First bracket countdown: Observations and notes

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Our first in-season bracket projection at Bracketville is due out Monday evening (Dec. 6).  With it will come a lot of debate (and some complaints).  Time to fire away with some notes and observations from a great first month of college hoops.

 The first note is to remind ourselves that a lot of meaningful basketball remains.  Things don’t necessarily end like they start.  Flashback: Georgetown opened the ’08-’09 season 11-1, including a win at Connecticut – an eventual No. 1 seed.  From there, the Hoyas stumbled through the Big East – finishing 7-11 in conference play and 16-14 overall – missing the NCAAs.   With that, here we go …

  • San Diego State and UNLV lead a quadrant of teams (BYU and New Mexico) from the Mountain West that could impact our final bracket in March.  SDSU opened with three true road games and two neutral-court affairs – including a win at Gonzaga.  It’s the type of schedule that should pay big dividends.  UNLV has already beaten Wisconsin (home) and Virginia Tech (neutral court).   BYU has victories over WAC-favorite Utah State and St. Mary’s.  If there’s a bubble team, it’s likely New Mexico.  The Lobos beat Arizona State, but lost a lopsided tilt at Cal. 
  • If Connecticut continues to get production from Alex Oriakhi, Shabazz Napier, and others, the Huskies are in line for a very good season.  Kemba Walker is a front-runner for Player-of-the-Year, and UConn already has three wins over NCAA-level teams: Wichita State, Michigan State, and Kentucky (Maui Invitational).
  • Who thought Notre Dame would win the Old Spice Classic in Orlando?  While beating Georgia, California, and Wisconsin isn’t quite like UConn’s feat in Maui, the Irish have certainly improved expectations – at least outside South Bend.
  • Georgetown is also off to a great start.  The Hoyas 111-102 OT win over Missouri ranks as the season’s best game to date.  The season-opening road win at Old Dominion is looking better all the time.
  • Pittsburgh is solid again – beating Maryland and Pittsburgh in New York.  A No. 1-seed hopeful, the Panthers’ real questions won’t begin until March.  Can they reach a Final Four?
  • Overall, the Big East is 17-6 vs. fellow BCS teams.
  • The Big Ten – fresh off its second straight ACC-Big Ten title – is 14-10 vs. BCS teams and 9-5 vs. the ACC overall.  In our preseason Power 24, we suggested that Ohio State would challenge Michigan State for league supremacy.  No team has two bigger true road wins (Florida, Florida State) than the Buckeyes.  That said, MSU was 4-2 at this juncture last season and the Spartans ended up in the Final Four.  Don’t quit on Tom Izzo’s bunch just because they lost to UConn and at Duke. 
  • Will Duke lose to anyone?  That will be the question given the Blue Devils’ talent, depth, and incredible start.  Duke powered through Marquette and Kansas State in Kansas City before wiping out Oregon on the West Coast and the above-mentioned Spartans in Durham.  Even so, an undefeated regular-season is unlikely.  Trips to Maryland and North Carolina are always tricky – even if the Tar Heels have spun their wheels a bit.
  • Hard to imagine North Carolina having another down year from start to finish.  The Tar Heels are loaded with talent and you have to figure they’ll figure it out at some point.  A Top 10 preseason ranking simply wasn’t justified – then again, preseason rankings mean nothing anyway.  An exercise in fun (futility) nothing else.
  • Overall the ACC is just 14-18 vs. BCS teams. 
  • Virginia Tech could be one team that wishes it had a first-month do-over.  While the Hokies have played a much better non-conference slate, they are 0-3 in big-win games – falling at Kansas State, to UNLV on a neutral floor, and dropping a home game to Purdue in the Big Ten-ACC Challenge.  Could be another testy Selection Sunday if the Hokies stumble in the ACC.
