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Big Ten Conference Reset: Michigan State, Purdue are running away with the league

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College basketball’s non-conference season is finally coming to a close.

To help you shake off post-holiday haze and the hangover of losing in your fantasy football playoffs, we’ll be providing you with some midseason primers to get you caught up on all the nation’s most important conferences.

Who has been the best player in the biggest leagues?

Who is on track to get an NCAA tournament bid?

What have we learned about the conference hierarchy, and what is left for us to figure out?

We break it all down here.

Today, we’ll be taking a look at the Big Ten.

MIDSEASON BIG TEN PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Jordan Murphy, Minnesota

One of the pleasant surprises in college basketball this season, the 6-foot-6 junior has emerged into one of the sport’s most consistently productive players. Owning 15 double-doubles in 15 Minnesota games this season, Murphy is the Big Ten’s leading scorer at 19.1 points per game and is second in the nation at 12.6 rebounds per game.

Not only is Murphy beating up on low-major opponents, he’s getting it done against postseason-worthy teams. The Gophers have already played Providence, Arkansas, Miami and Alabama. Murphy was productive against all of them. It’ll be fascinating to see if Murphy can sustain this double-double production going against a league that has played him for two seasons.

THE ALL-BIG TEN FIRST TEAM

  • JORDAN MURPHY, Minnesota
  • DAKOTA MATHIAS, Purdue: One of the nation’s premier perimeter defenders has also had a quality offensive season. The senior is third in the league in assists (4.9 per game) while also playing incredibly efficient ball.
  • KEITA BATES-DIOP, Ohio State: Third in the Big Ten in scoring and rebounding, the junior forward is finally playing like the high-end four-star prospect he was out of high school. Bates-Diop is also averaging more than one block and one steal per game while shooting 38 percent from three.
  • MILES BRIDGES, Michigan State: Averaging similar numbers to last season, it’s no surprise to see Bridges on this list. Although the sophomore has much more talent around him this season, he can still take over a game.
  • TONY CARR, Penn State: The sophomore has put up big numbers all season as the Nittany Lions are off to a solid start. Putting up efficient shooting splits (including 52 percent from three) Carr can score on any team in the country.

POSTSEASON PREDICTIONS

  • NCAA: Michigan State, Purdue, Michigan, Maryland, Minnesota
  • NIT: Northwestern, Illinois, Ohio State, Penn State
  • OTHER/NO POSTSEASON: Iowa, Rutgers, Indiana, Wisconsin, Nebraska
MINNEAPOLIS, MN – NOVEMBER 21: Jordan Murphy ( Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)

THREE THINGS WE’VE LEARNED

1. MICHIGAN STATE IS A LEGIT TITLE CONTENDER: We had a feeling Michigan State was going to be very good entering this season and there is a reason many had them as a top-five team. With depth, experience and star power, Sparty had all of the necessary ingredients to be a major title contender. And that isn’t even factoring the ever-popular “Izzo in March” trope.

So far, Michigan State has lived up to its preseason hype. With only a loss to Duke during the first week of the season at the Champions Classic, the Spartans have been on a roll ever since as they continue to figure out new weapons to utilize. They’ve scored at least 100 points in four consecutive games. Michigan State has blowout wins over ACC contenders like North Carolina and Notre Dame. This team is everything we wanted them to be and they still have room to get better.

2. PURDUE IS FINE WITHOUT CALEB SWANIGAN: Losing All-American big man Caleb Swanigan was a major (and expected) blow for Purdue. The man known as “Biggie” was a double-double force of nature who made everything easier for the Boilermakers last season.

So far, Purdue has been very good without its former Player of the Year candidate. Despite a sluggish trip to the Battle 4 Atlantis that saw them lose two out of three, Purdue has looked very good for most of this season. A veteran team at multiple spots, seniors like Vincent Edwards, Dakota Mathias and Isaac Haas have all remained steady. Sophomore guard Carsen Edwards has also emerged as one of the Big Ten’s most potent scorers — capable of taking over a game if he gets hot from the perimeter. With conference wins over Maryland and Northwestern already in the fold, Purdue is off to a great start in conference play as well. Right now, they clearly look like the second-best team in the Big Ten.

3. THE REST OF THE BIG TEN IS WAY DOWN: With many new coaches and players throughout the Big Ten, this was expected to be an odd transition year in the conference. But with the way veteran teams like Minnesota and Northwestern struggled at times in non-conference play, things are even worse than they appear in the Big Ten this season.

This is a wide-open league with a lot of question marks outside of Michigan State and Purdue. When Big Ten teams played two early-December conference games, only three teams finished 3-0 in that stretch. If teams in the league continue to beat up on each other, then where does that leave the Big Ten in March? Are we only going to see four or five teams from the storied league make the NCAA tournament?

Miles Bridges (J Pat Carter/Getty Images)

THREE STORYLINES TO FOLLOW

1. WHO EMERGES AS THE THIRD TEAM IN THE BIG TEN?: As previously noted, the Big Ten only had three teams start the conference season at 2-0. One of them is Ohio State (more on them in a minute). No disrespect to the Buckeyes, but not many are counting on them to sustain that kind of success.

That means the Big Ten needs someone to step up behind Michigan State and Purdue. Minnesota and Northwestern are both capable of stringing together wins but they haven’t proven anything yet. Maryland is still young and inconsistent as they try to figure out how to close tight games without Melo Trimble. Michigan has been up and down with some puzzling stretches of poor play. Wisconsin is no longer Wisconsin.

So who breaks through and makes a run here? Somebody is bound to start a winning streak and emerge as a threat. But that answer, right now, isn’t blatantly obvious.

2. IS OHIO STATE A CREDIBLE THREAT?: With a surprising 11-4 start and 2-0 beginning in the Big Ten, Ohio State is one of three unbeaten teams in conference play in the Big Ten right now. Considering that head coach Chris Holtmann took the job in June, and had a limited number of scholarship players due to roster turnover, and this is a pretty solid accomplishment.

Can Ohio State keep this going? We know the Buckeyes are going to be a tough out on any given night. Being a tough out also doesn’t always equate to making the NCAA tournament. Ohio State is going to need to keep winning games if they want turn this surprising start into actual success. Thankfully for the Buckeyes, junior Keita Bates-Diop has developed into one of the league’s better players and veterans like C.J. Jackson and Jae’Sean Tate are also producing at a solid rate. Freshman big man Kaleb Wesson has been a pleasant surprise. With the league being so down, it wouldn’t be a shock if Ohio State continued to stay high in the standings but they have to prove they’re for real.

3. WILL WISCONSIN TURN IT AROUND?: In the past, we could always count on Wisconsin to make the NCAA tournament and to figure things out if they were off to a sluggish start. But after this season’s 8-7 start that saw the Badgers lose five of six games at one point, Wisconsin doesn’t look anywhere close to an NCAA tournament team.

