The start of conference play is a good time for teams to reboot their seasons. Strategic flaws can be corrected, positive qualities can be refined and, in many cases, unexpected stumbles can be made up for. Varying nonconference strengths of schedule can make it difficult to evaluate different squads relative to one another at the turn of the new year. The league-on-league action that’ll unfold over the next two-plus months should help clear up any misconceptions, but if you're looking for answers right now, here are four teams whose ability doesn’t reflect what their win-loss record suggests. This is the fifth version of a weekly column analyzing four college hoops topics bound by some underlying narrative thread. If there’s something you’d like to see in this space, don’t hesitate to reach out to me.
The Wildcats’ three losses came so quickly that it was difficult to make sense of what happened in each one of them. Over a three-day stretch in the Battle 4 Atlantis Tournament last month, Arizona dropped games to North Carolina State, Southern Methodist and Purdue to fall to 3-3. At the time, the skid seemed to raise serious questions about Arizona’s status as our preseason No. 1 team. Everyone, it seemed, had overrated the Wildcats, or at the very least miscalculated how their blend of esteemed freshmen and proven returnees would congeal amid the specter of an FBI investigation. About a month later, it increasingly feels like the three B4A defeats will register as a strange blip on the otherwise robust résumé of a conference and national championship contender. For starters, two of the Ls are mostly excusable: The Mustangs are shaping up as the American Athletic Conference’s top team not named Wichita State or Cincinnati, and Purdue is rounding into Michigan State’s fiercest challenger in the Big Ten. Beyond the quality of the opponents, though, it’s becoming clearer why Arizona was such a trendy pick for No. 1 heading into opening night. The Wildcats pair a lottery-bound freshman big man (Deandre Ayton) with a high-scoring veteran wing (Allonzo Trier), and call on a balanced supporting cast to fill in the gaps around them. Sophomore Rawle Alkins’s return from a foot injury earlier this month has helped, but on most nights, teams simply won’t have an answer for Ayton on the inside, and when they do, Trier, Alkins, freshman off-guard Brandon Randolph and senior point guard Parker Jackson-Cartwright can make them pay from the perimeter. You can count on Arizona playing top-40 defense, too, as it’s done six seasons running under Sean Miller, according to Kenpom.com. Having ripped off seven consecutive wins since returning from the Bahamas, including two over likely-first-rounder-led SEC outfits Texas A&M (Robert Williams) and Alabama (Collin Sexton), the Wildcats still look capable of delivering Miller his first Final Four berth, and they should show it when they take on undefeated, No. 3 Arizona State at the McKale Center on Saturday night.
The Hoyas’ non-conference schedule was designed with the intent of stacking up comfortable wins against easy competition for a talent-bereft team undergoing a coaching transition. Over 11 games heading into Wednesday’s Big East opener against Butler, Georgetown faced only one team ranked in the top 220 of Ken Pomeroy’s ratings, and it took on six teams ranked lower than 325th. And lest we forget, the Hoyas actually withdrew from the loaded PK80 tournament in Portland, in what athletic director Lee Reed described in a statement as a “mutual agreement” not to participate. The gambit mostly worked how the Hoyas presumably wanted it to. They didn’t suffer any embarrassing losses this fall, and they compiled a 10-1 record to pad Patrick Ewing’s first-year CV in advance of what figures to be a brutal run through conference play. It’s not unusual for inexperienced high-major squads to fill their out-of-league slates with fluff with the goal of building early-season confidence, but the degree to which Georgetown dodged quality opponents in crafting this slate is embarrassing. The most disappointing aspect of the Hoyas’ self-cooked creampuff feast is that they almost certainly played it way too safe. In the one genuinely interesting game Georgetown did schedule, a matchup with old rival Syracuse in Washington D.C. on Dec. 16, the Hoyas led the Orange by seven inside the final three minutes of regulation before falling in overtime, and they took Butler to double OT in a 91-89 loss on Wednesday. Georgetown is going to take a few whippings in the Big East over the next couple of months; it would be surprising if this team is within shouting distance of an at-large bid despite the number of quality wins available in the league. But no reasonable observer would have been pointing fingers at Ewing had the Hoyas taken a couple of more defeats while navigating a more rigorous schedule in November and December and giving longtime supporters excited about the new regime something worth watching during the holidays. Expectations were low to begin with for Georgetown, and they haven’t really changed since the start of the season even though the Hoyas entered their first Big East tilt with only two fewer victories than conference frontrunner Villanova.