  • What’s going on the Atlantic 10Richmond has the best win (Purdue) while Temple has struggled more than expected.  The Owls were favored to win the Old Spice Classic but lost to California and Texas A&M.  Hampered by injuries, Xavier has been mostly unimpressive and Dayton was blown out by Cincinnati and lost at home to East Tennessee State.
  • The Pac-10 isn’t much better – thus far.  Washington is the league’s best, yet the Huskies missed chances with both Kentucky and Michigan State in Maui.  Neither is a bad loss, but outside a trip to Texas A&M (Dec. 11), UW now has little chance to make a non-conference impression.  A Top 4 seed will be hard to achieve.  Ironically, California has the league’s best wins (New Mexico and Temple) even though they lost games to Notre Dame and Boston College in Orlando.  The good news is that Arizona and UCLA seem on track to be in the NCAA discussion, along with Washington State.  Better quality wins should be available in conference play.
  • As noted in an earlier Bracket Bits column, the Missouri Valley will be challenged by another poor start.  Wichita State really hurt its opportunities in Maui by giving up a second-half lead to Connecticut.  Missouri State lost at Tennessee and Tulsa in its two best non-league tilts to date. 
  • By comparison, Colonial teams Old Dominion and VCU would both be in the NCAA discussion today – with ODU pushing for a single-digit seed.  The Monarchs gave Georgetown a great battle and have beaten Clemson, Xavier, and Richmond.  A win at Missouri on Dec. 30 would really leave a good impression.
  • Kansas State will battle Kansas for supremacy in the Big 12.  The Jayhawks know that Josh Selby will be eligible this month (Dec. 18) – another piece to an already good puzzle.  If Selby plays anywhere near the level of Kyrie Irving at Duke, KU will be in play for a No. 1 seed.
  • Not sure what to make of Missouri.  An NCAA team for sure, but the Tigers lost a virtual home game in Kansas City to their only quality opponent to date (G’Town).  They also struggled with several mid-range teams in Cancun and nearly coughed up a big lead at Oregon before winning.
  • Texas was impressive in New York, beating Illinois in OT and losing a tight game to Pittsburgh.  The Longhorns appear well on their way to a turn-around type season.
  • Gonzaga has played well, but not great.  The health of Elias Harris will be a determining factor for the Zags.  St. Mary’s is probably a bubble team – the one-point loss to BYU on a neutral court is encouraging.
  • So far, Tennessee isn’t letting all the off-court Bruce Pearl distractions effect its on-court performance.  How long will that continue, and what lies ahead for the Vols?  Pearl says his eight-game SEC suspension won’t matter – we’ll see.  Kentucky is loaded, but dealing with severe youth – as witnessed by a lopsided loss to UConn in Maui.  Still, I’ll take UK to win the SEC in March – especially if Enes Kanter wins his appeal/resubmission regarding NCAA eligibility.
  • Paging Florida.  Who are the real Gators?  Nice win at Florida State.  Bad loss to Central Florida.  Okay first half against Ohio State at home. That’s the type of formula that earns you a 7-10 seed in the NCAAs.
  • The SEC West is working hard for the NIT.  Favorite Mississippi State lost at home to Florida Atlantic and scheduled its first 11 games at home.  Sounds like a recipe for a very poor non-conference SOS – same as last year.
  • Minnesota looked very good in Puerto Rico – beating North Carolina and West Virginia.  Not sure what happened in the second half against Virgina, but the Gophers are well on their way to wearing a home jersey in the NCAA’s first round (Top 8 seed).  Wisconsin is, well, Wisconsin.  The Badgers aren’t likely to win the Big 10, but they are likely to make another trip to the NCAAs.
  • Illinois has avoided the bad losses it had last year.  Thus, an NCAA trip looks promising.  If the Illini improve rebounding and free-throw performance, they could prove dangerous.  They have good wins over Maryland and North Carolina, and an OT loss to Texas.

