By Steve Silverman
There may not be a contest for college basketball’s best conference this year.
The ACC, Big Ten, Big East and Pac-12 may feel fairly proud of their accomplishments over the years, but the Big 12 appears to be far and away the best conference from top to bottom this year, and the league appears to be on a pace that is quite shocking.
TCU has raced off to a 12-0 start and the Horned Frogs have an impressive team with five players averaging in double figures, including 6-7 guard Kenrich Williams, who leads the team with 14.5 points and 9.5 rebounds per game.
However, TCU has plenty of company, as Texas Tech and West Virginia are both 11-1, and Oklahoma is right behind at 10-1. Baylor, Kansas, Kansas State and Oklahoma State are next at 10-2. Iowa State is 9-2, and Texas is the bottom feeder with a 9-3 record.
This is unprecedented for any conference over the last 14 seasons, and it appears the race for first place could be both memorable and unpredictable this season.
The Big 12 almost always belongs to Kansas, and Bill Self’s Jayhawks are loaded once again this season with Lagerald Vick and Devonte’ Graham leading the way. However, TCU, Texas Tech and West Virginia are not going away any time soon.
Oklahoma is led by freshman superstar and player of the year candidate Trae Young, and the Sooners may turn out to be the most dangerous team in the conference.
Fans who want to see the best and most competitive basketball in the country have to keep their eyes on the Big 12 this season.
Virginia making its presence felt
One thing you can always count on with a Tony Bennett-coached team is a commitment to defense. That has not changed in the 2017-18 season, as the Virginia Cavaliers have gotten off to an 11-1 start while playing the kind of defense that could help this team rise to the top of the ACC.
The Cavs are allowing 52.1 points per game, and that ranks first in the NCAA among top-tier teams. Defense has always been the watchword of Bennett’s coaching style – as it was for his father, Dick Bennett, when he coached at Wisconsin-Stevens Point, Wisconsin-Green Bay and the Big Ten’s Wisconsin Badgers.
The younger Bennett’s teams are backboned by defense, but what could make this team special is the presence of sophomore guard Kyle Guy, who is averaging a team-high 16.1 points per game and shooting 84.0 percent from the free throw line.
Why Guy is hitting his outside shots consistently, it makes Virginia a completely different team. The Cavs are capable of running off a big-time streak, because the defense is choking off opponents and Guy is fueling a run. Once he starts to hit, opponents have to pay attention to him and that opens up other Cavs for makeable shots.
The clutch shooting could be the element that helps the ninth-ranked Cavs have a run to the top of the ACC and go a long way in the tournament this spring.
Wildcats remain in top spot, and look sensational
Villanova was supposed to be a top team this year, and Jay Wright’s team rose to No. 1 in the polls when Duke suffered its first loss earlier this month.
When teams reach the top spot in the regular season – particularly when they accomplish the feat with an undefeated record – it’s usually a fleeting accomplishment. Everyone is shooting for you, and sooner or later, a hot-shooting opponents is going to figure it all out.
Villanova may eventually find this out, but the Wildcats continue to play sensational basketball. They opened their Big East conference schedule with a 103-85 victory over DePaul on the road that saw all elements working in sync.
The Blue Demons are not an elite team or even close to that level, but Dave Leitao’s team is quite a bit improved over previous versions.
Jalen Brunson is Villanova’s go-to player and their top option, but Mikal Bridges led the way against DePaul with 20 points, while Phil Booth poured in 17 points. Brunson, a Chicago native, had 16 points and five assists. Wright is now one win away from reaching 400 victories at Villanova.
Wright says the thing that separates his team from other great teams around the country is its basketball instincts and intelligence.
“We’ve got some really talented guys but they have really high basketball IQ. You might have three guys that talented but only one has basketball IQ. These (players) are all talented and a high basketball IQ. Always look to make the right play, not just scoring points,” Wright said.
The Wildcats are comfortable in the No. 1 position and seemingly up to the challenge. But they face Butler Saturday, and the Bulldogs beat them twice last year.
It will be easy for Wright to motivate his team for this road game, and the Wildcats are likely to react in a positive way.
Things to ponder
Missouri looked like a powerhouse as the season was about to get underway, but the loss of freshman star Michael Porter Jr. looked like a huge blow. Porter underwent back surgery in November, and it was expected that he would be done for the season. He may be back in February, and if and when he does return, he will find a team that has figured it out. The Tigers are rolling with a 10-2 record. …
Notre Dame was the No. 14 team in the preseason rankings, but the Irish are 10-3 and find themselves unranked at this point. This is where coaching is likely to take over. There are few coaches in the country who are as accomplished at forging closeness as Notre Dame coach Mike Brey, so don’t sell this team short just yet. Veteran forward Bonzie Colson is averaging 21.3 points and 9.8 rebounds, and he has been through too much to let this season slip away. …
The Nevada Wolf Pack of the Mountain West Conference is not ranked in the AP Top 25, but it would be a mistake to overlook head coach Eric Musselman’s team. The Wolf Pack (12-3) won their conference opener on the road against Fresno State Wednesday night by an 80-65 margin. However, the indicator for Nevada may have come in back-to-back losses to Texas Tech and TCU of the Big 12. They lost by six points in overtime to the Red Raiders and four points to the unbeaten Horned Frogs. Caleb Martin is leading Nevada with 18.7 points per game and is connecting on 49.7 percent of his shots, and he is the leader of this under-the-radar team.