Ethan Happ is still one of the league’s best players. Head coach Greg Gard hasn’t found a lot of consistent production around him. A young team that has struggled to compete against power-conference competition, Wisconsin needs to figure things out in a hurry if they want to make any kind of postseason.

For a program that hasn’t missed the NCAA tournament since 1998, this has been a difficult year for the Badgers. But you also have to keep in mind that Gard turned around a sluggish Wisconsin team that was 8-7 entering conference play in 2016. That team eventually went to the Sweet 16. Obviously, Wisconsin doesn’t have veterans from back-to-back Final Four teams to right the ship this time, but Gard has worked miracles before. Can Wisconsin pull another one this season?

THREE PREDICTIONS

1. MICHIGAN STATE MAKES THE FINAL FOUR (BUT FALLS SHORT OF THE TITLE): It’s been noted that the Big Ten hasn’t won a national title since Michigan State hoisted the trophy back in 2000. And with the way the Big Ten dominated the Bowl season in College Football the past few weeks — with no team in the College Football Playoff to show for it — the league is hungry to prove themselves on a national stage in a different sport.

In a year with no juggernaut teams, this is a huge chance for Michigan State to end the title drought. Miles Bridges is a major star. The team’s other best players, Nick Ward, Cassius Winston, Joshua Langford and Jaren Jackson Jr., are all underclassmen with room to grow. It’s scary to think that Michigan State could actually get better as the season goes on, but that is certainly possible. The Spartans might have the highest floor of any team in the country.

But the Spartans don’t have the highest ceiling. The Duke loss already showed us that. Other teams like Arizona have more go-to star power. It’ll be fascinating to see if Michigan State can make a title run, but the Big Ten isn’t going to prepare them as well as it would in most seasons.

2. NORTHWESTERN MISSES THE NCAA TOURNAMENT: Expectations were sky-high for Northwestern entering this season. Coming off of the first NCAA tournament run in school history and returning most of that roster will do that to you.

The Wildcats, unfortunately, haven’t lived up to the high billing.

Playing as the hunted has been far more difficult for Northwestern this season. Stumbling against most of the good teams on the non-conference schedule, the best win the school might have at the moment is a two-point road win at local rival DePaul. Northwestern hasn’t beaten any good teams yet. Now that senior point guard Bryant McIntosh is dealing with a knee injury, that’s something else to keep an eye on.  Home-court advantage disappeared for Northwestern this season when the team had to move to AllState Arena as Welsh-Ryan Arena (rocking by the end of last season) undergoes renovations. Things just aren’t adding up for Northwestern right now. They have a lot of work to do to make it back to the Big Dance.

3. MICHIGAN EMERGES AS THE BIG TEN’S OTHER TEAM TO WATCH: It’s hard to get a feel for Michigan this season. Lately, the Wolverines have put together some solid wins against UCLA and Texas. There’s still also the lingering reminder that Michigan has blown second-half leads to teams like LSU and Ohio State.

So which Michigan are we going to see in conference play? Knowing what we know about head coach John Beilein, his teams tend to get better as the season rolls along. Last season’s Michigan team that peaked in March is proof of that. So I’m banking on Michigan to emerge as another team to watch in the Big Ten.

Charles Matthews has emerged into a solid two-way player for the Wolverines and vets like Mo Wagner, Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman and Duncan Robinson are also still capable scorers. The big key for Michigan is point guard play. Sophomore Zavier Simpson hasn’t been steady enough to take the job full time and graduate transfer Jaaron Simmons hasn’t lived up to the preseason expectations placed on him. If Michigan figures out point guard, they have intriguing weapons all over the floor.

ACC Conference Reset: How many contenders are there?

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College basketball’s non-conference season is finally coming to a close.

To help you shake off post-holiday haze and the hangover of losing in your fantasy football playoffs, we’ll be providing you with some midseason primers to get you caught up on all the nation’s most important conferences.

Who has been the best player in the biggest leagues?

Who is on track to get an NCAA tournament bid?

What have we learned about the conference hierarchy, and what is left for us to figure out?

We break it all down here.

Today, we’ll be taking a look at the ACC.

MIDSEASON ACC PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Marvin Bagley III

He’s getting overshadowed some by fellow freshman Trae Young, but Bagley has been awesome this season. He’s averaging 21.2 points and 10.9 rebounds while shooting 61.7 percent from the floor and a respectable 34.6 percent from 3-point range for a 6-foot-11 forward. He’s gone into Duke and been dominant, helping the Blue Devils to a 12-1 record while easing the burden – and dimming the spotlight – on Grayson Allen. If Duke wins its sixth national championship, Bagley very well could be the reason why.

THE ALL-ACC FIRST TEAM

  • MARVIN BAGLEY, Duke
  • BONZIE COLSON, Notre Dame: The 6-foot-6 power forward is one of the most fun watches in college basketball. The senior is at the height of his powers, averaging 21.3 points on 54.1 percent shooting
  • LUKE MAYE, North Carolina: He’s averaging a double-double of 18.1 points and 10.5 rebounds a year after putting up 5.5 and 3.9, respectively. Pretty clear he’s no NCAA tournament fluke.
  • GRAYSON ALLEN, Duke: It’s nice to only be talking about Allen’s game after last season’s tripping-induced meltdown. His 137.1 offensive rating is by far a career best, as is his 45.2 percent mark from 3-point range.
  • KYLE GUY, Virginia: The top knot may be gone, but Guy’s production has stayed with the new haircut. He’s getting buckets in bunches while carrying a big offensive load for the Cavaliers.

POSTSEASON PREDICTIONS

  • NCAA: Virginia, North Carolina, Duke, Miami, Clemson, Notre Dame, Florida State, Louisville
  • NIT: Virginia Tech, Syracuse, North Carolina State
  • OTHER/NO POSTSEASON: Wake Forest, Georgia Tech, Pittsburgh, Boston College
Marvin Bagley III (Steve Dykes/Getty Images)

THREE THINGS WE’VE LEARNED

1. VIRGINIA STAYS VIRGINIA: Tony Bennett’s program continues to be one of the most consistent in the country. The losses of Malcolm Brogdon and Anthony Gill led to a 23-11 season and a five-seed in the NCAA tournament last year. The Cavaliers looked prime for a slip with the graduate of London Perrantes and the transfer of Marial Shayok, but instead they’re 11-1 and an established ACC frontrunner.

Of course, Kyle Guy’s offense and Devon Hall’s emergence on that end of the floor has been huge, but it’s all about defense with the Cavaliers. They’re allowing an opponent effective field goal percentage of 42.4, seventh in the country. That’s powered by an opponent 2-point shooting percentage of 39.9, an absurdly low number. The pack-line just produces, or, rather, stops others from producing.

2. THIS DUKE TEAM LOOKS FAMILIAR: A truly special group of freshmen – including a dominant big man, an efficient point guard and a dynamic wing – surrounding a special senior. The Duke of 2017-18 is looking suspiciously like Mike Krzyzewski’s 2014-15 team that cut down the nets at Lucas Oil Stadium.

