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:
Biggest surprise: Connecticut. The Huskies are ranked No. 4 in this week's AP poll, but did not even appear in SI's field of 68 for our college hoops preview issue. And for good reason: They lost the nucleus of a team that couldn't even make the NCAA tournament last season. UConn shocked the experts in November by defeating Michigan State and Kentucky to capture the Maui Invitational, but it's worth noting that, as usual, Jim Calhoun loaded up his December schedule with patsies. The rubber hit the road Monday night with a loss at No. 6 Pittsburgh, and that game will be followed by dates at Notre Dame and Texas in the next two weeks. In other words, we're about to find out just how good this team is -- or isn't.
Biggest disappointment: Virginia Tech. I almost went with Tennessee here because of its recent three-game skid, but at least the Vols have quality wins over Villanova and Pitt. The Hokies entered the season pegged as Duke's biggest challenger in the ACC, but they lost every significant nonconference game they played (Kansas State, UNLV, Purdue) and then fell to Virginia at home in their ACC opener.
Better than you think: North Carolina. The Tar Heels have two NBA first-round caliber players in Tyler Zeller and John Henson, and freshman Harrison Barnes is starting to figure things out. They are never going to be stellar in the backcourt, but they do have young talent with upside. All four of North Carolina's losses were respectable, including a two-point loss to Texas on a last-second field goal by the Longhorns' Cory Joseph. If you saw Texas tear Michigan State apart at the Breslin Center, you can appreciate why I'm calling that a quality loss.
Not as good as you think: Kansas State. The Wildcats' problems go much deeper than the current suspensions of Jacob Pullen and Curtis Kelly for receiving some extra benefits. The main issue, as I've noted before, is K-State's atrocious foul shooting -- but that is part of the larger problem of a general lack of skill. Athleticism and effort can only carry a team so far.
Not as good as you think (runner-up): Memphis. This might well be the youngest major team in the country, and Conference USA is better than most people realize. I could envision a scenario where the Tigers finish third in the league behind UCF and UTEP.
Best league: Big East. I had stuck by the Big Ten up until Michigan State's latest stumbles. I was also swayed by the way St. John's manhandled Northwestern in Madison Square Garden last week. The Big East tends to be overrated because it has so many more teams than every other league. But with four teams ranked in the top 10, the Big East is clearly head-and-shoulders above the rest.
Most disappointing league: ACC. Could it be this league is actually worse than the Pac-10? Duke is the only ACC team ranked in the Top 25, and the bottom of the conference is as bad as I have ever seen it.
Worst break: Purdue senior forward Robbie Hummel's torn ACL. I might have gone with Duke freshman point guard Kyrie Irving's injured toe, which will probably sideline him for the season, but Hummel's injury is far more devastating considering he also missed the end of last season with the same injury. Hummel has said he will come back next season, but his two talented classmates, E'Twaun Moore and JaJuan Johnson, will be gone. At least Duke fans experienced the joy last season of winning an NCAA championship, and the Blue Devils still have a pretty good shot at winning one this year. I seriously doubt Purdue can win a title without Hummel.
Worst call: You can argue whether an official should call the game differently with 0.7 seconds left than with seven minutes left. (I think he should.) But Doug Sirmons's call on UCLA guard Malcolm Lee as the Bruins were locked in a tie with Kansas was bad no matter how much time was on the clock. Instead of sending the game into overtime -- where it belonged -- Sirmons's ill-advised whistle sent Kansas guard Mario Little to the foul line, where he knocked down one out of two attempts to allow KU to escape with a 77-76 win.
Best player: Kemba Walker, UConn. I thought about being contrarian and going with someone else here. (Ohio State's Jared Sullinger and BYU's Jimmer Fredette were the two other players I considered.) But Walker's numbers are too prodigious to ignore. Not only is he leading the nation in scoring at 26.9 points per game, but his percentages are also off the charts: 49.5 percent from the floor, 39.7 percent from three, 84.3 percent from the foul line. Not to mention his 4.8 rebounds, 4.0 assists and 2.1 steals per game. He also drives the bus, cooks pregame meals and tapes his teammates' ankles before practice.
Most disappointing player: Alex Tyus, Florida. The Gators' 6-foot-8 senior forward has seen his scoring average slip from 11.8 last season to 9.0 this year, but even that is deceptive because Tyus had two of his best games against Kent State (20 points) and FAU (19). He was virtually invisible against tougher foes like Ohio State (4 points), Florida State (4), Central Florida (0) and Kansas State (2). A nod of disappointment also goes to Villanova guard Corey Fisher, who was benched for the start of the game against Penn for being disrespectful to coach Jay Wright during practice and whose shooting percentages are way down, and to Butler guard Shelvin Mack, though he has rediscovered his outside touch of late.
Best game: Georgetown 111, Missouri 102, in overtime on Nov. 30. The Hoyas were up 18 points in the first half, and then they needed a buzzer-beating three-pointer by Chris Wright to send the game into overtime. It was a quality de facto road win at the Sprint Center in Kansas City.
