2016-17 College Basketball Early-Season Crash Course
In case you missed it, we are two months into an intriguing college basketball season and it is certainly not too late to jump on board. Whether you need to fill the void football has left in your TV schedule or want to see the future stars that make up 2017's loaded NBA Draft class, it is definitely a great time to tune in.
This season has been full of marquee matchups and great basketball from recognizable names, along with some new ones.
Villanova has Been Strong in Repeat Effort, but Big East Is on the Rise
The defending national champion Villanova Wildcats are still playing great basketball and are once again a legitimate title contender.
Lead by senior and Naismith Player of the Year hopeful Josh Hart, the Wildcats have spent the most weeks of anybody atop the rankings and are doing so with a similar style of efficient shooting and swarming defense. The Cats are currently first in RPI with a 6-1 record against the top 50, including road wins over Purdue and Creighton, with their only loss amidst a tough schedule coming on the road to fellow Big East foe, 12th-ranked Butler.
Villanova will have stiff competition within its own conference, as Butler, along with Creighton and Xavier have been mainstays in the top 25. The three are a combined 11-4 against top 50 opponents this season, which has helped the conference rank second in RPI.
Blue Bloods in the Mix for National Title
Probably not much of a surprise here, but the typical cream of the crop in college basketball has reloaded and is back in the title conversation.
Kansas, Kentucky, Duke, and North Carolina are ranked in the top 11 and have conference and national titles on their minds. As part of the marquee matchups mentioned earlier, these four teams have been involved in some great games with each other and there is still more to come with Duke and Carolina playing their usual two-game regular season series, along with Kansas' trip to Kentucky soon.
Kentucky's Malik Monk, who is among the batch of standout freshman, played the game of the year so far, scoring 47 points in a shootout victory over UNC. While each of these programs have their own formula for success, they have all worked out swimmingly. If you love big-time college basketball and historically strong programs, then there is plenty to be excited about.
UCLA Is an Offensive Juggernaut and the Rest of the Pac 12 Is Trying to Keep Up
UCLA has been a surprise due to the immediate impact of freshmen Lonzo Ball and T.J. Leaf. The Bruins are currently the top ranked team in offense, according to our numbers, which has helped them power through their early schedule. In one of the best games this season, UCLA traveled to Lexington and handed Kentucky (the nation's top-ranked team at the time) their first loss, putting themselves on the national radar.
The only blemish on UCLA's resume thus far is a loss at Oregon.
That game put everyone else on notice that Oregon is exactly where everyone thought they would be. The Ducks tripped out of the gate while dealing with injuries, but have rebounded nicely, winning their last 13 games. Along with Oregon, Arizona will be in the mix in a top-heavy Pac 12. The Wildcats have some work to do to their resume since dropping their two highest profile games to Butler and Gonzaga.
Baylor and West Virginia Primed for Big 12 Takedown
Kansas has one of the most impressive streaks going in college basketball, having won 11 consecutive Big 12 regular season titles. While other teams have made good runs at Kansas during this time, Baylor and West Virginia are stepping up to put this streak in jeopardy.
Baylor powered through a tough early slate, which included wins over Oregon, Louisville, and Xavier on their way to a 15-0 start. Their first loss came to West Virginia, who dominated the Bears in Morgantown by 21 points in an effort to vault themselves into the national title conversation.
The Mountaineers have also claimed a victory at Virginia earlier in the season and their two losses by a total of five points. Most impressively, West Virginia is forcing a turnover on 33 percent of opponents' possessions, tops in the country. Both West Virginia and Baylor are top 10 in the country in defense, which will be important in taking down Kansas' high powered offense.
Florida State Is taking the ACC by Storm
Florida State has emerged early on as the leader of the ACC, much to the surprise of everyone but the Seminoles. They have already grabbed five top 50 wins in as many tries, including wins against Duke and at Virginia early in conference play.
Florida State also grabbed a signature non-conference win over Florida in Tallahassee a month ago. While the Seminoles have jumped out to a hot start, their next three games are against the remaining top 20 ACC foes they have yet to see, North Carolina, Notre Dame, and Louisville.
The Door Is Wide Open in the Big Ten
The early-season struggles of Michigan State and Indiana have left the door wide open in the Big Ten. While Indiana thrived during non-conference play with wins over Kansas and North Carolina, they have stumbled to a 1-3 start in the conference and have lost four of their last five.
Michigan State has followed the opposite trend, tripping out to a 7-5 start against a mostly challenging non-conference schedule, but have picked it up by winning four of their first five Big Ten contests. It will be worth keeping an eye on the Spartans, as they have three tough games coming up that can drop them back to the middle-of-the-pack in the conference.
The likely contenders to take advantage of this down year are Purdue and Wisconsin, who are both in the top 20 and were expected to compete for the conference crown this year. Other teams to keep an eye on that have had solid starts are Minnesota, Maryland, and Northwestern, who is seeking their first ever NCAA Tournament bid.
Teams Outside the Power Conferences to Remember Come March
Many of the usual suspects are making noise outside of the power conference, however there are some relative newcomers that have picked up big wins and seem poised to make a name for themselves this March. The West Coast Conference boasts two ranked teams in Saint Mary's and fifth-ranked Gonzaga, the only remaining unbeaten team in the country. The Zags have claimed five wins over power conference foes, including wins against Arizona and Florida on neutral courts.
SMU is back from their one-year postseason ban and look poised to make up for last season's lost opportunity.
Last year's regular season darling, Monmouth, is back around the top of the MAAC, hoping to avenge last season's loss in the conference tournament and go dancing in March. Speaking of last March, UNC Wilmington, who put a scare in Duke, and Middle Tennessee, who took down tournament favorite Michigan State, are leading their conference and look to take another shot at a power conference team.
Lastly, Nevada is certainly worth keeping an eye on; if not for their 14-3 start, than for the theatrics they put on display during their comeback victory over New Mexico. The Wolf Pack, who trailed by as much as 25, finished regulation on an unlikely 18-4 run and finished the Lobos off with a game-winning three.
This level of excitement has been happening throughout the country early on in the college basketball season and there is certainly more to come that should not be missed.