Men’s CBB 2018-19: Phase 1 almost complete: What have we learned so far?
The college basketball season is essentially broken up into 4 phases. Phase 1 is your pre-conference play, phase 2 is your conference play, phase 3 are the conference tournaments and phase 4 is, of course, the NCAA tournament. With Christmas right around the corner, phase 1 is about to be done. The out of conference marquee matchups are, for the most part, behind us and the major conference teams are playing the low to mid majors right now, as they tune up for conference play. In between these games and the conference games, we have finals and winter break, so there are only a few games on the schedule for most of these teams until the New Year.
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With phase 1 about done, the question is, what have we learned so far? Who look to be the best teams going forward? What conference appears to be the strongest? Who are the sleepers that could blow brackets up come March? This first phase has provided a lot of answers to those basic questions. We have seen a lot of the “big boys” go head to head. We saw some young teams grow up quickly. We saw some preseason favorites look pretty bad. It’s been an interesting first 6-7 weeks so far.
As of right now, the clear cut upper tier teams seem to be pretty obvious. First, you have the team I feel should be #1 and that is Michigan. Boasting a defense that is even stingier than Virginia, the Wolverines has jumped out to a great start. Outside of the win at Northwestern, where they escaped with a 2-point victory, Michigan has won all of their games by at least 11 points. Among those wins, was a 27-point victory at Villanova, a 19-point win at Providence, a 17-point win against UNC and a 19-point win vs Purdue. That is a solid list of impressive wins vs some good teams. The offense is also pretty good, boasting a top 20 Kenpom ranking and that will likely rise. They have one of the top 5 coaches in the country, John Beilein, and they will be tested regularly in a Big Ten conference that has a lot of solid teams in it this year (the big 10 current has 8 of the top 28 Kenpom teams). I don’t think, as of now, you can paint any of them to be Final 4 contenders, outside of Mich and Mich St, but they have a lot of sweet 16 contenders this year.
After Michigan, it’s kind of a toss up on who you think is next. According to Kenpom, Duke is EASILY the best team in the country. No one is even close in the efficiency rankings. Duke boasts an elite freshman class, led by 3 players who could be the top 3 picks in the draft. Quietly the most important player on the team, Tre Jones, has had a great season so far and the Blue Devils are getting great contributions from role players such as Jack White, Marques Bolden and Javin DeLaurier. However, for all the hype around this Duke team, they need Cam Reddish to be better than he has been. This Duke team isn’t a great shooting team. They don’t make a lot of 3s (they are capable on any given night but not consistently) and they aren’t good at the FT line (290th in the nation). However, Reddish can help with those areas. He is an elite shooter who can also get his own shot whenever he wants. The problem is, he gets down on himself quickly. He still “plays young” and I think for Duke to be a real title contender, he has to be better. There are too many other good, experienced teams out there. One of those teams, Gonzaga, Duke has lost too. Not only did the Zags beat them, they beat them without one of their best players. Killian Tillie figures to be a major part of the Zags this year, but they have done well without him. Other than beating Duke, they have wins over other major conference teams such as Illinois, Texas A&M, Arizona and Creighton. They did just lose to a very good Tennessee team, by 3 points. They also have a game vs UNC this weekend, in one of the few major OOC matchups we have left on the schedule.
The other team that people love and is currently #1 in the polls is Kansas. Kansas is the only other team besides Duke, to be ranked in the top 10 both in offensive and defensive efficiency. With wins over Michigan St, Marquette and Tennessee, Kansas has the resume, the talent and the depth to be the #1 team in the country. Just like Gonzaga, they have a big game this weekend, when they go against defending champion and early disappointment, Villanova. Virginia, coming off their stunning loss to UMBC to end their 2018 season, looks to be the 5thteam in that top tier. Unlike the other 4, they don’t have many huge wins. Their best win is against Wisconsin. That’s not a bad win by any means but it’s not the elite win that some of the other teams have. However, I think when you watch them play and knowing how well they have been recently, it’s easy to say they are one of the elite teams. They are also close to being the 3rd team in the top 10 in offensive and defensive efficiency. They are currently 4th in defense and 12th in offense.
Nevada and Tennessee are right on the heels of these teams. Nevada could go undefeated headed into March. They have the #3 offense in the country and bring back most of their team that went to the E8 last year. Tennessee, fresh off their win vs Gonzaga, is a very solid offensive and defensive team. They are an experienced roster and have 6 guys averaging 8 or more points per game. They are led by Grant Williams, who is averaging almost a double/double while also handing out close to 5 assists per game. The SEC is a pretty good conference this year. They currently have 5 of the top 25 Kenpom teams, including 2 in the top 10 (Auburn and Tennessee). The Vols will get tested all year, so they will be poised to make a deep run in March.
It looks like the best conference will be between the B10 and the ACC this year. Of the top 30 Kenpom teams, 15 of them are from those 2 conferences. I think the ACC is better at the top, but I suspect the B10 will be deeper this year. The 2 conferences played to a 9-9 tie in the B10/ACC challenge this year.
Player of the Year will be a good race this season I already mentioned the Vols’ Williams, who will be in the running. Zion Williamson and RJ Barrett from Duke, the 2 do everything freshman at Duke, will be in the discussion for sure as well. Rui Hachimura, from Gonzaga, who was phenomenal in his game vs Duke, will also be in the discussion. Kansas is being led by Memphis transfer, Dedric Lawson. He is averaging a double double and will certainly be another name discussed. A guy who should get some votes is Mike Daum from South Dakota St. He is third in the country in scoring, at 26.2 ppg and 10th in rebounding at 10.8 per game. He won’t get the recognition he likely deserves but he should be in the discussion. The last guy I will mention is DeAndre Hunter from UVA. UVA played UMBC last year with Hunter out. He is a vital part of their team and is likely a first round pick in the upcoming NBA draft. He is a 2-way player and the best player on the team.
We have also seen some sleepers arrive on the scene and/or re-assert themselves. The Paladins of Furman University are currently ranked #23. The have an impressive win over Villanova (in Nova’s gym) and are 11-0 so far this year. They have an interesting game next Friday against LSU. Buffalo is another team to watch. Currently ranked #33 in Kenpom and #14 in the polls, the Bulls have a good win vs West Virginia. They beat the heavily favored Arizona Wildcats in the first round of the NCAAT last year before losing to Kentucky in round 2. They bring back most of that team. This week, they have games vs Syracuse and Marquette. They are probably the best mid major team this year (don’t count Gonzaga as a mid major). The problem for the Bulls is that they won’t be sneaking up on anyone this year and will likely get a high seed. The AAC has some teams like UCF that could be under the radar but cause some damage in the tourney this year.
As phase 1 comes to an end, we get to enjoy a few more very good OOC games, take a deep breath and getting started for conference play. This is when we really start to see how good some of these teams really are. I look forward to some of these major marquee conference matchups and see how some of these teams fare as they start to play real road games in hostile environments. As always, it should be a lot of fun to watch.