Palestra Back’s Conference Previews

After a wild early season that featured everything from a team scoring in its own basket to lose the game (the saddest thing that can happen) to a beloved coach jamming holiday tunes on his accordion (the happiest thing that can happen), basketball is starting to settle in.

Finally, we’ve reached conference play. Let’s check in around the nation to see what to look for the rest of the season.

American

templeuconn

What’s New This Year

Tulsa, Tulane, and ECU are here now, which is…interesting. UConn is the youngest cousin at Thanksgiving who’s still stuck at the kids table.

Top Teams

  1. SMU
  2. Temple
  3. UConn
  4. Cincinnati

The American has been a real head scratcher thus far. Take Temple for example. They beat Kansas by 25, but lost to St. Joe’s and barely beat LaSalle and American.

Regardless, the American will look a lot like it did last year. Every time the top half of the league plays the bottom half, it will play out as you expect. And when the top teams play each other, we’ll get a great game (like we did when Temple topped UConn in OT last week).

Sad to see Mick Cronin’s health issues take him off the bench this season. He always makes his teams better and this conference won’t be as much fun without him.

Player to Watch

nic moore

Nic Moore, SMU

Possibly my favorite score-first point guard in the nation. He’s averaging 14 points this year on 10 field goal attempts per game. He’s as capable of dropping a quiet 23 as anyone in the country.

Games to Watch

January 14: SMU @ Temple

January 29: UConn @ Cincinnati

February 19: Temple @ SMU

March 1: SMU @UConn

ACC

unc

What’s New This Year

LOUISVILLE JOINED. Maryland left. Notre Dame is here now. LOUISVILLE LOUISVILLE LOUISVILLE.

Top Teams

  1. Duke
  2. UVA
  3. Louisville
  4. UNC
  5. Notre Dame

Five top 20 teams makes this the best conference in America for my money. Virginia is the most interesting team here for me. They have played the 115th ranked schedule so far and looked pretty good in the process (though needed 2 OTs to top Miami was a hiccup), but I can’t wait to see them against top level competition. We know how good Duke is. Let’s see how good UVA is.

Player to Watch

Toledo v Duke

Jahlil Okafor, Duke

I considered writing about Montrezl Harrell, Marcus Paige, or Jerian Grant here, but this has to be Okafor. He’s a monster.

And here’s what Boston College did to try and stop him:

Ah, the “Maybe he’ll retaliate!” strategy. That’s my alma mater. Real classy guys.

Games to Watch

Every game Duke plays between January 17 and January 31: @UL, vs Pitt, @St. John’s (non-conference), @ND, @UVA

Then watch Virginia’s next two games after that: @UNC, vs UL

Then in March check out Louisville’s schedule: vs. ND, vs. UVA

BIG XII

oubre

What’s New This Year

Nothing. The Big XII still has X teams.

Top Teams

  1. Kansas
  2. Texas
  3. Oklahoma
  4. Iowa State
  5.  (toss-up). Baylor, West Virginia, Oklahoma State
  6. TCU

The deepest conference in America, with 8 teams in Ken Pomeroy’s top 45. TCU will probably finish in the bottom 4 of the league and are currently undefeated.

Player to Watch

Buddy Hield, Oklahoma

buddy hield

Buddy’s is having an odd year. He’s a very good shooter and can score seemingly at will sometimes, but he’s been so inconsistent this year. He had a game where he made all 7 three balls he took, and another when he shot 2-11 from deep. He scored 24 against UCLA and 5 against Butler. He’ll either be Big XII Player of the Year or continue to confuse me on a weekly basis.

Games to Watch

January 17, Kansas @ Iowa State

January 26, Texas @ Iowa State

February 28, Texas @ Kansas

March 7, Kansas @ Oklahoma

Big East

nova butler

What’s New This Year

After the complete overhaul last year, the Big East is settling into its current alignment.

Top Teams

  1. Villanova
  2. St. John’s
  3. Georgetown
  4. St. John’s

It was supposed to be Villanova and everybody else…and then they lost on the road to the fiesty Seton Hall Pirates. Now? Nova’s still the favorite, but the Johnnies, Hoyas, and even Seton Hall can compete for the Big East crown.

Player to Watch

NCAA Basketball: St. John's at Gonzaga

Chris Obekpa, St. John’s

8.5 rebounds.

3.8 blocks.

Anchors the team defense.

Short shorts.

