter on their resumes but feature teams that will look and play differently than those we’ll be watching in March. True freshmen can look lost or unpolished. Veterans can dominate. Sleepy arenas in ignored holiday tournaments can lead to puzzling results.
Conference play, however, is here to save the day. Now we get to see packed student-sections (once all students return from winter break) and the rivalries we know and love. This is when college basketball hits its stride and we can really begin to assess every team on a familiar playing field.
Here, then, is the early front-runner for each power conference championship:
ACC – Duke
The Blue Devils are unquestionably the most talented team in the conference, but Duke’s schedule isn’t without its fair share of challenges. Coach K’s squad will play five road games against the KenPom Top 50, including three games against teams in the KenPom Top 10.
Virginia, though still undefeated this season, arguably has a tougher slate through conference play. The Cavaliers have six road games against top 50 competition still to come. Virginia and Duke are scheduled for a home-and-home that could provide the inside track to the regular season conference championship. Those two games will feature a radical clash in styles, with the Hoos forcing Duke to play at a slower pace. If Duke’s athletes are still able to force the issue in the halfcourt and use their speed and size to maximize their scoring chances, the Blue Devils can be successful against Virginia. If the Cavaliers can force RJ Barrett and Zion Williamson to settle for jump shots, they’ll have a tougher time in Charlottesville.
North Carolina will remain part of the race to the top of the conference as well if Coby White continues to play like an All-American. Of the three teams, Carolina has looked the most like a work in progress, but also sports the best win of any ACC club, as they handled Gonzaga fairly easily.
In the end, Duke’s top-level talent likely comes out on top. Even if they drop a game to UNC or UVA, the Blue Devils stars make them less susceptible to losing any other unexpected games in conference.
The period between Christmas and New Years acts as a handy moment to redefine the college basketball season. Conference play for nearly every league kicks off, meaning we can really start to assess which teams are fighting for top seeds, which have a shot at an at-large tournament bid, and which are in some serious need of a turnaround.
College basketball’s increase in newcomers has been one of the main reasons it takes a few months to sort out all of those details. Transfers, both those moving as a graduate or those who looked for a new path as undergrads, are everywhere in college hoops. The rising importance of freshmen has been an even more crucial change.
One-and-done freshmen, or those who think they have a chance at a shot at the NBA this spring, are major players in the basketball landscape. Even freshmen with uncertain professional prospects are entering college more physically and mentally ready to play than ever before.
By now, it’s clear which first-year players will be factors in March and which need time to sort things out. Here is a look at 10 freshmen who have impressed this season so far:
10. Talen Horton-Tucker, Iowa State
Iowa State has been riddled by both injuries and suspensions early in the season, leaving coach Steve Prohm with a short bench to date. It has mattered far less than many expected thanks to the emergence of freshman Talen Horton-Tucker.
The freshman is a do-everything glue guy for the Cyclones, standing only 6-foot-4, but a solid 240 pounds. Though Horton-Tucker is averaging 14.8 points per game, it’s his all-around game that has impressed. He is adding 11.5 rebounds, 5.8 assists, and 3.1 steals per 100 possessions. Even as a freshman, he’s been arguably the most efficient player on the floor for Iowa State.
In just his fifth collegiate game, Horton-Tucker posted 26 points, 14 rebounds, and 6 assists against Illinois at the Maui Invitational. If Prohm and his staff didn’t have Horton-Tucker at the forefront of their gameplans before that performance, they do now.
November college basketball is a wild ride. Half the games are big time match-ups fabricated by sponsored tournaments and the other half feature certain blowouts. One thing both genres share in common is lack of national interest. Tournaments held during Thanksgiving week draw out the die-hards but lack attendance or TV viewing from even casual basketball fans.
Flipping the calendar from November to December makes things start to feel real in college hoops. Some conferences tip off league play, while some blue-blood programs schedule enticing match-ups in on-campus gyms. Gone are the sleepy vacation resort crowds, and in their place are the pep bands and student sections that make this sport great.
