The college basketball season is rolling along as we’ve reached the halfway point to the Final Four.
If this week’s debate for the No. 1 team is any indication, the competition for the national title will be hotly contested. The top two teams in the polls -- undefeated Duke and Michigan -- lost during the weekend, opening the door for Louisville and Rick Pitino to be the Associated Press No. 1 team Monday. Five teams total, including Indiana, Duke, Kansas and Michigan, received first-place votes in the AP poll.
The season has had its share of surprises, including the lack of a clear top team in mid-January. Contrast that with last season: For the second half of the season in 2011-12, Kentucky was a near-unanimous No. 1 all the way to the title game.
This season has already proven to be more volatile, which lends itself to a wide range of surprises and disappointments.
Here are our picks for midseason surprises and disappointments in the first half of the basketball season and five key questions for the stretch run.
Related: Key college basketball stats from Jan. 7-13
FIVE MIDSEASON SURPRISES
Big Ten depth
In the preseason, Athlon projected six teams to reach the NCAA Tournament from the Big Ten, and that may be conservative. Four Big Ten teams are among Ken Pomeroy’s top 10 (Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota and Ohio State), two more are in the top 20 (Wisconsin and Michigan State) and two more contenders (Iowa and Illinois) are in the top 50. If the last week was any indication -- with Ohio State handing Michigan its first loss, Wisconsin upsettiting Illinois, Indiana holding off a Minnesota rally in the second half, the Gophers trouncing Illinois -- the league will be anything but predictable. And just think: If Penn State’s Tim Frazier and Northwestern’s Drew Crawford remained healthy, the league would have even fewer easy outs.
Athlon projected the Ducks to finish ninth in the Pac-12 and miss the postseason. Granted, that was prior to Arsalan Kazemi’s transfer (8.2 points, 9.4 rebounds) and the emergence of freshman Damyean Dotson (Dominic Artis was considered the jewel of the signing class). At 14-2 and 3-0 in the Pac-12, Oregon is on pace for an NCAA Tournament bid after handing Arizona its first loss of the season Thursday.
At one point, the dismissal of Chrishawn Hopkins appeared to be a major blow to Butler’s first season in the Atlantic 10. Without Hopkins, Butler is still in the thick of a crowded A-10 race. The Bulldogs have won 11 in a row, including the upset of then-No. 1 Indiana on Dec. 15. The most difficult test this season may be a upcoming stretch from Jan. 19-31: Gonzaga, at La Salle, Temple, at Saint Louis.
Wyoming and Boise State
Our projections had four Mountain West teams in the NCAA Tournament, and all four remain on that course -- UNLV, San Diego State, Colorado State and New Mexico. But the rise of Wyoming and Boise State could give the MWC as many as six NCAA Tournament teams. Wyoming went 6-8 in the league last season but was undefeated until Wednesday. The 14-game win streak was broken by a shorthanded Boise State team, which also defeated Creighton. Boise State suspended four players for the Wyoming game, including tops scorer Derrick Marks. Three of the suspended players will return to face New Mexico on Wednesday. Wyoming has an issue of its own with Luke Martinez (14.5 ppg) injured and then suspended after a bar brawl.
Adding junior college transfers can be a tricky practice in college basketball. Not all of them go on to be Marquette’s Jae Crowder, who was the Big East player of the year after transferring from junior college two seasons earlier. Ole Miss’ Marshall Henderson may do the same in the SEC. He’s leading the league in scoring at 18.2 points per game and has helped make the Rebels an NCAA Tournament contender.
FIVE MIDSEASON DISAPPOINTMENTS
Kentucky’s drop-off is the most obvious disappointment in the SEC, but the down year is league-wide. As a whole, the SEC ranks eighth in the conference RPI, right in between the Atlantic 10 and the Missouri Valley. The bottom of the league is more dreadful than was projected, but that’s not the most worrisome aspect of the league. After Florida and Missouri, the SEC has few NCAA Tournament contenders. After Saturday’s 83-71 loss to Texas A&M at home, Kentucky has the look of a bubble team. And teams like Tennessee, Alabama and Arkansas -- all of whom were projected as Tournament teams -- look like anything but through the first weeks of the conference season.
