This week marked the midpoint of college basketball’s regular season. The first games tipped Nov. 10. Selection Sunday is March 11. While it might seem like a lot is known, the race to the field of 68 is only halfway done.
There are plenty more questions than answers, but enough things have crystallized to draw a few conclusions. Here, then, is a midterm review of where things stand ahead of the two-month sprint to the finish:
1. Is there a better conference race than the Big 12?
It all depends on your definition. In a few weeks, things might sort themselves out with Kansas and West Virginia creating separation and emerging as the top tier everyone expected. But for now, Oklahoma and Texas Tech loom as interlopers, and Baylor, Texas and Texas Christian are viable NCAA tournament contenders.
The truly interesting part of the Big 12 is the absence of anything resembling a bottom. Kansas State is pesky, though losing point guard Kamau Stokes to a foot injury is a setback. Oklahoma State has proved better than anticipated under first-year Coach Mike Boynton. And Iowa State is winless in the league even though guard Nick Weiler-Babb has flirted with a triple-double for three consecutive games.
In a strict top-to-bottom sense, the Big 12 stands out. Put another way, Iowa State is residing in the cellar and has already taken two league games to overtime and was tied with Kansas on the road with less than four minutes remaining. It’s a league with no easy outs.
2. How compelling is the jumbled Big East?
It seems like a silly question to ask after Villanova’s latest trouncing of Xavier. The Wildcats are 9-1 against the Musketeers since Xavier entered the Big East, and a 24-point rout this week fits nicely with Villanova’s average victory margin of 22.4 points at home against Xavier over the past five years.
But even if Xavier can’t win in Philadelphia, its offense can create all sorts of problems elsewhere. And it isn’t alone. Marquette is as reliant on an explosive offense to offset an indifferent defense as it was last year. Creighton plays a delightful five-out lineup that can score with anybody. Seton Hall boasts a tough, veteran core. Butler (over Villanova) and Providence (over Xavier) already own unexpected triumphs.
So, yeah, the Big East warrants plenty of attention. One other thing: The feature it shares with the Big 12 is a double round robin. That familiarity only amplifies the quality of games down the stretch, compared to other leagues where it’s possible for a team to play its only game against a conference rival in late February or early March.
These are tied together because of ACC affiliation, but one is a bit easier to answer than the other.
For Duke and its freshman-heavy lineup, it’s anyone’s guess whether the Blue Devils follow the approach behind Door No. 1 (hunkering down after some midseason wobbles on defense, like the 2015 team) or take what’s behind Door No. 2 (figuring it can score 90 points per game, only to get bounced quickly in March, like the 2014 team did against Mercer). Duke has followed both paths in its recent history.
As for Virginia, this probably won’t be Tony Bennett’s best offensive team since arriving in Charlottesville. There isn’t a late-career Malcolm Brogdon to turn to, but the Cavaliers’ collection of talent is balanced enough that scoring hasn’t been an issue. The genius of this Virginia team (so far) is that it is perhaps the steadiest in the nation. There isn’t a crummy performance on the résumé; even in the loss at West Virginia, the Cavaliers simply got outplayed (largely by Jevon Carter).
It remains to be seen how Virginia handles some of its tougher road tests in the ACC, but at this stage there’s no reason to think it can’t make it to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament — where things tend to become a crapshoot, as the Cavaliers know all too well.
Already some vulnerabilities are emerging at some of these programs, notably Arizona State. The Sun Devils fell to 1-3 in the Pac-12 with a home loss to Oregon on Thursday. They can score with anyone, but in an ultimately predictable development, some opponents are simply going to score more against the Sun Devils’ vulnerable defense. Think of Arizona State as a better version of Marquette.
Everyone on this list has built a solid profile, and it will take a considerable collapse for any of them to miss the NCAA tournament. Ohio State’s probably the biggest surprise of the bunch, but Keita Bates-Diop and the Buckeyes haven’t looked vulnerable since the calendar turned to December. It’s past time to consider them one of the top three teams in the Big Ten.
5. Will any Division I teams go undefeated in conference play?
Only two teams managed to do so last year: Princeton in the Ivy League and Vermont in the America East. It doesn’t look like there will be a repeat. The Tigers already have lost at Penn, and Vermont is vulnerable to an upset or two because of forward Anthony Lamb’s broken foot.
But somebody else will probably put together a perfect conference season. It might be Nevada, despite the Mountain West’s reputation for challenging home courts; South Dakota State, an explosive Summit League team led by Mike Daum; Gonzaga, which will have to deal with games at Brigham Young and Saint Mary’s in the West Coast; Texas Southern, which has gone 16-2 in the Southwestern Athletic Conference in each of the past three years; or New Mexico State, which owns defeats of Illinois and Miami and plays in the eight-team WAC.
6. Will this remain a season of star freshmen who live up to the hype?
Quick, who were the top five players in this year’s freshman class, according to 247Sports.com? The answer: Duke’s Marvin Bagley III, Missouri’s Michael Porter Jr., Texas’s Mo Bamba, Arizona’s Deandre Ayton and Alabama’s Collin Sexton.
Porter made a one-game cameo before undergoing back surgery, but the other four have been every bit as good as advertised. Bagley and Ayton, in particular, have emerged as dominant interior forces on teams with credible Final Four hopes. They’ll be among the most compelling players the rest of the regular season, and probably in the tournament as well.
7. Outside of the Power Five, the Big East and the American, will any leagues receive multiple NCAA tournament bids?
Three seem like solid possibilities, but none is a sure thing. In the Mountain West, Nevada and Boise State have carved out decent at-large profiles, but those will fade if they don’t put together dominant seasons in a league with only two other teams in the top 100 of the Ratings Percentage Index.
The Atlantic 10’s Rhode Island and St. Bonaventure did some excellent work in nonconference play, but a couple early road losses by the Bonnies have narrowed their margin of error. At least three A-10 teams have made the tournament in each of the past 10 years, and it was last a one-bid league in 2005. Both streaks could be in danger, especially if Rhode Island emerges as a one-team top tier and then wins the league tournament.
As usual, the West Coast Conference will be in the multi-bid mix with Brigham Young, Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s. Gonzaga’s profile (victories over Creighton, Ohio State and Texas) is better than its RPI, but the other two didn’t distinguish themselves much out of conference. Both will need to be hefty victory compilers (and maybe beat Gonzaga at least once) to be in the at-large conversation.
8. What is the biggest mystery remaining for the next two months?
The NCAA announced adjustments to the team sheets the tournament selection committee uses to fill out the field of 68 in the offseason, placing a greater emphasis on road and neutral-court games. How much that matters remains to be seen.
The committee’s choices have shifted toward power-conference programs over the past three seasons, with raw victory totals over high-end teams often carrying the day with its last few selections. Non-RPI metrics (such as KenPom.com) have also had some influence. But this is a philosophical adjustment declared loudly in advance, and its impact will be unknown until around 6:30 p.m. March 11.