The separation between the two right now is defense – the Blue Devils currently rank 73rd in adjusted defense – but that 2015 group was pretty brutal on that end of the floor as well until its NCAA tournament run rocketed them up the rankings. If Duke continues to rate as the country’s best offense, the defense only has to get marginally better for this Duke team’s season to finish in the same manner as 2015’s.

3. LUKE MAYE IS A STAR: Maye’s career path is astounding. He went from agreeing to initially walk-on at North Carolina to barely playing as a freshman to being a rarely-used reserve as a sophomore who became a sensation with his breakout play in UNC’s run to through the NCAA tournament to a national championship last year. He’s proving he’s no novelty act this season.

Maye is averaging a double-double while shooting 52.8 percent from the floor and 45.9 percent from 3-point range. He’s adding in 2.5 assists and 1.1 blocks per game too for good measure. He’s not a complete rags-to-riches story as Maye had plenty of high-major offers coming out of high school, but his development – in conjunction with his expanded role – is something rarely seen in the college game today, especially at a blue blood like North Carolina.

Luke Maye (Steve Dykes/Getty Images)

THREE STORYLINES TO FOLLOW

1. HOW MANY CONTENDERS ARE THERE?: Duke is probably the consensus favorite to win the ACC, but the conference looks strong at the top. How many teams can legitimately lay claim to contender status? Right now, the number looks like six, including the Blue Devils.

Virginia’s case has already been laid out above. The Cavs are going to defend, and that’s going to give them a shot. The Tar Heels, a loss to Wofford notwithstanding, look a worthy successor to last year’s title team. Miami’s defense looks legit, Clemson has wins over Ohio State, Florida and South Carolina while Notre Dame and Florida State have looked intriguing enough.The bottom of the league may be soft, but the top will be a brawl.

2. WHAT’S NEXT FOR LOUISVILLE?: David Padgett and the Cardinals are 10-2, but their best win is over an Indiana team that already has six losses (shoutout to Indiana State and Fort Wayne). Against their only other real competition, Purdue and Seton Hall, Louisville lost by nine and two points, respectively. So, how good is this team?

Here’s betting they’re somewhere around “meh.” The offense hasn’t really hummed all year, and the defensive numbers are probably inflated by substandard competition. With a mediocre offense and a good-but-probably-not-great defense, Louisville is probably on track for the bubble. Then begins the incredibly intriguing situation regarding its coaching position.`

3. COACHES ON THE HOT SEAT: Clemson’s Brad Brownell and Boston College’s Jim Christian both entered the season under some serious pressure to win. The Tigers made the NCAA tournament in Brownell’s first season, 2010-11, but haven’t since while Christian’s Eagles had six ACC wins in his first three seasons, including an 0-18 campaign in 2016.

Both are off to strong starts – Clemson is 11-1 while BC is 10-3 with a win over Duke – but both their futures will likely be decided in how the next three months play out. What’s good enough? For Clemson, it’s probably a tourney birth. For Boston College, the bar is probably competency and competitiveness in the ACC. The other situation to monitor is Pitt. Kevin Stallings is in just his second year, but season No. 1 was something of a debacle and this campaign already features losses to Navy and Montana. If the Panthers can’t hang in the ACC, it wouldn’t be shocking to hear the drum beat from Pitt fans to give Stallings an early hook gain some momentum.

THREE PREDICTIONS

1. BONZIE FOR PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Marvin Bagley is the best player in the conference, but here’s betting that Colson gets the nod for ACC Player of the Year. Colson is going to put up big numbers, Notre Dame should be pretty good and voters will probably break any ties by giving the nod to a senior with a distinguished career over a freshman who was never destined to spend more than a few months on campus. Right, wrong or indifferent, that’s the way it often works. And Colson is awesome, so he could just win the thing going away.

2. DAVID PADGETT DOESN’T KEEP THE LOUISVILLE GIG: Padgett has done a good job in a bad situation. He’s kept Louisville together despite the turmoil that’s inherent to the circumstances of losing a Hall of Fame coach and athletic director amidst the fallout of a federal investigation into corruption in college basketball (what an amazing sentence, tbh). The Cardinals are playing well and go into tonight’s game against Kentucky with a puncher’s chance. Still, it seems unlikely he’ll win enough to force Louisville to keep him on, and given the expectations in the program and fan base, that would seem to be the only way they hire a 32-year-old with no previous head coaching experience on full time.

3. N.C. STATE WILL SURPRISE: The Wolfpack raised some eyebrows when they knocked off Arizona, but that proved to be more about the Wildcats as it tipped off their three-game losing streak. NC State followed it up with losses to Northern Iowa and Tennessee, and then dropped one to Greensboro. So, not exactly a completely promising non-conference slate for Kevin Keatts’ group. They’re still kind of intriguing, though, The offense is pretty good, the defense seemingly has to get better and there’s plenty of talent on the roster. The Wolfpack probably won’t immediately figure it out and become an NCAA tournament shoe-in, but look for them to jump up and cause some problems for the league’s top teams.

Big East Conference Reset: It’s still Villanova’s league, but for how long?

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The NBA Draft’s Early Entry Deadline has come and gone. Just about every elite recruit has decided where they will be playing their college ball next season. The coaching carousel, which ended up spinning a bit faster than initially expected, has come to a close. The transfer market is slowly winding down.

In other words, by now, we have a pretty good feel for what college basketball is going to look like during the 2017-18 season. With that in mind, let’s take a look at what has happened — and what will happen — in the Big East over the next six months.

OFFSEASON STORYLINES 

1. Patrick Ewing returns to Georgetown: The Hall of Fame center who took the Hoyas to three Final Fours — winning the 1984 national championship — returns to his alma mater for his head coaching debut after 14 years as an NBA assistant coach. He replaces John Thompson III, who was relieved of his duties following a second straight losing season, the third time in four years Georgetown failed to reach the NCAA Tournament. Ewing’s hire shows that John Thompson Jr. still has a lot of pull in the university but Ewing has been praised for his work ethic and player development during his decade-plus as an NBA assistant. But he has an uphill battle on the Hilltop.

2. NBA Draft didn’t hurt the league: Angel Delgado, who reportedly was set to stay in the draft, decided to return to Seton Hall for his senior season. That made the Pirates a realistic threat to knock Villanova off the throne it sat upon since the relaunch of the Big East Conference. Trevon Bluiett, who averaged 20.4 points per game during the conference and NCAA Tournament, also returned. With Villanova point guard Jalen Brunson as another option, both Delgado and Bluiett should find themselves on every single preseason All-American team. Not every team was as lucky as Seton Hall and Xavier, Justin Patton, a redshirt freshman who flew under the radar for much of the season, decided to remain in the draft. He’s projected to be a first round pick.

