1. What do you make of the Big Ten so far?
Ryan – If you’d have asked anyone before the season who the Goliaths of the conference would turn out to be, you’d likely have received the same answer every time. This league appeared to be built around Indiana, Purdue, Michigan State, and Wisconsin. This prognostication appears to half right, at least to the point we’re at in this season, as the Spartans and Badgers are rolling. Purdue owns a solid road win over Ohio State and sits at 2-1 in conference play, and Indiana is trending entirely the wrong direction.
Then, we have our surprises. Ten days after dropping a home contest to Gardner-Webb, the Nebraska Cornhuskers win in Bloomington, stunning Indiana. The Huskers sit atop the Big Ten Conference at 3-0 alongside Michigan State. Give credit to the Minnesota Golden Gophers as well, owners of a road win at Purdue and a follow-up victory over Northwestern.
All things considered, we are likely to see Wisconsin and Michigan State atop the conference yet again. Some storylines to watch:It will be interesting to see if Purdue can gain back the game they lost on the leaders. Will Indiana mercifully end its nosedive? Can Nebraska continue its dominating streak? Will Northwestern finally crash the NCAA party?
In the end, we’re probably looking at Wisconsin as the team to beat.
Zach – All of those points ring true to me. Similar to last year, I saw a top “tier” of Purdue, Indiana, Wisconsin and Michigan State. However, the biggest story thus far to me is the improvement of bottom-dweller Minnesota. You touched on it briefly, but they look like a team capable of winning any game in the Big Ten at the moment, home or away. They are one better play at the end of regulation against Michigan State away from sitting atop the conference with Nebraska and Wisconsin.
Speaking of Nebraska, how about the Cornhuskers? After an abysmal home loss to Gardner-Webb, the Huskers are 4-0 with road wins over Indiana and Maryland. They play a tough brand of basketball with two great guards in Glynn Watson and Tai Webster. To me, two of the more interesting story lines to watch, along with who wins the conference, are whether Minnesota and Nebraska, two teams that struggled last year, can maintain their current push.
2. Who, if anyone, can challenge Kentucky in the SEC?
Zach – Kentucky, as always, brought in an unbelievable wealth of talent with their freshman recruiting class. Players like Malik Monk, De’Aaron Fox and Bam Adebayo have the Wildcats looking like the cream of the crop in the SEC…again. Looking at the conference up and down, I see a couple teams that could give them a tough game but not much in the way of a true challenger. South Carolina has a great defense that could stifle Kentucky for a game, but I don’t think they have enough depth to compete over the course of a season. Arkansas has some talent, but again the depth question comes up.
Overall, I see Florida as the only team that could even potentially challenge for the SEC crown. The Gators are a veteran squad that has been in tough games before. The key to dethroning Kentucky will be winning tight road games when the shots may not be falling in. Florida has this kind of demeanor. Along with that, Florida is very good at forcing turnover, ranking in the top 20 in the country in that respect. With a young team, Kentucky could be prone to turning the ball over in their two meetings with the Gators. If Florida can avoid any bad losses, I think it is possible to at least challenge for the SEC Title. But in the end, I just think Kentucky has too much talent and wins the conference by at least two games.
Ryan – Here is a complete list of the teams that can challenge Kentucky in the SEC:
The Wildcats are one of the premier teams in the nation playing in a very weak power conference. There are only a handful of contests one could realistically expect Kentucky to lose, and they are all away from Rupp Arena. Florida, Vanderbilt, and South Carolina all field solid squads, but none of the aforementioned teams are even remotely close to the tier occupied by the Wildcats. Kentucky will win the SEC, and it won’t be particularly close, as I expect Kentucky to win the conference by at least three or four games. Expect more domination from Big Blue Nation in the Southeastern Conference.
3. Can Butler realistically challenge Villanova for the Big East Title?
Ryan – Yes, but it will absolutely not be easy. The Big East Conference is, in my humble opinion, extremely underrated this year, with Villanova, Butler, Creighton, and Xavier leading the pack. The league also boasts a handful of other solid teams with the likes of Marquette, Seton Hall, Providence, and Georgetown fielding tough squads. For Butler to dethrone the national champs, the Bulldogs will need to win on the road, a task they have yet to accomplish this conference season. We all know Butler can protect Hinkle Fieldhouse, but can they win away from Indianapolis? Villanova is tried and tested, is coming off of a national title, and has raced out to another superb start. Can Butler dethrone the champs and claim the Big East Title? Sure. But I wouldn’t bet against Jay Wright.
