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Primed for conference action — finally
Now that league play is upon us — UConn travels to Pittsburgh tonight — it’s time to revisit each of the big conferences.
We’ll break down the new favorites, those who are overrated heading into conference play, who is on track to win Player of the Year honors and much more.
Surprise: Boston College — Al Skinner left new coach Steve Donahue with three quality players and the Eagles were expected to finish near the bottom of the league. Well, BC enters ACC play as a fringe Top 25 team after a 10-2 start that includes a win against Texas A&M in Orlando.
Disappointment: N.C. State — I know Sidney Lowe has been without Tracy Smith for most of the year, but the Wolfpack shouldn’t be losing to Arizona by double digits at home. N.C. State is 7-4 and, despite a young team, still lacks a quality win heading into league play.
Overrated: Boston College — The Eagles got a good win against A&M, but this group also lost to Yale at home. There’s a small margin for error and a lack of quality depth could catch up with BC.
Favorite: Duke — With or without Kyrie Irving, the Blue Devils are the clear-cut team to beat in the league. Coach K still has the veteran duo of Nolan Smith and Kyle Singler, and Mason Plumlee has shown he’s capable of dominating in the paint.
Fading Fast: Virginia Tech — Seth Greenberg lost J.T. Thompson and Allan Chaney before the season even started, and Dorenzo Hudson and Cadarian Raines also are done with foot injuries. That’s four of the top nine players in the Hokies' rotation.
No Shot: Wake Forest — The Demon Deacons are young, have a new coach in Jeff Bzdelik and are struggling. They already have lost to Presbyterian, Stetson, Winthrop and UNC Wilmington.
Question: Will Irving improve enough to play again this season? He has been out the past few weeks after suffering a toe injury against Butler in early December, and his return is up in the air.
Player of Year: Nolan Smith — Duke’s senior guard does everything: He scores, he defends, he can distribute the ball and he’s a vocal leader.
Freshman of Year: Kyrie Irving — Even though he may not play again this season, the Duke point guard would earn the award if the season ended today. He was spectacular while healthy, scoring and setting up teammates.
Not Enough Props: Mike Scott — Virginia’s senior forward is averaging a double-double with 15.9 points and 10.2 boards per game. My guess is no one outside of the UVA campus knows that.
Must See: North Carolina at Duke — The Tar Heels need to make significant improvement before the Feb. 9 game at Cameron, but it’ll be interesting to see if the Blue Devils will have Irving back.
Surprise: Texas A&M — No one knew what Mark Turgeon had after the Aggies lost Bryan Davis, Donald Sloan and Derrick Roland from last year's team. However, Turgeon can coach and A&M has established itself as a likely NCAA Tournament team yet again despite relying on a bunch of guys few know anything about.
Overrated: Iowa State — The Cyclones, under new coach Fred Hoiberg, are off to an 11-2 start but it is deceiving. Iowa State hasn’t beaten a team ranked in the Top 75 of the RPI, and its losses have come against Northern Iowa and Cal.
Favorite: Kansas — The Jayhawks may lose a few along the way, but Bill Self should be able to integrate freshman point guard Josh Selby into a team that has been efficient and shown quality chemistry.
No Shot: Oklahoma — The Sooners are 6-5 and will be fortunate to win a handful of league games. Jeff Capel just doesn’t have enough talent.
Question: Will Baylor get solid enough point guard play and leadership to become a player in the Big 12 race? A.J. Walton has been up and down in trying to run the team in place of Tweety Carter, while Scott Drew also sorely misses Carter’s leadership ability.
Player of Year: Marcus Morris — Despite not putting up monster numbers, the Kansas star’s still the best player on the best team in the league.
Freshman of Year:
Not Enough Props: Nebraska's Doc Sadler — The guy can flat-out coach and he’s got the Cornhuskers at 10-2. I’m not sure he can sustain it, but Sadler’s team has wins against USC, Creighton and TCU. Remember, this is not an easy job.
Must See: Kansas at Kansas State — It’s a Valentine’s Day special between rivals. The Jayhawks are rolling and have Selby back while Martin’s Wildcats need to figure things out by then.
Surprise: UConn — The Huskies were picked to finish in the bottom half of the league, but no one saw this coming from Kemba Walker. He’s the frontrunner for National Player of the Year and he’s leading a bunch of kids.