3. Recruiting classes: At the moment, Xavier commit Paul Scruggs is the highest ranked recruit joining the Big East, according to Rivals. In fact, the Musketeers have two of the top three prospects joining the league, both of whom are listed in the top-50. Butler, according to the Indy Star, has the school’s best recruiting class coming in, headlined by Kyle Young, Christian David, Jerald Butler and Aaron Thompson. Four seasons ago, both programs were in the Atlantic-10.

Trevon Bluiett (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

IMPORTANT ADDITIONS

  • Omari Spellman, Villanova: Expected to replace Daniel Ochefu in Villanova’s quest for a repeat, the heralded freshman big man was forced to academically redshirt due to his freshman year of high school when he transferred from a public high school and reclassified at a prep school several months later. Spellman is a better offensive player than his would-be predecessor, even capable of scoring from the perimeter. Rivals had the 6-foot-9 Spellman listed as a top-20 recruit in the Class of 2016.
  • Makai Ashton-Langford, Providence: One of the most coveted point guards in the Class of 2017 had originally committed to UConn. He decommitted in March. Ed Cooley, who was in early on the likes of Donovan Mitchell and Wenyen Gabriel before seeing them commit to bluebloods, got a second chance and landed the New England native several weeks later. Whether it be with Mass Rivals on the grassroots circuit or Brewster Academy (N.H.) in the prep school scene, by the time Ashton-Langford debuts for the Friars he’ll have played a year and a half without losing a game.
  • Harry Froling, Marquette: With Luke Fischer exhausting his eligibility, the Golden Eagles, who weren’t deep on the frontline to begin with, needed some help. Marquette was able to land Froling, the SMU transfer following a visit in mid-January. Due to NCAA transfer rules, he’ll be eligible for the second semester. In 10 games, the 6-foot-10 Froling averaged 4.3 points and 3.2 boards per game. Matt Heldt and newcomers Theo John and Ike Eke will hold down the fort while Froling continues to sit out until late December.

SURPRISING DEPARTURES

  • L.J. Peak, Georgetown: Currently, Peak is projected as the last pick in the 2017 NBA Draft according to DraftExpress.com. That didn’t stop the Georgetown junior from forgoing his final season of eligible. The 6-foot-5 power guard averaged 16.3 points, 3.8 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game for the Hoyas. His departure means Georgetown has lost its top two scorers from a season ago, as Rodney Pryor, a graduate transfer, exhausted his eligibility.
  • Duane Wilson, Marquette: It’s clear that the program is focused on building around rising sophomore guard Markus Howard. Moreover, Wilson had seen his role diminished for the majority of the 2016-17 season but worked his way into the starting lineup as the Golden Eagles made their run at the program’s first NCAA Tournament under head coach Steve Wojciechowski. Wilson, the Milwaukee native, who redshirted his first season due to injury, elected to use his final season of eligibility at Texas A&M.
Patrick Ewing (Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images)

COACHING CHANGES

  • Patrick Ewing, Georgetown: As mentioned above, Ewing replaces John Thompson III after 13 seasons with the program, leading the Hoyas to the Final Four in 2007. By all accounts, this appears to have Big John’s fingerprints all over it. However, Ewing at least had coaching experience, 14 as an NBA assistant, before he got his first coaching job. That wasn’t the case two years ago when Chris Mullin took over at his alma mater. Arguably Ewing’s biggest task will be filling out a coaching staff that can hit the recruiting trail, especially the greater Washington D.C. area.

WAY-TOO-EARLY ALL-CONFERENCE PREDICTIONS

Trevon Bluiett, Xavier (Player of the Year)
Jalen Brunson, Villanova
Angel Delgado, Seton Hall
Marcus Foster, Creighton
Kelan Martin, Butler

WAY-TOO-EARLY POWER RANKINGS

  1. Villanova: All-American Josh Hart is gone but Jalen Brunson, a floor general who will end up on many preseason All-American lists, is back, as is Mikal Bridges, Eric Paschall and Donte DiVincenzo, a two-guard many peg as a breakout star next season. Jay Wright brings in a pretty good recruiting class but the biggest new addition is redshirt freshman Omari Spellman. The Big East Conference belongs to Villanova until someone proves it can knock it off.
  2. Seton Hall: Angel Delgado’s decision to return to for his senior season makes the Pirates the biggest threat to Villanova’s conference dominance. Delgado, the nation’s leading rebounder, rejoins Khadeen Carrington, Desi Rodriguez, and Ismael Sanogo. Madison Jones is gone but Myles Powell is a strong replacement after averaging double figures his freshman season. The Pirates are the most experienced team in the Big East. They are tough as nails and are likely the best defensive team in the league.
  3. Xavier: The Musketeers lost six of seven to close out the regular season but found themselves in the Elite Eight thanks in large part to the play of Trevon Bluiett. The 6-foot-5 wing returns, which puts Xavier in another good position for 2017-18. Edmond Sumner remained in the NBA Draft but that tournament run was made after his season ended following an ACL tear. J.P. Macura is back while Quentin Goodin and Tyrique Jones both made strides in their freshmen seasons. Chris Mack is also bringing in arguably his best recruiting class, headlined by Paul Scruggs and Naji Marshall.
  4. Providence: The most surprising team in the Big East last season was the Friars. Despite losing Kris Dunn and Ben Bentil, Providence went to its fourth straight NCAA Tournament under Ed Cooley. The Friars bring back everybody of value (sorry, Casey Woodring) for this season. I’ll catch heat for leaving Rodney Bullock off all-conference predictions but I’ll end by saying Kyron Cartwright, who averaged 6.7 assists per game, may have a better chance of earning that postseason honor.
  5. Butler: Despite losing Andrew Chrabascz, Avery Woodson, Tyler Lewis, and Kethan Savage, it’s hard to bet against Chris Holtmann. The Bulldogs retain Kelan Martin, one of the league’s top scorers, in addition to rising star Kamar Baldwin. Butler’s Class of 2017 is considered the best in program history.
  6. Creighton: The Bluejays are in a much different place if Justin Patton returns to Omaha for a sophomore season. That isn’t to say Creighton isn’t in line for a second straight NCAA Tournament appearance. Greg McDermott is hoping to strike gold again as Kaleb Joseph, the Syracuse point guard, spent several months practicing against Maurice Watson Jr. He’ll pair up in the backcourt with Marcus Foster, a fifth-year senior who will make sure the Bluejays have one of the conference’s most potent offenses.
  7. Marquette: Depth took a hit with the graduation of Luke Fischer, Katin Reinhardt and Jujuan Johnson, in addition to the departure of Duane Wilson. But Marquette has Markus Howard, who is expected to have a big sophomore season, while the frontline gains a boost at midseason with Harry Froling debutting after sitting out the spring and fall semester following his transfer from SMU.
  8. St. John’s: Shamorie Ponds, Marcus LoVett and Bashir Ahmed, the team’s three top scorers, return while Tariq Owens and Kassoum Yakwe are back to man the frontline. The Johnnies add transfer Justin Simon to the perimeter and Marvin Clark to the frontcourt. Sidney Wilson, like Ponds, is another coveted New York City recruit, will be joining the program. Chris Mullin had a lot of work to do when he took the job at his alma mater but has landed talented, especially local ones.
  9. DePaul: One of the biggest offseason additions, which resulted in immediate results, was when DePaul hired Shane Heriman, head coach of prep powerhouse La Lumiere. Northern Illinois graduate transfer Marin Maric, a potential starter for next year’s team, and 2019 point guard Tgyer Campbell both committed to DePaul this spring. Both played at La Lumiere under Heriman. Billy Garrett Jr. is gone but leading scorer Eli Cain is back in Lincoln Park.
  10. Georgetown: The Hoyas have lost their two leading scorers and the top incoming recruit since season’s end, one that resulted in the school parting ways with John Thompson III. The cupboard isn’t bare for Patrick Ewing’s first season. Jessie Govan and Marcus Derrickson return while Trey Dickerson joins the program as a graduate transfer. Nonetheless, Georgetown was 14-18 last season, in a league where seven teams made the tournament. This is a realistic placement, as odd as it seems, to slot the Hoyas.

