By Jamal Murphy
With the college football champion set to be crowned next week, attention shifts to college basketball, as the conference schedule and the road to everyone’s favorite, March Madness, hits full swing.
College basketball started quietly this season, in part because there has been no true favorite or great team that has grabbed the attention of fans. Also, the increasing youth of college hoops, which requires teams to reinvent themselves annually, means it takes a couple months for teams to truly gel and for pundits and fans to figure them out.
However, as the start of conference play is upon us and the road to March begins in earnest, there is much we already know and plenty of exciting storylines ahead.
It’s Still A Very Young Man’s Game
As referenced earlier, young teams are par for the course in today’s college basketball and this season is no different. The story of the early season has been the play of two tremendous freshmen.
Trae Young, Oklahoma’s phenomenal freshman point guard, leads the nation in points (29.6) and assists (10.7) and has the preseason unranked Sooners ranked 7th in this week’s AP poll. Young was a top-20 recruit, but not expected to be a one-and-done talent, let alone compared to Stephen Curry, but he’s never lacked confidence. At the Jordan Classic high school all-star game in April of last year, Young said his goals for his freshman year were “a National Championship” and “to win the Big 12.”
Those goals seemed farfetched at the time (Oklahoma was 11-20 and 5-11 in Big 12 play last year), but not so much anymore. The 11-1 Sooners are a legitimate threat to Kansas in the Big 12 and on pace for a top seed in the NCAA Tournament. Many wondered whether Young would keep up his torrid pace once conference play started, but his 39-point, 14-assist performance on the road at previously undefeated TCU should put doubts to rest.
Duke, many people’s favorite to cut down the nets in April, starts four freshmen, led by the likely number-one pick in the 2018 draft, Marvin Bagley III. The 6’11 Bagley has been a dominant joy to watch, averaging 21.9 points and 11.6 rebounds, while displaying a smooth inside and outside offensive game. If the Blue Devils are to claim Coach K’s sixth National Championship, Bagley will be the driving force.
Other freshmen of note include 7’1 Deandre Ayton, who is averaging 19.7 points and 11.7 rebounds for an Arizona team that started slow, but has picked it up since the return of sophomore guard Rawle Alkins. Arizona will be a factor come March.
Another freshman big man, 6’11 Mohamed Bamba, instantly makes Texas and Shaka Smart a threat. Bamba is averaging a double-double along with 4.5 blocks a game, which is good for second in the nation. Bamba is a game-changer on the defensive end, as his lateral quickness, exquisite timing and 7’9 wingspan make him, perhaps, the best defender at the college level in decades.
Not The Same Ole Kentucky
Kentucky is still young and talented, just not as talented as they have been in the past. Duke got most of the true blue-chippers to come to Durham this season, so Kentucky was left with some very good, but not spectacular freshmen.
This season will be a true test for Kentucky coach John Calipari, who will have to mesh his young, raw talent, led by freshmen Kevin Knox and Hamidou Diallo. Calipari can coach, so Kentucky will be solid at least, but this year their ceiling isn’t a National Championship and they are no lock for the SEC title.
Arizona State Is For Real
Like Oklahoma, Arizona State was a bit off the radar in the preseason, but the 12-1 Sun Devils have already shown enough to warrant Final Four predictions. Senior guards Tra Holder (22.0 ppg, 4.5 apg, 5.1 rpg) and Shannon Evans II (17.0 ppg, 4.7 apg) lead a team with five players averaging double figures in points.
Wins at Kansas and over Xavier on a neutral floor have put the country on notice that Bobby Hurley’s squad has arrived.
The Big 12 Is The Best Conference
Kansas has won 13 straight Big 12 regular season championships, but a 14th will not be easy. The league currently has the best R.P.I. (Ratings Percentage Index) in the nation and the resurgence of teams like TCU under coach Jamie Dixon and Texas Tech under coach Chris Beard make this 10-team league formidable from top to bottom and downright treacherous from 1 through 8.
Oklahoma and West Virginia will also challenge Kansas for this year’s top spot.
The SEC Is Also A Basketball Conference
The SEC is much-improved. We saw this coming when three SEC teams reached the Final 8 in last year’s NCAA Tournament. Those three (South Carolina, Florida and Kentucky) remain formidable, but it is the emergence of Tennessee, Arkansas, Alabama, Texas A&M and Auburn that makes this conference as tough as any. Even Missouri, which lost consensus top-ranked freshman Michael Porter Jr. for the season due to injury, has been a tough out. Look for at least seven teams to make it out of this league and into the NCAAs.
The Big East Is Underrated And Very Good, Again
The Big East got seven of its 10 teams into the dance last season, and they will get at least as many in again this season. Only DePaul looks completely out of contention, and even the Blue Demons look improved; they gave Xavier all they could handle before suffering a five-point loss over the weekend.
St. John’s and Georgetown both got off to 0-2 starts in the league, but the Johnnies have the talent to compete, once star guards Shamorie Ponds and Marcus LoVett return from injuries. The Hoyas look tougher and better defensively under new coach Patrick Ewing.
Villanova is still the class of the league and should win it going away, but tests could come from Xavier, Seton Hall and Butler.
The ACC Could Have 10 Teams Dancing
Nine of the 15 teams in the ACC received NCAA Tournament bids last season. Look for the nation’s marquee league to at least repeat the feat this season and maybe get one more. Ten bids would be one shy of the Big East’s record 11 bids in 2011.
The ACC hasn’t gotten off to a great start (currently fourth-ranked league by the R.P.I.), but nine of their teams are already in great positions for bids, leaving Virginia Tech and Boston College as teams currently on the outside that have a decent shot.
No Great Team, But Three Are Clearly First Class
A little less than two months into the season, three of the four top seeds in the 2018 NCAA Tournament seem clear, barring injury. Michigan State, Duke and Villanova should all be No. 1 seeds come Selection Sunday.
All three looked the part in the non-conference portions of their schedules, and all three have the pedigree: great talent, a culture of winning, and great coaches with championship experience. This year’s National Champion should be one of these three programs.
That fourth No. 1 seed is up for grabs at the moment, but teams like Kansas, Arizona, Arizona State, Virginia, Xavier and Oklahoma should all be factors.
Jamal Murphy is a contributor to CBS Local. He writes extensively about college basketball, the NBA and other sports, often focusing on the intersection of sports and social justice/awareness. Listen to Jamal on the Bill Rhoden On Sports podcast (iTunes & Soundcloud) that he cohosts with legendary sports columnist, Bill Rhoden. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter: @Blacketologist.