1. Southern Fried Basketball
Between 1997 and 2008, the Southeastern Conference was the only league in Division 1 to send at least five teams into the NCAA Tournament in every season, with three of those seasons ending with a member school winning the whole enchilada (Kentucky in 1998, Florida in 2006 and 2007). The past few seasons, though, have seen SEC basketball not only take a backseat to the dominance of its football brethren, but have seen it only send three teams to the NCAA Tournament in each of the past two seasons, tied for the lowest number of teams the conference has sent in the 64-team tournament era. (The only other time the SEC sent only three teams to the Big Dance in the past 30 years was in 1990.)
Don’t look now, but the SEC is becoming a serious player on the hardcourt once again, and not because they’re looking to make up for football’s struggles in bowl season. (I kid, I kid…maybe.)
Obviously, it all starts with No. 1 Kentucky, the team so deep it has experts wondering if their current constitution of their roster could beat some teams in the NBA. But we’re talking about the depth of the league, and, so far, the league looks as deep as it has been in about a decade.
Five teams in the SEC rank in the Top 50 in the RPI rankings as of Monday – Kentucky (1), Georgia (19) Arkansas (30), LSU (35) and Alabama (49) – and most of those teams already sport impressive non-conference wins. Outside of Kentucky’s hit list so far this season, probably the best non-conference win for the league just occurred on Saturday, when South Carolina, currently No. 75 in the RPI, defeated AP No. 9 Iowa State 64-60 on a neutral court at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. The Gamecocks have also beaten Oklahoma State, setting themselves up to have a decent-looking non-conference résumé by the time March rolls around.
Oh, and all of this is happening while Florida, the only real peer in conference play to Kentucky over the past few years, is experiencing a precipitous downturn in fortunes on the court after its Final Four run last season. Starting the season ranked seventh in the AP Poll, the Gators sit only a game above .500 at 7-6, and have to play in Columbia against the surging, defensive-minded Gamecocks on Wednesday.
It just so happens that the first game of the SEC conference slate happens to pit two of the teams with impressive starts, with AP No. 23 Arkansas going to Athens on Tuesday to take on a Georgia team that has already beaten Seton Hall and Colorado at home this season.
For those Southern football fans still licking their wounds after the showing of their football teams in late December and early January during bowl season, at least there’s some real good basketball to transition to in serving as a holdover until spring football practice arrives.
2. Don’t Pull These Tigers By Their Tails
Princeton women’s head basketball coach Courtney Banghart says she goes into every season with little expectation for her team, instead focusing on her team continuing to make progress during the season. Given the start the Tigers have gotten off to in 2014-15, her players should hope that she has little expectations for them all the time.
One of four undefeated teams remaining in women’s college basketball, Princeton (16-0) has been far from a surprise, at least when you look at some telling statistics. Going into Monday’s game at defending three-time MEAC Champion Hampton (a game they eventually won 75-63), the Tigers led the nation in three-point percentage, shooting from long-range at a mind-boggling 44 percent as a team. Princeton also ranks seventh in D-1 in field goal percentage (48.3) and scoring margin (+25.3).
Speaking of scoring margin, the Tigers have been one of the most dominant teams in women’s basketball, winning by double digits in 15 of their 16 games.
All of this has added up to a No. 22 national ranking, the highest an Ivy League team has ever been ranked in the Associated Press poll.
Probably Princeton’s two biggest challenges of the season are coming up in quick succession. Longtime rival Penn, the team that went on the road and defeated the Tigers in a “winner-take-all” regular-season finale and ended Princeton’s four-year run as Ivy League champions, heads back to Jadwin Gym this Saturday in a matchup of probably the league’s two best teams. After that game, Princeton’s next challenge awaits; a 20-day layoff. Princeton won’t play another game after Saturday until its Jan. 30 encounter at Harvard.
3. Absolute Monarchy
Jeff Jones’ opening act at Old Dominion was going to be a tough act to follow this season. The former head coach at Virginia and at American University, Jones led the Monarchs – 5-25 two seasons ago – to 18 victories in his first season in Norfolk, the largest turnaround in Division 1 last season in terms of total number of victories.
