2016 is in the rearview mirror. What’s in store the second half of the season?
Freshman dominance, competitive parity, league play, sleeper teams, and the march to the Tournament are five reasons the remaining months will be as much fun as, if not more, than the last ones.
- Freshman dominance
Part of the pull towards college basketball is the opportunity to watch top players a season or two before they might enter the NBA. Starting with the second half of every season, even casual fans form opinions on which prospect looks to be the best fit for their team, and who the draft class’s best player will be.
The projected draft class is now one of the deepest we have seen in recent years. But after an average cohort last year, from where is all of the talent materializing?
During the first half of every season, when freshmen are accustoming themselves to college play, over-hype is a constant. But, less than a fifth of new players actually impact team trajectories immediately.
This freshman class, however, is outstanding. Lonzo Ball has taken the UCLA Bruins to a whole new level, Markelle Fultz is single-handily keeping the Washington Huskies afloat, and Josh Jackson is drawing comparisons to Andrew Wiggins in Lawrence. Up until last week, freshmen held the nation’s leading positions in assists per game, field goal percentage, and free throw percentage.
Okay, you say—that’s all of eight players. Not much to hang an argument on. But let’s then look at ESPN’s pre-season player rankings. Of the top 100 ranked freshmen, nearly half of them have made observable impacts for their respective teams. What’s more, there are about another 100 freshmen not originally ranked highly who’ve been playing 10+ minutes per game and contributing to team success.
Whether you’re a draft fan or not, the freshmen alone are a compelling reason to turn on the T.V.
- A small gap between top group teams
The undefeated Villanova Wildcats are the consensus number one team in the country. The Wildcats are 14-0 and may have the national player of the year, in Josh Hart. After Villanova, however, the rest of the AP Top-25 is not so easy to differentiate. The Baylor Bears and Gonzaga Bulldogs are the only other teams that remain without a loss.
The ACC has 15 teams, 11 of which have a legitimate shot at a Tournament bid.
Saturday, these borderline teams showed their competitiveness, knocking off the North Carolina Tar Heels and Duke Blue Devils on the same day. Both defeated teams where ranked in the top 10. This has only happened 3 times, the most recent in 1986.
The AP Top 25 poll includes only one team with more than three losses. That team, the Indiana Hoosiers, sits at #25 on the list, but has beaten #3 Kansas and #14 North Carolina. Furthermore, two of the top six teams in defensive efficiency actually rank below the top 35. Top teams who run into those defensive powerhouses– South Carolina Gamecocks and California Golden Bears— could have trouble.
Although the aforementioned teams do have losses, there is nevertheless an intense performance clustering. This group of teams is able to contend with one another well, making your average game that much more enjoyable.
- Conference Play
This past Sunday, conference play began. Many teams build upon their first 15 or so games and successfully evolve. The Northern Iowa Panthers and Maryland-Eastern Shore Hawks are two teams with records below .500, but both had non-conference schedules that ranked top-20 nationally in difficulty.
The races for conference titles are up for grabs, and teams like Northern Iowa become tough stops that top programs dread. Bubble teams step up and make a run at a title while building a resume for the ultimate goal, the NCAA Tournament.
Kansas is looking to capture its 13th straight Big 12 title, and they are projected to succeed. Second ranked Baylor and seventh ranked West Virginia, though, have other plans. Both are tough, physical, well-coached teams with credible ability to dethrone the Jayhawks.
Ladies and gentlemen: we now enter conference play.
- Which Mid-Major teams will step up?
Everyone has his/her eyes on the NCAA Tournament. The casual college basketball fan’s curiosity probably stops before the Mid-Major leagues. Here is why that must change.
Fans can’t fail to notice game-changing, nationally renown players like Marcus Keene and Alec Peters. Then they must accept that the rest of the top-12 scoring leaders in the nation are, in fact, also on Mid-Major teams. Five NCAA performance-stat leaders are mid-major players. The top eight teams in adjusted tempo are all Mid-Major programs. If you like high-scoring, fast-paced games, look no further than mid-major basketball.
5. The NCAA Tournament
Last year’s Tournament featured 13 of the 32 lower seeds winning in the first round. Then there are years where a 1-seed wins the national championship and few upsets occur. The tournament is unpredictable and that is why it’s so great.
Freshman dominance, competitive parity, league play, sleeper teams, and Tournament unpredictability throughout its runway, are why our remaining months will likely be more fun than the last ones.
– M. Roitman