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  • Can anyone spare a mulligan? As college basketball gets ready for league play, we looked back at which conference predictions of ours look on track to be right (and wrong).
By Eric Single and Molly Geary
December 27, 2018

When we ranked all 353 teams in Division I college basketball and used it to shape our 2018–19 conference previews in October, there was a lot of projection involved. Projecting how certain players would improve from last season, how freshmen who had never played a collegiate game would develop, what kind of immediate impact coaching changes would have and more. As you may imagine, more than seven weeks into the season, some of our projections have panned out, well, better than others.

While it's still too early to be making conclusive statements on the vast majority of teams, we have a much clearer picture now on what to expect as the calendar flips to 2019 and conference play gets underway across the nation. So we used this time to revisit those conference preview rankings, look back at what we appeared to get right and wrong and and adjust expectations accordingly.

AAC

Our preseason top three of Cincinnati, UCF and Houston have been as promising as advertised, but the longer Houston goes without losing a game, the worse it looks slotting the Cougars in third in the conference rankings. Their home wins over disappointing Oregon and LSU teams may look worse with time. For now, it’s probably safest to stick with Cincinnati, whose two losses to Ohio State and Mississippi State are more than respectable.

• Elswhere, UConn made clear in its early-season win over Syracuse that new coach Dan Hurley would have the Huskies ready to battle, and while those good feelings have been dampened by losses to Iowa and Florida State and a second-half fade against Villanova, UConn still looks good enough to challenge the AAC’s top tier.

• We’re not advising USF fans to clear their schedules for mid-March, but the Bulls, projected to be the worst team in the conference, are one win away from matching their total in coach Brian Gregory’s first season, thanks in part to a vastly improved defense that creates a steal on 13.1% of possessions, fourth-best in the country.

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ACC

As expected, Duke and Virginia have the look of inner-circle national title contenders, but somehow it appears we still underestimated the league’s abundance of elite teams despite leaving open the possibility that any one of four teams a rung below the top could push the Blue Devils and Cavaliers. After multiple early-season wobbles, North Carolina appears to have the top-10 ceiling we projected for it after all; more surprising is the comparative ease with which Florida State and Virginia Tech have moved through non-conference play (each have just one loss, which came away from home). When Duke was at its most invincible in early November, we wondered how many ACC teams could keep the Blue Devils in striking distance. Nearly half the league has a prayer.

NC State (No. 9 in the ACC) and Louisville (No. 11) can dream of much better than a middle-of-the-pack finish, as the Wolfpack have picked up the pace and folded in some valuable transfers while the Cardinals have already become a tough out in Chris Mack’s first six weeks in charge. In less dramatic underratings, Georgia Tech is not the worst team in the league; that title is reserved for Wake Forest.

Clemson got so many contributors back from its Elite Eight run of a year ago that the three losses to kenpom top-40 teams (Creighton, Nebraska and Mississippi State) feel like significant disappointments. There’s still time for the Tigers’ interior defense to round into form.

• Florida State (No. 14) and Virginia Tech (No. 15) ended up right next to each other in the preseason 1–353 rankings, but the Hokies may ultimately have the higher ceiling. They shoot threes better than anyone in the conference and are a gigantic pain on the defensive end.

Big 12

Our No. 1 preseason team nationally, Kansas, was of course a no-brainer pick to win the Big 12. And the Jayhawks are still the favorites for their 15th straight title, having only recently dropped their first game of the season (on the road, while missing center Udoka Azubuike). But after that?

Kansas State (No. 2) has no top-50 wins yet, lost at Tulsa and is now indefinitely without Dean Wade, and the Wildcats are going to need to find more offense to seriously contend for the conference title. The departures of Jevon Carter and Daxter Miles had a larger-than-anticipated impact on West Virginia, and our predicted third-place Big 12 team feels ticketed for the bottom half of the conference (the Mountaineers’ No. 13 national rank from our preseason top 25 is more like a pipe dream). But don't let the early struggles by those two make you think there are no worthy challengers to Kansas.

Texas Tech appears to have been severely overlooked by us but is probably the most likely team to threaten the Jayhawks’ record. We pegged the Red Raiders for sixth in the conference and 41st nationally, but a big leap by Jarrett Culver, a couple key transfers and their elite defense have powered them to No. 10 in kenpom's efficiency rankings. Plus, Tech has plenty of time to get better still before it faces Kansas for the first time on Feb. 2.

• Another team we didn’t see coming was Oklahoma, who was an afterthought just outside the conference basement at No. 9. A surprising 11–1 start has the Sooners in the AP top 25, and while it might still be a bridge too far to contend for the title, they could easily be in play for a top-half finish.