Disappointment: South Florida — I know Stan Heath lost Dominique Jones, but I still figured the Bulls would be formidable with Gus Gilchrist and Jarrid Famous up front. However, nothing is more important than guard play, and South Florida just doesn’t have it.
Overrated: Cincinnati — The Bearcats have scheduled a bunch of cupcakes to protect Coach Mick Cronin, but they are completely unproven. Best win, which isn’t even that impressive, is a rout of Dayton.
Favorite: Pittsburgh — The Panthers, aside from a loss at home against Tennessee, have been as good as advertised. They have toughness and balance and know how to win.
Fading Fast: Seton Hall — It’s been well-documented that new coach Kevin Willard inherited the mess referred to as “Gonzo Ball,” so it’s tough to blame him for anything this season. Seton Hall is 6-6 after last week’s home loss to Richmond.
No Shot: DePaul — Oliver Purnell left Clemson to rebuild things at DePaul. Rebuild is the appropriate word since the program has no shot at the postseason.
Question: Is the Big East for real? No one expected UConn, Syracuse and Cincinnati to be undefeated at this point — or Notre Dame to be ranked, either.
Player of Year: Kemba Walker — This one isn’t even up for debate. He’s been sensational and has carried this young UConn team through a 10-0 start.
Freshman of Year: Shabazz Napier — The UConn freshman guard has the ball in his hands plenty when he’s in the game, is averaging 8.6 points and is a terrific, relentless on-ball defender.
Not Enough Props: Marshon Brooks — Providence's senior wing always has been tough to figure and while the Friars are still a mystery, Brooks is averaging eye-popping numbers: 23.1 points and 8.9 boards.
Must See: Pittsburgh at Georgetown — This wasn’t an easy call, but the Jan. 12 matchup could be a battle of the top teams in the Big East.
Surprise: Michigan — I’m not sure if there’s been any major shock in the Big Ten, but I’ll give the nod to the Wolverines. John Beilein’s team is 10-2, beat Clemson and nearly knocked off Syracuse in New Jersey. However, the Wolverines will get a test early this week with a home game against Purdue.
Disappointment: Michigan State —Tom Izzo’s team always plays a brutal early schedule, and usually gets its share of wins. However, the Spartans have struggled and lost four games — although all against ranked teams.
Overrated: Purdue — It’s just difficult to get a true grasp of what this Boilermakers team is all about. Sure, they have two of the nation's best in E’Twaun Moore and JaJuan Johnson, but Matt Painter’s team hasn’t gone up against any sure-fire NCAA Tournament teams yet.
Favorite: Ohio State — I picked the Buckeyes to win it all, and while they haven’t played a brutal schedule, they certainly look the part. Freshman Jared Sullinger has been as good as advertised and is a legitimate Player of the Year candidate.
Fading Fast: Indiana — The Hoosiers have lost four games, three coming against Boston College, Northern Iowa and Colorado. Tom Crean’s team begins conference play at home against Penn State in what is a must-win game if Indiana is to have any shot at the postseason.
No Shot: Iowa — Fran McCaffery knew what he was getting into when he took the job. The Hawkeyes have gotten a few decent wins (Alabama and Northern Iowa), but also lost to Wake Forest, Iowa State and Long Beach State. Expect Iowa to battle for the cellar — likely with Penn State.
Question: Will Michigan State turn it around and become what many felt the Spartans would be: national championship contenders? Senior point guard Kalin Lucas still doesn’t look like himself after returning from a ruptured Achilles.
Player of Year: Jared Sullinger — Ohio State's big freshman has put up some monster numbers, both scoring and on the glass.
Freshman of Year: Sullinger — He’s a dominant big man in a season in which there just aren’t many around.
Not Enough Props: Jon Leuer — There aren’t many big guys better than Wisconsin’s 6-foot-10 senior. He’s the go-to guy for the Badgers, averaging 19.8 points and 7.3 rebounds while shooting 50 percent from beyond the arc.
Must See: Michigan State at Ohio State — It’ll be interesting to see where these teams are when they meet Feb. 15 in Columbus.
Surprise: Washington State — The Cougs couldn’t beat Butler in the Diamond Head Classic championship game, but Klay Thompson has been terrific and Washington State has wins against Gonzaga and Baylor.