Zach – I tend to agree with you. Villanova may not have the same depth as they had last year, but Josh Hart is playing like the National Player of the Year and is getting plenty of help around him. Kris Jenkins is playing well after his NCAA Title-winning shot, and Jalen Brunson has stepped up his play at the point guard position. All this being said, the Big East is a gauntlet this year. Not an ACC-level gauntlet, but trips to Creighton, Villanova and Xavier are nothing to be messed with. Along with that, Butler just lost a road game at St. Johns, a bottom-dweller of the conference. You’re not going to win many conference titles like that. I think a team like Butler has the potential to win the Big East, but it will take a focused effort every night. In the end, I like Villanova to win the title again. But keep an eye out for the Bulldogs.
4. Is Duke still the favorite in the ACC?
Zach-The ACC is, without a doubt, the best conference in college basketball. With 7 teams in the AP Top 25, they are the deepest conference in all the land. However, picking a favorite is more difficult. Duke came in as the team to beat not only in the conference, but in the country. They have the best recruiting class, with the best coach and the best pedigree. A couple injuries and a trip from Grayson Allen have altered their season. Teams like North Carolina, Virginia and Notre Dame all have the potential to knock off Duke on any given night.
To be honest, I’m not sure who has more depth and talent than Duke so I’m going to say they are still the favorite. They have one of the best home court advantages in all of basketball, and that will help them immensely in a season like this. If Harry Giles can play like we saw when he was healthy in high school and Grayson Allen can stop tripping people and play like the All-American he can be, then I don’t think anyone will top Duke. That’s a lot of ifs. If neither of those things happen, then it is anyone’s guess as to who will win the ACC. Personally, I can’t wait to watch it play out.
Ryan – Duke absolutely should still be the favorite, although you could make a case for about five favorites for the minefield that is the ACC. I believe we could be headed for a three or even four-way tie for the conference crown. The fact of the matter is, Duke has had barely any time to play together as a full strength squad, something that will undoubtedly be remedied as the season picks up the pace and moves along at a more rapid speed. These freshmen for Duke will face a hindrance in the form of some sort of a learning curve. Exactly how long that learning curve lasts will is anyone’s guess, but betting against Coach K and Duke is like betting against Bill Belichick and the Patriots. Look for Luke Kennard and Grayson Allen to carry the load for the Blue Devils in the meantime.
The bottom line is that, when fully healthy, this year’s Duke team has the kind of talent most programs can only dream of.
5. Can Baylor finally end Kansas’ unbelievable run atop the Big 12?
Ryan – Well, if any team in this year’s Big 12 Conference can do it, it’s probably the Bears. Baylor has the resume, too, with wins over Oregon, Louisville, Michigan State, and Xavier. The offense is clicking under Scott Drew, and the defensive intensity has recently increased significantly. This team looks to be the only team that can end Kansas’ unfair 12 year streak atop the Big 12.
Now, back to the question. CAN Baylor end the streak? Yeah, they can, and they might even earn a share of the conference regular season championship. Will they? I’m not betting on it, for one reason: Bill Self is still the head coach of Kansas basketball. Year after year, analysts have been burned for trying to make a trendy pick that involves the Jayhawks not claiming the Big 12 crown. This year, it’s Baylor’s turn to play David against Kansas’ Goliath. The Bears will hurl the stones, but will the Jayhawks be knocked down? In the end, the Big 12 Conference will always run through Lawrence, Kansas.
Zach – You’re right, there is no question that Baylor has a great team this year. I jumped on their hype train early, when I saw them dismantle Michigan State in the Bahamas. I am especially impressed with big man Johnathan Motley, who brings a lot of athleticism and rebounding ability. The Bear are well-balanced, and are poised to challenge at the top of the Big 12.
That being said, I just can’t pick against the Jayhawks. Last year, Oklahoma had a player in Buddy Hield who I thought would finally dethrone Kansas. He came close, but even that great Oklahoma team couldn’t do it. I think Baylor is just as good as that Sooner team, but they lack a go to guard like Hield and that could hurt them in the end.
As for other teams that could challenge, I’d say West Virginia is the only one that comes to mind. With their hectic pressing strategy, a lot of teams will succumb to the pressure. Kansas doesn’t seem like one of those teams. Frank Mason is a great point guard who is familiar with the style that West Virginia likes to play. I don’t see him getting phased by the Mountaineer strategy.
In the end, look for an exciting Big 12 season that ends in a familiar way: with the Jayhawks on top.
Disagree with any of our points? Tweet us at @ZachBeeler33 or @Ryan_Berry5 and let us know what you think.