Philadelphia, PA – Syracuse is the nation's undisputed top team as 2011 winds down, yet the first name associated with the Orange is Bernie Fine.
Xavier is this year's mid-major juggernaut, yet word association labels the Musketeers as "thugs" before any other superlative to describe their ascension to the precipitous of the Top 10.
The confines of the court has showcased college basketball's best with clean, often times spectacular play due in large part to a strong returning crop of collegiate talent. After the whistle and off the court, the season's first few months have been marred by a child molestation scandal that has rocked one of the nation's best programs and questioned the handling of the delicate, troubling matter by a Hall of Fame coach as well as a last-minute brawl between cross-town rivals Xavier and Cincinnati that left pools of blood on the floor and plenty more on the hands of each team since.
The Big 12 has handed the top target to Missouri, a team without an inside presence but a dangerous collection of perimeter talent and a coach trying to prove his worth. Names like Indiana, Louisville, Georgetown and Michigan are back in the national conscience, while Murray State, UNLV and Virginia have broken into the discussion.
The first two months haven't settled much at the top, where Ohio State, Kentucky, North Carolina and the aforementioned Orange still look like the best bets to cut down nets, but the middle is muddled with a large group of good teams with high ceilings but work to do as conference play beckons.
2011 brought some instant classics, two involving Kentucky, (vs. North Carolina, at Indiana) and surprising upsets, Pittsburgh -- Mr. Unbeatable at home -- losing to Long Beach State and Wagner at the Petersen Events Center.
So what will a new year bring? We look ahead with a quick glimpse at each major conference before unveiling the final Fine 15 of 2011.
Only three teams reside in the Top 25, but the two mainstays look like strong top seed candidates and upstart Virginia continues to open eyes. The Cavaliers took care of business with victories at Oregon and Seattle, a tough west coast trip around the holidays. Mike Scott has developed a face-up game that keeps defenses honest and allows him to use his wide frame and back-to-the-basket moves to create havoc. Tony Bennett's team held every opponent under 60 points until Seattle scored 77 last Wednesday. The Cavaliers play a plodding style Bennett developed from his father, and they are finding success because of an increased offensive efficiency (ranking 34th nationally in field goal percentage).
Connecticut was supposed to ride an imposing returning frontcourt that added freshman sensation Andre Drummond in defense of a national title this season, yet the Huskies have instead leaned on Jeremy Lamb (as expected) and surprising starts from Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright, who continues to earn the confidence of head coach Jim Calhoun. Boatright's ascension has come with the struggles of Alex Oriakhi, who dominated the interior during UConn's run to the championship last season, but has been surpassed by Tyler Olander in minutes per game this season. The junior has been all over the map to date, getting blanked against Florida State, scoring 15 against Holy Cross then making just two field goals on Thursday against Fairfield.
The Big Ten is back with five teams solidly in the rankings and another (Illinois) hovering near the edge. Ohio State looks like the only national title contender, but the collection of Wisconsin, Indiana, Michigan State and Michigan all have notches in their belt this season. The Badgers have downed UNLV, Indiana has taken down Kentucky and Michigan State has beaten Florida State and Gonzaga during an 11-game winning streak. Michigan is the toughest of the bunch to figure out. The Wolverines haven't been tested since getting pushed around at Virginia November 29th and struggle against teams that attack the glass, staring up at 236 others in the rebounds per game department.
Florida, yes the same Gators with the historically streaky guard play and little interior presence, are the nation's most efficient offensive team. The Gators are doing everything well offensively, scoring, sharing the basketball and holding their own on the backboards. The reasons for the improvement? Kenny Boynton is shooting over 44 percent from beyond the arc, Erving Walker has a 2.2 assist-to-turnover ratio and Patric Young is averaging nearly three offensive rebounds per game. Even instant offense Mike Rosario, a transfer from Rutgers with a scoring mindset many thought wouldn't jive, is shooting nearly 47 percent from the floor and averaging 9.4 points per game off the bench.
Missouri has the nation's third most efficient offense thanks to a combination of penetrating guards and deadly outside shooters that make any defense's help-and-recover scheme difficult. From looking at film, the Tigers always make the extra unselfish pass, with a wing shooter passing up a good shot for another outside shooter with an even better one. Paul Pressey and Michael Dixon break down the defense, suck help defenders into the lane and provide Marcus Denmon and Kim English (a 53 percent long-range shooter) countless open looks. The first small vs. big showdown with Baylor doesn't come until January 21st. The keys then are the same now: Baylor's A.J. Walton controlling Missouri's dribble-drive sets and the Tigers' Ricardo Ratliffe staying out of foul trouble when up against Perry Jones III and Quincy Acy.
The conference is 0-for-12 against Top-25 competition, which has created a mess of contenders at the top of the pecking order. Preseason top dog California, Stanford (which acquitted itself well in a game at Madison Square Garden against Syracuse), and Oregon State, best known for its head coach and President Barack Obama's brother-in-law Greg Robinson all have 10 victories to date. The biggest surprise of the three is Oregon State, which outlasted Texas in overtime and came within two points of edging disappointing Vanderbilt back in November. Oregon State's conference slate gets underway with a Washington swing to face the Huskies and Cougars. Coming out of that with two wins will tell a lot about the Beavers' staying power. You also can't discount a young Arizona squad in a muddled conference picture.