This season, Jones’ encore might be even better than Act I, as the Monarchs are off to a 12-1 start, its best start to a season in their 38-year history in D-1. Included in their victories is a win against an impressive LSU team in the Virgin Islands, and a 73-67 win over then No. 14 VCU on Nov. 29, a game which the Monarchs led for almost the entire game.
The win over VCU, and the way they pulled it off, should have served notice to everyone in Conference USA, as well as nationally, that ODU was going to be a mid-major goliath this season. Against VCU’s vaunted HAVOC pressure defense, the Monarchs only turned over the ball 12 times, with the Rams only coming away with five steals the entire game. (VCU has led the nation in steals three consecutive seasons running.) Furthermore, Old Dominion did not allow a fast break point to the Rams, as they held their Old Dominion State rival to 39 percent shooting.
It doesn’t hurt to also have star power when getting off such a hot start, and guard Aaron Bacote is one of C-USA’s best players. Bacote, who was part of the 2012-13 team that suffered through the horrendous season two years ago that cost long-time coach Blaine Taylor his job, scored 31 points and did not miss a shot from the field against VCU (8-8 FG, 4-4 3 PT, 11-13 FT). Another guard, Trey Freeman, is the team’s leading scorer at 16.4 points per game, and he poured in 25 points in the win against LSU. ODU isn’t an efficient offensive team, as it only shoots a tick over 42 percent from the field, but they make up for it by out-rebounding its opponents by eight per game.
Conference USA is far removed from the days of Louisville, Cincinnati, Marquette, Memphis, et al., when the league would routinely place at least four teams in the tournament. The Monarchs may need to win the regular season and conference tournament titles to make sure of a spot in the Big Dance, but they have already served notice that they would be a tough out for any of the power conference teams in the country.
Interview of the Week: Kris Dunn
We caught up with Providence point guard Kris Dunn – fourth in the nation in assists (7.4) – after the Friars defeated the Miami Hurricanes 76-62 on Dec. 22 in Brooklyn. Dunn, who missed almost the entirety of last season with a shoulder injury, lit up the Hurricanes with 15 points, 13 assists and five rebounds. Dunn talked with us about how he handled being on the sidelines while the Friars made their run to the Big East Tournament championship last season, as well as how he became a better teammate while he wasn’t playing. Also, he shared with us his favorite type of pizza. Enjoy…
Game(s) of the Week:
Men: No. 7 Arizona at Oregon, 10:30 PM ET, Thursday: Arizona rebounded from its only loss of the season in Vegas against UNLV with a comprehensive rout of rival Arizona State in its conference opener in Tucson. But the Wildcats will be playing in its second tough road venue in its last three games, when it visits Eugene to take on a Ducks team in need of a big win. Oregon’s record is decent enough at 11-3, but, outside of a win vs. Illinois, doesn’t have a lot of meat on the bone in terms of impressive wins. As a matter-of-fact, before Oregon’s win over Oregon State last week, the Ducks needed overtime to win its two previous games, home wins against UC Santa Barbara and UC Irvine. The matchup of Ducks’ guard Joseph Young (20.1 points/game) vs. Arizona point man T.J. McConnell (2.4 steals/game) will be a dandy to watch.
Women: No. 10 Kentucky at No. 1 South Carolina, 1:00 PM ET, Sunday: The Gamecocks are the No. 1 team in the country and are sporting a school-record 14-game winning streak, but that doesn’t mean they haven’t been pushed to the brink already this season. South Carolina had to come back from a 10-point second-half deficit to defeat Syracuse 68-64 in the Bahamas on Nov. 28, and needed a layup from super freshman A’ja Wilson with 1.8 seconds remaining to leave Durham with a 51-50 win over then No. 9 Duke on Dec. 7. Kentucky should pose another serious threat to the Gamecocks’ undefeated season this Sunday, with star guard Jennifer O’Neill leading four Wildcat players who average double figures in points at 14.8 per game.
[Cover photo (Jeff Jones) courtesy of Rick Voight/ODUSports.com]