Every year, a few teams confuse the “nonconference” portion of the season with “exhibition,” sleepwalking through real, meaningful basketball games and [sometimes massively] underperforming preseason expectations. For teams of that ilk, Christmas serves as a wakeup call: get your a** out of bed, put some big boy pants on, and start playing.
Conference play offers an opportunity to start the season anew, a literal page-turn as the calendar flips to a new year. The teams below certainly had their struggles early in the year, taking bad losses and playing uninspired ball, leaving us to wonder what went wrong. But league games have begat a rebirth for each team, making them surprise contenders for their respective league titles as we enter February.
The time-honored “Kansas vs. the Field” debate in the Big 12 has a new wrinkle, as the Baylor Bears have come in like a wrecking ball, tied atop the league with Kansas State. This performance could not be more different from the November version of the team, which kicked off the year with a dismal trio of showings against the lowly SWAC: lost at home to Texas Southern, trailed Southern with 16 minutes remaining, led Prairie View A&M by only four with just over 7 minutes left. Of course, these were played without arguably the team’s best/most important player, Yale grad transfer Makai Mason (injury), and Mississippi State transfer Mario Kegler (suspension). Even with those guys, though, the Bears also lost at Wichita State (not good this year) and at home to Stephen F. Austin (decimated by their own plague of injuries), seemingly confirming the notion that 2018-19 would be a bleak one in Waco.
Conference play has brought about an entirely new animal (let’s say, from Care Bear to grizzly bear). The Bears have the league’s best offense by leaps and bounds, buoyed by an old Scott Drew tenant: hammering the offensive boards. Mark Vital has become a kind of mini-Rico Gathers, and the two-headed center duo of Freddie Gillespie and Flo Thamba has owned the offensive glass since taking over for the injured Tristan Clark (done for the year). The Bears have also shot the ball well from the perimeter, often generating good looks via their proficient work on the glass, and the upturn has been stark for for their primary shooters:
Doing all of this without Clark is immensely impressive, and the way they’re doing it – out-physicaling teams inside, playing through Mason and their versatile forwards (Vital, Kegler) – seems viable going forward, even if the shooting levels off some.
The momentum in Columbia, South Carolina, has slowed a bit over the last week (got cut to ribbons by the Tennessee buzzsaw, lost @ Oklahoma State in the SEC/Big 12 Challenge), but the Gamecocks are still an impressive bounceback story at this point. They’re 5-2 in the league with wins @ Florida, vs. Missisippi St., and vs. Auburn, all after a perplexing 5-7 non-conference season that included losses at home to Stony Brook and at Wyoming. Like many of these teams, injuries tell part of the story: sophomore wing Justin Minaya and freshman guard TJ Moss have been out for weeks, starting big Maik Kotsar missed two games and played hurt through several others, and freshman Alanzo Frink has battled injuries as well. They’re also relying heavily on two freshmen in the backcourt (AJ Lawson and Keyshawn Bryant), which helps support the notion that they’d improve as the year progresses.
Unfortunately, I don’t really buy the recent wins as a long-term prognosis of success. Even with the 5-2 record, they’re in the bottom half of the SEC in both AdjOE and AdjDE, squeaking out wins in insane games (see: the Silva Hail Mary in Gainesville) while getting shellacked in their two losses. They still reside outside KenPom top 100 overall, and I’d expect them to settle more around 9-9 in the SEC when it’s all said and done.
USC / Utah
How about the other USC (I wonder how many Trojan fans just angrily closed this article)? Only the dark corners of the internet could legally publish the things I called Andy Enfield earlier this year, as his Trojans sputtered to a 5-6 start that featured several terrible efforts for the team’s talent level, eventually culminating in an overtime loss to Santa Clara (yes, the same Santa Clara that Gonzaga annihilated twice by a combined 102 points). USC seemed hopelessly lost, a rudderless team that couldn’t bother playing a full 40 minutes of basketball, and Enfield seemed destined to join the Lorenzo Romar Hall of Fame as a recruiting genius who consistently turns wine into water. And while that may still be the case (just wait until next year’s class gets to LA!!), at least this year’s bunch is showing some genuine fight. One of the biggest drivers of that reversal has been Bennie Boatwright, particularly his effort on the defensive end. Take a look at his on/off numbers in nonconference:
Compared to during conference play (small sample size caveat):
There’s very little change on offense, but the Trojans’ defense goes from better without its best scorer, to significantly better with him. That’s huge! On the strength of Boatwright’s turnaround, USC is now tied for third in the standings (lost @ undefeated Washington last night), and although all five wins have come at home (and both losses on the road), sweeping the Arizona schools is about as impressive as it can get in this year’s Pac-12.
And who is ahead of them, currently alone in second? Why, the Runnin’ Utes of Utah! Although West Coast Coach K’s crew dealt with some early season hiccups (went 6-6 with a loss to Hawaii), they possess a 5-2 league record, including an impressive road win at Arizona State. They still don’t really guard anyone, though, and they’re shooting an unconscious 42.4% from deep so far in Pac-12 play, so I would wager on under 2.5 wins during the upcoming six-pack of hosting the Oregon schools, going to the LA schools, hosting the Arizona schools.
The Patriots were a popular pick to rise up the A-10 rankings after returning every single piece of significance from last year’s team while also adding Virginia transfer Jarred Reuter. Instead, they opened the season with four duds, losing at home to Penn and American, blowing a 20-point halftime lead at Georgia Southern, and squeaking by Southern at home, who has proven to be among the country’s worst 10 or so teams. It seemed like the Patriots were simply a cautionary tale for the assumption that “continuity = improvement” in offseason projections. Fast forward to today, when 7-1 GMU sits atop the A-10 standings with a half-game lead over 6-1 Davidson, despite Jaire Grayer missing the last 14 games and Goanar Mar missing the last five.
In the time since, junior wing Justin Kier (above) has emerged into a legitimate A-10 Player of the Year candidate, senior point guard Otis Livingston has started to play like junior Otis Livingston (an all-conference player himself), and Dave Paulsen’s conservative man-to-man defensive scheme ranks as the league’s best unit. This one feels a LOT like smoke and mirrors, though. Despite giving up threes on 46.4% of possessions (most in the conference), opponents are shooting a polar vortex-like 24.0% from deep in A-10 play, a number that’s more inevitable to uptick than the “likes” on a Kylie Jenner Instagram post. Similarly, Mason foes are only connecting on 64.2% of their free throws, also the lowest such number in the league. While GMU does appear to have figured a few things out, I’d be bracing for some regression to the mean on the defensive end.
The MAAC (kind of)
Is it really a rebirth if the teams are just beating themselves? Probably not. But the MAAC needs some sort of win, so we’ll give it to them! Despite nightmarish play from basically every single team in the league throughout November and December, the expected powers have largely distinguished themselves in conference play. 3MW’s preseason top four of Rider, Canisius, Iona, and Quinnipiac sit atop the standings (with Siena sneakily hanging around), and the Broncs look to be the class of the league even after the annual L in New Rochelle (@ Iona, for anyone not as obsessed with college locations). The end result will still almost certainly be a March date with a 1-seed, but at least the league’s best teams are bothering to show up.