This Has Been a Weird College Basketball Season

Back in November I did my annual preview of the college basketball season and I was wrong about almost everything. This has been one of the weirdest seasons I’ve ever seen and I had a lot of teams both overestimated and underestimated.

Here was the preseason top 5: 1. Kentucky. 2. Michigan State. 3. Louisville. 4. Duke. 5. Kansas. And here’s the current top 5: 1. Syracuse. 2. Arizona. 3. Florida. 4. Wichita State. 5. San Diego State. Not a single team in common. Of the preseason top 5, Michigan State is the highest ranked at #9. Duke is #11, Louisville is #14 and Kentucky is #18. None of the current top 5 is a surprise to be there other than San Diego State (and I think they’re being overrated), of course. Syracuse, Arizona and Florida are elite programs that returned a ton of talent and Wichita State was in the Final Four last year.

I’m also not surprised that Louisville and Kentucky are underachieving. Kentucky is incredibly young, often starting five freshman, and Louisville without Chene Behanan just isn’t as good a team. Both teams are very good and could make a run, but they’re ranked about where they should be now. Duke and Kansas have both been inconsistent but they seem to have really hit their stride now and both are still Final Four contenders. Kansas is considerably better than I thought they’d be. Andrew Wiggins is really good but Joel Embiid is an absolute beast in the middle and he’s probably going to be the #1 overall pick in the draft.

Duke is a hard team to figure. Their weakness is in the middle and they were really manhandled by bigger teams like Kansas and Arizona early on, but over the last 7 or 8 games they’ve really stepped it up. Coach K started coaching like a hockey coach, replacing his entire lineup every few minutes. That allowed the guys on the floor to play with absolute intensity on both ends of the floor for a few minutes at a time and their defense and rebounding improved dramatically. Jabari Parker had an incredible start to the season, went into a slump for a few games, but is now back to dominating. Against Boston College a couple nights ago he had 29 points, 16 rebounds and 3 blocks. He’s leading the ACC in rebounding and is second in scoring. But I still think they have a real problem with bigger teams in the tournament.

The Big Ten has been absolutely bizarre. MSU is on top right now and that was predictable, but what the hell happened to Ohio State and Wisconsin? Both teams started the year very strongly and shot up into the top 5, then went on big losing streaks and are pretty much out of the conference race. Wisconsin lost three games in a row at home, which has never happened under Bo Ryan. And it’s a Badger team that can score in bunches but can’t defend. It’s like we’ve stepped into an alternative bizarro universe of Big Ten basketball.

And Michigan has been way better than I thought they’d be, especially after losing Mitch McGary. They could easily have packed it in when he went out for the season after back surgery, but they didn’t. Nik Stauskas has been amazing all year long and Derek Walton continues to improve as a point guard. But someone needs to put on an APB on Glenn Robinson III, who seems to disappear all too often for a player with his talent.

Weird year, but a lot of fun. Can’t wait to see where it goes from here.

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  • Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden

    I a women’s college BB fan, and I’m impressed that UCONN has kept it perfect. Hard to do with their ambitious schedule. They just played a rematch of last year’s championship game and shut down shoni shimmel again, while Brianna Stewart led 3 statistical categories. I still haven’t seen anyone in the women’s game with the court awareness of Diana Taurasi except maybe Dawn Staley, but the versatility Stewie shows with the ball in her hand is amazing.

    I’m a little down on Stanford and impressed with South Carolina and PSU – neither of which did I expect to be quite so high. But I think Stanford will be back after their most recent loss and if they win the Pac 12 championship, they’ll be seeded #2 if not #1 in their region. I’d love to see them in the same regional as Louisville or South Carolina…

  • CJO

    Of the preseason top 5, Michigan State is the highest ranked at #9

    KU is #7 this week aren’t they?

  • Ed Brayton

    I don’t really follow the women’s game much, but I’m amazed at how consistent UConn is. Year after year they’re at the top, with multiple undefeated seasons. It’s really quite incredible.

  • Ed Brayton

    CJO: Oh yes, you’re right. Though they lost last night to K State, so they’ll drop. Still, that team is much better than I thought they’d be. They lost 4 out of 5 starters from last year and are still a championship contender.

