You can feel it, can’t you? College hoops has gotten serious.
With conference play underway, there is no more hiding behind easy home games versus bad teams. Even the neutral court games have mostly gone by the wayside. Now, all those big boys have to hit the road and play good teams that are sure they can pull off the upset -- and often do.
As we turn the page on the calendar, I figured we should take one last look back at the first two months of the season. So let me present your Hoop Thoughts Five-Minute Guide to the first half of the 2014-15 college basketball season.
Player of the Year
Coach of the Year
1. Mark Turgeon, Maryland. Terps were depleted by transfers but have gotten off to great start in their first season in the Big Ten.
2. Tony Bennett, Virginia. Cavs lost two starters from last year’s ACC champs, and returned even better.
3. Larry Krystkowiak, Utah. Took Utes from 6-25 his first season to a top-15 ranking in his fourth.
4. John Calipari, Kentucky. Ssshh. He’s not really platooning anymore. But his mind games have worked very well so far.
5. Chris Holtmann, Butler. Stepped in when Brandon Miller had to take his leave of absence and has restored the Butler Way.
1. Maryland. See above.
2. Northern Iowa. Panthers are slow and plodding, but wonderfully efficient.
3. Utah. Utes were supposed to be better but not this much better. They will present a legitimate challenge to Arizona in the Pac 12.
5. Davidson. Wildcats were picked to finish last in their first season in the Atlantic-10. Juuuust a bit outside.
1. Florida. Gators lost four seniors from a Final Four squad, but the younger replacements have not panned out.
2. Michigan. We knew the Wolverines would be rebuilding, but they’ve now dropped five out of their last seven games.
3. Nebraska. Cornhuskers brought back their nucleus from last year’s NCAA tournament team, but they’ve been the gang that can’t shoot straight.
4. Harvard. Crimson have won a game in the NCAA tournament the last two years, but they’ll be lucky to win the Ivy.
1. Justin Anderson, Virginia. The Cavaliers’ leading scorer went from shooting 29 percent from three as a sophomore to 61 percent this season, which leads the nation.
4. Delon Wright, Utah. Entered the season with considerable hype and has lived up to every bit of it.
1. Amile Jefferson, Duke. Averaging eight rebounds a game and sets a veteran tone while serving as an inside complement to Okafor.
2. Darion Atkins, Virginia. Fills in defensive versatility was provided by Akil Mitchell last season.
3. Sir’Dominic Pointer, St. John’s. Besides being a strong rebounder and defender, Pointer is ranked in the top 30 nationally in steals.
4. Josh Gasser, Wisconsin. Still one of the toughest ball hawks in the Big Ten.
5. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Arizona. Dynamic athlete is good enough to start, but he has embraced his role as the team’s sixth man.
1. Jahlil Okafor, Duke. Easy choice.
2. Stanley Johnson, Arizona. Leads the Wildcats in scoring while averaging nearly seven rebounds per game.
3. Melo Trimble, Maryland. Runs the team and utilizes the foul line like a wily old veteran.
4. Rashad Vaughn, UNLV. Leads the Mountain West in scoring (17.9 ppg) while converting 34 percent from three-point range.
Under the radar
1. Jack Gibbs, Davidson. Sophomore point guard is an inspiration to the under-6-foot crowd: Shooting 57 percent from the field, 47 percent from three, and 91 percent from the line.
2. Chris Walker, Florida. Sophomore forward said in preseason he was expecting to turn pro, but he has had just three double-digit scoring games all season.
3. Chris Jones, Louisville. Played by far his best game of the season in Sunday’s win at Wake Forest (22 points on 7-for-13 shooting), so perhaps he has turned a corner. Coming into the game, he was shooting 29.8 percent from three-point range and had just been benched by Rick Pitino for his his epic flop versus Kentucky.
4. Marcus Paige, North Carolina. He was named to most preseason All-American teams, but he is averaging four fewer points per game than he did as a sophomore, and his shooting percentages are down across the board.
5. Perry Ellis, Kansas. He might be the Jayhawks’ leading scorer, but his field goal percentage went from 54.9 as a sophomore to 41.7 this season. He was 1-for-10 from the floor in the loss at Temple.
1. Duke 80, Wisconsin 70. Blue Devils shot 65 percent and dominated in one of the nation’s toughest road environments.
2. Kentucky 58, Louisville 50. It wasn’t pretty, but it served its purpose -- getting the Wildcats to SEC play with a perfect record.
3. Maryland 72, Iowa State 63. Early win gave Terps confidence and proved they could beat a good team away from home, even though they were less than full strength.