Mississippi State (11-1)
There’s one more game remaining on the Bulldogs’ nonconference schedule, and it’s probably going to play out like almost all of the other ones did. On Saturday, the Bulldogs will welcome Atlantic Sun foe North Florida to Humphrey Coliseum for a matchup unlikely to offer much intrigue outside of the name of one of the Ospreys’ freshman forwards. North Florida is 5-10 with a loss to Mount St. Mary’s and two wins against non-Division I schools, and it’s coming off a 52-point smackdown at the hands of an LSU team media members picked to finish last in the SEC. Mississippi State should make easy work of North Florida, and the resulting win will get filed away alongside other non-league Ws over patsies like Alabama State, Florida A&M, Green Bay, Tennessee Martin, Little Rock and Southern Miss. The one true road game the Bulldogs have played this season was revealing and could serve as a preview for what’ll take place on their trips to SEC venues in January and February: Mississippi State mustered only 50 points over 66 possessions in a 15-point loss to Cincinnati. The Bulldogs should begin conference play against Arkansas in Starkville on Tuesday having hit the 12-win mark about two weeks earlier than they did last season, when they notched 16 victories overall, but that says less about Mississippi State than it does its nonconference strength of schedule, which checks in 342nd in the country, according to Kenpom.com. The Bulldogs have not qualified for the NCAA tournament since 2009 under Rick Stansbury, and it doesn’t look like their first bid of this decade will come in a few months. Mississippi State has defended well to date, limiting opponents to only 42.9% shooting inside the three-point arc, which ranks 26th in the country, but it’s too limited on the other end of the floor—having turned the ball over on 21.8% of its possessions (297th) and drained only 29.6% of its three-point shots (320th)—to pick up enough quality wins in an improved SEC. The focus this season should be the development of a young rotation that Ben Howland could mold into a league title threat at some point over the next couple of years.
Notre Dame (10-3)
It was about a month ago that Mike Brey flexed his arms and triumphantly nodded his head in a glorious shirtless celebration of Notre Dame’s come-from-behind win over Wichita State in the championship bout of the Maui Invitational. Nobody would have blinked had the Fighting Irish built on that success by using the rest of the out-of-league schedule to cement their status as a serious competitor to Duke, Miami, North Carolina and Virginia in the ACC. Instead, about a week later, Notre Dame was run out of the Breslin Center in an 18-point loss to Michigan State in the Big Ten-ACC Challenge. Five days after that, it got caught napping at home in a three-point loss to Ball State, and it suffered an overtime defeat to Indiana in Indianapolis on Dec. 16. The three toe-stubs sent Notre Dame tumbling from fifth in the AP Top 25 Poll late last month to unranked, and the Fighting Irish were slotted as a No. 7 seed in bracket expert Joe Lunardi’s latest mock. It was a steep fall for a program that Brey has groomed into a model of consistency. True to form, Notre Dame isn’t doing a great job keeping opponents out of its basket, yielding 96.1 points per 100 possessions, which ranks 91st in the country. But it has the offensive horses to make up for its defensive frailties, and it rarely turns the ball over. That should be enough for the Fighting Irish to record something in the neighborhood of 25 wins and a solid tourney seed. Senior point guard Matt Farrell is making half of his 2s and nearly 40% of his 3s while nudging his shot load upward from last season, and senior big man Bonzie Colson remains an efficient offensive workhorse who protects the rim, gets to the free-throw line often and cleans the glass on both ends of the floor. Notre Dame has definitely underwhelmed since taking out the Shockers in Hawaii, but bet on Brey having his guys in good shape by March. The Fighting Irish will welcome a soft launch into ACC play, with three of their first four games coming against Georgia Tech (twice) and North Carolina State.