Now that the Super Bowl is in the past and football is in our rearview mirrors, let’s get you caught up to speed on the college basketball season.
Here are seven things you need to know to know this season:
1. Kentucky should be undefeated entering the NCAA tournament: That’s how good Kentucky is this year, particularly when compared to the rest of the SEC. We’re midway through the regular season, and the Wildcats already hold a three-game lead over everyone in the league except for Texas A&M. No other SEC team is ranked, and while the Wildcats will likely have some battles on their hands — particularly when they have to play on the road — there isn’t anyone in the conference that has the talent, depth or size that should allow them to beat the nation’s best team.
That said, I wouldn’t be surprised if Kentucky does suffer a loss at some point. There have been times during league play where they have looked almost bored. When there isn’t one game on your regular season schedule to circle or to look forward to — when the highlight of your regular season is playing in the Champions Classic or a non-conference game against Louisville — it’s hard to be amped about traveling to Baton Rouge to play LSU.
2. The ACC’s obscenely loaded at the top: Virginia may be coming off of a loss at home to Duke, but that doesn’t change the fact that the Cavaliers are the best team in the ACC this season. They’re probably the best team this side of Kentucky, which should tell you a thing or two about the Blue Devils, who now own wins at Louisville and at Wisconsin, in addition to at Virginia.
But that’s not it. Notre Dame is one of the nation’s most potent offenses this season while Louisville has seemingly found a rhythm offensively and North Carolina has bounced back from a rough start to the year. The ACC has five of the top 11 teams in the country playing in their conference, and they may not have another NCAA tournament team.
3. The Big 12 is the toughest conference, but do they have a title contender?: Kansas is once again the best team in the Big 12 and look like they’re on track to win yet another regular season title in the league. But they also are anything-but a finished product at this point in the season, as consistency from Kelly Oubre, Cliff Alexander and Wayne Selden is not something that they’ve been able to consistently get.
And beyond that, the conference is loaded with good teams, none of which look like a favorite to make the Final Four. Iowa State is entertaining to watch but doesn’t play all that much defense, and West Virginia is a nightmare to play against but they can go through scoring droughts when their press isn’t effective. Texas has fallen off the map to start league play. Oklahoma’s inconsistent and doesn’t quite have enough depth. I’m not sold on Baylor or Oklahoma State being a second-weekend team, and Kansas State is in a bad spot if they are going to make the tournament.
4. Gonzaga might be a No. 1 seed, but the title Best of the West still runs through Tucson: I know you probably feel like we say this every year, but this is the best team that Mark Few has ever had at Gonzaga. That includes the Adam Morrison years and the 2013 season, where the Zags were a No. 1 seed and lost in the second round of the NCAA tournament. Kevin Pangos is as good as any point guard in the country, the Zags have size, athleticism and scoring on their wings, and their front court is as deep and as balanced as anyone in the country. They may not lose another game before the NCAA tournament, so a No. 1 seed in the West is attainable.
But Arizona is the best team on the left coast, and I’m not just saying that because they beat Gonzaga in Tucson earlier this season. Stanley Johnson is starting to come into his own, their front line is overpowering and T.J. McConnell is making plays and scoring at the point guard spot like he’s still at Duquesne. Gonzaga may be the higher seed, but Arizona will be the favorite to run through the bracket.
5. The Player of the Year race has just four contenders: Duke’s Jahlil Okafor has been the favorite pretty much all season long, with Wisconsin’s Frank Kaminsky right on his heels. Notre Dame guard Jerian Grant is as important as any player in the country — and could very well be the nation’s Most Valuable Player — while Ohio State’s D’Angelo Russell is the nation’s most entertaining player.
6. The Big Ten makes no sense after Wisconsin: The Badgers are going to win that league title. There aren’t many people that are going to dispute that notion. But after that? Who is the second-best team in the conference? Is it Maryland, who just lost by 24 at Ohio State? Is it Ohio State, who is 5-3 in the league and winning right now because of just how good Russell has been this season? It’s not Iowa, not the way they’ve played the last two weeks. And it’s not Michigan, not with their injuries. Indiana is streaky, and Michigan State has some talented pieces but they’ve yet to play as tough as Tom Izzo teams generally do.
7. A number of elite programs aren’t elite this season: UConn, UCLA, Memphis, Michigan and Pitt are destined for the NIT this year. Syracuse and Florida have some issues to work out and some wins to land before they’re considered anything more than a bubble team. Even Texas is a question mark to make the tournament at this point. That’s a lot of name programs struggling this season.