Big 12 Conference Reset: Get Caught Up On All The League’s Offseason Wheelings And Dealings

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The NBA Draft’s Early Entry Deadline has come and gone. Just about every elite recruit has decided where they will be playing their college ball next season. The coaching carousel, which ended up spinning a bit faster than initially expected, has come to a close. The transfer market is slowly winding down.

In other words, by now, we have a pretty good feel for what college basketball is going to look like during the 2017-18 season. With that in mind, let’s take a look at what has happened — and what will happen — in the Big 12 over the next six months.

OFFSEASON STORYLINES

1. Kansas, again: In most of the previous 13 years, there was at least an argument to be made about a team that could challenge Kansas and end the Jayhawks’ reign atop the league. You can’t even pretend to believe that’s the case heading into the summer before this season. Yes, West Virginia will be good and Texas is interesting, but the Jayhawks, well, they’re on another level.

Nearly everything went according to plan this offseason for Kansas, which lost Frank Mason and Landen Lucas to graduation and Josh Jackson to the draft but Devonte Graham and Svi Mykhailiuk are both coming back. Those two make for an experienced and skilled core, and when it’s paired with Mississippi State transfer Malik Newman, high-level recruits Billy Preston and Marcus Garrett and a healthy Udoka Azubuike, Kansas’ talent is among the best in the country.

2. What’s Bruce Weber’s status?: When Kansas State got blasted by 30 points in late February by Oklahoma – a Sooners team that won just 11 games on the year – it looked like be curtains for Bruce Weber’s tenure in Manhattan. Rather than fade to black, though, the Wildcats won their next three to nab a spot in the First Four, where they beat Wake Forest.

So what’s next for Weber? The fan base is unsettled, even after the third NCAA tournament in his five years there, and Kansas State has a new athletic director, Gene Taylor. Kamau Stokes, Barry Brown and Dean Wade return after successful seasons, but is there enough talent there to get back to the NCAA tournament? And is that even the bar to clear, both for Wildcat fans and the new AD? Weber may not be on the proverbial hot seat – there’s even talk of an extension for him this summer – but his situation is an interesting one, especially if Kansas State struggles out of the gates.

Shaka Smart (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

3. Texas’ reinvention: Yeah, Texas made the NCAA tournament in Shaka Smart’s first season leading the Longhorns, but it’s hard to look at his two seasons there without some disappointment, especially after an 11-22 season in which Texas finished last in the Big 12 last season despite having a potential lottery pick in Jarrett Allen on the roster. The Longhorns were young and had a roster that didn’t really fit, but, still, a 4-14 Big 12 record is unsightly.

This year, though, Smart has a truly intriguing and, more importantly, talented group that would appear to fit together well. Andrew Jones tested the draft waters before coming back to Austin and Kerwin Roach and Eric Davis are a year older and more seasoned. But it’s the newcomers that really make Texas a team to watch. Mo Bamba picked Texas over Duke and Kentucky, giving the Longhorns not only a 7-footer who may be the top 2018 NBA draft pick but also a massively important symbolic recruiting victory. Four-star recruit Matt Coleman gives Smart the point guard he so desperately missed, and Smart secured three other four-star players in the class. Texas probably won’t win the Big 12 this season, but it’s not hard to think this will be the season we all look back on as truly the start of the Smart era.

4. Country roads lead to victories: West Virginia lost a lot, namely Tarik Phillip and Nathan Adrian, but Jevon Carter and Esa Ahmad might be the best one-two punch in the conference outside of the city limits of Lawrence. Bob Huggins is going to get the most out of this group, and that’s likely going to mean a bunch of wins. Kansas is the toast of the league, but the Mountaineers are worth raising a cup for as well, though it should probably be filled with something stronger than champagne.

IMPORTANT ADDITIONS

  • Malik Newman, Kansas: Newman underwhelmed in his first collegiate season, averaging 11.3 points and shooting 39.1 percent as a Mississippi State freshman, but he’s a former top-10 recruit that’s spent a year away from competition under the tutelage of Bill Self. He seems to be a prime candidate to turn a fresh start into a dynamic season
  • Mohammed Bamba, Texas: As mentioned above, Bamba’s decision to come to Texas is a potential game-changer. He adds some serious star power to the Big 12, a league that’s lacked that some in recent years outside of Kansas’ one-and-done players.
  • Billy Preston, Kansas: Preston isn’t thought of as highly as recent top Kansas recruits like Josh Jackson, Kelly Oubre or Andrew Wiggins, but the kid can really play. He won’t be asked to play a starring role, but if he can be an impactful contributor, that’s all Kansas will need
  • Trae Young, Oklahoma: The post-Buddy Hield wasn’t kind to Oklahoma last season, but Lon Kruger and the Sooners don’t figure to stay down long, especially with the hometown five-star prospect in the fold.
  • Lindell Wigginton, Iowa State: The Cyclones have enjoyed one of the steadiest point guards in recent college basketball history for the last four years with Monte Morris setting the sport’s career assist-to-turnover ratio record, but they’ll now turn the team over to Wigginton, the program’s best-rated recruit in a generation. Wigginton will probably have to be special if Iowa State is to make a seventh-straight NCAA tournament.
Devonte’ Graham (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

SURPRISING DEPARTURES

  • Al Freeman, Baylor: Freeman saw his role slashed last year, so it’s not entirely surprising, but losing an experienced and talented player like Freeman always stings.
  • Tevin Mack, Texas: He was Texas’ leading scorer last year, but seemed to find himself at odds with Shaka Smart. Texas has an infusion of talent coming, but losing Mack is losing production, even if it also means dispatching with some headaches
  • Carlton Bragg, Kansas: Maybe not so surprising after Bragg averaged 13.8 minutes per game last year, but definitely noteworthy as he’s a former top-25 recruit. Kansas should have plenty of frontcourt talent anyway.

