By Matt Norlander
You know how this goes. College football season ends -- what a magnificent sendoff for the BCS last night; holy, holy -- and the sports world turns some more of its attention to college basketball.
Yesterday I gave you the rundown on the six undefeated teams left in the sport. Today, I'll look at the season so far as a whole and give you an idea of what we're working with.
We're halfway through the season, so let's start with the All-American teams. For the fun of it, I'll list off two teams/10 guys of note, names that will absolutely be a factor in your bracket down the road and determine what teams make a title game/Final Four/Elite Eight.
Jabari Parker (20.4 PPG, 7.7 RPG, 55.1 usage %). To me, he's been the best player up to this point in the season, though it's a tight contest with the guy I've got listed next. The Duke freshman is the closest thing college basketball has to LeBron James, in terms of his body, ability and five-tool skill repertoire.
Doug McDermott (24.7 PPG, 7.5 RPG, 90% FTs). McDermott is a name you probably know. He's now a senior at Creighton, arguably the Player of the Year at this point, and is on pace to become just the eighth player in Division I history to score 3,000 points.
Julius Randle (18.1 PPG, 10.5 RPG, 1.7 APG). Big-time player on the low block who's almost guaranteed to be a top-five pick in June. It's on him to carry Kentucky, and you'll enjoy watching him down the stretch.
Marcus Smart (17.0 PPG, 4.4 RPG, 4.0 APG). The best point guard in the country, the Oklahoma State sophomore turned down possibly being a top-five pick last year to give the Cowboys a chance at stealing a Big 12 title away from Kansas, something that hasn't been done to the Jayhawks in a decade.
DeAndre Kane (15.0 PPG, 7.1 RPG, 6.1 APG). I went with Kane as a first-teamer because he's a point guard putting up those numbers. A senior, he's the extra factor that's led to an undefeated start for Iowa State.
Shabazz Napier (16.0 PPG, 6.4 RPG, 5.8 APG). Does a lot of it by himself for UConn. The Kemba Walker comparisons are fair in some respects. He's an amazing passer and a Huskies hero in his own right.
C.J. Fair (17.2 PPG, 5.6 RPG, 1.6 SPG). Best overall player for the Orange, a senior who will almost definitely be First Team guy nationally at year's end if Syracuse wins the ACC.
Chaz Williams (15.5 PPG, 7.6 APG, 3.2 RPG). Muscled, linebacker of a point guard that's made UMass basketball relevant for the first time in 15 years. Williams is an absolutely fearless fighter that will be the Atlantic 10 Player of the Year.
Casey Prather (17.3 PPG, 5.8 RPG, 48.2 usage%). Surprise player of the season here. Prather's a senior who didn't show this kind of production that past three years. Suddenly he's turned himself into a prospect and is the go-to guy on offense for the Florida Gators.
Nick Johnson (16.0 PPG, 3.6 RPG, 2.5 APG). I had to take a guy from the No. 1-ranked team, and Johnson's it because he leads the team in scoring and is the default guy who will take the shot in the closing seconds, should Arizona need it.
Five Major Storylines So Far
1) The new officiating and its effect on scoring. Won't bore you with the details, but in short, zebras are calling hand-checking and being harsher on players who try to draw charges by hopping in front of a defender at the last second. This has led to more fouls/foul shots, longer games and more points. Pros and cons. Ultimately, in the long run, it's better for the game.
2) The freshmen. Of course. Here are the six biggest names to know, and for kicks, my personal grade for their performances -- relative to expectations -- so far. Parker (A); Randle (A); Arizona's Aaron Gordon (A); Syracuse's Tyler Ennis (A); Kansas' Joel Embiid (A-minus); and Andrew Wiggins (B-plus).
3) North Carolina's dramatic and enigmatic nature. The Tar Heels lost their best player, P.J. Hairston, because he took impermissible benefits. It was so bad (and a lot of it related to driving rental cars tied to an ex-convict), that the school didn't even appeal to the NCAA to let them consider a punishment for Hairston. Amid that, 10-4 UNC's beaten Kentucky, Louisville and Michigan State -- the top three teams in the AP poll in the preseason -- yet also fallen to Wake Forest, UAB, Belmont and Texas. You'd say they're unpredictable, only that's not true. They win the games they shouldn't and lose … the games they shouldn't.
4) Wichita State's run. The 15-0 Shockers will be subject to will-they-go-undefeated talk until they inevitably don't, but even beyond that, they've got a chance to put up a gaudy, Gonzaga-esque record. And this team is no mid-major, folks. It's a top 25 job, remember.
5) Point guards depth. I'm pushing this one a bit, because it's bound to become more of a talking point as college hoops takes center stage in February. Jahii Carson at 12-3 Arizona State, Johnathan Loyd at 13-1 Oregon, Kenny Chery at 12-1 Baylor, Kyle Anderson at 12-2 UCLA, T.J. McConnell at 15-0 Arizona, Lamar Patterson at 14-1 Pittsburgh. Even guys like Jason Brickman at LIU-Brooklyn, a senior who'll break some records and likely lead the nation in assists at year's end. It's been a long time since hardwood quarterbacks have been this good across the board.
