With the holidays winding down and the conference season trickling in, your resident Hoop Thinker is here to offer up his take on the first two months of the season. My SI.com colleagues and I will provide our annual crystal ball look-ahead next week, but my assessments tend to be slightly more accurate when I'm discussing the past as opposed to predicting the future. Here, then, are my 15 midseason superlatives:
We're used to associating the arrival of January with the start of conference play, but there are still a handful of intriguing nonconference games to look forward to the next two months. Here, in reverse order, are my 10 best:
(Last week's rank on my ballot in parentheses)
1. Duke (1)
Dropped out: Tennessee (20), Baylor (24)
The primary team to consider this week was Michigan State. The Spartans got embarrassed at home by Texas, but how far could I really drop them? Look at their four losses: UConn (neutral), Duke (road), Syracuse (neutral), Texas (home). So I plugged them in at 13 because none of the teams behind them had done anything to deserve being moved up. Illinois and Kansas State were coming off losses to Missouri and UNLV, respectively. At any rate, the Spartans better start kicking into gear soon. Their New Year's Eve Big Ten opener at home against Minnesota is a good place to start.
I might have moved Texas a little higher, but that road spanking at USC nagged at me. Then again, USC is better than a lot of us thought. I see you, Trojans.
Elsewhere, I think my fellow voters are making a mistake with San Diego State. Don't get me wrong, this is a good team. But I don't believe a team should move up the rankings simply for beating mediocre-to-bad teams. The Aztecs won at Gonzaga back on Nov. 16, but they haven't played anybody good since. This week they're ranked seventh in the AP, but I doubt they'll ever go above 10th on my ballot.
I seem to be a lone wolf in the wilderness (again) with respect to Washington. I have the Huskies at No. 15, yet my fellow voters don't see fit to rank them. This week they were fifth among others receiving votes. This befuddles me. Washington's three losses are all to ranked teams (Michigan State, Kentucky, Texas A&M), and the loss to the Aggies came by one point on the road. If you think the Aggies deserve to be ranked, do you really think they're so much better than a team they beat by a point at home? My wisdom here will be vindicated ... eventually.
For my final spot I brought Temple back, largely because the Owls' Dec. 9 win over Georgetown is looking better by the day. They are playing Villanova on Thursday, so we'll see if they deserve the respect I've given them. My next man up is Butler, which has now won five straight and captured the championship at the Diamond Head Classic in Hawaii with wins over Utah, Florida State and Washington State. I also looked at Florida State, but I couldn't take the Seminoles over Butler, and their win over Baylor said as much about Baylor as it did about them. UNLV did have that road win at Kansas State, but since the Wildcats didn't have their two best players, that wasn't enough to erase the Rebels' losses at Louisville and at home to UC Santa Barbara last week.
Other teams who got a long look were Washington State (10-2 with a 22-point win over Gonzaga at home), Arizona (11-2, losses on the road to Kansas and BYU), Georgia (9-2 with both losses coming on a neutral court to Notre Dame and Temple), Utah State (losses at BYU and Georgetown but no quality wins) and Oklahoma State (11-1 but no good wins and a neutral court loss to Virginia Tech). Don't worry, boys. I have to fill out another ballot next week.