Now that conference play has begun in earnest, it is worth taking a look back at the first half of the season and determining who has benefited the most, and the least, from the 2006-07 non-conference schedule.
Biggest Winner – The PAC 10
We all knew about UCLA (# 4 AP / # 3 Coaches) and Arizona (# 10 AP / # 8 Coaches). We read about Spencer Hawes, and how the big freshman was going to have an immediate impact on Washington (# 24 Coaches). But Oregon? Washington State?? How about USC? Thanks to these three upstarts the Pac-10 is now clearly the best conference in America.
Oregon and Washington State are both coming off huge wins against Top 10, Pac-10 rivals – proving that they are no fluke. On top of that, USC beat Oregon on the road, something UCLA failed to do, and have quality wins against Wichita State and Washington. The Trojans also have a brand new $140 million arena in the Galen Center that should be filled to capacity on Saturdays now that football is over. Oh, and OJ Mayo is coming next year.
After sending four teams to the NCAA Tournament last season, the conference could conceivably send as many as six to the Dance this year. Considering that constitutes 60% of their conference, that’s not too shabby.
Biggest Loser – The Big East
The Big East began the season with five teams in the Top 25. All of these teams will probably still be dancing in March, and all five could conceivably do some damage once they get there.
But the fact of the matter is that each of those teams was ranked in the Top 20 to start the season and figured to be among the nation’s elite all year. Today, three of them are no longer in the polls, with UConn (# 24 AP / # 22 Coaches) just hanging on.
Marquette (Preseason # 16 AP) earned itself some national notoriety by losing to North Dakota State, and now has suffered back-to-back blowout losses. Syracuse’s (Preseason # 20 AP / Coaches) thin bench was exposed against Drexel when Terrence Roberts went down with a knee injury. Georgetown (Preseason #8 AP / Coaches) could only muster 22 second-half points recently against Villanova, a game where their two highly touted scorers – Jeff Green and Roy Hibbert – only managed a combined nine points for the entire game. The 7-2 Hibbert didn’t even attempt a field goal.
On top of that, it is apparent - after watching the young Huskies get run over in their only two competitive games so far this season – that had it not been for a ridiculously easy pre-conference schedule, UConn (Preseason # 18 AP / Coaches) would in all likelihood be among the unranked as well today.
Pitt (# 7 AP / Coaches) is still holding its own, and West Virginia (# 21 AP / Coaches) and Notre Dame (# 22 AP) are pleasant surprises, but the conference has seen better days.
Where Did You Come From?
Emerging from the preseason “also receiving votes” category, or not receiving any votes, to being on everyone’s radar, here are some teams that have taken full advantage of their pre-conference schedule.
Oregon (# 15 AP / # 17 Coaches) – The Ducks silenced critics of their lax schedule (although they did win on the road against the Hoyas) by beating UCLA in thrilling fashion. Aaron Brooks has simply been on fire lately. The PAC 10’s top scorer has been shooting 65% from the field this past week, 70% (7-10) from behind the arc and hit the game-winning jumper against top-ranked UCLA to boot. He will be making a lot of money when he graduates.
Air Force (# 18 AP / # 15 Coaches) – I’ve written about the Falcons before, and the obstacles they face just to compete at the Division I level. They are now not only in the Top 15 for the first time in Academy history, they are the clear favorites to win the Mountain West’s automatic berth and get into the NCAA Tournament for just the fifth time, and for the second consecutive season.
Oklahoma State (# 9 AP / # 10 Coaches) – Vindication for those that predicted that the Cowboys wouldn’t miss a beat from Eddie to Sean Sutton. Mario Boggan and JamesOn Curry is the best tandem in America and Oklahoma State may well be the best team in the Big 12. A test Wednesday at Allen Fieldhouse could prove it.
Washington State (# 22 AP / # 23 Coaches) – Ranked in the Top 25 for the first time since 1983, the Cougars currently stand at 14-2, with one of those losses a nail-biter to UCLA. They have shocked Gonzaga, UAB, and recently, Arizona. Picked dead last in the PAC-10 preseason media poll, Washington State may be the surprise team of the year, save Butler.
Butler (# 12 AP / Coaches) – The toast of the Horizon. No one has done more for themselves in the first half of the season than the Bulldogs. They defeated nationally ranked Notre Dame, Tennessee and Gonzaga on their way to winning the preseason NIT Championship and vaulting into the Top 25 where they have been ever since. It looks as though they will emerge with the Horizon’s automatic bid, making them officially The Team Nobody Wants to Play in March.
Clemson (# 17 AP / # 14 Coaches) – Anyone predict the Tigers would start the season 17-0 (and counting) and be the nation’s last undefeated team? The team that was picked to finish ninth in the ACC after losing Akin Akingbala and Shawan Robinson to graduation? Anyone? I can’t imagine even Coach Purnell expected this.
Thanks for Stopping By
Other than the aforementioned Big East foursome, there have been some other schools which have so far failed to live up to the expectations poll voters accorded them in the preseason.
Georgia Tech (Preseason # 21 Coaches) – Its only early January, but the Jackets are 0-2 already in ACC play, with losses to Clemson and lowly Miami (FL). Coach Paul Hewitt said early on that his team should not have been rated as high as it was – a rating clearly influenced by the hype surrounding his freshman class – and it turns out he was right. It could be a long night for these Yellow Jackets come Selection Sunday.
Boston College (Preseason # 15 AP / Coaches) – The Eagles began the season ranked among the Top 15 in the nation, then lost to Vermont and Providence to start 1-2. They later lost back to back games on the road at Kansas and then an overtime shocker to Duquesne – although Jared Dudley sat out the latter game with a foot injury. They’ve so far begun their ACC slate with two road wins, so maybe things are back on the up and up.
Creighton (Preseason # 19 AP) – The preseason Missouri Valley Conference favorites have posted solid wins at home so far, but simply has not been able to get it going on the road. Their road losses include the likes of Nebraska, Fresno State, Dayton, Hawaii, and Indiana State. Unless they can quickly figure out how to win without a home court advantage, they could be sitting at home watching as many as four of their Conference rivals play in the NCAA Tournament.