College Basketball Handicapping: Teams That Should Excel in Conference
by Trevor Whenham - 12/18/2009
We are about to enter a transition period in college basketball. The conference season is about to start, and teams are down to their final few non-conference games. Handicapping the conference season isn't as easy as taking the non-conference record and extrapolating it. Teams all approach their conference season differently. For some they like to challenge themselves in the non-conference as much as they possibly can to earn experience and respect. Others just want to stack up the wins, and do it while avoiding tough opponents and road trips whenever possible. To determine how teams might do in conference play, then, you have to not only look at what teams have done so far, but also how they have done it and who they have done it against.
Based on what we have seen so far this season, here are four teams that could be surprisingly good in conference play. The five teams arrive on this list in different ways, but they are all teams worth looking at:
Long Beach State, Big West - Long Beach State is a rebuilding program, and there are signs that this could be a big step forward. At first glance, the 5-4 record doesn't really excite you. What is impressive, though, is that they have accomplished this while playing against the toughest schedule in the country. So far they have played four elite teams - Notre Dame, West Virginia, Clemson, and Texas - and they have games against Kentucky and Duke left before the new year. They haven't won any of those games so far, and they aren't likely to win the others, but they haven't humiliated themselves, and they have unquestionably gained experience and a trick or two along the way. Beyond those games they have taken care of business, including wins over UCLA and the Wisconsin-Green Bay team that upset Wisconsin. The Big West doesn't have a real powerhouse this year, so it's not unreasonable to imagine that Long Beach State will be able to build upon what they have done and learned and put together a special run to the NCAA Tournament.
Butler, Horizon - Coming into the season Butler was in more than one projected Final Four. That early season hype has cooled significantly with losses to Clemson, Minnesota and Georgetown. It would be a serious mistake to rule this team out entirely, though. There are a couple of concerns, but their offense still measures up among the elite in the country. The Bulldogs like to play a slow tempo, and for the most part they have been able to set that tone and control the play. Butler might not be quite as good as people expected, but they are still the class of the Horizon League by a wide margin, and will still have months to work out the kinks and improve on what has caused them problems so far. In other words, it would be a real mistake to count them out just yet.
Southern Miss, C-USA - Larry Eustachy is coming off an embarrassing season last year, but the guy can still coach. The team had the potential to do much better than they did last year, and this year they appear to be living up to that potential. They are out of the gate at 7-1, and that lone loss was perhaps their best performance of all - a two point loss at Mississippi. Outside of that they haven't played a great schedule so far, but what really sticks out for them is their offensive efficiency - so far the offense is operating at elite levels of effectiveness. Memphis is the clear class of the Conference USA, but beyond them there is a real opening for a team to step up, and early signs are that Southern Miss might be that team.
Syracuse, Big East - I'm not really going out on a limb by saying that a 10-0 team with wins over North Carolina, Cal, and Florida is good. What really strikes me when you look at this team, though, is how frighteningly well-rounded they are. They are ranked 11th overall in the country in offensive efficiency, and eighth in defensive efficiency. That's the best balance in the country, and it doesn't appear to be a fluke based on how they have been playing and the talent they have. The Big East is a ridiculously deep, tough conference this year (and every year, for that matter), but I think that Syracuse has proven conclusively that they are a better team than people thought they would be this year. Perhaps even good enough to take the conference.
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