4. Seton Hall 66, Villanova 61. Pirates handed 'Nova its first loss of the season, proving that, even without injured freshman guard Isaiah Whitehead, this is an NCAA tourney-caliber team.
5. Butler 74, North Carolina 66. Bulldogs had 29 offensive rebounds to jump-start a program which had gone through a very difficult year.
1. NJIT 72, Michigan 70. NJIT is only a few years removed from setting the NCAA record for most consecutive losses. The Wolverines are still reeling.
2. Texas Southern 71, Michigan State 64 (overtime). The Spartans were playing without injured forward Branden Dawson, but that is no excuse for losing to a 1-8 team at home.
3. Incarnate Word 74, Nebraska 73. If you had never heard of Incarnate Word before this game, don’t feel bad. Neither had I.
4. Cal State Bakersfield 55, California 52. This win in Berkeley improved the Roadrunners’ record to 3-10.
5. Kentucky 84, UCLA 44. The game was not as close as the final score would indicate. UCLA scored just seven first-half points, the fewest in the history of the program.
1. UNLV: 61.3 percent from the foul line (329th in U.S.)
2. San Diego State: 61.4 percent (328th)
3. VCU: 62.8 percent (315th)
4. Baylor: 63.4 percent (310th)
5. Michigan State: 63.7 percent (304th)
Circle the Date
1. Jan. 24, Kansas at Texas. This game will go a long way toward determining whether the Jayhawks will win their 11th consecutive Big 12 title.
2. Jan. 31, Duke at Virginia. The only regular season meeting between these two teams.
3. Feb. 28, Arizona at Utah. The Utes will probably have to hold serve if they are going to have a chance at a league title.
4. Jan. 31, Wichita State at Northern Iowa. These two are going to have a glorious tussle for supremacy in the Missouri Valley.
5. Feb. 24, Wisconsin at Maryland. Terps don’t have to play in Madison, so this will be their only shot at knocking off the Big Ten’s best team.
Second half storylines
1. Will Kentucky go undefeated? If Florida could run the table in the SEC last year, the Wildcats should be a sure bet.
2. Will Wisconsin be perfect in the Big Ten? The league has had a rough first two months, so this is looking more and more possible.
3. Will scoring and tempo remain low? Maybe it’s best if they do, so the game’s stakeholders will be forced to make some substantive changes.
4. Mike Krzyzewski's chase for career win No. 1,000. He is only four away, so if the team wins its next three, Coach K will have a chance to reach the magic number at Louisville on Jan. 17.
5. Which of the bluebloods will miss out on the NCAA tournament? It has been a down cycle for several of the game’s best brands -- Michigan, Michigan State, Florida, UConn, UCLA, Syracuse, Memphis, to name a few. Some of them will be in the tournament, but not all of them.
Other Hoop Thoughts
• In Virginia’s last two games, the Cavaliers got pushed at home by Davidson and were extremely fortunate to escape at Miami in double overtime. This is a very good team that is due to be plucked.
• Villanova doesn’t have many deficiencies, but I don’t like that the Wildcats have to work so hard to manufacture points. Dylan Ennis is in a bad shooting slump (2-for-18 from three in his last five games) and Ryan Arcidiacono’s three-point shooting percentage is at a ghastly 20.8, down from 34.5 as a sophomore. You can hide that problem during the nonconference season, but when you have to hit the road and play league opponents, you get exposed.
• Speaking of bad long-range shooting, Iowa State, which leads the Big 12 in made threes per game (8.7), was 1-for-18 from behind the arc in its loss to South Carolina. The problem isn’t that the Cyclones shot so poorly -- that’s going to happen -- but rather that they didn’t adjust. Time to come up with a Plan B, guys.
• Case in point: Maryland was a combined 12-for-48 from three-point range against Michigan State and Minnesota last week, but the Terps won both games by shooting 60 free throws and making 46 of them. I love teams that use that line. There’s a reason they call it "free."
• By the way, Maryland had zero free throws at halftime of that game at Michigan State. Not sure I’ve ever seen a bigger discrepancy.
• Sophomore point guard Isaiah Taylor looked really rusty in Saturday's return from a wrist injury (2-for-10 from the floor, six turnovers), but it sure was nice to see him back in uniform. He isn’t the Longhorns’ most talented player, but he is their most important.
• St. John’s sophomore guard Rysheed Jordan, the team’s sixth man, has taken another leave of absence, and you saw how much the Red Storm felt his absence in a home loss to Butler on Saturday. This team’s biggest problems were poor outside shooting and a thin bench. Jordan’s leave exacerbates both.
• I like Oklahoma, but Lon Kruger has got to find a way to get more production out of his bench. The margin for error is a little too thin for my taste.
