My favorite part of the holiday is that it brings the non-conference portion of the college basketball season to a close. Let’s be honest: some teams continually test their teams every season because they all understand the caliber with which they must hold players accountable to sustain, achieve or emulate the level of success, but most just don’t. Some will use youth or transfers as reasoning but at the end of the day, I’ve always learned best when being thrown into the fire & expected to figure it out. Conference play is the same concept.
Even for a freshman, the experience will be completely different in conference play because the veteran a team may have come to rely on might not be as available when they have a defender that knows their tendencies, or that shot that you were getting consistently against non-conference teams has been scouted & taken away. Teams know that while the early part of the year sets a tone, you want to be playing your best ball come March, which means closing the season strong into the conference tournament and then into postseason play.
Things can go a multitude of ways & the season itself is guaranteed to have peaks & valleys. Let’s take a look at two perennial final four contenders on each side.
The Blue Devils came into this preseason with all the hype after an underwhelming finish to last season; mainly due to the influx of what's been considered the best freshman class in the country. They’ve all had their struggles & growing pains, even losing a player to transfer yet they passed their non-conference exam with flying colors. They didn’t dominate every game & likely trailed way more than they should have, but they found ways to continue to win games. Then came the ACC opener, on the road, early in the morning, against a team that just lost a key guy to injury & starting two guys with North Carolina ties. Result? Duke took its first loss to Boston College. The beauty of the process? They wouldn’t have won the next game game against Florida State (more on they later) had they beat BC. Issa cycle.
Oy. Losing to a team twice before December is bad enough. But having six losses before the calendar flips? AP poll voters were unsure what to do with the Cardinal for the last couple weeks, however, after dropping a home game to Western Illinois (Editors note: GO FUCKING NECKS!!!), you just kick them out & don’t worry about them anymore, right? Wrong. Facing a three-game losing streak, two of which to open Pac-12 play, Hall of fame coach Tara Vanderveer used her mix of cagey veterans & fearless freshmen to upset then 11th-ranked UCLA before knocking off a previously 10-2 USC squad. 312 consecutive appearances in the poll ended but the Cardinal came right back into the rankings this week at 24. If they can find some consistency after fielding a healthy roster for the first time all season, Columbus is still an option for this team.
Needless to say, whether for good or for worse, the conference season will tell a coaching staff a lot about what their strengths & weaknesses are, with more than enough time to adjust for postseason play. Let’s take a look at six teams in both men's and women's basketball that should be poised to make the most noise in March. The teams listed below were ranked lower than three in their conference preseason’s poll.
Florida State Seminoles (ACC)
I’m grateful Duke only has to see this team once during ACC play. Leonard Hamilton’s team came into Cameron Indoor Stadium confident & ready to steal a win. They proceeded to hit 15 threes and wouldn’t back down from the most talented team in the country. This game also seemed like the early separator for player of the year. Marvin Bagley III’s monstardom was on full display.
If this team can find a way to get into the postseason, they should make some noise. There was a bit of an over exaggeration of expectations after this team made its first NCAA tournament but look for Chris Collins to right the ship throughout the course of conference play & have his team in the conversation, if not into the tournament. If they can get in, they should be able to snag a win or two this time.
Oklahoma Sooners (Big 12)
If you love basketball in its purest form, you need to find a way to watch Oklahoma play. Lon Kruger has made a career of being an elite basketball coach. We’ve all played for that one coach who has one system & regardless the rhythm, rhyme or reason, they force players to fit into that mold. Buddy Hield splashed onto the national scene two years ago because Kruger catered to his skill-set. Now, he’s got a transcendent basketball IQ that’s native to Norman. Look out March. Guards win big games. & Trae Young has been the best guard in the country so far.
Mississippi State Bulldogs (SEC)
Remember how I mentioned that guards win big games? Well Mississippi State has probably the most underrated backcourt in the nation. Brothers Quinndarry & Nick Weatherspoon overshadowed the signing & subsequent transfer of McDonald’s All-American Malik Newman, & rightfully so. Add in Xavian Stapleton & Tyson Carter & that’s all All-Mississippi quartet of guards that can go with anyone in the country. The only thing keeping them out of regular conversation is lack of talent around them & shaky coaching. A run or two during SEC play is needed to hold onto a berth, but at 12-1 the team controls their own destiny.
