Keep an eye on: Louisville, Iowa State, UCLA, Wisconsin, Villanova, UMass
The Huskies keep finding ways to win with many of those wins being over quality opponents. They have one-possession wins over Maryland, Boston College, Indiana, and now Florida. They have already shown in this young season the moxie to pull out the nail-biters late and a lot of that has to do with senior point guard Shabazz Napier. Shabazz likes to put the team on his back and should get All-American consideration. The Huskies are thin on the inside however, and they will need to improve throughout the year if they have Final Four aspirations.
9. Oklahoma State
It is never easy to beat a team for the second time in one season. But it is not a good sign that the Cowboys could not put away Memphis in the Old Spice Classic, a Memphis team that they had beaten by 31 points at OSU merely two weeks ago. The Cowboys also looked shaky in the previous game when they barely held off Butler. Their play was becoming lazy and undisciplined and it caught up with them the second time against Memphis. Their scoring average of over 90 points per game is fool’s gold.
8. Wichita State
This team looks every bit as good as the one that made it all the way to the Final Four a year ago. They have a very deep bench and a nice mix of experience, athleticism, and size. Forward Cleanthony Early gets most of the publicity, but the Shockers are lead by their backcourt, and sophomore guard Ron Baker is clearly their best player. They have quality wins over Brigham Young and Saint Louis and have trashed all the weaker opponents on their schedule.
Duke had a close call with Vermont at home and then lost to Arizona in New York. They are still obviously working out some kinks with their new personnel, but the biggest reason they are struggling is on the defensive end. They are having real trouble staying in front of the ball handler and they are not closing out enough possessions with a defensive rebound. Coach K is a firm believer in a tight man-to-man defense but his beliefs may be tested if this team does not improve defensively.
The Orange won the Maui Invitational, always one of the top preseason tournaments. But they have to get a signature win, as their best win so far was against an overrated Baylor team that tries to be a mirror image of Syracuse with length, athleticism, and a zone defense. Trevor Cooney and freshman Tyler Ennis are filling the backcourt void nicely.
5. Ohio State
The Buckeyes have the kind of stingy defense that will keep them in every game this year. They are second in Division I in points allowed, yielding only 53.3 points per game despite the upward scoring trend due to the new rules which favor offense. It will be interesting to see how they hold up against tougher competition though.
The Jayhawks were upset in the Battle 4 Atlantis by Villanova, a reminder that this is a young team that still has much to learn. Star freshman Andrew Wiggins only had 10 points in that game, and part of his development will be learning when and how to take over games. The Jayhawks have the toughest schedule in the nation and still have many marquee non-conference opponents on their schedule; something Bill Self hopes will make the team stronger.
The young Wildcats are putting together some nice performances, but they really have not played anybody other than Michigan State. They have a very difficult December slate however, so the time for the Harrison twins to grow up is now. Additionally, freshman guard James Young is taking too many low-percentage shots: he is shooting only 30.8% from distance, and he has more field goal attempts than Julius Randle; that trend cannot continue for Kentucky to be successful. This team’s identity will be forged in the next month.
Arizona had not been tested much when they went to New York for the semi-finals of the NIT Season Tip-Off. Then, a scrappy Drexel team jumped on them in the first half. But the Wildcats did not panic and showed poise in methodically coming back to win and then followed that up by beating Duke two days later. This is a complete and balanced team that is still getting better.
1. Michigan State
The Spartans fought off a feisty Oklahoma team to win the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic. They will not back down to anyone and they probably have yet to play their best basketball. Perhaps their best attribute is the way they have been sharing the ball, as a team they are leading the nation in assists. It is just another sign of a championship level team.