I’m sure there’s numerous notes and observations we’ve missed.  We can’t go through every team.  Can’t wait to get the first real bracket together. If you have thoughts, please send a rebound.  Comment below or send an e-mail to bracketville.hoops@gmail.com.  I’m also on Twitter: BracketguyDave.

Houston reaches No. 1 in AP poll for first time since 1983

Thomas Shea-USA TODAY Sports
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Make some room, Phi Slama Jama. Another Houston team has reached the top of men’s college basketball.

Nearly four decades after Clyde Drexler and Akeem Olajuwon took the Cougars to No. 1, the latest bunch led by Marcus Sasser and star freshman Jarace Walker took over the top spot in the AP Top 25. They received 45 of 63 first-place votes from the national media panel, easily outdistancing second-place Texas and third-place Virginia.

“It’s not like we went online and applied for it and waited for a response back. We’ve been working for this,” said Houston coach Kelvin Sampson, whose team is coming off a Final Four and Elite Eight trip the past two seasons. “But remember, it’s a rental. You don’t own it. You’re just renting it because someday somebody else is going to be No. 1.”

North Carolina had been No. 1 all season, but the Tar Heels lost to Iowa State and in a four-overtime thriller to Alabama at the Phil Knight Invitational to cede the top spot to Houston, which beat Kent State in its only game last week.

The last time the Cougars ascended to No. 1 was the final poll of the 1982-83 season, when “The Glide” and “The Dream” along with coach Guy Lewis were the favorites to win it all. They rolled through the NCAA Tournament before falling to Jim Valvano and North Carolina State in an iconic championship game in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

“I’ve never been ranked No. 1,” said Sampson, now in his 34th season as a college basketball coach. “We were ranked all 12 years at Oklahoma. I’m sure we were ranked at Indiana. Then we’ve been ranked five or six straight years. We’re used to having a high level of success.”

Texas received eight first-place votes and Virginia received two. Arizona climbed from 14th to fourth after emerging from a stacked field to win the Maui Invitational. Purdue jumped from 24th all the way to fifth and scooped up eight first-place votes after beating West Virginia, Gonzaga and Duke at the Phil Knight Legacy tourney.

“Our guys are competitive. They’re fun to coach. They get along. They’re out there playing with purpose and that’s what you have to have,” said Boilermakers coach Matt Painter, whose team was briefly No. 1 about this time last season.

“Early in the season, very few teams play with the purpose collectively,” he said. “I thought our guys played with a purpose.”

Baylor was sixth, Creighton seventh and U Conn climbed from 20th to eighth after beating Oregon, Alabama and Iowa State to win the Phil Knight Invitational. Kansas fell from third to ninth after losing to Tennessee in the championship game of the Battle 4 Atlantis, while Indiana rounded out the top 10.

There was a tie for 11th between SEC rivals Alabama and Arkansas with the Volunteers, another conference foe, right behind them. Gonzaga dropped from sixth to 14th, its first time outside the top 10 since Feb. 5, 2018, and Auburn was 15th.

Illinois was next followed by Duke and North Carolina in a tough week for Tobacco Road. The Blue Devils fell from eighth after their 75-56 loss to the Boilermakers.

Kentucky and Michigan State joined UCLA, Maryland, Iowa State, San Diego State and Ohio State in rounding out the poll.

RISING AND FALLING

Purdue made a rare 19-spot jump as the poll underwent a massive shakeup. UConn climbed 12 spots, Arizona moved up 10, Tennessee climbed nine and Alabama seven. On the flip side, the Tar Heels tumbled 17 spots, Duke dropped nine, Gonzaga fell eight and San Diego State fell seven.

IN AND OUT

Despite all the movement, Iowa State was the only newcomer this week, checking in at No. 23 after beating Villanova and North Carolina before falling to UConn. The Cyclones replaced Iowa, which dropped out after a one-week stay following its loss to TCU in the title game of the Emerald Coast Classic.

CONFERENCE WATCH

There are six difference conferences represented in the first seven teams in the poll. The Big Ten leads the way with six in the Top 25 while the SEC has five and the Big 12 has four, though three of them are in the top 10.

South Carolina tops women’s AP Top 25; Stanford, UConn next

Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports
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South Carolina remained the unanimous No. 1 choice in The Associated Press women’s poll, as the Gamecocks keep close watch on the foot injury of reigning Player of the Year Aliyah Boston.

The Gamecocks received all 29 first-place votes in the poll, a day after Boston left a game with her injury. Coach Dawn Staley said Boston was “questionable” going forward but added that the “team doctor wasn’t too, too concerned.”

South Carolina’s next game is at home against No. 15 UCLA.

Stanford remained No. 2 after cruising through a tournament in Hawaii. It’s the 618th appearance for Cardinal coach Tara VanDerveer, tying the late Pat Summitt for most all-time. Summitt’s teams only missed being in the poll 14 times during her Hall of Fame career at Tennessee.

UConn, Ohio State and Indiana rounded out the top five.

