Monday, January 26, 2009

College Basketball Week In Review: Conference Favorites Emerge

What We Learned This Week: As we get farther into conference season, each league is starting to shake itself out and teams are starting to emerge as front runners for the regular season title. In a lot of cases, these are not necessarily the teams that were picked in the preseason, or even earlier during the season, to sit atop the league standings.

  • Big East - What makes the Big East so much fun this year is that seemingly each week, there is a new favorite leading the charge to the conference title. Early on, it was UConn. Then it was Georgetown. Then Pitt. Now, it seems like Louisville is leading the way. They are as talented as any team in the conference and playing as well as anyone in the country after knocking off Pitt and Syracuse in their last three games. Louisville is tied with Marquette atop the Big East standings at 6-0.
  • ACC - With Wake Forest losing to Virginia Tech, Duke is now the lone undefeated team in the ACC and most likely the #1 team in the country once the polls are released. If Louisville isn't the hottest team in the land, Duke is. They are rolling through ACC competition, which includes a 25 point win over Tech, the team currently in second place. The biggest reason for the rise of Duke to ACC favorite has been the emergence of Gerald Henderson as one of the best scorers in the league. The Blue Devils are 18-1 and 5-0 in the league, 1 1/2 games in front of Wake and 2 games up on UNC.
  • SEC - With the underwhelming play of early favorites Florida and Tennessee, the SEC has started to look like a very weak league. Kentucky is the lone undefeated team in the conference, and the Wildcats are quietly having a great season riding the coattails of Jodie Meeks and Patrick Patterson.
  • Big Ten - The Big Ten looked like it was going to be wide open this season as Michigan State and Purdue got off to slow starts and teams like Illinois and Minnesota kept winning games. While the Illini and the Gophers are still in the mix atop the conference standings, the Spartans and the Boilermakers have reasserted their control over the league. MSU is 6-1 while both Illinois (5-2) and Purdue (4-2) are one game back in the loss column.
  • Big XII - This league has pretty much remained constant throughout the season, as Blake Griffin and the Sooners have been the favorite from Day 1. Texas and Missouri are both a game back in league play, but perhaps the biggest surprise is that Kansas is also undefeated in the Big XII. They don't look to be much of a threat just yet, however. While OU has beated Texas and Baylor in league play, Kansas has beaten up on the bottom for teams in the Big XII.
  • Pac-10 - UCLA has been to three straight Final Fours and returned a number of players that have been to all three. Arizona State returned basically their entire team from last season, which included all-american James Harden. But seven games into the season, the Washington Huskies are now sitting on top of the Pac-10 standings after beating the Bruins as home by 11. Some might call it a fluke (they did beat UCLA at home), but the Huskies look like they may be for real. They have a legitimate beast in the post in Jon Brockman. They get excellent guard play out of Isaiah Thomas and Justin Dentmon. And they have a ton of athletes on the perimeter.
  • MVC - Creighton, Drake, and Illinois State were the trendy preseason picks for this league, and both Bradley and Evansville made some noise early in the season. But the team that has emerged as the favorite and the MVC leader has been Northern Iowa. The Panthers are 8-1 in the conference, and their only loss has come to, oddly enough, cellar dweller Indiana State in OT.
  • MWC - This might end up being the most exciting league to watch down the stretch as six of the nine teams are tied atop the standings with two losses. UNLV might be the most talented team, but BYU, Utah, and San Diego State all have enough to make a run at the title. It should be fun to watch these teams fight it out atop the standings.
Arizona 96, Houston 90 OT
Down 87-78 with just 43 seconds left, Arizona managed to make a marvelous comeback to force over time. Chase Budinger hit a three to cut the lead to six. After Houston made one of two free throws, Nic Wise drove and made a lay-up to cut the lead to five. Houston then turned to ball over, and Jordan Hill was able to knock down a short jumper to cut the lead to three. UA fouled, and sent Kelvin Lewis, who had scored 35 in the game and 27 in the second half, to the line. Lewis missed both, and Nic Wise hit a three to send the game into overtime. In OT, Jordan Hill scored an and-one on the Wildcats first possession, and Arizona went on to the victory. Hill finished with 30 points, while Nic Wise added 23 and Chase Budinger 15.