The Tar Heels’ season is proof not even powerhouse programs can simply restock after losing four first-round draft picks. Despite a handful of McDonald’s All-Americans returning, North Carolina is limping into ACC play -- a win over Florida State on Saturday prevented the Tar Heels from starting 0-3 in the league. Roy Williams has a handful of challenges on his hands: James Michael McAdoo has not become the gamebreaker he was expected to be, though he’s still averaging 14.4 points and 8.1 rebounds per game. Williams’ team collapsed late in its first two ACC losses, and the lineup has been in flux. A Tournament bid is not certain.
Rick Barnes has coached in the NCAA Tournament every season since 1996, going back to his second year at Clemson. That streak is in danger of ending this season. Texas lost 82-62 to Iowa State on Saturday, giving the Longhorns their second 20-point loss of the season. Keep in mind: Texas hadn’t lost a game by 20 points since 2005-06. Off to an 0-3 start in the Big 12 and with Kansas on Saturday, Texas might not be able to save its season by the time Myck Kabongo is eligible on Feb. 13.
Colonial Athletic Association
With VCU off to the Atlantic 10, the Colonial was poised for a dip, but few saw this coming. No CAA team has a record better than 9-7 (Northeastern and George Mason). League contenders Old Dominion (2-14) and Drexel (5-11) are having their worst seasons in several years. The Colonial is ranked 25th in league RPI, only one spot ahead of the Atlantic Sun and two spots ahead of the MEAC.
Before the season started, we wondered what kind of season North Texas’ Tony Mitchell, a projected NBA lottery pick, could have in the Sun Belt. The answer: Not all that different from a year ago. Mitchell is averaging 14.6 points and nine rebounds -- he averaged 14.7 points and 10.3 rebounds in 2011-12. His efficiency numbers have plummeted from shooting 56.7 percent last season to 46.1 percent this year, and North Texas is struggling to remain competitive. Under first-year coach Tony Benford, the Mean Green are 7-11 overall and 2-5 in the Sun Belt and Mitchell's draft stock is sliding.
KEY QUESTIONS FOR THE SECOND HALF
Will Kentucky put it together?
Without a signature win, Kentucky was already on shaky footing going into last week. Then the Wildcats gave up 40 points to Elston Turner in an 83-71 home loss to Texas A&M, a team that lost to Southern on Dec. 22. Kentucky is in danger of missing the NCAA Tournament only a year removed from the national title. John Calipari’s young team will need to put together a win streak in the coming weeks against Tennessee, Auburn, Alabama and LSU to stay on the right side of the bubble.
How will any team win on the road in the Big Ten?
Here are the teams that have lost Big Ten conference games at home: Illinois, Iowa (twice), Nebraska, Northwestern (twice), Nebraska, Penn State (twice) and Purdue. Not a lot of Tournament teams in that group other than Illinois and perhaps Iowa.
How will Duke win without Ryan Kelly?
Duke is 1-3 in the last two seasons without Ryan Kelly, who missed his first game of the season with a foot injury in Saturday’s loss to NC State. Duke will need to find some way to replace the 6-foot-11 senior who will be out “indefinitely.” Amile Jefferson may have been the best fill-in (10 points in 12 minutes) before he fouled out against NC State. Duke’s injury problems could be further magnified if Seth Curry is playing through pain as the guard did late against the Wolfpack.
How will Syracuse adjust to the absence of James Southerland?
Syracuse defeated Villanova 72-61 in its first game without James Southerland, but it was an uneven performance at home. More concerning is that Syracuse may be without Southerland for Louisville (Saturday) and Cincinnati (Monday). The Orange’s third-leading scorer has been declared ineligible, and his return in is in question. The forward is a matchup problem with his ability to shoot from outside and a key spark off the bench.
How many bids will the Mountain West, Atlantic 10 and West Coast Conference receive?
Someone has to fill the spots in the NCAA Tournament, but will the committee opt for more questionable teams in the ACC, Pac-12 and SEC or more teams in the Mountain West, Atlantic 10 and West Coast Conference, all of which are deeper than they’ve been in recent seasons. Ole Miss or Boise State? Miami or Charlotte? Wyoming or Arizona State? This is going to be a good year for those blind resumes.