Friday, December 1, 2017

Recapping the first month of the regular season

November is just about in the books and it was an action-packed month with surprises and early disappointments all around. Teams are already building their tournament resume, while others have a lot of work to do. Let's look back at the month that was in college basketball.

The SEC is more than just Florida and Kentucky

One of the biggest surprises of the early portion of the season was the quick rise of Texas A&M, who vaulted into the AP Top 10 this week thanks to their impressive 6-0 start, which includes a dominant win over West Virginia in Germany and a 16-point win at USC. The Aggies are making it very well-known that they will be a force in the SEC. Five Aggies currently average double-digit points and they're shooting almost 42 percent from 3-point range. A very impressive start. One more quality non-conference game awaits them on Tuesday when they take on Arizona in Phoenix.

Trouble in Tuscon?

Speaking of Arizona, what a rough start for Sean Miller's team. After three blowouts to start the season, the Wildcats went down to the Bahamas for the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament, where the prevailing thought was they would meet up with Villanova in the championship round. Oops. That didn't exactly happen. Arizona dropped a 90-84 decision to North Carolina State in the opening round, then lost 66-60 to SMU before being hammered by Purdue, 89-64, to finish 0-3 in the tournament. That result dropped them from No. 2 in the AP Poll to out of the poll entirely.

They just bounced back with a whipping of Long Beach State and can build their profile right back up with a road game at UNLV and then meetings with Texas A&M and Alabama after that. Plus, the Pac-12 will provide more chances for good wins.

By the way, Villanova defeated Northern Iowa in the championship.

Power Plays aren't just for hockey

In one of the weirdest scenes we've seen in sometime, the Alabama Crimson Tide played the final ten minutes of their game against Minnesota shorthanded. A brawl during the game led to Alabama players coming off the bench and getting in the middle of the action. Five players were ejected from the game and the technical called on Dazon Ingram was his fifth personal, so he fouled out. Then John Petty left the game with an ankle injury. That left Alabama to play 5-on-3. And they almost won.

After trailing by as many as 14, freshman Collin Sexton nearly did the impossible and almost rallied the team back. The rally fell short, but the fact that Alabama only lost by five, behind a 40-point performance from Sexton, is nothing short of amazing. In fact, the Tide moved up one spot in the AP Poll, even after that loss, from No. 25 to No. 24.

PK80 is major success

After years of planning, the Phil Knight Invitational was a rousing success. 16 Nike-sponsored schools were split into two eight-team brackets (since NCAA rules prohibit multiple teams from a conference to play in the same bracket). It was one of the most star-studded fields we've seen and it saw a pair of championship games that gave Portland, Oregon a Final Four-like atmosphere. Even before the two championship games, we saw a thriller between Florida and Gonzaga, a 111-105 double-overtime victory for the Gators.

As for the Championship Rounds, Michigan State's defense completely shut down North Carolina, as the Tar Heels didn't even reach 50 points in the game and shot under 25 percent from the floor, as the Spartans won, 63-45, to claim the Victory Bracket Championship. Over in the Motion Bracket, Florida led by as many as 17 with under ten minutes to play before Duke made a ferocious comeback to defeat the Gators, 87-84. Marvin Bagley III had 30 points and 15 rebounds to lead the charge.

With wins over Michigan State and Florida already under their belt, Duke is already making a charge at the overall No. 1 seed in March. And Michigan State followed up their PK80 championship with an 81-63 beating of No. 5 Notre Dame (who defeated Wichita State to claim the championship in Maui) in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge. Speaking of which...

ACC Dominates Big Ten in annual get-together

Michigan State beat up on Notre Dame to claim a victory for the Big Ten. Unfortunately for the conference, that was one of only three victories the Big Ten scored in this year's challenge, as the ACC dominated the three-day event. The other two victories were Purdue over Louisville (a nice bounceback for the Boilermakers after their showing in the Bamahas) and Nebraska over Boston College.

The other 11 games went in favor of the ACC including Georgia Tech's buzzer-beater to defeat Northwestern (who is off to a slow start at 4-3, missing opportunities for wins, having also lost to Creighton and Texas Tech), Virginia using their stingy defense to beat Wisconsin, holding them under 40 points, North Carolina over Michigan, Duke over Indiana (who hung in tough for a while with the Blue Devils) and Miami with a very good resume-building win over Minnesota.

Getting through November unscathed

As the calendar turns to December, 17 teams remain undefeated. Those teams are Arizona State, Cincinnati, Colorado, Duke, Florida State, Georgetown, Kansas, Miami, Mississippi State, Nevada, Syracuse, TCU, Texas A&M, Valparaiso, Villanova, Virginia and Washington State.

Among this group, another surprise resides in Tempe, Arizona. The Sun Devils' 6-0 start includes a 16-point win over Xavier in Las Vegas. Early on, the Sun Devils look like they could compete with the upper echelon of the Pac-12. The Sun Devils will really be tested on December 10 when they invade Lawrence, Kansas to take on the Jayhawks.

Fellow Pac-12 member Washington State claimed the Wooden Legacy, defeating Saint Mary's and San Diego State along the way. (Saint Mary's also lost to Georgia in a consolation game.) The Cougars also host Kansas State on December 20 before conference play begins.

Also keep an eye on Nevada. The Wolf Pack have been very impressive early, including defeating a good Rhode Island team. They've got two big games upcoming at Texas Tech and against TCU in Los Angeles. They've got a chance to build themselves a solid at-large case, in case things go awry in the Mountain West.

A look ahead

December looks to be another good month of action, starting Friday when Gonzaga takes on Creighton in a battle of AP Top 25 teams. Then Saturday sees the old rivalry in Cincinnati as the Bearcats host Xavier, Wichita State visits Baylor and USC is at SMU. You've also got a battle of unbeatens in Miami as Kansas takes on Syracuse. Sunday will see Seton Hall, fresh off their win over Texas Tech, visit Louisville.

And due to the tournament being pushed up, Big Ten play actually begins today with Purdue at Maryland and Illinois at Northwestern. Then tomorrow, it's Indiana at Michigan, Penn State at Iowa and Ohio State at Wisconsin. On Sunday, Northwestern at Purdue, Nebraska and Michigan State, Rutgers at Minnesota and Maryland at Illinois. Monday, you have Michigan at Ohio State, Wisconsin at Penn State and Iowa at Indiana. Finally on Tuesday to wrap up the first week before the action gets back at it later this month, Michigan State at Rutgers and Minnesota at Nebraska.

Other notable non-conference games to look forward to: Louisville at Kentucky (Dec. 29), Villanova vs. Gonzaga in New York (Dec. 5), UCLA vs. Kentucky (Dec. 23), Texas at VCU (Dec. 5), Kentucky at West Virginia (Jan. 27), Cincinnati vs. Florida (Dec. 9), Cincinnati at UCLA (Dec. 16), Virginia Tech at Kentucky (Dec. 16), Virginia at West Virginia (Dec. 5), SMU at TCU (Dec. 5), Oklahoma vs. USC in Los Angeles (Dec. 8), Oklahoma at Wichita State (Dec. 16), Florida State at Florida (Dec. 4), Georgia Tech at Georgia (Dec. 19), Baylor at Florida (Jan. 27), Alabama vs. Texas in Birmingham (Dec. 22)