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College basketball mid-season report: football fan’s guide to hardwood

With Clemson’s demolition of the Crimson Tide, winter has officially come for college football. Sure, you can still stalk teenagers on social media if you’re into that sort of thing. But why not watch some of most impressive athletes on the planet play an up and down, free-flowing, sometimes high scoring, most of the time competitive game? (Oh and this sport also happens to be the one with the most impactful home advantage in all of college athletics).

Many folks like to say they’ll tune into college basketball in March, but the reality is league play is extremely entertaining to follow in January and February. Plus, do you really want to be cramming knowledge about 68 different teams at the last second in early March?

You might have heard that the ‘Noles went to the Elite 8 last year. It was a thrilling ride. You might also be aware that FSU is pretty darn good this year, too. If you haven’t, go click here for the basketball section of this site and peruse at your leisure. You could also check out the last 15 minutes of the most recent Nolecast.

However, this article isn’t about FSU. Instead, consider this article a 2019 mid-season version of one of those “last time on…” recaps from your favorite bingeable TV show.

Conference Whip-around:

The Power Seven: Unlike on the gridiron, college basketball has seven conferences that are considered “high-major:” AAC, ACC, Big East, Big 10, Big 12, Pac-12, and SEC. In nearly every year, these seven leagues will all have at least one team receive an at-large bid into the NCAA Tournament—and most will have 2+ teams receiving an at-large bid. So how are they stacking up this year?

The ACC, once again, looks like the best overall league. It’s certainly the conference with the most legitimate Final Four contenders, with six teams (Duke, UVA, UNC, Virginia Tech, NC State, and Florida State) in the top 20 on Kenpom.com, including four in the top 8 (all six are in the top 15 of the human polls).

The Big 10 and Big 12 may lack the plethora of Final Four contenders, but both are arguably as good or better than the ACC from top to bottom. These three leagues have clearly separated from the next tier down. In fact, it wouldn’t be surprising to find 25 or 26 of the 68 NCAAT teams come from these three conferences.

The SEC is solid, but hasn’t lived up to its pre-season hype. Though Tennessee looks like a national title contender.

The Big East is slightly down from the last couple of years, but it’s still a top 5 conference and will likely send at least four teams to the Big Dance.

The AAC and Pac-12 are both way down, with the fun and gun league out west having a particularly dreadful season. They look to be the worst power league in decades and honest-to-goodness might not receive an at-large bid. Oregon, ranked 45th, is currently the highest ranked Pac-12 team on KenPom and they just lost their star freshman big man for the season. Yikes.

Mid-Majors: “Mid-major” is sort of a nebulous term, but generally speaking it’s the leagues that are not really “power conferences” but also above low-level leagues like the MEAC, SWAC, or Big Sky. Per usual, the West Coast Conference (WCC) is one of the strongest mid-major leagues, with Gonzaga—really, they are a high-major program—leading the way and the San Francisco Dons possibly giving the conference a 2nd at-large bid.

The Mountain West and A-10 are also decent leagues this year, with Nevada, ranked 13th in KenPom, showing the potential for a deep NCAAT run out of the Mountain West.

Best of the Rest: Some don’t consider the Mid-American Conference a mid-major. I do. Regardless, Buffalo is a darn good team and is positioned for an at-large bid should they lose in the MAC tourney.

Surprise Teams?

Better than expected:

Michigan went to the national championship game last year, but most people anticipated the Wolverines to take a step back this year. Instead, they are 15-0 and look even better. Not to be outdone, Michigan State is also a surprise team in the top 6 and seemingly getting better every game.

Texas Tech had to replace several key pieces from a surprise Elite 8 run last year, but the Red Raiders look to be even better this year. Might Chris Beard’s squad end more than a decade of Big 12 dominance for Kansas?

Wisconsin didn’t even make the NIT last year, finishing under .500 for the first time since 1998. But the Badgers, led by National Player of the Year candidate Ethan Happ, are back this year, currently ranked 14th on KenPom.