• It should be a rule in the ACC that Clemson has to play at North Carolina every year. The Tigers have never ever ever ever won in Chapel Hill. Their game at Clemson on Saturday was their only meeting this season.
• The best development Ohio State could have hoped for was freshman D’Angelo Russell’s 22-point performance in Saturday’s win over Illinois. I realize Illinois is not exactly a juggernaut, but Russell played poorly in the Buckeyes’ only three challenging games this season, shooting a combined 11-for-47 from the field.
• Yes, Colorado State got embarrassed late Saturday night at New Mexico to suffer its first loss, but somebody has to win the Mountain West, right? I still say the Rams are the favorites, but this is as down as the league has been in quite some time.
• Speaking of the Mountain West, Boise State suffered a tough break last week when senior guard Anthony Drmic, who was named second team all-conference the last two seasons, was lost for the remainder of the season because of an ankle injury. Had Drmic stayed healthy, he would likely have graduated as the school’s all-time leading scorer.
• Here’s another bummer on the injury front: Stanford freshman forward Reid Travis is out indefinitely because of an upper-leg stress fracture. Travis is a well-built, versatile forward who was an outstanding football prospect in high school. He reminds me of the basketball version of Julius Peppers. Stanford is going to miss him eventually.
• In case you missed it, here is Syracuse freshman forward Chris McCullough’s stat line from the Orange’s two-point win at Virginia Tech on Saturday: 18 minutes, 1-for-2 from the floor, 2 points, 7 rebounds. He's a projected first-round pick in six months?
• You had to feel sick for Florida forward Jacob Kurtz accidentally tipping in the game-winning basket in the Gators’ loss at Florida State last week. That play will only be replayed a zillion times the next 50 years. Kurtz started as the team’s student manager, then got promoted to walk-on, and now he’s on scholarship who has started several games this season. Life can be cruel sometimes.
• Nice win for Tulane at Memphis on Saturday to improve to 2-0 in the American. We’ll see if the Green Wave are for real when they host a surging Temple team in New Orleans on Wednesday.
• Speaking of Temple, you can’t overstate the impact that Jesse Morgan, a 6-foot-5 senior transfer from UMass, has had on this team since he became eligible on Dec. 18. Morgan is now the team’s leading scorer at 16.3 points per game, and he was at his best in the Owls’ biggest wins at Kansas and UConn. (He scored 17 points in each game and buried a gutsy corner three late in OT to seal the win over UConn.)
• I know it’s bittersweet, but Butler did the right thing in naming Chris Holtmann its permanent coach after Brandon Miller’s paid medical leave expired. The school could have conducted a national search to land a "big name," but that is not the Butler Way. No program does a better job grooming talent and promoting from within.
• I truly do not understand the argument that college basketball should go to six fouls. Is that what we really need? More fouls?
• I’ve often pointed out that TCU’s undefeated nonconference record was the product of a laughable schedule, but for West Virginia to beat the Horned Frogs on the road without their best player, Juwan Staten (flu), was highly impressive. This team’s toughness reflects its coach. The Mountaineers rank first nationally in steals per game (13.3) and offensive rebounds per game (18.3). When you play good defense and crash the glass, you are not overly dependent on outside shooting.
• As well as Utah has played to this point, this team will get even better now that 6-6 junior forward Jordan Loveridge has returned after missing seven games because of a knee injury that required surgery. He had a combined 24 points (on 50 percent shooting) and 11 rebounds in the Utes’ first two Pac-12 wins over USC and UCLA.
• How’s this for a suggestion: If the referees see have to go to the monitor because a player hit the floor from an apparent elbow, and the reply reveals that player was flopping, then the player should be assessed a technical foul that also counts as a personal. Sound good?
• Cal followed up its good win over Washington with a bad loss to Washington State. Keep in mind this team has been playing the last five weeks without Jabari Bird, the 6-6 sophomore guard who is the Bears third-leading scorer. Bird has been out with a stress fracture in his foot, but the team is expecting him to return in time for the homestand against Arizona State and Arizona on Jan. 22 and 24.
• Interesting to see George Washington having some success with the 1-3-1 zone, particularly in the second half of the Colonials’ win over Wichita State. Indiana also uses it in small stretches, but I don’t see much of it elsewhere. I’m wondering why more teams don’t use the 1-3-1. It’s unconventional, so opposing teams often don’t know how to handle it.
• Minnesota’s Andre Hollins has had a rough couple of weeks. The 6-2 senior can be one of the most explosive scorers in the country, but in his first two Big Ten games, Hollins has scored a total of 9nine points on 3-for-19 shooting. The Golden Gophers are one of the oldest teams in the country, but they’re not playing like it right now.