Over the 31 days of December, there is plenty to attract your attention, highlighted by this slate of games featuring top teams throughout the nation.
Purdue at Michigan, Dec. 1
Last year, the Big Ten moved a few conference games for each team to the early part of January to compensate for the league playing its conference tournament abnormally early. Most power conferences end their tournament in the 48 hours prior to Selection Sunday. Because the Big Ten wanted access to Madison Square Garden, which is already booked in mid-March by the Big East Tournament, the Big Ten moved things up a week.
This year, the Big Ten Tournament is back where it belongs in Chicago, but the early December conference games remain on the schedule. Big Ten brass looks to the semester break and a newly expanded 20-game conference slate as the reasons.
Whatever the case, it will always feel strange to have important conference games just days following Thanksgiving. That’s where we find ourselves this very Saturday, with two of the league’s top teams squaring off already.
Though it feels like Conference Player of the Year won’t be awarded for millennia, Carsen Edwards can cement himself as the frontrunner for the honor. Getting off to a hot scoring start, especially with a win in Ann Arbor, would put the spotlight on Edwards for the rest of the Big Ten season.
The basketball season is still very young, with most teams playing five or fewer games so far. Right now, teams are jockeying for position like horses out of the starting gate before the first turn. The top teams are looking to keep pace with their fellow thoroughbreds. Teams on the fringes are trying to earn respect and build a resume for March. There are also a number of plucky future Cinderellas stealing wins on the road and sneaking into the national conversation.
As the college basketball landscape takes shape, there have been a number of teams who have exceeded and failed to meet preseason expectations. These ten stand out among that group.
It’s impossible to start anywhere besides the main line, where the defending National Champions have stumbled out of the gates. Villanova lost four key cogs from the team that cut down the nets last April to the NBA, leaving behind a mish-mash of returnees and newcomers. The Wildcats have now played three games in the shiny new Finneran Pavilion on campus, but have won just once (against lowly Morgan State).
Against Michigan in a title game rematch, the Wildcats looked utterly lost and outmatched. The game was never close and Villanova did next to nothing successfully. A blowout like that can seem like a bump in the road, especially against a talented team like the Wolverines, led by one of college basketball’s best coaches.
Any notion of that game being a one-time worry was erased when Villanova dropped its next game to Furman. The Paladins have been surprisingly good this season (more on that in a moment), yet have nowhere near the talent of Villanova.
The trouble early on for Jay Wright and the gang has been figuring out how to use that talent. Phil Booth and Eric Paschall have both been role players on great teams, yet neither appears ready to make the leap to stardom. Collin Gillespie and Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree were young last year, yet are being asked to contribute at a higher level than they are capable of providing. Finally, the biggest disappointment to date has been highly heralded recruit Jahvon Quinerly. The five-star prospect is shooting 25 percent from the floor and has posted more turnovers than assists. His minutes have been extraordinarily limited, and Quinerly never saw the floor at all in the Furman game
It’s clear that Jay Wright is concerned with what Quinerly has shown in limited playing time or behind closed doors in practice. Unfair or not, Villanova fans were relying on Quinerly to make an immediate impact in helping fill the shoes of Jalen Brunson. Until he’s ready to contribute, expectations have to be shifted for the defending champs.
Ready or not, college basketball is on the horizon. Most fans, even basketball diehards, barely pay attention until nearly Thanksgiving. But this season, there are plenty of good reasons to turn your eyes away from football (even briefly) to check out some early-season hoops.
After all, we’re coming off one of the most exciting NCAA Tournaments ever, though that is true every year, it seems. This season, there is no FBI scandal hovering over the sport, Rick Pitino has ridden (not so quietly) into the sunset, and the NCAA has once again tweaked a few rules to make things smoother. Not to mention, there are exciting crops of players both returning to campuses and joining the college ranks as freshman. Let’s dig into ten of the biggest names with our players to watch this season.