COACHING CHANGES

  • Mike Boynton, Oklahoma State: Oklahoma State got one of the most coveted coaches on the market in 2016 when it pulled Brad Underwood from Stephen F. Austin. Then the Cowboys promptly lost him to Illinois reportedly largely over monetary concerns, and turned around and hired his assistant for a $1 million salary this upcoming season. Boynton may turn out to be a wildly successful head coach, but Oklahoma State certainly signaled that it doesn’t prioritize spending on basketball with this whole ordeal.

WAY-TOO-EARLY ALL-CONFERENCE PREDICTIONS

Devonte Graham, Kansas (Player of the Year)
Jevon Carter, West Virginia
Andrew Jones, Texas
Esa Ahmad, West Virginia
Mohammed Bamba, Texas

Bob Huggins (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

WAY-TOO-EARLY POWER RANKINGS

  1. Kansas: After 13-straight titles, this doesn’t need much explanation. The Jayhawks are, as always, the team to beat.
  2. West Virginia: Bob Huggins has turned Press Virginia from gimmick to way of life in Morgantown. The Mountaineers have plenty of turnover, but the talent, and coach, are still in place for a high league finish.
  3. Texas: The Longhorns looked like a team in the tier below the league’s top squads, but adding Mo Bamba late gives them the appearance of being a cut above. If Andrew Jones can take a big step forward as a sophomore and Matt Coleman can deliver at the point, Texas could be a very dangerous team.
  4. TCU: Jamie Dixon already had the Horned Frogs looking like a vastly improved group in Year 1, and he’s bringing just about everyone back in his second season. They might be light in high-end talent, but the continuity could go a long way.
  5. Texas Tech: Chris Beard may have been two overtime losses and two one-possession defeats in February away from getting the Red Raiders into the NCAA tournament last year. He’ll lose Anthony Livingston, but otherwise returns a solid core. Florida transfer Brandone Francis and DePaul transfer Tommy Hamilton IV might be the difference makers for Beard.
  6. Baylor: Losing Johnathan Motley early to the draft was a major loss for the Bears, but Manu Lecomte and Jo Lual-Acuil should keep Scott Drew and the Bears competitive.
  7. Oklahoma: Last year was a rough one for Oklahoma as it looked to rebuild after a Final Four season led by seniors, but it led to valuable experience for its young players. Now, Trae Young enters the fray hoping to take his hometown team back to the top-half of the Big 12.
  8. Iowa State: The Cyclones graduated four starters and six rotation players overall and will now be rebooting the roster in Year 3 under Steve Prohm. Iowa State is adding three well-regarded prep recruits, highlighted by five-star Lindell Wigginton, along with graduate transfers Hans Brase (Princeton) and Jeff Beverly (UTSA), but a step back seems inevitable.
  9. Kansas State: The Wildcats return some nice pieces in Kamau Stokes, Dean Wade and Barry Brown, but it’s going to be hard to make up for the losses of Wesley Iwundu and D.J. Johnson.
  10. Oklahoma State: Jeffrey Carroll is a potential all-league player, but the rest of the roster would suggest that the Cowboys will have their work cut out for them a year removed from making the NCAA tournament after an 0-6 start in the Big 12 under Brad Underwood, who now resides in Champaign, Ill.

College Basketball Conference Reset: The Big 12’s best players and biggest story lines

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College basketball’s non-conference season is coming to a close, and to help you shake off post-holiday haze and the hangover of losing in your fantasy football playoffs, we’ll be providing you with some midseason primers to get you caught up on all the nation’s most important conferences.

Today, we’re taking a look at the Big 12.

PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Frank Mason III, Kansas

Josh Jackson is the Jayhawks’ top draft prospect, but Mason is their most important, and though 12 games, their most productive. He’s shooting 50 percent from 3-point range and dishing out 4.7 assists while quarterbacking an offense that ranks in the KenPom top five. He’s the Big 12 player of the year and on the short list for contenders for national player of the year.

ALL BIG 12 FIRST TEAM

  • Frank Mason III, Kansas
  • Jawun Evans, Oklahoma State
  • Manu Lecomte, Baylor
  • Jo Lual-Acuil, Baylor
  • Johnathan Motley, Baylor

RESETS: ACC | Big Ten | Big East | Pac-12 | SEC | Big 12

WHAT WE’VE LEARNED

  • 1. The league is much better than anticipated: The thought coming into the season was that it was Kansas and everybody else. Well, the thought was it was like that more than it usually is in a league the Jayhawks have won 12-straight times. Instead, the league looks again as tough as any in the country and in some sense, maybe the deepest it has ever been. Baylor and West Virginia have established themselves as top-10 teams, but what’s maybe even more interesting is there appear to be no bottom feeders. TCU is vastly improved, and Oklahoma State looks for real. There doesn’t look to be an easy night on the schedule for anyone.
  • 2. The Scott Drew jokes have to stop: Drew has been among the sport’s favorite punching bags for some time. Whether it was questions about his high-level recruiting, his ability to turn talent to wins or his sometimes odd in-game decisions, there’s not much of a more mocked coach in the country. Rarely do his two Elite Eight appearances come into the conversation, and if they do, they’re qualified by an easy path. What about this Bears team, though? They’ve got one of, if not the, best resumes in the country with an undefeated record and wins over Oregon, Xavier and Louisville. And it’s not like Drew and the Bears are doing it with a ton of guys that topped recruiting boards. It’s more of a rag-tag group. Drew, and his guys, are getting it done.
  • 3. Press Virginia is maturing: When Bob Huggins pulled the handbrake on his program and quickly shifted directions into a full-court pressing team in 2014, it was unclear if Huggins would stick with it beyond that year or if it would even be sustainable. It’s looking like the Mountaineers are just starting to perfect it. Their turnover rate of 35 percent is by far the best of the Press Virginia era. Yes, it’ll come down in conference play, but that’s an astounding number.

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KEY STORY LINES IN LEAGUE PLAY

  • 1. Is there a contender to Kansas?: Probably not, right? Every year we ask this question and for the last 12, the answer has been no team has been good enough to knock off the Jayhawks. Tie them in some instances, yes, but never best. Baylor and West Virginia look like the real deal, but Kansas still would appear to be a tier better – plus they still play nine games at Allen Fieldhouse.
  • 2. Is the Big 12 still tops?: The conference has been the consensus top league in the country in recent years, but was expected to take a step back this season. The ACC might have more better teams, but it’s also got 14 members to the Big 12’s 10, which, as of Christmas day, all were ranked in the KenPom top-70. With Kansas carrying the banner, Baylor and West Virginia following closely behind and a host of solid squads, the Big 12 could once again be the country’s top league.
  • 3. How many bids?: Last season the league sent 70 percent of its members to the NCAA tournament. For that to be repeatable, Oklahoma State, Kansas State and Texas Tech all have to prove to be more than just good-looking records against soft schedules and none of the other league’s expected dancer can take a step back. It’s doable for the Big 12, but also a tall task.
NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 25: Tarik Phillip #12 of the West Virginia Mountaineers talks with head coach Bob Huggins of the West Virginia Mountaineers against the Temple Owls in the second half during the championship game of the NIT Season Tip-Off at Barclays Center on November 25, 2016 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
Tarik Phillip (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

BETTER THAN THEIR RECORD: Oklahoma sits just a game above .500 with a 6-5 mark, but two have their losses have come in overtime, another two were by a combined seven points (and leading scorer Jordan Woodard missed one of those game) and then there was a 20-point loss to Wisconsin. If the Sooners can get Woodard back healthy, they’re good enough to compete for a top-half finish in the conference behind one of the country’s most underrated coaches, Lon Kruger.