• Finally, there’s the curious case of 10–2 Iowa State. The Cyclones’ wins to date aren’t impressive, with Missouri being the best team they’ve beat, but they’ve acquitted themselves extremely well considering all of the absences they’ve dealt with in the first two months, including not getting star sophomore Lindell Wigginton back until just before Christmas. Talen Horton-Tucker has been a revelation as a freshman, and Iowa State looks like a sneaky Big 12 contender.

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Big East

Villanova is still the team to beat, but the gap to the defending national champions’ closest challengers has definitely closed. The Wildcats sit near the bottom of Division I in kenpom’s adjusted tempo metric and have seen their offense go missing in losses to Michigan, Furman and Penn. The team with the best chance of stealing a conference title looks to be sharpshooting Marquette, which had no defensive answer for Indiana but has logged encouraging December wins over Kansas State, Wisconsin and Buffalo that indicate the Golden Eagles may be a little more well-rounded than we initially thought. Lurking nearby, as it so often does, is Butler, which looks efficient as ever and more nuanced than the Kamar Baldwin Show as Paul Jorgensen and Sean McDermott have stepped up as scorers.

• A win at Texas on the Friday before Christmas should give Providence a boost heading into league play, but pegging the Friars as the Big East’s third-best team seems high in retrospect. Meanwhile, we may have jumped the gun on the development at preseason No. 6 Georgetown, which has lost to Loyola Marymount and SMU and needed overtime to outlast USF and Little Rock.

Seton Hall grabbed one of the Big East’s best wins of the month when it knocked off Kentucky in overtime at Madison Square Garden, then followed that up with a road win over Maryland to wrap its non-conference slate. Myles Powell is averaging 23.1 points per game and no one else is in double figures on the season, but it’s working for the Pirates.

• We initially placed Creighton right behind Seton Hall in ninth, citing the loss of Marcus Foster and Khyri Thomas as insurmountable setbacks. The Bluejays have acquitted themselves well in losses to kenpom top-25 teams Oklahoma and Ohio State (never mind that in-state blowout at the hands of Nebraska), and they pushed Gonzaga in Spokane. Expect them to hang around.

Big Ten

Our prediction for the Michigan schools to lead the conference still looks sound (perhaps not quite in the Michigan State-Michigan order, however), but putting the Wolverines No. 18 nationally was underselling them, as they’ve stormed out of the gate to an impressive undefeated start. We also didn’t anticipate the level of bounce-back year the Big Ten would have as a whole; through the (near) end of non-conference play, the league seems a lot stronger top-to-bottom as compared to 2017–18, boasts the current No. 2 team in the land and four teams in the top 15. Compare that to SI’s preseason top 25, where the only conference team we had in the top 15 was Michigan State at No. 10.

• Stalwart center Ethan Happ is having his best year yet, and it has helped Wisconsin feel undervalued at No. 5; it’s easy to picture the Badgers challenging the Michigan schools at the top. Purdue (No. 3), meanwhile, already has five (quality) losses, and the Boilermakers need to find more consistency on defense and more production outside Carsen Edwards on offense to fulfill that prophecy.

• The biggest miss, though, may have been Ohio State at No. 9. The Buckeyes felt likely for a drop-off after losing do-everything star Keita Bates-Diop, but for the second year in a row Chris Holtmann has them on track to overachieve. They have one loss so far and a number of solid wins away from home, and while they’ve yet to defeat a team in the current AP top 25, the door is open for OSU to be a quiet conference contender.

• The upper tier of the Big Ten is going to be a dogfight, with Nebraska, Indiana, Maryland and Iowa all joining the aforementioned teams as ones that have either appeared in the AP top 25 or are currently ranked. If you’re keeping track, that’s nine league teams we’ve mentioned already, meaning two of them are doomed for the bottom half.

• Speaking of the bottom, is this the year Rutgers climbs out of the basement? The Scarlet Knights have shown signs of life, beating Miami and avoiding blowouts in losses to Michigan State and Wisconsin. They may wind up on an island with Illinois as the clear worst teams in the conference, but with the Illini still searching for their first kenpom top-100 win, Rutgers has a real shot at its first non-last place finish since joining the Big Ten.