This game was marred by one of the worst cheap shots I've seen in a while. Derek Vinyard Aubrey Coleman steps on Chase Budinger's face after being called for a charge midway through the second half. In his defense, Coleman has issued a statement of apology (and wrote a letter to Budinger) saying that it was accidental. Regardless, Coleman was issued a flagrant foul and ejected from the game.

Malcolm Delaney, Virginia Tech
The Hokies opened up league play by getting blown out at Duke, dropping them to 9-5 and making a NCAA berth seem so far away. But Tech bounced back with five consecutive wins, including two last week over then-#1 Wake Forest and Miami FL. The Hokies are now all alone in second place in the ACC at 4-1. The biggest reason for those wins was the play of Malcolm Delaney. For the week, Delaney averaged 25 ppg, 7 rpg, 2.5 apg, and 2.5 spg. Delaney made big shots in both games. Against Wake, the Demon Deacons had widdled a 16 point lead down to 71-69, but Delaney drew a foul and knocked down both free throws to help hold off Wake. Against Miami, Delaney's three-point with 1:49 left in OT gave the Hokies a lead they would never give up.

Duke and UConn
Both the Huskies and the Blue Devils went 2-0 this week in impressive fashion, as they now look headed to be #1 and #2 in the polls. Duke did it by blowing out two middle-of-the-pack ACC teams. On Tuesday, they knocked off NC State 73-56, using a 27-5 run to close out the game. On Saturday, they blew out Maryland 85-44 in a game that, believe it or not, wasn't as close as the final score indicates (at one point, Duke was up 71-29). Gerald Henderson continued his phenomenal play this week, going for 21 points, 7 boards, 4 assists, 5 steals, and a block (all team-highs) against NC State, while adding 17 and 8 boards against the Terps. Even dating back to last season, I have been saying that for Duke to be considered a national title contender, they need either Henderson or Jon Scheyer to turn into a go-to scorer. With the way Henderson has been playing, it is hard to argue against that right now.

As for UConn, the Huskies beat Villanova 89-83 on Wednesday then ended Notre Dame's home court winning streak at 45 on Saturday night 69-61. Beating two ranked conference opponents in one week is impressive in itself, but what was more impressive was how the Huskies did it. They proved that they could force good teams to play the way the Huskies wanted to and assert their influence on the game. Against Villanova, one of the best defensive teams in the Big East, UConn turned the game into an up-and-down affair, going into half time tied at 48. Notre Dame is a much better team offensively than defensively, but the Huskies were able to force to Irish to play a slowed-down, grind-it-out defensive game. The Huskies look like a completely different team from the one that was blown out by Georgetown at home to start the Big East season.

1/26 - Marquette @ Notre Dame: Marquette looks to stay undefeated in the league, while Notre Dame is looking to end a three game losing streak.

1/27 - Texas @ Baylor: Oklahoma seems to be the clear-cut favorite in the Big XII, but it looks like these two teams are going to battle it out for second place.

1/28 - Duke @ Wake Forest: While it most likely won't be #1 vs. #2, this is still going to be a crucial match-up atop the ACC between two Final Four caliber teams.

1/29 - Illinois @ Minnesota: Illinois is looking to prove they belong in the conversation with Purdue and Michigan State.

1/29 - St. Mary's @ Gonzaga: Is it possible that these are the two best teams on the west coast?

As usual, Saturday provides us with an awesome slate of games:
  • Notre Dame @ Pitt
  • Georgetown @ Marquette
  • Stanford @ UCLA
  • West Virginia @ Louisville
  • Washington @ Arizona State
  • Michigan @ Purdue
  • Baylor @ Missouri
2/1 - Pittsburgh @ Arizona: Wait, that's football...

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