BEAT SOMEONE AND WE’LL TALK: Chris Beard has led Texas Tech to an 11-1 record in his first year in Lubbock, but the schedule is as soft and nondescript as a blanket of snow. Right now, the Red Raiders’ top KenPom win is Rice, which is ranked 112th. Texas Tech might be OK-to-good, but its resume doesn’t reveal much.

COACH UNDER PRESSURE: Since sharing the league title in his first season of 2013, Bruce Weber and Kansas State have seen their fortunes steadily decrease over the last three seasons. Oklahoma State snapping up Wildcat alum Brad Underwood after his dominating run at Stephen F. Austin only ratcheted up the scrutiny. Weber has the Wildcats at 11-1 this season, but they don’t have anything close to a “good win.” The win total looks nice, but it’s not really indicative of much growth.

LAWRENCE, KS - DECEMBER 10: Josh Jackson #11 of the Kansas Jayhawks dunks he ball against the Nebraska Cornhuskers in the second half at Allen Field House on December 10, 2016 in Lawrence, Kansas. (Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images)
Josh Jackson (Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images)

POWER RANKINGS, POSTSEASON PREDICTIONS

Tourney teams

  • 1.Kansas: The Jayhawks continue to be the toast of the league and look every bit the part of a national title contender. The backcourt of Mason and Devonte Graham has been superb and while the loss of Udoka Azubuike (wrist) hurts the front line, Josh Jackson has been as good as advertised.
  • 2. Baylor: It’s been one of the best stories this season in the country as the Bears remain undefeated with some serious wins to their name. Despite not having the five-star recruits that powered the early part of his tenure, Scott Drew might have his best team in Waco.
  • 3. West Virginia: Bob Huggins just got win No. 800 for his career and has the Mountaineers looking like another Final Four possibility for Huggs. West Virginia’s success over the last three years is proof enough their new style of play is sustainable against even the best teams in the country. The Mountaineers will be one of the most difficult matchups for any team on its schedule.
  • 4. Oklahoma State: The return from injuries of Jawun Evans and Phil Forte has allowed first-year coach Brad Underwood to hit the ground running in Stillwater. The defense is still a concern, but the Cowboys look to have a formula that works.
  • 5. Iowa State: The Cyclones have struggled some to adjust to a post-George Niang world, but their defense has been markedly improved and the offense figures to catch up at some point. Iowa State really needs Monte Morris to be a bigger scorer and its wings to shoot it consistently from deep.
  • 6. Texas Tech: It’s been a Charmin-soft schedule for the Red Raiders, but their offense – especially their offensive rebounding – will probably translate enough to the Big 12 to put them in a position to hear their name called for a second-consecutive Selection Sunday.

NIT teams

  • 7. Oklahoma: The Sooners enter conference play on a down note of three-straight losses, but getting Jordan Woodard healthy should help them steer out of the skid and finish above .500.
  • 8. TCU: Jamie Dixon’s first season at his alma mater is making the school look smart for bringing him back home, but the schedule has allowed them to pile up wins without too much resistance. An NIT bid would be a nice start to his tenure with recruiting picking up.

Autobid or bust

  • 9. Kansas State: The Wildcats have exceeded expectations through the non-conference portion of their schedule but they haven’t been tested at all, either. Their younger players will certainly be put to the test in the grinding 18-game conference slate.
  • 10. Texas: How about this? Seeing the Longhorns struggle so mightily in Year 2 under Shaka Smart is pretty shocking, especially given he’s bringing McDonald’s All-Americans to Austin, but the total lack of guard play has been crippling to Texas. The Longhorns can’t really shoot it, either, which in basketball is a problem, I’m told. It’s hard to see them being able to correct that enough to climb the conference ladder.

College Basketball Conference Reset: The SEC’s best players and biggest story lines

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College basketball’s non-conference season is coming to a close, and to help you shake off post-holiday haze and the hangover of losing in your fantasy football playoffs, we’ll be providing you with some midseason primers to get you caught up on all the nation’s most important conferences.

Today, we’re taking a look at the SEC.

PLAYER OF THE YEAR: De’Aaron Fox, Kentucky

Malik Monk is the guy that everyone loves on Kentucky. He’s the high-volume scorer, the shooter that can hit eight threes in a game and pop off for 47 points on national television against North Carolina. That performance was unbelievable. But Monk hasn’t played like that every game, while Fox has been terrific basically every night that he’s step foot on the court for the Wildcats. His numbers are terrific – 16.3 points, 6.8 assists, 5.0 boards, 1.8 steals – but it’s the totality of what he provides Kentucky that gets him the nod over Monk. He’s Kentucky’s engine offensively, particularly in their lethal transition game, and he’s arguably the best perimeter defender in the country. As good as Lonzo Ball and Frank Mason II have been, there’s an argument to be made that Fox has been the best point guard in college basketball.

ALL-BIG TEN FIRST TEAM

  • De’Aaron Fox, Kentucky
  • Malik Monk, Kentucky
  • P.J. Dozier, South Carolina
  • Sebastian Saiz, Ole Miss
  • Yante Maten, Georgia

RESETS: ACC | Big Ten | Big EastPac-12 | SEC | Big 12

WHAT WE’VE LEARNED

  1. Kentucky is going to steam-roll through the league: This has more to do with Kentucky than it does the SEC, although the fact that the SEC is the weakest of the power conferences is a good thing for the Wildcats. But regardless of the reason, the Wildcats are the safest bet of any team in any league to win their conference. And that is a good thing for John Calipari, because it should afford him plenty of chances to try and cure what ails his team. Their biggest issue at this point is perimeter shooting because Cal is still figuring out how to effectively work Mychal Mulder and Derek Willis into the rotation. The other issue is Bam Adebayo, who has shown flashes of dominance but has been more or less anonymous for the first six weeks of the season. The Wildcats already are Final Four good, and they can still get better.
  2. A full strength South Carolina is the second-best team in the conference: The Gamecocks were terrific through the first month of the season, posting a perfect record and dominating the likes of Michigan and Syracuse. They are tough, they are athletic, they defend and they have a pair of really talented guards in Sindarius Thornwell and P.J. Dozier. All in all, Frank Martin’s club is just a misery to play against, as Frank Martin clubs tend to be.
  3. The young talent in the conference needs more time to mature: Entering the season, there were three teams that were really intriguing given the amount of talent that had joined the program: Texas A&M, Mississippi State and Auburn. The Aggies should be good enough to earn themselves an NCAA tournament bid despite the fact that they are playing without a point guard, but both the Bulldogs and the Tigers look like they’re a year away from getting Bruce Pearl and Ben Howland back into the NCAA tournament.
NASHVILLE, TN - MARCH 13: Yante Maten #1 of the Georgia Bulldogs shoots the ball against the South Carolina Gamecocks during the quarterfinals of the SEC Basketball Tournament at Bridgestone Arena on March 13, 2015 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Yante Maten (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