The Best of the Rest
Xavier just snapped a three-game slide with a hard-fought victory over Southern Illinois as it tries to regain its footing from the brawl that cost several key members game time and placed the program in the wrong light. Gonzaga responded from a disappointing showing against Michigan State by handling Butler, which is still trying to define itself before entering Horizon League play. UNLV is the nation's 18th-best team according to KenPom.com behind a well-balanced, veteran outfit that can adapt to any style of play thanks to a lockdown defense that ranks 23rd nationally. Creighton is getting all of the national ranking attention to date, but the metrics suggest Wichita State may be the Missouri Valley team to watch as conference play begins. The Shockers haven't lost anywhere outside San Juan and waxed the Rebels by 19 back in early December. Wichita State, like UNLV, does appear to have any statistical deficiencies, ranking 23rd offensively and just four spots lower defensively.
1. Syracuse (13-0): Mowing down the competition with balance not seen elsewhere nationally. It can't be said enough -- Syracuse has 10 players who are offensive threats and perfect pegs in head coach Jim Boeheim's zone. It was the same synopsis last week and will be until someone solves the waves that keep coming for 40 minutes. This week's opponents include upstart Seton Hall (11-1) and a New Year's Day trip to DePaul.
2. Ohio State (12-1): Aaron Craft will never put up gaudy stats, but his overall contributions dictate games. He scored just four points against Miami- Ohio, but dished out eight assists, grabbed three rebounds and registered two steals while locking down defensively. Jared Sullinger rightfully gets the headlines and William Buford gets the bullseye from opposing perimeter defenders, but Craft stirs the drink.
3. Louisville (12-0): In another unbeaten week, the Cardinals showed plenty of vulnerability, staring at a pair of second-half deficits before rallying to down Charleston and Western Kentucky. Louisville still goes through extended scoring droughts, but give it credit for finding ways to win thanks to increased full-court defensive pressure late in games. One piece of advice: bring that same energy for 40 minutes or expect a first blemish against Kentucky.
4. Kentucky (11-1): Still no Terrence Jones with Louisville less than a week away. In the meantime, Doron Lamb looks more complete by the game, adding a keep-them-honest jumper to his already killer first step and crossover dribble.
5. North Carolina (11-2): A recent study found John Henson is even better defensively this season than last, holding opponents to under 20 percent from the floor in one-on-one situations. Also, after two sub-par offensive outings, Harrison Barnes exploded for 26 points in an 82-63 rout of Texas.
6. Duke (10-1): A slow holiday week for the Blue Devils with another on the horizon will end the nation's toughest 2011 schedule. A young backcourt did work in navigating Maui, Madison Square Garden and the Duke target on its back game in and game out.
7. Baylor (12-0): Wins over BYU and West Virginia are nice (you can thank Pierre Jackson and Brady Heslip for pulling no-show Jones III to the finish line against the Mountaineers). However, who are these Bears, another nice story or a legitimate Top-5 team? On talent, the answer is the latter, but we've told that story before. Games are played and resumes are built on the court, and the Bears move to the varsity level with this week's top game against red-hot Mississippi State.
8. Missouri (12-0): Head coach Frank Haith is right. There is a fine line between playing fast and playing too fast. The Tigers went through periods of the latter in the annual Braggin' Rights game, allowing Illinois to surge back into the game. In the end, Missouri pulled out one of those ugly victories that are the testament of a great time.
9. Florida (10-2): Now Bradley Beal is getting into the act, scoring 21 points in a statement victory against Florida State. The eye-opener wasn't the victory, but rather the 82 points put on the scoreboard against the notoriously difficult Seminoles defense.
10. Connecticut (10-1): The first of three games without head coach Jim Calhoun (three-game suspension for violating NCAA recruiting rules) tips Wednesday in the Big East opener against South Florida.
11. Indiana (12-0): The spotlight shines bright. The Hoosiers have the talk of the down (and this space last week) ahead of a big week in Bloomington. The first of two Top-20 bouts takes place at the Breslin Center against a Michigan State team that hasn't lost since early November. The week ends with the Big Ten home opener against Ohio State. No big deal.
12. Mississippi State (12-1): There will be no shortage of talent on the floor Wednesday night in Dallas. The Bulldogs can match the Bears athletically at every position, and a victory would go a long way to legitimizing their high ranking.
13. Marquette (11-1): The Golden Eagles have difficulties with fast, experienced guards (see LSU), now a pair of veteran playmakers (John Jenkins and Jeffrey Taylor) are heading into Milwaukee with Festus Ezeli, finally free of eligibility issues and ready to help the Commodores overcome a sluggish start. This is the ultimate trouble game that calls for plenty of Darius Johnson-Odom.
14. Georgetown (10-1): The Hoyas enter the Fine 15 off a resounding win against Memphis that left the Tigers searching for answers during a 2 1/2-hour postgame team meeting. Games against Louisville and Marquette in the next week will tell a lot about a team of role players thrust into key roles.
15. UNLV (13-2): Cal isn't as advertised, but the 17-point waxing was another notch in UNLV's impressive non-league resume. New head coach Dave Rice is bringing back the swagger from Tark the Shark and the teams of the early 90s.