We’re nearly a month into the college basketball season. I’m talking to you average sports fans who think the college basketball season only occurs in March. Wake up, there’s a lot going on! Arizona went from #2 to out of the top 25 in the span of just one week, Florida and Gonzaga might have already played the best game of the season, and nobody knows what the heck is going on at UCLA. As the non-conference season starts to wind down, a lot of teams still have plenty of question marks to straighten out before conference play gets going. Teams like Kentucky, USC, Louisville, Northwestern, and the aforementioned Arizona all have issues with either inconsistent play or unproven competition. Here are some storylines you should know, some things to watch as the season continues, and games to watch this week and beyond.
What’s Wrong with Arizona
-To me, the play of the Wildcats has been the biggest surprise of the season so far. They have two of the best players in college basketball in DeAndre Ayton and Allonzo Trier, and they are one of the deepest teams in college basketball as well, yet they stand at just 5-3 with their best win being a road win at a good, not great UNLV team. This team was supposed to be the team that got that giant monkey of Sean Miller’s back and got him to his first Final Four. Now, it looks like that monkey could be getting pretty cozy in Tucson. The issue for this team has been on the defensive end where they are allowing 74.1 points per game, 222nd in the nation. Opponents are also shooting 35.7% from three which is 224th in the nation. If Arizona is to right the ship before conference season, it starts on the defensive end. They have enough offense to outscore opponents on most nights but it won’t be able to work every night. This team is too talented for them not to figure it out. They have a good test coming up tonight against #9 Texas A&M in Phoenix.
How Good is Villanova
-More Wildcats in the headlines as the Wildcats of Villanova are off to another great start with an 8-0 record. On one hand, KenPom has them ranked as the #1 team in the country according to their statistics. On the other hand, their only win over a power five opponent is their win over Tennessee in the Bahamas. Villanova has some talented players in guards Jalen Brunson, Mikal Bridges, Donte Divincenzo, and Phil Booth. The question mark for this team is on the inside where their top two leading rebounders is 6’9” Omari Spellman and 6’6” Bridges. They don’t have traditional bigs but what they do have is a lot of athletic wings who rebound well. The Wildcats have really good guard play and athletic wings but it will be interesting to see what they do against a team that has some talented big men. They’ll face that challenge tonight against #12 Gonzaga in Madison Square Garden.
American off to a Hot Start
-The American Athletic Conference has sent just two teams to the NCAA tournament last year, four in 2016, two in 2015, and four in 2014 in their four-year history. As of now, the AAC could be in position to send seven teams to the big dance this year. They’re led by newcomer #6 Wichita State, which has one of the deepest teams in the country. They’re off to a 6-1 start without possibly their best player in junior guard Markis McDuffie. SMU is 7-2 and coming off a convincing victory over #14 USC to add to a resume that already included a win over then #2 Arizona. They’re led by junior guard Shake Milton (18.7 ppg, 39.7 % from three) and they’ll look to stay hot on the road against #20 TCU tonight. #17 Cincinnati is 7-1 but coming off their first loss of the season, a blowout road loss against a talented Xavier team. Mick Cronin will have all week to get his talented team ready for a big game against another talented team in #5 Florida as the Bearcats look for their signature non-conference win. Houston is 6-1 but they’ve been relatively untested so far and their single loss is a not so good one to Drexel. The Cougars are threat to make some noise though thanks to senior guard Rob Gray Jr. (21.5 ppg, 45.2% from three) who can get hot at will. UConn has looked inconsistent on their way to a 6-2 start. The Huskies have a nice win against Oregon at the PK-80 but also have a blowout loss against Arkansas at that same tournament and some shaky performances against Colombia and Monmouth recently. The Huskies have a talented starting five but inconsistency has been the issue for this team over the past few seasons. We’ll see if head coach Kevin Ollie can get his team ready tonight for a classic Big East rivalry game against Syracuse tonight at the Garden. Temple is another team that has a talented starting five but inconsistency has slowed their start to just a 4-2 record through six games. Temple has some decent wins but some bad losses. They’ll face Wisconsin at home on Wednesday but they’ll get their chance for their first signature win next Wednesday when #4 Villanova visits. Last and maybe least in this case is UCF. Central Florida has been plagued by injuries and inconsistency as they are just 5-3 on the season. At full health, junior guard B.J. Taylor and junior 7’6” center Tacko Fall are a solid one-two punch that should provide problems come conference play. The AAC should be fun to watch this season.
-We need to show some love to the little guys of college basketball. They’re the reason the tournament is called March Madness as without them there wouldn’t be any madness. Gonzaga is barely considered a mid-major team anymore but it looked like they were going to take a step back after going to the Final Four last year. Somehow, they reloaded and have a talented started five that can hang with anyone in the country. This was supposed to be St. Mary’s year to overthrow Gonzaga in the WCC as they returned nearly everyone from last year’s talented team. However, it looks like their non-conference schedule isn’t going to produce any quality wins, just a bad loss to a shaky Washington State team. An at-large bid for them might be tough to get. UT-Arlington is 7-1 and are led by two talented seniors in 6’9” wing Kevin Hervey (23.4 ppg, 39.6% from 3) and point guard Erick Neal (13.6 ppg, 10.3 apg). They are still searching for signature win and their best chance to get one will be on 12/18 with a road game at Creighton. Valparaiso is 8-0 but they have yet to be tested as well. They will be Thursday night when they head to West Lafayette to take on #21 Purdue. We’ll see if senior point guard Tevonn Walker (17.3 ppg) and their big men can hang with a talented and big Purdue team. Rhode Island has some nice wins over teams that should be at the top of the Big East in Providence and Seton Hall. They won those games without their best player, senior guard E.C. Matthews who should be back before the end of December. Nevada handed Rhode Island one of their two losses and the Wolfpack are off to an 8-0 start. They’ll be tested in their next two games against Texas Tech tonight and #20 TCU on Friday. Nevada has power five talent on their team in NC State transfers Caleb and Cody Martin and Purdue transfer Kendall Stephens. Last but not least, Middle Tennessee is 5-1 to start the season and they have some talented and exciting players. Alabama transfer Nick King is averaging 24.3 points per game and senior point guard Giddy Potts not only has one of the best names in college basketball but also has the ability to have a big game on any given night. The senior is averaging just 10.3 points per game this season so far but is a threat at all times. They have two solid wins over another good mid-major team in Florida Gulf Coast and has a chance to add to their resume with their next three games against SEC opponents Vanderbilt, Ole Miss and Auburn.