  • CJO

    Yes, it’s good to be a Jayhawk.

    But if you look at 4 of our losses, Florida, SDSU, Texas and last night at K-State, the common theme is 40 minutes of intense, physical defense. We’re going to be vulnerable in the tournament I think. Guard play just not consistently good enough to overcome teams that can shut down the easy inside scoring and at least stay even on the boards.

  • Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden

    *almost* more incredible is Tennessee.

    In 1984 they had not yet won a championship – but they managed to finish 2nd to USC who had an incredibly strong team.

    Tennessee won its first championship in 87, the very next time it made it to the championship game.

    It never lost a championship game after that…

    …except to UCONN.

    UCONN is 8-0 in championship games. If they can get there, they *will* win.

    Tennessee is 8-5 in championship games. If they can get there, they’ll beat anyone but UCONN.

    Together from 82 to ’13, there have been 32 championship games. Together UCONN and Tennessee have half. But how they’ve done it, with UCONNs repeated perfect seasons, starting their program building 5-7 years later, and no losses in the championship game vs. Tennessee starting just before the current championship format by hiring Pat Summit and then just being damn good every year, and good enough 1 time every 4, they made amazing adversaries for each other.

    There was a game I’ll never forget, in Storrs, where in team play UCONN just couldn’t keep up with Tennessee. A couple seconds before the half, Taurasi forces a bad shot, grabs the rebound herself, puts the ball on the floor once or twice and with tenths of a second to spare launches a 3/4 court prayer. Nothing but net. On that and a 3 the previous possession, she had turned a 6 point deficit in a low-scoring defensive battle into a dead even game. You could see Tennessee deflate. UCONN got up early in the 2nd half, but Tennessee played great team D and took a good lead. Taurasi gets a crucial bucket with less than a minute to play, stops Tennessee, and then takes the ball down the court. Everyone knows the inbounds is going to Taurasi. She’s mobbed and throws up a 25ft 3 – perfect. Sends it to overtime.

    In overtime she’s all the offense for her team, and Tennessee who could stop 5 amazing players working together couldn’t stop just 1 who refused to let anyone keep her out of the bucket.

    Classic. Best time I’ve ever had watching sports.

  • chezjake

    On the subject of hoops, Ed, I’d be interested to see your take on the value/reliability of the RPI rankings. It’s pretty obvious that early season rankings are worthless, but are they ever really worthwhile?

  • CJO

    Preseason rankings are actually not bad indicators of tournament success. A team that is highly ranked preseason, like Kentucky and Duke were this year, is often loaded with young and therefore untested talent. Kentucky has had its share of uninspired play, late game defensive lapses, difficulty in hostile environments and all the sorts of things that you would expect 18-year old college freshmen to have trouble with, having mostly to do with never having been there before and mental toughness and not athletic ability or basketball talent.

    But when you get your bracket and see such a team that was ranked preseason top-5 and is now on the 4- or 5-seed line, who will likely play a 1-seed in the round of 16, there’s a good bet that the level of ability between those teams is pretty close, and, to boot, there’s a good bet that the younger team has improved more over the course of the season than a more experienced squad, so that they’re capable of playing much better at that point than their early season losses would indicate.

    It’s a cliche, but nobody wants to play Kentucky in the tournament this year, because everyone knows if they play to their potential that they’re capable of beating anybody.

    RPI is better than subjective rankings by “experts” (the media) or coaches (actually their grad assistants or other grunt staffers), but it weights strength of schedule too strongly. Efficiency metrics like Ken Pomeroy’s are probably the best predictors.

  • stubby

    As a Gopher’s fan I’m hoping my squad finishes strong. It should be a really fun tournament this year.

  • left0ver1under

    I don’t mean to hijack the thread, but I’m surprised that no one on FtB has talked about Michael Sam’s decision to come out before the NFL draft. I haven’t stopped smiling for two days.

    As I read on Outsports, “Being named SEC defensive player of the year is like being named toughest guy in a biker bar.” So much for the myth that gay men aren’t or can’t be tough or that they can’t lead a team.

    The entire Missouri football team and coaches knew he was gay and supported him. So much for the myth of “gay predators in the locker room” or “disruption”.