KEY STORY LINES IN LEAGUE PLAY

  1. So how many SEC teams are going to get bids to the NCAA tournament?: Kentucky’s going dancing, that’s for sure. Beyond that? Nothing is a given. Part of the reason is that the league, has a whole, did not land many great non-conference wins. Kentucky picked off North Carolina. Beyond that? South Carolina has wins over Syracuse and Michigan, Florida beat Seton Hall and Miami, Arkansas beat Texas, Georgia beat Georgia Tech, Ole Miss beat Memphis, Texas A&M beat … Denver. What that means is that, as of today, not only are these SEC teams in a bad spot today, there are only so many quality wins available in conference play. Just how much can you improve your résumé if you don’t land a win over the Wildcats? The league sent three teams to the tournament last season. Can they better that number this year?
  2. When will Sindarius Thornwell return?: Thornwell was deservedly in the conversation for all-americans seven games into the season, averaging 18.7 points, 6.1 boards and 4.3 assists. But then he got suspended for an offseason arrest, and the Gamecocks have gone just 2-2 in his absence. Yes, it’s given a chance for P.J. Dozier to shine, but if Thornwell is out for any significant amount of time, South Carolina is going to have a significantly lower ceiling than they would otherwise.
  3. Is there a challenger to Kentucky in the conference?: If there is going to be one, it’s going to be South Carolina. But we won’t have an answer to that until we know when the Gamecocks will be back to 100 percent. Even then, in order for Kentucky to blow the league title, something weird is going to have to happen.

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BETTER THAN THEIR RECORD: Georgia is checking in at 8-4 on the season, which is the kind of non-conference record that is usually reserved for teams that are going to be mired somewhere near the bottom of a power conference. The Bulldogs are better than that – J.J. Frazier is one of the better point guards in the conference and Yante Maten is one of the best big men in the country – but just how much “better than that” they are depends on just how good their supporting cast ends up being.

BEAT SOMEONE AND WE’LL TALK: Four games into the season, Arkansas went to Minnesota and lost by 14 points. At that point, it looked like the Razorbacks were destined for another .500 season, but fast forward a month and that is still the only loss Arkansas has suffered while Minnesota is sitting at 12-1. Moses Kingsley hasn’t been as good as he was as a junior, but that may be a good thing for Mike Anderson’s club as they look to be more balanced.

COACH UNDER PRESSURE: Kim Anderson climbed out of a coffin at Missouri’s Midnight Madness, which is not the imagery that a coach who won 19 games in his first two seasons and went 6-30 in the SEC in that span wants to invoke. The Tigers have already lost to NC Central and Eastern Illinois this season. Yikes.

LAS VEGAS, NV - DECEMBER 17: Malik Monk #5 of the Kentucky Wildcats drives against Kenny Williams #24 of the North Carolina Tar Heels during the CBS Sports Classic at T-Mobile Arena on December 17, 2016 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
Malik Monk (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

POWER RANKINGS, POSTSEASON PREDICTIONS

Tourney teams

  • 1. Kentucky: What else is their left to say about the Wildcats? They are a second consistent three-point shooter away from being an absolute terror. The good thing about playing in the SEC is that they shouldn’t have their chances of a No. 1 seed hurt if they focus on developing the likes of Bam Adebayo, Wenyen Gabriel, Mychal Mulder and Derek Willis.
  • 2. South Carolina: The Gamecocks are a misery to play against. They’re as tough and physical defensively as every Frank Martin team has been, but this group actually has some skill of the offensive end of the floor. P.J. Dozier has been fantastic this month, but the Gamecocks have a ceiling if they don’t get Thornwell back.
  • 3. Florida: I’m still trying to figure out this Florida team. They have the pieces that would allow them to thrive in Mike White’s system and they have some impressive computer numbers, but this was the case last season as well. The on-court product has yet to match the on-paper potential.
  • 4. Texas A&M: The Aggies are a point guard short of being really good. They have a really good front line – namely Tyler Davis and Robert Williams – and some solid shooters around them, but they don’t have a playmaker to set the table. The Aggies are in a tough spot in terms of getting a tournament bid after a non-conference season where they lost close games to Arizona, UCLA and USC.

NIT teams

  • 5. Georgia: The Bulldogs have the best one-two punch in the league this side of Kentucky in J.J. Frazier and Yante Maten,
  • 6. Arkansas: The Razorbacks are the great unknown in the SEC. They have a gaudy 11-1 record but they haven’t really beaten anyone that would make you believe that record is real. They could finish under-.500 in the league and they also could finish second in the league.
  • 7. Ole Miss: I like this Rebel team. Sebastian Saiz might be the best big man in the conference, but as long as Deandre Burnett has these bouts of inconsistency, Ole Miss has a ceiling.
  • 8. Auburn: The loss to Boston College is worrying, but with wins over Oklahoma and at UConn – and the recent addition of Austin Wiley – there’s reason to be bullish on the Tigers as we head into conference play.

Autobid or bust

  • 9. Tennessee: The Vols actually looked pretty good at North Carolina, when they had a chance to knock off the Tar Heels on the final possession. Four of their five losses this season have come to Wisconsin, Oregon, North Carolina and Gonzaga.
  • 10. Alabama: The Crimson Tide have played a pretty difficult schedule, but the only win of note that they have to date came against Arkansas State. It seems fitting that a team coached by Avery Johnson doesn’t have anyone averaging double-figures.
  • 11. Vanderbilt: The Commodores are sitting at 6-6 on the season, but they’ve had some promising performances of late, beating Chattanooga and losing by five at Dayton.
  • 12. Mississippi State: The Bulldogs got a boost last month when it turned out that Quinndary Weatherspoon didn’t actually need season-ending wrist surgery. That doesn’t, however, change the fact that this is a very young roster that Ben Howland is working with.
  • 13. LSU: The Tigers have a 35-point loss to Wichita State and a 36-point home loss to Wake Forest on their résumé.
  • 14. Missouri: During Missouri’s midnight madness festivities, Missouri head coach Kim Anderson made the decision to climb out of a coffin to introduce the crowd. I wonder at what point he’ll realize the symbolism.