Disappointment: UCLA — The Bruins have shown potential, as in the near-win at Kansas, but there’s no excuse for giving up 89 points in a loss to VCU and losing to Montana in Pauley Pavilion. However, I’m not ready to write off Ben Howland’s team yet, especially in the Pac-10.
Overrated: Arizona — I love
Favorite: Washington State — Coming into the season, it was Washington and everyone else. However, Ken Bone has done a terrific job and he’s got more than just Thompson. Faisal Aden has given Washington State a scorer off the bench, and Reggie Moore is healthy after missing the start of the season.
Fading Fast: California — Mike Montgomery’s team pulled one of the early shockers with a win over Temple in Orlando, but the Bears have lost five of eight since and it’s unlikely they will finish in the top half of the league after losing their top three players from a year ago.
No Shot: Oregon — I’m not sure how the heck Dana Altman has seven wins with what he inherited from the Ernie Kent mess. Well, just check the Ducks' schedule and you’ll see how.
Question: How many teams will the Pac-10 get into the Big Dance? A year ago the league had two. Even with the field expanding by three, I'm not sure it’ll get any more this time around.
Statistic: Washington State point guard Marcus Capers leads the country in assist-to-turnover radio at 5.8 to 1.
Player of Year: Klay Thompson — He’s so versatile and so smooth and barely edged Arizona’s Derrick Williams. Thompson leads the league in scoring (22.3) and ranks third in assists (4.3).
Freshman of Year: Kyle Cain — The one-time Rhode Island commit signed with Arizona State late and has been a rebounding machine for the Sun Devils. He’s averaging 8.5 boards and 15 per contest in the past two games.
Not Enough Props: USC’s versatile big man Nikola Vucevic – He’s averaging 15.2 points and 9.6 rebounds and now has some help with the addition of point guard Jio Fontan.
Must See: Washington at Washington State —The in-state rivals play Jan. 30 in Pullman, perhaps for first place.
Surprise: Georgia — With Trey Thompkins out with a serious ankle injury to start the year, I didn’t expect the Bulldogs to be 9-2 with quality losses to Temple and Notre Dame in Orlando. Mark Fox’s team is still somewhat unproven, but avoided many of the letdowns that other teams had early this season.
Disappointment: Florida — The Gators' loss to Ohio State in Gainesville was excusable, but it was the setbacks to Central Florida and Jacksonville (on its home floor) that have me scratching my head and wondering if this team has a chance to do anything come March.
Overrated: Tennessee — The Vols were overrated as a top-5 team following wins against Villanova and Pittsburgh, and it showed with three straight losses to Oakland, Charlotte and USC. The bottom line is that this is an enigmatic Tennessee team that will be without Coach Bruce Pearl for the first eight league games.
Favorite: Kentucky — The SEC East is actually fairly wide open, but I’m giving the edge to the Wildcats due to pure talent. Sure, John Calipari doesn’t have much in the middle, but look for Brandon Knight to improve in the second half of the season, and Terrence Jones quickly has emerged as a star.
Fading Fast: Alabama — Anthony Grant and the Crimson Tide are just 6-6 and have losses to Iowa and St. Peter’s. The best win thus far? Tough to say, especially since Alabama has yet to win away from Tuscaloosa.
No Shot: Auburn — Everyone knew the Tigers weren’t going to challenge for anything except the SEC West cellar, but with losses to Presbyterian, Samford, Campbell and UNC Asheville, it’s going to be a long year for Tony Barbee.
Question: When will Renardo Sidney return to the court for Mississippi State? The talented yet enigmatic big man waited nearly a year and a half for his college debut, was then suspended for one game after an incident in practice, and then was hit with an indefinite suspension for fighting with teammate Elgin Bailey in the stands in Hawaii.
Statistic: Arkansas leads the nation in blocked shots at 8.4 per game.
Player of Year: Terrence Jones — The Kentucky freshman is averaging 18.2 points and 9.6 rebounds.
Freshman of Year: Jones — He's already had some monster games.
Not Enough Props: Jeffery Taylor — Vanderbilt's athletic junior wing does it on both ends of the court. He’s averaging 13.5 points and 4.5 rebounds, is a terrific defender and has improved his perimeter shooting (he is 13 of 33 for 39 percent this year after making 1 of 11 from long distance last season).
Must See: Kentucky at Tennessee — I just have a feeling the March 6 game, the regular-season finale, will have SEC title implications. Plus it’s always entertaining when Calipari and Bruce Pearl face one another.
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