You know what I love most about the Christmas season? Conference play. The fat man sliding down the chimney also means that we’ll be getting some great early matchups underneath the proverbial Christmas tree (Grayson Allen should also be expecting some coal). Next week, I’ll dish out some long form takes on what we saw in the non-conference portion of the season. For now, since we’ve gotten a pretty good look at a lot of teams, let’s check out some sleepers who can make a run at each major conference title.
AAC: Memphis- The Memphis Tigers are under new management this year, with Tubby Smith taking over for Josh Pastner in the offseason, but the Tigers have adjusted nicely and are looking like a serious threat in the American. Their success is due largely in part two a family matter down low. Sophomore Dedric (20.9 ppg, 11.2 rpg) and freshman K.J. Lawson (14.5 and 8.6) are the number 1 and 3 scorer in the AAC thus far, respectively. Smith also has the number 4 scorer in the AAC (Markel Crawford at 13.6 ppg) and the leading distributor (Jeremiah Martin with 5.5 apg) at his disposal. The defense can be suspect at times, and 3-point shooting needs to improve from 30%, but Memphis is an offensive bulldozer.
A-10: Davidson- Bob McKilliop’s Wildcats have been such a strong mid-major for so long, they aren’t sneaking up on anyone. But in what could be considered a “down year,” Davidson could still make a push for the top of the league. It’s always useful to have one of the best scorers in the country in Jack Gibbs (22.8 ppg) on your team, but add in another 20-point scorer in Peyton Aldridge (20.2) and 11 upper classmen (experience!), and that’s a team that can do some damage in an unusually weak A-10. Plus, style points for being one of the most diverse teams in the country (Davidson has players from 7 different countries stretching across Europe and Africa).
ACC: Florida State, Virginia Tech- Sure, maybe picking two teams is a cop-out, but I love them both. Florida State’s biggest strength is length, length, length. Their 3-headed monster of Dwayne Bacon, Xavier Rathan-Mayes, and Jonathan Isaac stand a combined 19 feet and 9 inches, and also combine to score about 40 points per game. Isaac has been a beast down low, and Bacon and Rathan-Mayes are also threats to score from anywhere on the court. As for the Hokies, coach Buzz Williams has taken this program leaps and bounds ahead of where they were when he came over from Marquette. Zach LeDay is one of the most underrated players in the ACC at 16.7 ppg and 7.4 rpg, and he doesn’t even start. Williams has enough weapons to start five guys and bring his two leading scorers off the bench to keep the energy up. VaTech’s stats jump off the page due to a fairly small rotation of guys, but this team’s aggressive attitude and high-energy offense will make ACC teams work to keep up.
Big 12: Oklahoma State- This may be largely in part my love affair with star guard Jawun Evans, who’s averaging 21.6 points, 4.7 assists, and 3.3 rebounds per game (to go with nearly 3 steals). He is right up there with Frank Mason in the Big 12 Player of the Year race. Evans gets a lot of help from Jeffery Carroll (16.5 ppg and 7.3 rpg) and ageless wonder Phil Forte III (12.5 ppg). The Cowboys rotation regularly goes 11 deep, and aside from Forte, are a threat from downtown (and Forte is traditionally a good shooter, he should find his stroke before the season’s over). Brad Underwood’s first season in Stillwater is looking good.
Big East: Seton Hall- This one is tough because really no one in this conference feels good enough to take down Villanova. Not even Creighton (who can no longer be called a sleeper). So if I had to pick, I’d go with Seton Hall. The ingredients are all there. Khadeen Carrington (19.2 ppg) should be more in the conversation for Big East POY and can shoot the daylights out of the 3-ball. Angel Delgado is an immovable object down low (14.3 ppg and 11.4 rpg). Desi Rodriguez (14.5 ppg, 6.1 rpg) and Myles Powell (12 ppg) give opposing defenses more to worry about besides Carrington and Delgado. The Pirates don’t get a lot more productivity outside of their stars, but play fluidly on both offense and defense, and therefore are a threat in the Big East.
Big Ten: Northwestern- How about those Wildcats? At 10-2, Northwestern is looking to make enough noise in the Big Ten to make their first ever NCAA Tournament. Their only two losses have come at Butler by 2 and against Notre Dame on a neutral court by 4. Both are strong performances against very good teams. The Wildcats are very good defensively and force teams to take difficult shots. In a December 17th win against Dayton, the Flyers made just 4 of 28 first half shots. The Wildcats are led by sparkplug Bryant McIntosh, who is averaging 12.4 points and 5.4 assists. McIntosh has a strong supporting cast in leading scorer Scotty Lindsay (14.6 ppg), Vic Law (3.9 ppg, 47% 3-pt), and Sanjay Lumpkin (7.8 ppg and 7.3 rpg). Chris Collins’ guys tend to not turn the ball over very much, and a disciplined offense will earn them that first NCAA berth.
Pac-12: Colorado- Experience! Colorado boasts a starting lineup of 4 seniors and a junior, one of the oldest lineups in the country. That will go a long way as the grind of conference play starts to weigh on younger teams. Additionally, the Buffs spread the ball around the court, creating a very well balanced attack offensively. Defense is their primary strength, especially down low. They force teams to take jump shots, and are one of the best rebounding teams in the country. This’ll come in handy against offense-happy teams in the Pac-12. Leading scorer Xavier Johnson (14.9 ppg and 6.1 rpg) is 6-7, creating a matchup nightmare for guards.
SEC: Georgia- Georgia tested itself in non-conference play with tough games against Clemson, Kansas, and Marquette. Unfortunately, they lost all of those games (but didn’t get blown out in any). That being said, the duo of Yante Maten (21 ppg, 8.5 rpg) and J.J. Frazier (14.5 ppg, 4.4 apg) should guide the Dawgs through a weak SEC conference slate. Maten is one of the best low post players in the country and should make a run at 1st Team All SEC, and Frazier is as dynamic as they come, able to create on offense for himself or teammates. Georgia will likely have to pull off a couple of marquee wins against top SEC teams, but the Dawgs have the ability to lock teams down on defense and let Maten and Frazier handle the load offensively.
Fun Fact of the Week: Congratulations to West Virginia head coach Bob Huggins on reaching 800 wins. In 2010, in his 800th game as a head coach, Higgins and the Mountaineers lost on the road to Pitt 98-95, in triple-OT. WVU went on to reach the Final Four.
Photo via The Washington Post