In the Atlantic 10, Temple and Dayton head up the list. The Owls had a good December that was highlighted by a win over Villanova. Forward LaVoy Allen is a serious rebounder and the guards are quality, with Ryan Brooks and Juan Fernandez, the latter of which lit up the Wildcats. Temple has also beaten Seton Hall and only lost to Georgetown by a point. They go at 5:30 EST today against Kansas at home.
Dayton’s three losses are nothing to be ashamed of—Kansas State, Villanova and New Mexico, the latter a two-pointer yesterday. This team’s tougher to call, because they haven’t beaten anybody yet. They need help on the point and in the post if they are to be a cohesive team all year long. Also keep an eye on Richmond. They’ve beaten power conference teams is Mississippi State, Missouri and Florida and have a potent guard in Kevin Anderson. The Spiders could make a real run at getting into the NCAA Tournament.
Just as in football, the principal challenge to BCS supremacy is the Mountain West. New Mexico, BYU and UNLV are at the head of the class out west, with the Lobos leading up the charge. They have wins over Cal & Texas Tech, in addition to yesterday’s triumph over Dayton. Inside presence Darington Hobson leads the way and their homecourt advantage at the Pit is legendary. BYU’s explosive point guard Jimmer Fredette leads up a three-guard attack that will have the Cougars in the hunt all season. UNLV looks a step behind the other two teams, but Lon Kruger has a good backcourt to work with that will have him on the bubble of an NCAA bid.
In Conference USA, UAB has stepped into the vacuum created when John Calipari left for Kentucky. The Blazers have wins over Cincinnati, Butler and Georgia thanks to two aggressive guards, Elijah Milsap and Jamarr Sanders who both score and crash the boards. They were competitive in a loss to Kentucky as well, and look to be the class of this new-era conference. Memphis has been gritty, hanging with Kansas and losing close ones to UMass and Tennessee. But they have got to get 20ppg guard Elliot Williams more help, especially down low. They have a month before they play UAB, but only four days until they go to Syracuse.
Gonzaga has been up and down through December, getting big wins over Wisconsin and Cincinnati, but also being destroyed at Duke. They just beat Oklahoma, but have also lost to Wake Forest. They’re at Illinois today in a winnable non-confeence road game. The Zags have a balanced attack and a real post scorer in Robert Sacre. They fell out of the rankings this week, but I would imagine they will be back and at least good enough to punch their ticket to March Madness. And Wichita State has gotten the most respect of anyone in the Missouri Valley. If they really are the best, the MVC is a long way from its glory days of 2006, as the Shockers have already lost to Pitt and Illinois State, though an 85-83 win over Texas Tech does dot their resume.
That brings our overviews to an end. One thing that really jumped out at me, though it came as no surprise, is just how few teams really have legitimate inside scoring threats and how many need to step up the rebounding. You need a point guard to win, no question about it, but in a world where so many teams are reasonably well off there, that does shift the focus to balance, defense and rebounding. So if you’re watching your favorite team and marveling at how good their guards are, or that they have one guard and one forward to make an inside-out combo, remember that there’s fans of 80 other teams doing the same thing. Use the same caution you would if you heard Dick Vitale proclaim your team a lock for the NCAA Tournament.
Conference play is heating up and I will be back here on Wednesday to talk about some of the early games a little more. In the meantime, if you haven’t had the chance to read through all six conference previews, they are all right below in sequence. And I can be found over at The College Football Notebook talking bowls.