The New Year brings with it a bevy of resolutions, crippling cold, I guess, and most importantly, to your resident college basketball guru, the advent of conference play. Most major and mid-major conferences play only intra-league games from now until March. Plenty of time still exists for teams to play themselves into or out of the tournament, but at this milestone, let us break down the biggest winners and losers of the non-conference season.
Two important notes before we begin: 1) Criteria for inclusion here isn’t necessarily win-loss record. The list includes teams who made big moves up or down the polls since the pre-season, and teams that accumulated wins or losses the committee will notice. 2) Undefeated, #1 ranked Kentucky is an obvious non-conference winner but I’ll have plenty more to say about the Wildcats and their run in the coming weeks. Please don’t pepper me with hatred, Big Blue Nation.
- Gonzaga – Halfway through this season, I’m ready to declare this Bulldogs team Mark Few’s all-time best squad. A healthy Kevin Pangos at the point leads a team of actual giants who never miss shots. Gonzaga faced four of kenpom.com’s top 25 defensive teams and scored less than one point per possession only once – at Arizona in a controversial overtime loss. The Zags beat SMU at home, Georgia on a neutral floor, St. John’s in New York City, and UCLA in Palo Alto. With that type of resume, expect no less than a 2-seed out west come March.
- Utah – In a much less controversial statement, I am also ready to declare this Larry Krystkowiak’s best team. Utah’s Coach K has yet to take the Utes to the tournament, but that should change this year. In one of the best early season games, Utah ended Wichita St.’s 35-game regular season win streak. The Utes also won the Battle of Church and State over a better-than-usual BYU team. Their only losses were on the road at San Diego State and against Kansas in KC. Delon Wright is a great player having a special senior year.
- Maryland – Maryland received 3 votes in the AP Preseason poll and 0 in the Coaches’ Poll. With neutral floor wins over Arizona State and Iowa State and a shellacking of Oklahoma State in Stillwater, the Terps jumped right into the top 15. Jake Layman is one of the nation’s most improved players and freshman Melo Trimble leads the team in scoring by drawing fouls and making free throws at an incredible rate. The Terp’s lone blemish came at home during the ACC-Big 10 Challenge to top 5 Virginia.
- Butler – It would be unfair to ask much more of Butler. After a forgettable 2014 campaign and the now permanent loss of head coach Brandon Miller to an undisclosed medical condition, the Bulldogs faced an uphill climb. They traveled to the Battle 4 Atlantis Tournament in the Bahamas as perhaps the weakest team in the field but handed North Carolina and Georgetown early season losses. Butlers stumbled away from home to Tennessee, Indiana, and Oklahoma. None of those should disqualify the Bulldogs from a run into March, provided they protect their home floor and score a few road wins in conference play. Newly minted head coach Chris Holtmann led this team right into the postseason conversation with a strong showing in the non-con.
- Florida – Billy Donovan lost seniors Scottie Wilbekin, Patric Young, and Casey Prather after last season’s final four run, and the Gators haven’t really recovered. Before Thanksgiving, Florida dropped a game at home to Miami then lost close games to Georgetown, North Carolina, and Kansas. After stringing together a few wins at home, Florida dropped their final two non-conference games to rival Florida State and home against UConn. A stingy defense keeps Florida in most games and ranked highly according to kenpom, but the Gators might be on the outside-looking-in without a few signature wins in a not-so-great SEC.
- Harvard – Nerds everywhere hoped this Crimson team could earn the Ivy’s first top-10 seed since the 1998 season. An opening game loss to Holy Cross extinguished that flame. Harvard scored 27 points against a very good Virginia team then managed only 0.77 points per possession against a not very good Arizona State team the next week. Tommy Amaker’s team likely wins a fourth straight Ivy League title this year, but they’ll enter the tournament as a 12-14 seed without a top-100 win.
- Wichita St. – There’s no shame in losing an overtime game at Utah in early December. I also accept a disappointing trip to Hawaii ending in a close loss to George Washington. My concern for the Shockers lies in Fred Van Vleet’s noticeable decline. Last season, Van Vleet shot over 50 percent from 2pt range and 41 percent from 3. He attempted 129 free throws and made 107 of them while leading the team in assists and assist/turnover ratio. Those numbers are down across the board, but Van Vleet’s usage and shot percentage have increased. The Shockers need Van Vleet to play at a 2014 level to make their mark again this season.
- UCLA – The Bruins could not have fared much worse in the six weeks between season opener and New Year’s Day. Sure, they coasted past some lesser opponents, Bryce Alford grew into his point guard role, and Kevon Looney looked every bit the lottery pick player he was billed to be. Then Kentucky happened. In a headline game on a neutral floor the Bruins fell behind 24-0 and failed to reach double digits in the first half. The Wildcats pressured UCLA relentlessly on defense and made baskets at will on the other end. It was a mesmerizing performance that decimated a potential Pac-12 contender. The Bruins also racked up losses to Oklahoma, North Carolina, Gonzaga, and Alabama and fell from 13th to 61st in kenpom’s rankings. After a Pac-12 tournament title, 4 seed, and Sweet Sixteen appearance last year, the Bruins are a long shot to even make the field in March.
Any glaring omissions from the list? Leave a comment or heckle me on twitter!