John: Yo, hoops nation! Ken and John here, both still wearing pointy hats from all the New Year's frivolity. We're still feeling boisterous because our long national nightmare is almost over and that creaky anachronism known as college football is just about put to bed. In the meantime, the hoops action is arriving fast and furious. Take, for instance, last night's thrilling OT win by North Carolina at Clemson. What's your takeaway on this one, K-man?
Ken: For starters, can we at least acknowledge that based on what we know to date, UNC is not the best team in the country? The D legitimately has some leaks this season, and until those get fixed, I have serious concerns about whether this team goes farther in the postseason than it did in '07.
John: You know, this was a great game that Carolina happened to win. I know this will come as cold comfort to Clemson fans, but to me the real news coming out of the game is that the Tigers are legitimately one of the three best teams in the ACC. They didn't have to play over their heads at all to stay with the Heels. With this team Oliver Purnell has length (the box score doesn't do show it, but Trevor Booker and James Mays made life miserable for Tyler Hansbrough), speed and outside shooting. They'll not only make the tournament, they'll get a high seed. Unlike a certain team in Raleigh....
Ken: Yes, that really was a terrific game in Clemson. Perhaps, the least terrific game of the weekend was NC State's 50-43 win over Presbyterian. If there ever was such a thing as a "moral defeat," this was it. The Pack was up just three going into the final media timeout against a D-I newbie that's now 1-18. I think there was a consensus this season that State had moved on from the Herb Sendek era just fine, but now I'm not so sure. These guys were supposed to be at least battling for an at-large, and possibly doing more if J.J. Hickson panned out. Well, Hickson has panned out, and yet this may be the worst team in the conference right now. Nobody's pining for Sendek to come back, but I know there's one place where he's appreciated.
John: Ah, yes, the perennial hoops hotbed of Tempe. I don't know if people there have noticed yet but Sendek is either a genius or lucky. The Sun Devil offense last year was one of the worst in major-conference hoops. This year so far it's been one of the best in the entire nation. One is tempted to call them a lil' Georgetown, but they shoot a lot more threes than the Hoyas do. Anyway, you could make a case that James Harden is the most underpublicized freshman in the country. He plays as large a role in the ASU offense as Eric Gordon does in the Indiana offense, his efficiency compares quite favorably to Gordon's, yet somehow no one has heard of him. Plus, he records steals and defensive boards. Hoops nation, give this kid, and his team, some love.
Ken: The ASU story is truly an inspiring one. After their first eight possessions of the season, they trailed Illinois 20-0. One couldn't have been too optimistic that those offensive woes were going to be solved this season. Yet they've turned things around big time. They still need a few road wins to get the street cred demanded by all the kids today, but that demolition of Xavier in mid-December is going to look real good to the committee.
On the flip side, a once-promising season by the Illini is turning into a train wreck. They've suffered three consecutive home losses to teams named State, and when two of those are fronted by "Tennessee" and "Penn," that's not good for a coach's health. Not to rub it in, but some scoring from the backcourt would be nice, although I'm not sure even Eric Gordon would make this a top-25 team.
John: My advanced basketball analysis skills tell me: when you can't make baskets, it's hard to win. Still, you don't have to be lights-out to be a pleasant surprise. Catch Minnesota lately?
Ken: You know, I've yet to figure out how to get the miracle of the Big Ten Network, so that's holding me back. It appears Tubby Smith had the defense in place to, well, make things uncomfortable for the Izzone over the weekend, which has to impress Gopher fans. Tell me more, my sage Midwest correspondent!
John: Tubby can definitely get this team an at-large. True, Michigan State spent much of the night shooting itself in the foot by turning the ball over. (Many of the turnovers were the result of offensive fouls, one of which constituted the single worst call I've yet seen this year, assessed against Marquise Gray. I vow here and now to deduct one turnover from Gray's total for the rest of the season. It was that ridiculous.) That being said, the Gophers look like a completely different team than last year. That's interesting, of course, because, aside from the occasional Blake Hoffarber, it's the exact same players that we saw last season. Tubby has this team making its mark in the areas where effort trumps skill: steals and offensive boards. They still can't shoot very well, but they're doing what they can and the result is surprisingly good. One thing I saw before the opening tip of that game: with the starters on the floor and the rest of the team seated, Smith went along his own bench and shook the hand of every reserve. I know he took a lot of grief at Kentucky and, hey, by the end he looked a little burned-out to me, too. Even so, he really does strike one as a class act. I think it's safe to say that, unlike his successor in Lexington, there will be no ubiquitous rumors concerning Smith's activities after-hours.
Ken: I don't think Tubby has any regrets about his job switch. One Big Ten team I have seen a lot of is Wisconsin. Were I not the person I am, putting so much stock in the numbers and such, I wouldn't be very impressed with how this team plays. They look like they're a notch below Michigan State and Indiana, but the stats say they'll compete for a Big Ten title. If Brian Butch or Trevon Hughes go down for an extended period, then all bets are off, but for now this team presents the classic "winning ugly" profile that's destined to keep them underrated. Their offense thrives off rebounding and they prevent the opposition from scoring as well as any team in the nation. The AP folks say they're not a top-20 team, but I find that impossible to believe.
John: I don't think the Rodney Dangerfield treatment will last for long. I'm feeling good about my prediction (for which I took some grief, by the way) that the Badgers will share the Big Ten regular season title with Michigan State, in part because Wisconsin doesn't have to play in East Lansing this year. Even more important, the Badgers and Kansas have been arguably the two best defensive teams in the nation so far this season. Bo Ryan's team makes their opponent miss, they get the rebound and they don't foul. It's not real complex but it is very hard to overcome. Now, that's enough about the forlorn little conference in fly-over country. Talk to me about the Big East. Who wants to win this thing?
Ken: I think you still have to consider Georgetown the most likely option, but they're in the same boat UNC was in before Sunday night. We really don't know much about them because we haven't seen them enough against quality competition. Should the G-Men slip a little, then we could have a bit of chaos. The kind of chaos where we have a five- or even six-loss league champ. Marquette has looked solid enough to compete for a title. Of course, they caught the Mountaineers in Morgantown yesterday and lost. No shame in that--WVU could certainly get through the league at 13-5. Then there's Notre Dame. People are catching on that a certain imaginary friend of mine named Luke Harangody is an offensive force. Also Mike Brey is starting to fall into the category of system coaches like Mark Few. He doesn't need great players, just some good ones to create a great offense year after year.
John: The unknown is Louisville. In the preseason, when everyone thought David Padgett and Derrick Caracter would be playing together, big things were expected. Now Padgett and Caracter are indeed playing together. Will they be as good as they were supposed to be? Losing at Cincinnati wasn't a good sign but, then again, that was Padgett's first game back.
Ken: I agree, it's premature to count out the Cards with Padgett back. Defending Freedom Hall against the Mountaineers this Thursday would be a good way to wipe out the memory of the loss to the Bearcats.
John: Huggins vs. Pitino. They do have some coaches in that conference, don't they? I will be set-side. Hopefully they don't start up a Big East Network before then.
Ken: I predict there will come a day when every conference has its own network. Fortunately, we have a few years before that happens. Let's wind this thing down for another week, shall we?
John: Or two, yes. Until the day when there's an Atlantic Sun Network, adios, amigo.
Ken: Vaya con dios, Juan.
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
You can contact John by clicking here or click here to see John's other articles.
Ken Pomeroy is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
You can contact Ken by clicking here or click here to see Ken's other articles.