The Huskies are one of four Big East teams to be ranked this week as Marquette entered the poll at No. 24. It’s the first time the Big East has four ranked teams since the conference realigned in 2014. The league is 56-14 so far this season, including going 8-2 against ranked teams.

“We’ve been trying to earn a little more respect,” Marquette coach Megan Duffy said of the Big East. “Tried to schedule tougher non-conference (games). ‘Nova’s playing people. Us going to the Bahamas was great. Creighton’s doing what they’ve been doing since last season. Getting some of those quality wins is everything.”

North Carolina moved up two spots to No. 6 after rallying to beat then-No. 5 Iowa State in the Phil Knight tournament. The Cyclones fell to eighth.

The Tar Heels visit the Hoosiers on Tuesday in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge. Indiana returns home after winning two games in Las Vegas at a subpar venue that lacked basic necessities.

Notre Dame remained No. 7 while Virginia Tech and Iowa finished off the top 10. At No. 9, Virginia Tech has matched its best ranking ever and is in the top 10 for the first time since 1999.

Tennessee fell out of the poll this week marking the 56th time in the 827-week history of the poll that the Lady Vols weren’t ranked. Kansas State also fell out with Gonzaga moving in at No. 23.

FALLING CARDINALS

Louisville dropped to 18th in the poll this week after falling to South Dakota State in the fifth place game at the Battle 4 Atlantis last week. It’s the Cardinals lowest ranking since Jan. 11, 2016.

Louisville entered the top 10 in the preseason poll in 2017 and hadn’t been out since, a span of 98 consecutive weeks. It was the longest active streak.

“It’s a compliment to the consistency that we built here,” Louisville coach Jeff Walz said of being ranked in the top 10 for so long. “Obviously are goal would have been to stay in the top 10, but it’s a new team and growing.”

Edey scores 21 as No. 24 Purdue beats No. 8 Duke 75-56

Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports
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PORTLAND, Ore. – Zach Edey and No. 24 Purdue shook off a slow start. When No. 8 Duke tried to rally in the second half, the Boilermakers finished strong.

Edey had 21 points and 12 rebounds, and Purdue beat Duke 75-56 on Sunday in the championship game of the Phil Knight Legacy men’s tournament.

Fletcher Loyer scored 18 points for Purdue (6-0), and reserve Caleb Furst finished with 11 points and 10 rebounds.

“I feel like we weren’t getting the looks we wanted early. As we settled into the game, we kept our poise and kept getting the shots that we wanted,” Edey said. “They were making some tough twos at the beginning of the game, shots we’re OK with all season.”

The 7-foot-4 Edey was 7 for 13 from the field and 7 for 8 at the line. He was named tournament MVP.

“They have the most unique player in the country,” Duke coach Jon Scheyer said of Edey. “He’s a hard guy to prepare for because there’s nobody else like him.”

Duke (6-2) shot 36.2% (21 for 58) from the field. Tyres Proctor scored 16 points for the Blue Devils. Kyle Filipowski and Jeremy Roach each had 14.

Ethan Morton had a steal and a dunk to help Purdue open a 58-41 lead with 15:37 left in the second half.

Duke countered with an 8-0 run, capped by two foul shots by Dariq Whitehead. But Furst made a layup and a jumper to help hold off the Blue Devils.

A hook by Edey and a 3-pointer by Loyer made it 68-56 with 5:03 remaining.

Duke got off to a 14-7 start before Purdue worked its way back into the game.

“I don’t feel like we came out bad today, but they matched our energy,” Edey said.

A 3-pointer by Brandon Newman pushed the Purdue lead to 46-28. A late run by Duke cut the Boilermakers’ lead to 46-35 at halftime.

BIG PICTURE

Duke: It looked as if Roach had an issue with his left foot at one point, but he went back into the game. Scheyer said Roach had hurt his toe.

Purdue: Although neither team had great offensive games, Purdue was the better team from range. Purdue made seven 3-pointers to just two for Duke.

UP NEXT

Duke: Hosts Ohio State on Wednesday.

Purdue: Visits Florida State on Wednesday.

No. 18 Alabama beats No. 1 North Carolina 103-101 in 4 OTs

Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports
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PORTLAND, Ore. – Mark Sears had 24 points, five rebounds and five assists, and No. 18 Alabama sent top-ranked North Carolina to a second straight loss with a 103-101 victory in a quadruple-overtime thriller on Sunday in the third-place game of the Phil Knight Invitational tournament.