Coach of the Year: Nobody expected Iowa State to be unbeaten at this point, so my pick is Fred Hoiberg.
Most surprising team: San Diego State is now seen as a solid group year in and year out, but the 12-1 Aztecs just became the first non-Big 12 team to win at Kansas since 2006. They only have one loss -- to No. 1 Arizona -- and this was seen as a rebuilding year! Steve Fisher is my runner-up for Coach of the Year at the midway point.
This year's small-school standout with star potential: Of guys not already listed, you'll want to know the name Ron Baker -- he's a former Wichita State walk-on who's a big-time shot-maker for the Shockers.
Unranked team that will make noise in two months: Harvard could actually make noise in the next two days. The Crimson play at UConn Wednesday night, and a win there would put the Huskies' season in panic mode while giving Harvard a 14-1 record, becoming the rare Ivy team worth considering for an at-large bid. This team can make a Sweet 16 and compete with that Cornell club from a few years ago for the best Ivy squad of the past 10 years.
Eight games you shouldn't miss from now until March 1:
Ohio State at Michigan State (tonight!)
Kansas at Iowa State (Jan. 13)
Oklahoma State at Kansas (Jan. 18)
Duke at Syracuse (Feb. 1)
Ohio State at Wisconsin (Feb. 1)
Oregon at Arizona (Feb. 6)
Florida at Kentucky (Feb. 15)
Louisville at Memphis (March 1)
Your (Possible) Questions, My Answers:
Why hasn't Andrew Wiggins lived up to the hype? The hype was never realistic, so I guess there's your answer. But he's still, at absolute worst, a No. 3 draft pick and scoring 16 points per game for a Jayhawks team with Final Four talent. And there are a number of high-profile games to come. This "underachieving" Wiggins thing could be a distant memory two weeks from now.
Kentucky was bad last year. Is it going to the NIT again? Not a chance. This UK group had, in the modern era of tracking recruits, the greatest collection of five-star players in any one class -- ever. And right now the Wildcats are 10-3 and set to begin play in the SEC, which is a bad league, and so John Calipari's team will need to really smack around a lot of programs in order to get people to believe this group is Final Four-good. Beating Louisville a week and a half ago took a lot of heat off this team.
What's the best conference? That is so very much up for debate. The ACC was expected to be the best, but it's not even close to claiming that. Syracuse and Duke are very nice, but Pitt is unproven and it's a drop-off after that. If I had to rank the top five, I'd go: Pac-12, Big Ten, Big 12, ACC, Big East.
Is VCU still really good? The 12-3 Rams are a solid team, still the best in the country at turning you over, but overall they're not quite where they need to be yet. Yes, they'll be in the NCAA tournament.
Is Gonzaga still really good? I think so. Not a No. 1, 2 seed, but earning a No. 3 is possible if the 14-1 Bulldogs only lose two games in the so-so West Coast Conference.
Is Butler still really good after losing Brad Stevens to the Celtics? Not really good, but good. Currently 10-4. And I'm surprised by how well the Bulldogs have played, all said. Brandon Miller is their new coach, and to this point he's looking like a worthy Stevens successor. Butler's not a top-30 team this year, but it's setting itself up to be in the bubble chatter. Can Butler prove worthy in Big East play? (Yes, new league again for BU.) That is one of my biggest questions looking at the next two months in all of college hoops.
Is Marshall Henderson still a thing? Not really. I mean, he shoots a ridiculous amount of 3-pointers these days, but Ole Miss is a 9-4 team with bad power-rating numbers. Its best win is over Penn State. Henderson was THE guy in college hoops last year. Now he's something of a sideshow and bordering on total irrelevance.
Most overrated team? I'm not one to hate, but I will say you should approach 15-0 Ohio State with a little caution.
Most underrated team? It could become chic to cheer for 13-2 Colorado soon, so hop on the bandwagon immediately.
When does starting to follow the bubble make sense? In my humblest of estimations, you don't need to start really investing in day-by-day results until about Valentine's Day this year. The regular season doesn't end until March 8, so pace yourself.
Who does the RPI like right now? Trick question! Don't go by the RPI! (But since it's still a tool for measuring teams' inclusion/seeding, the top five right now are: Wisconsin, Kansas, Villanova, Iowa State, Syracuse.)
Who's not good that normally is, i.e. might not make the NCAA tournament? UNLV, Temple, Marquette, Indiana, Maryland, (North Carolina is a whole other kettle of fish, as mentioned above.)
And that should about do it for now. Feel more informed? I hope so. It's a great time in the season for starting to invest yourself. College football's campaign was awesome and so much fun, but you know what? The past two months worth of college basketball have been really, really riveting. Come join us; the party continues for another three months.
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Matt Norlander is a contributor to Sports on Earth and a writer at CBSSports.com. He lives in Connecticut and is equal parts obsessed with sports and music. Follow him on Twitter: @MattNorlander.