Virginia Tech has been a trendy “sleeper” pick for the last several years, but Buzz Williams’ teams keep forgetting to play defense. This year, however, there are some signs that VT is paring an elite offense with at least a solid defense and the talented Hokies, led by 5-star Nickeil Alexander-Washington, find themselves in the top 10.

Umm…you see what ha-ha-happened was:

Florida is one of the most talented teams in the entire country, but for whatever reason the Gators can’t seem to find a consistent identity under Mike White. After starting in many people’s top 25, UF sits at 8-5 and coming off a home loss to a bad South Carolina team.

Villanova is still good, especially on offense, but the defending champions have struggled at times to replace multiple NBA draft picks. Nonetheless, this is a talented squad with a fantastic coach so don’t be surprised if they end up in the top 20 by the end of the season.

Kansas is still, arguably, an elite team. But they were expected to be a legitimate top 3 team all season long and, while they have looked like the best in the country at times, they have also struggled in multiple games. This was compounded by yesterday’s news that star big man, Udoka Azubuike, would miss the rest of the season with a wrist injury.

Miami is coming off three consecutive NCAAT appearances, but this year the Hurricanes will struggle just to make the NIT. Jim Larranaga’s squad lost multiple NBA first rounders off last year’s team, then were named in the Adidas scandal which ultimately cost them the eligibility of their best player this year, and then lost their 4-star center to a season ending injury. Tough times in Coral Gables.

West Virginia has been an NCAA Tourney staple under Bob Huggins. But the loss of senior leader Javon Carter has rendered their vaunted press-defense a little more vulnerable this year and a brutal Big 12 schedule might have the Mountaineers headed to the NIT.

Freshman and Transfers

More and more it seems there are two ways to recruit in college basketball. The traditional method of paying convincing high schoolers and their handlers that your school is the right place to spend at least a couple of semesters. And a more modern method where you wait to see who develops in college and might be a better fit to transfer to your team, either as a normal transfer or a grad transfer who is then eligible to play right away.

The traditional method has yielded a particularly exciting crop of freshmen this season. Duke’s Zion Williamson has become a national sensation and he might not even be the highest pick from his own team in this June’s NBA draft. Coby White is scorching the net for UNC. Romeo Langford is dazzling Hoozier fans in Bloomington, Indiana. Ignas Brazdeikis is a Lithuanian sensation in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Andrew Nembhard is, at times, single-handedly keeping the Gators in games.

Yet, the transfer market is now arguably equally as important to deciding who cuts down the nets in April. Dedric Lawson (transferred from Memphis) might just win National Player of the Year for the Jayhawks in Lawrence, Kansas. Brandon Clarke (San Jose State) is a dominant force for Gonzaga. Reid Travis (Stanford) is a double-double machine for John Calipari’s Kentucky Wildcats. Marial Shayok (Virginia) is thriving in Iowa State’s uptempo system. And David Nichols (Albany) is proving to be a valuable 6th man for Leonard Hamilton’s substitution-friendly Seminoles.

Predictions:

I never really make Final Four predictions until the bracket is released because the NCAA Tournament is so much about matchups. But my crystal ball does have a few predictions coming into focus:

a) The ACC race will be a knock-down, bruising battle with four or five teams trading body blows with each other. But in the end, it will be UVA once again earning the top seed for the ACC Tournament.

2) The Big 12 regular season will be won by a team not named Kansas for the first time since 2004. Texas Tech would be the logical choice.

D) The WCC gets as many or more teams in the NCAA Tourney as the Pac-12. Seriously, what is happening out west?

garnet) Villanova will win the Big East, but will not earn a 1 or 2 seed in the Big Dance for the first time since 2013.

Gold) A team from Michigan or North Carolina will win the national championship.

Hope this was a helpful crash course in the world of college hoops. Feel free to ask questions in the comments or make your own predictions!

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