10. Phil Booth, Villanova
Four Wildcats were drafted by NBA teams in June, leaving Booth as the only remaining Villanova player on the roster who has two championship rings. Last year was his first season averaging double-figure scoring, but he’s always been ready when given opportunities. Booth has three career 20-plus point games, including the 2016 National Championship Game. He’ll turn 23 years old in December, with 112 college games already under his belt. Booth will be among the most seasoned players in all of college basketball this season, and one of the country’s best perimeter defenders. For Villanova to continue its run of recent success, Booth needs to carry the torch once held by Ryan Arcidiacono and Jalen Brunson.
We’ve reached the end of college basketball’s season and March was just as mad as we’ve come to expect. This tournament featured the biggest upset of all-time, a 98-year-old nun leading a Cinderella story to the Final Four, and plenty of buzzer-beating game-winners.
With such a wild tournament, college basketball fans are often left with an unsatisfying champion. Any team can be bounced with a bad game and one team can win a championship by getting hot late in the season.
This season, everyone can rest easy knowing that Villanova deserved to cut down the nets. The Wildcats won all six tournament games by double-digits and were one of America’s best teams all season long. There’s no question that the Wildcats earned the trophy they were handed Monday night. Here’s a look at the five biggest takeaways following Nova’s second championship in three seasons.
1. Villanova ices the season with a National Championship
After a season at or near the top of the rankings, Villanova finished the job and won the 2018 National Championship. This marks the school’s third title and second in the last three years.
The Wildcats fell behind Michigan very early in the game before wresting control of the game and dominating the second half. Villanova combined a lethal offensive attack with their typically stingy defense to dig a hole that Michigan simply could not overcome.
Even with National Player of the Year Jalen Brunson seated on the bench with four fouls early in the second half, Villanova held off every Michigan run. The Wildcats cut down the nets in San Antonio, a deserving champion after a wild season of college hoops.
The Final Four is college basketball’s greatest spectacle. All of March Madness, with all the juicy storylines and incredible game-play, leads to this one city and one event. The semifinals give us two chances at magic, though this year the games fell relatively flat.
Neither contest featured high drama at the end of the game, yet both felt like the perfect prequels to a championship showdown on Monday night.
The two teams that won conference tournaments at Madison Square Garden earlier this month have both stayed hot and reached the national final. Before looking too deeply into that game, let’s evaluate the biggest takeaways from Saturday’s action.
1. Moritz Wagner played winning basketball
The Wolverines were led by versatile center Mortiz Wagner, who totaled 24 points and 15 rebounds. His ability to score both inside and out made life far more difficult for the Loyola defense.
Wagner was critical on the glass, hauling in 6 of his 15 rebounds on the offensive end of the floor. Meanwhile, Wagner showcased his ability to step out and stretch the defense, sinking three jumpers from long range.
Wagner proved to be the toughest match-up on either team. He should give Villanova a difficult time as well.
Next weekend treats us to the biggest stage of college basketball: the Final Four. We now have four teams and two games set in stone, ripe for analysis all week long. There are a pile of storylines to break down. Three of the coaches are among the nation’s elite. Two National Player of the Year candidates will square off. One team is the ultimate Cinderella, ready to dance with the big boys.
Before we can wade too deeply into next weekend’s action, it’s key to look back at the events of Sunday. The Elite Eight games in the Midwest and East regions were full of drama and can help shed light on what we’ll see the rest of the tournament. Here are the five biggest takeaways from those games:
1. Villanova holds off Texas Tech
Villanova’s offense is one of the best in the nation, able to overcome most issues. Texas Tech’s intense defense can cause plenty of problems, as the Wildcats saw on Sunday. Villanova shot just 4 of 24 from outside the arc, yet still cracked the Red Raiders enough to survive and win.
Instead of their usual jump shooting success, Villanova lived at the free throw line. The Wildcats sank 29 of 35 from the free throw line.
Texas Tech’s first trip to the Elite Eight ended with a loss, as the Red Raiders fought to close a second half gap but failed to score enough to reach striking distance. After the game, star senior guard Keenan Evans revealed he has been hobbled by a broken toe for over a month, a tough break for a team with high hopes.