Games to Watch

January 6, Villanova @ St. John’s

March 7, St. John’s @ Villanova

Big Ten

osu iowa

What’s New This Year

Oh, hello Maryland. One day it won’t be weird that you’re here. Beating Michigan State in double overtime last week should help.

Oh, Rutgers is here too…

Top Teams

  1. Wisconsin
  2. Maryland
  3. Ohio State

Sort of a down year for the B1G boys. Wisconsin is really good and there’s a few other teams worth seeing, but this isn’t your slightly older brother’s Big Ten.

Player to Watch

dekk

Sam Dekker, Wisconsin

Frank Kaminsky is the best player in the league. Dekker is the most important. When he is on, there is no ceiling for Wisconsin. There’s just no one out there who can stop a 7-1 shooting big (Kaminsky) and a 6-9 swingman who plays like a shooting guard (Dekker). The problem is, Dekker hasn’t been that player. He’s averaging 12 points and 4 rebounds. I thought he’d have a breakout year and cement himself as a lottery pick. The disappearing act he’s had in certain games (2 points against Marquette?) hasn’t helped. He’s been hobbled by injuries, so we’ll see if he recovers and turns his season around.

Games to Watch

February 1, Michigan @ Michigan State

February 14, Ohio State @ Michigan State

February 24, Wisconsin @ Maryland

March 8, Wisconsin @ Ohio State

Pac-12

arizona

What’s New This Year

Nothing. Thanks to these guys for not changing too much over the years. Stay gold, Pac-12.

Top Teams

  1. Arizona
  2. Utah
  3. Washington

Arizona is the best team here. Their goal moving forward should be not only be winning the conference, but they’ll have one eye on securing a #1 seed. Out West, that should mean holding off Gonzaga. The Zags will only drop one or two more, so Arizona will need to “hold serve” by being the best team in the Pac-12.

Player to Watch

ute ore

Delon Wright, Utah

The Utes will go as their electric point guard goes. If he plays great in their biggest games, he’s absolutely in the discussion for First Team All-American.

Games to Watch

January 11, Cal @ UCLA

January 17, Utah @ Arizona

February 13, Arizona @ Washington

February 28, Arizona @ Utah

 March 7, Utah @ Washington

SEC

coach cal

What’s New This Year

Just the fact that they won’t be entering the basketball season with their heads head high after football season.

Top Teams

  1. Kentucky

(yawn)

(crickets)

(clock ticking)

  1. South Carolina
  2. LSU

The best wins out of conference by non-Kentucky SEC teams, ranked by opponent’s KenPom ranking and presented without comment.

LSU over #15 West Virginia (Road)

South Carolina over #19 Iowa State (Neutral)

Auburn over #25 Xavier (Home, 2OT)

South Carolina over #27 Oklahoma State (Home)

Arkansas over #28 SMU (Road)

Georgia over #34 Seton Hall (Home)

Tennessee over #38 Butler (Home)

Ole Miss over #42 Cincinnati (Neutral)

Arkansas over #59 Dayton (Home)

Alabama over #62 UCLA (Home)

Alabama over #64 Arizona State (Neutral)

Texas A&M over #64 Arizona State (Home)

Georgia over #66 Colorado (Home)

Player to Watch

kat

Karl-Anthony Towns, Kentucky

Pretty much everyone on Kentucky is worth watching. They have 8 players averaging between 10.3 and 5.8 points per game, each bringing a different question to the table. How high is Tyler Ulis’ ceiling? Are the Harrison twins getting worse? What will Willie Cauley-Stein do next?

Towns is the super freshman and top NBA prospect, which makes him their most important player in my eyes. He’s only playing 19 minutes per game, but he’s been impressive in those minutes. I’ll be keeping an eye on his development as their go-to-guy down the stretch, which they’ll need in the tournament. Not to mention, I’m still figuring out how he plays at the next level. I recently saw someone compare him to Rasheed Wallace and I liked it. He doesn’t have Sheed’s range now, but that fluid stretch 4 is exactly the role he can play.

Games to Watch (aka Games Kentucky Could Potentially Lose)

January 17, Kentucky @ Alabama

January 24, Kentucky @ South Carolina

February 7, Kentucky @ Florida

February 10, Kentucky @ LSU

March 3, Kentucky @ Georgia

 

Shane McNichol is the founder, editor, and writer of PalestraBack.com. Follow him on Twitter @OnTheShaneTrain.

 

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