Worst game: Notre Dame 57, Cal 44, Nov. 26 in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. When you only score 21 points in the first half, you expect to be trailing by a lot. Notre Dame was winning by 16, thanks to Cal's woeful 2-for-25 shooting in the first half. The Irish weren't much better, finishing the game just 1-for-20 from three-point range. If James Naismith could have seen these two teams play, he would have invented a different game.
Major conference player you need to see: Derrick Williams, Arizona. The Wildcats' 6-8 sophomore forward is America's best-kept secret. He is a versatile scorer who reminds me a lot of Wesley Johnson. Williams is averaging 19.3 points and 7.0 rebounds while making 63.2 percent from the floor and 82.6 percent from the foul line. He doesn't take a ton of three-pointers, but he has made 13 of 19. Looks to me like he's headed for the lottery.
Midmajor player you need to see: BYU's Jimmer Fredette is a little too obvious, so I'm going with Cleveland State senior guard Norris Cole, who is ranked 17th in the country in scoring with 21.5 points per game. Cole has really improved his three-point shooting (46.2 percent, up from 43.2 last year) but what I really like about him is his toughness. He has a nose for the ball and has had six games where he has attempted at least 10 free throws.
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:
10. Maryland at Villanova, Jan. 15. It's odd (and unfortunate) that Gary Williams is willing to play this road game while stubbornly refusing to exhume the annual series with Georgetown. Williams' Terps will have their hands full against Villanova, especially if their guards don't improve drastically over the next few weeks.
9. Kansas at Michigan, Jan. 9. You might think this should be a blowout, but the Jayhawks haven't exactly been embarrassing a lot of opponents these days. The Wolverines don't have nearly as much talent, but John Beilein's deliberate, complicated offense makes Michigan's opponents uncomfortable. KU likes to get out and go, but the way Michigan takes care of the ball and limits possessions, the Jayhawks will have to win by walking.
8. Gonzaga at Memphis, Feb. 5. Josh Pastner inherited the Gonzaga series from John Calipari, but I strongly recommend he keep it going even if his team loses. (The contract for this series has three more years remaining.) Calipari and Mark Few realized the value of playing each other in February, when they tend to drop off the national radar while competing in midmajor conferences.
7. Purdue at West Virginia, Jan. 16. The Mountaineers entered 2010 undefeated and ranked sixth in the country, only to have their New Year's Day ruined by getting whupped by the Boilermakers in West Lafayette by 15 points. (And it wasn't really that close.) Methinks that might come up in the West Virginia locker room before tipoff.
6. Temple at Duke, Feb. 23. Coach K likes to play good nonconference opponents in late February, but it's too bad he doesn't play more true road games. (These two will play again next season at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia. Anyone want to pass the hat to get it moved to the Palestra?) This will serve as a beneficial tournament tuneup for the Blue Devils, since they'll be playing a good team with an unconventional style during the heat of their stretch run in the ACC. The big question is whether Duke will enter this game undefeated. I doubt it, but given the weakness of the ACC it's certainly possible.
5. Memphis at Tennessee, Jan. 5. This is always a great intrastate rivalry game, but I'm sure both coaches will feel like it's the last thing they need. The Tigers are so young it's hard to expect them to handle the hostile environment well. On the other hand, Tennessee is having trouble beating anyone right now, so it can't come in feeling confident. Expect lots of ill-advised shots, careless turnovers and a fabulous finish.
4. UConn at Texas, Jan. 8. When these two teams faced off in Hartford last season, UConn earned an enormous win against a team that came in ranked No. 1 in the country. Then again, the Huskies followed that up by losing five of their next six and eventually missed out on the NCAA tournament, so perhaps it's best if history doesn't repeat itself.
3. Kentucky at Louisville, Dec. 31. This game is technically in 2010, but it's too titillating to leave off my list. This will be Kentucky's first foray into the brand-new KFC Yum! Center, but I expect they'll be the ones licking their fingers in the end. (Sorry, couldn't resist.) It's not often the Wildcats play a team that's just as inexperienced as they are. The Cards have more depth, but lack the same level of talent.
2. Xavier at Cincinnati, Jan. 6. It doesn't matter how good these teams are or where they're ranked. They always play a high-energy, testy game that thrills hoops addicts in the Queen City. This matchup will have even more intrigue if Cincy comes in undefeated. Since the Bearcats are playing DePaul and Seton Hall at home beforehand, that appears likely.
1. Tennessee at UConn, Jan. 22. This will be even better than Geno vs. Pat. Call it the "Furlough Game." Bruce Pearl will be permitted to coach the Vols right in the middle of his eight-game SEC suspension, and given the way they've been playing of late it looks like the team could be in dire need of a win.
(Last week's rank on my ballot in parentheses)
1. Duke (1)2. Kansas (2)3. Ohio State (3)4. Syracuse (4)5. Pitt (5)6. Villanova (6)7. Connecticut (7)8. Kentucky (9)9. Texas (13)10. San Diego State (10)11. Georgetown (11)12. Missouri (18)13. Michigan State (8)14. Illinois (14)15. Washington (12)16. Kansas State (15)17. Minnesota (16)18. Purdue (17)19. Vanderbilt (19)20. North Carolina (21)21. Notre Dame (22)22. Gonzaga (23)23. UCF (25)24. Texas A&M (NR)25. Temple (NR)
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.