Jahvon Quinerly added 21 points off the bench for the Crimson Tide (6-1), who knocked off the top-ranked team for the first time since upsetting Stanford in the 2004 NCAA Tournament.

“I was losing track of how many overtimes we were in there at the end,” Crimson Tide coach Nate Oats said. “A lot of credit to our guys. I thought they showed a lot of character when we could have folded.”

Charles Bediako had 14 points, 16 rebounds and three blocks, while Brandon Miller also scored 14 points.

Caleb Love led the Tar Heels (5-2) with 34 points, nine rebounds, four assists and three steals. Armando Bacot contributed 20 points and 10 rebounds, and R.J. Davis had 19 points and nine rebounds in the second four-overtime game in North Carolina history. The other was a victory over Tulane in 1976.

“At the end of the day, Alabama made one more play than we did,” North Carolina coach Hubert Davis said. “I walked in the locker room and a number of the guys had their head down and I told them to pick their head up. I’m just as disappointed (as the players) in terms of the final outcome, but I couldn’t be any more proud about the way they competed.”

Bediako gave the Crimson Tide the lead for good on a layup with 26 seconds remaining in the fourth overtime.

The Tar Heels, who lost to Iowa State in the semifinals, led by as much as eight in the second half before Alabama came back to tie it. The Crimson Tide retook the lead on a pair of free throws from Gurley with 2 minutes remaining, and later tied with another free throw from Sears with 51 seconds remaining in regulation.

Alabama starting forward Noah Clowney took a hard fall on a dunk attempt four minutes into the first half and had to be helped off the court. He did not return.

The Crimson Tide were 16 for 38 (42.1%) from 3-point range, with Sears making seven.

BIG PICTURE

North Carolina: The Tar Heels figure to take a deep drop in the Top 25 poll.

Alabama: The Crimson Tide bounced back nicely following their loss to No. 20 UConn in the semifinals, beating a top-ranked team in the regular season for the first time since a 66-64 victory over eventual national champion Arkansas on Jan. 8, 1994.

UP NEXT:

North Carolina: The Tar Heels travel to Bloomington to face No. 11 Indiana on Wednesday.

Alabama: The Crimson Tide return home to face South Dakota State on Saturday.

Clingan lifts UConn past Iowa State for Phil Knight title

Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports
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PORTLAND, Ore. – Donovan Clingan had 15 points and 10 rebounds to power No. 20 UConn to a 71-53 win over Iowa State in the championship game of the Phil Knight Invitational on Sunday night.

Tristen Newton scored 13 points for the Huskies (8-0), who went 20 for 25 at the free-throw line. Alex Karaban and Andre Jackson, Jr. each had 10 points.

Osun Osunniyi led Iowa State (5-1) with 14 points. Tamin Lipsey had 12 points and Jaren Holmes finished with 11.

“They were the more aggressive team,” Iowa State coach T.J. Otzelberger said. “We wanted a physical game. We didn’t want a physical game with them getting the rebounds and then also us putting them on the foul line. Lesson that we’ve got to learn is we need to embrace being the aggressor at both ends of the floor at all times.”

The Huskies had more offensive rebounds (20) than the Cyclones had total rebounds (19), and capitalized on that disparity with 20 second-chance points.

“Those guys are tough,” UConn coach Dan Hurley said. “T.J.`s an excellent coach. They grind people up. To outrebound them, it just speaks to how tough we were.”

Clingan, who was named tournament MVP, scored eight points to help UConn to a 38-28 lead at the break.

Iowa State closed to 53-48 on Holmes’ 3-pointer midway through the second half. But Karaban made a 3 and a dunk, and Newton’s jumper made it 60-48 with 7:13 remaining.

BIG PICTURE

UConn: The Huskies couldn’t have asked for a better showing in Portland, winning all three of their games.

Iowa State: The Cyclones picked up nice wins over Villanova and top-ranked North Carolina in the earlier rounds but ended with their first loss of the season.

UP NEXT

UConn: The Huskies return home to face Oklahoma State on Thursday.

Iowa State: The Cyclones return home to face North Dakota on Tuesday.