Oregon Ducks (Pac 12)
Dana Altman is on the path to creating a west coast powerhouse, even if this seems to be a transitional year as key guys from Oregon’s deep run into the Final Four last season have moved on. New names must step up,but so far so good. Payton Pritchard is an electrifying young guard to match the one on the women’s team & Eugene has to be happy with the current state of hoops.
Murray State Racers (Ohio Valley)
Ja Morant is the most electrifying freshman point guard in the country. Shaq Buchanan was the most entertaining JUCO prospect in the country last year & now they team up every night to put on a show in the Ohio Valley Conference. Find tickets.
Syracuse Orange (ACC)
Quentin Hillsman might be onto something. I watched a ton of basketball during the U19 world championship this summer & was highly impressed by a group of French players, two of whom are taller than 6’0 and play on the wing. The other a gritty, tough, strong power forward who played even bigger than her solid size. Two of those players are on the roster & have yet to play this year (redshirt to play them together much?) and the other is already signed. Next year could prove to be the start of something special but don’t sleep on this year’s team either. Tiana Mangakahia & Miranda Drummond have been two of the most impactful transfers to play this season.
Rutgers Scarlet Knights (Big Ten)
Rutgers hasn’t looked like themselves in a few years. Part of that has been because Tyler Scaife has either had no help or wasn’t healthy. Neither of those is the case this season & Scaife has the team knocking on the national rankings again. C. Vivian Stringer is one of the best coaches our profession has to offer and not many coaches would have continued to believe in the process the way she has during a down couple of years that has seen players that likely wouldn’t have gotten time on a good team transfer even when getting quality minutes. Needless to say, things are headed in the right direction in Piscataway.
Oklahoma State Cowgirls (Big 12)
Sometimes, every step of the way feels wrong until you reach the spot you’re supposed to be in. Nobody will be able to tell that story more than OSU’s Loryn Goodwin. Transfer after transfer, trying to finally have an opportunity to play for a coach that recruited her, Goodwin still produced at every level she played at. Now, on the big stage, she’s shown up big time. She played extremely well in a tough environment in Starkville, Mississippi before losing to a still undefeated Mississippi State team. She also proved to be a quick study as they followed that up with a victory over UCLA, picked to win the PAC-12 in Los Angeles.
Tennessee Lady Vols (SEC)
This is a make or break year for Holly Warlick. To be candid, it should’ve come long before now. But to her credit, Warlick has taken advantage of the extra wiggle room she was given. With a determined, focused senior class anchored by the talented freshmen class, the house that Pat Summitt built is finally built in a manner she would be proud of. Proud of their performance? So far so good. With some good wins to boot. But beating teams in the non-conference only looks good when you back that up in conference. One of only four undefeated teams left, fourth in the preseason poll is looking mighty foolish.
Southern California Women of Troy (Pac 12)
This would’ve been an easy season to dial it in & wait for next season when he’s able to bring in his own recruits in addition to adding All-American transfer & sister of starting point guard Minyon, Mariya Moore to the fold. Not so fast says Mark Trakh. With a roster that includes three seniors who have been integral to the Cynthia Cooper-Dyke era at SC, he’s doing the right thing & working to put this team in positions to succeed. PAC-12 play will reveal whether this is a group of contenders or pretenders.
Belmont Bruins (Atlantic Sun)
Cameron Newbauer built a brand with this team that I personally questioned was sustainable after he left. The crew in Nashville bought into his culture almost immediately & it’s paying dividends even after he made the transition south. Aided by a couple high major transfers, this team is here to make noise this season. With victories over Gonzaga, Florida Gulf Coast, & Vanderbilt, where senior Kylee Smith began her career, this team’s focus will be in March. Trying to finalize one of the potential wins they’ve let slip in the NCAA tournament the last two years.