• You all know I’m a big sportsmanship guy, but I have to admit it was fun watching Tim Miles snipe at Tom Crean during Indiana’s win at Nebraska last week. Although I’m not sure I like that Miles tweets at halftime.
• I made this point on CBS over the weekend, and I’ll make it again here: Kentucky’s best lineup is the four freshmen around Willie Cauley-Stein. I expect John Calipari to move more in that direction as we get closer to March.
• Fred Hoiberg is now going with the no-tie look. It’s officially a thing.
Five Games I'm Psyched To See This Week*
* weekend not included
Oklahoma at Texas, Monday, 9 p.m., ESPN
It’s hard to imagine the Longhorns losing at home now that Isaiah Taylor is back, but he will have to play better than he did on Saturday in Lubbock.
Texas 74, Oklahoma 64
Notre Dame at North Carolina, Monday, 7 p.m., ESPN
The Irish have been on a roll, but it’s a little disconcerting they needed two overtimes to beat Georgia Tech at home. My sense is they will rise to the occasion in Chapel Hill against a Tar Heels team that struggles to score in the halfcourt.
Notre Dame 70, North Carolina 67
Villanova at St. John’s, Tuesday, 9 p.m., FS1
I normally like desperate home teams, but the Red Storm's two losses last week have me spooked.
Villanova 74, St. John’s 67
Kansas at Baylor, Wednesday, 9 p.m., ESPNU
Baylor has to be careful to control pace, because the Jayhawks should have trouble scoring against the Bears’ zone.
Baylor 69, Kansas 63
Wyoming at Colorado State, Wednesday, 9 p.m.
These are probably the best two teams in the Mountain West right now. Colorado State needs to compete better on the defensive end than it did in that blowout loss at New Mexico.
Colorado State 66, Wyoming 60
This Week's AP Ballot
* (Last week’s rank on my ballot in parentheses)
1. Kentucky (1)
2. Duke (2)
3. Wisconsin (3)
4. Louisville (4)
5. Gonzaga (5)
6. Virginia (6)
7. Arizona (8)
8. Texas (9)
9. Utah (10)
10. Maryland (12)
11. Villanova (7)
12. Notre Dame (11)
13. Oklahoma (13)
14. North Carolina (16)
15. VCU (19)
16. Kansas (24)
17. Wichita State (20)
18. West Virginia (NR)
19. Temple (NR)
20. Northern Iowa (18)
21. Seton Hall (NR)
22. Iowa State (14)
23. Indiana (23)
24. Stanford (25)
25. Old Dominion (NR)
Dropped out: St. John’s (15), Ohio State (17), Washington (21), Georgetown (22)
I did a little house cleaning this week. The decision to drop St. John’s was an easy one after the Red Storm lost two games last week. Ohio State got dinged for losing at home to Iowa. Washington lost three in a row. Georgetown lost on the road to a Xavier team that followed that up by losing at DePaul. So the Hoyas are out -- for now.
Stanford was a tough call. When I tweeted out my ballot on Sunday night, I did not include the Cardinal in my top 25. But after they beat Washington, I changed my mind. The Cardinal have now won two straight without Reid Travis, and while I think that injury will be debilitating, they deserve to stay ranked until they lose.
I thought about dropping Iowa State, too, because of its loss to South Carolina, but the Cyclones’ win at Iowa is looking even better now than it did two weeks ago, so I gave them a break.
I ranked West Virginia so high partly as a correction. I probably should have had them in last week, but I just ran out of room. I watched most of their road win at TCU without Juwan Staten, and the Mountaineers passed my eye test. Temple, meanwhile, is on a roll right now, but keep in mind they beat UConn at overtime with Ryan Boatright sitting out the entire second half and OT because of a thigh bruise.
I’d like to give Arkansas more consideration, but I don’t understand why the Razorbacks were playing Utah Valley at home last week. If Mike Anderson wants to gain some national traction, he needs to schedule tougher games this time of year.
Iowa is another team I gave a long, hard look. The Hawkeyes play Nebraska and Michigan State at home this week. If they’re really rank-worthy, they should win those two games.
I have no problem admitting that I look for midmajors when it comes to filling the last couple of spots. Old Dominion, which already owns a win over VCU, won its first league game at Charlotte over the weekend. That is not easy to do. And before I put Stanford on the ballot, I had Wyoming, which beat UNLV at home and then knocked off San Jose State on the road to start off 2-0 in the Mountain West. The Cowboys have a big stretch coming up. They play at Colorado State and then host Boise State and San Diego State in Laramie.