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Pac-12

Where do we start with the Conference of Champions? The entire Pac-12, save for surprising Arizona State, seems to be in free fall, so let’s begin in Tempe. Behind freshman Luguentz Dort, who is averaging 19.2 points, the Sun Devils have earned wins over Kansas and Mississippi State and are the only Pac-12 team currently ranked. Our pick to finish seventh, ASU may actually be the best bet to win the Pac-12, and right now it is the lone bright spot in a league that desperately needed an improved year. But analytics aren’t high on any team in the conference, which can’t claim a single top-40 squad in kenpom.com’s efficiency rankings. Let’s run through the damage:

Oregon, our preseason pick to win the Pac-12, has dealt with injuries to prized recruits Bol Bol and Louis King and has a loss to Texas Southern on its résumé. The Ducks still may be the league’s highest-upside team, but the ifs involved in their best-case scenario have never been bigger.

• Our second-place pick, UCLA, has also disappointed, losing five games already and looking non-competitive on multiple occasions, including a blowout loss at Cincinnati. Steve Alford’s seat is getting scalding hot.

USC has struggled in games without freshman Kevin Porter, including a bad road loss at Santa Clara, and will enter conference play without a single win over a top-150 team on kenpom.com.

• The rest of the Pac-12 has disappointed either as expected or more than expected (a possible exception being Washington, which could still earn a top-three finish in a weak league), creating a mess of a situation where teams will have scarce opportunities to pick up significant wins in conference play. The most intriguing narrative of the Pac-12 the rest of the way may just be tracking how few at-large bids it will get in March.

SEC

It’s still too early to tell what exactly Kentucky is, but we can comfortably say it’s not “one of the scariest teams in the nation”, as we wrote when we slotted the Wildcats in as the nation’s No. 2 team. The season-opening 34-point blowout at the hands of Duke made it very clear that Kentucky does not belong in 2018–19’s elite tier. The Wildcats don’t shoot threes and can’t defend them, and one of those two flaws historically bites them much later in the season than right now. The team we slotted just behind them, Tennessee, has established a strong preliminary case to be the SEC’s first No. 1 seed since UK in 2015, with a bonafide National Player of the Year candidate in Grant Williams and a newly awakened clutch scorer in Admiral Schofield. The Vols have staked out a spot atop the conference standings through March.

• Kentucky isn’t the only team that has disappointed in a year when the SEC was supposed to make a big statement. LSU (SI’s preseason No. 17 overall) lost its three biggest nonconference tests—but it did knock Furman from the ranks of the unbeaten. Alabama (No. 30) and Missouri (No. 57) have taken a bigger step back than expected without the services of the lottery picks they hosted a year ago.

• The season-ending left meniscus injury to five-star point guard Darius Garland has lowered Vanderbilt’s ceiling significantly, even if the Commodores’ mid-December win over Arizona State ends up looking even better with time. Too much offensive continuity falls on freshman forward Simi Shittu to trust Vandy as an X-factor.

Ole Miss didn’t deserve to be buried at No. 14, as the Rebels have taken on the identity of new head coach Kermit Washington’s Middle Tennessee teams faster than expected. Ole Miss hasn’t beaten a team currently higher than 67th on kenpom, but it certainly looks feistier than South Carolina, Texas A&M and Georgia.

Mid-Majors

We tackled those outside the seven major conferences with a “best of the rest” preview, which included top-10 Gonzaga and Nevada and eight other promising teams. The Zags and Wolf Pack have lived up to their end of the billing, but the rest of the list has been far more of a mixed bag.

Loyola-Chicago has been a dud in its Final Four follow-up, dropping six games before the end of 2018 after entering the season as SI’s No. 25 team. Our No. 4 mid-major team, Western Kentucky, hasn’t panned out either (and saw Desean Murray depart the program in mid-December) while No. 5 Davidson has been good-but-not-great.

• We knew No. 6 Buffalo’s NCAA tournament win over Arizona was no fluke, but if we were re-ranking mid-majors right now, the Bulls would easily come in at No. 3 behind Gonzaga and Nevada. They’ve won at both West Virginia and Syracuse and got up all the way to No. 14 in the AP poll, a far cry from the No. 56 national ranking we gave them in October.

• While Rhode Island and Marshall were both misses in our mid-major top 10, the likes of San Francisco, Lipscomb and Murray State all would earn a place in a re-ranking. The Dons, not BYU, are probably Gonzaga's biggest threat in the WCC, while the Bisons have beat TCU and SMU and the Racers, led by breakout sophomore Ja Morant, recently gave Auburn all it could handle.

• A pair of Mountain West schools, Utah State (172nd preseason) and Fresno State (139th), and the MAC’s Toledo (143rd) also deserve shoutouts as teams we underrated. If Nevada is going to drop a game before the NCAA tournament, it'll probably come at the hands of the Aggies or Bulldogs.

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