A new year always bring the hope of new beginnings. For several programs and players, the new year also brings in the clean slate of the conference schedule. Teams like our very own Bulldogs will be using the conference slate to regroup after some disappointment against non-conference foes. Teams such as Wichita State, Indiana, Michigan, and Notre Dame, all came into the season with great expectations. Like the Zags, injuries and slow development have tempered the expectations of those programs, but hopefully the new year will get everyone back on track as we reach the midway point of the season.
On the Bubble: Duke, SMU, Miami (FL)
No. 11 - Maryland (12-1, LW: NR)
Welcome to the national conversation, Diamond Stone! The highly touted freshman broke out in a big way against Penn State, posting a line of 39 points (of Maryland's 70) and 12 rebounds. The big center from Wisconsin failed to have the instant impact at the start of the season which many expected, considering his lofty recruiting rankings, but Stone came through for Maryland in their Big10 opener as the rest of the team struggled badly. While Stone cannot be expected to score over half the team's points with regularity (or ever again), more consistent production from him will legitimize Maryland's Final Four aspirations.
No. 10 - Iowa (10-3, LW: NR)
The Hawkeyes first caught my eye when they went into Ames three weeks ago and dominated the Cyclones for 30 minutes. But, they let Iowa State off the hook and gave up their huge lead with seconds left to play. Despite the devastating loss, Iowa showed how good their team could be. They showed that quality against when they handed the Spartans their first loss of the season, and after that win, Tom Izzo declared this edition of the Hawkeyes as the toughest Iowa team he's ever faced. In a wide-open year like this one, Iowa is a team to keep an eye on in March.
No. 9 - Kentucky (10-2, LW: NR)
Despite an uneven December, John Calipari delivered a worthy Christmas gift to Big Blue Nation when Kentucky knocked off Louisville in Lexington. Kentucky's freshmen has struggled for the last few weeks, and if not for Tyler Ulis' leadership and exceptional play against the Cardinals, there would be extensive weeping and gnashing of teeth amongst UK fans going into the new year. Of greatest concern for Kentucky fans has been the awful play of center Skal Labissiere. The beanstalk was removed from the starting lineup after the loss to Ohio State, but that move doesn't seem to have propelled him to find his game. It's astounding now that Skal was appointed a preseason first team All-American, as he's clearly not physically ready for the college game, let alone the NBA where he was projected to be a high lottery pick at the end of the season. Calipari might be best served to have Skal take turns in the gym and McDonalds, as he could use an extra 30 pounds (at minimum) and develop more reliable skills if he hopes to have an impact this season.
No. 8 - Providence (11-1, LW: 8)
Kris Dunn is one of the most entertaining players in the country. The junior guard might be the best two-way player in the country, and it was thought that the Friars could only go as far as Dunn could take them. However, the future lottery pick went down for a few games in mid-December, and the Friars didn't miss a beat. This squad has evolved from being "Kris Dunn & Friends," and is now a legitimate tournament team.
No. 7 - Villanova (11-2, LW: NR)
Jay Wright's crew bounced back in a big way against previously undefeated Xavier. Maybe they have their swagger back?? The Big East is no longer the gauntlet it used to be, so for all intents and purposes, but there are some tricky match-ups remaining against Butler and Providence to test Villanova's mettle before tournament time begins.
No. 6 - North Carolina (12-2, LW: 9)
This week, UNC extended its all-time home record against the Clemson Tigers to an absurd 58-0 this week, the NCAAs longest home win streak against a single opponent. The Tar Heels are the one of the few teams that can reasonably expect consistent double digit scoring from 4-5 guys in their lineup. The system Roy Williams runs incorporated with the skill and caliber of athletes the Tar Heels feature, has made this team the most efficient offense in the nation.
No. 5 - Purdue (13-1, LW: 6)
Purdue strolled into the Kohl Center and broke their 4-game drought against the Badgers by handing Greg Gard his first conference loss as an interim coach. This team is still massive, and still very good as they continue to be the nation's best defensive team. Despite their enviable collection of large human beings, the Boilermakers don't get all their buckets within 5 feet of the rim as this team features a balanced inside-out attack. If this squad stays healthy, Purdue fans may be making their first trip to the Final Four since 1980.
No. 4 - Michigan State (13-1, LW: 1)
As I mentioned last week, I did not expect the Spartans to maintain their grasp on the top spot in the rankings once Denzel Valentine went down for a few weeks due to minor knee surgery. Most teams can't weather the loss of their best player, and MSU is no exception. But, I wouldn't expect them to stay too down for long as Valentine should be back by mid-January, and his absence allows for Izzo to see who else can be relied upon to step up in big moments.
No. 3 - Virginia (11-1, LW: 4)
It's an odd thing when UVA's offense is ranked higher than its defense in efficiency rating. I don't expect that to continue, but it is a sign that this could be the year Tony Bennett gets his Final Four appearance before he loses seniors Malcolm Brogdon and Anthony Gill to graduation. UVA still plays at an unbelievably slow pace, and their free throw rate is still poor, but they don't beat themselves. To knock off UVA, a team will have to marry patience with the disciple to play mistake free basketball.
No. 2 - Kansas (11-1, LW: 3)
Of all the teams on this list, I'm most anxious for Kansas to get to conference play. The Jayhawks have essentially used the month of December as a preseason before beginning their conference slate, and now it's time to see how good this team can be. On paper, this is one of the best and most complete teams in the country. The roster is a fine blend of youthful exuberance in Cheick Diallo and Carlton Bragg, and the 1000 years of collegiate experience held by Perry Ellis. It's going to be a lot of fun to watch Kansas and the team ahead of them in this ranking battle for the Big-12 crown.
No. 1 - Oklahoma (11-0, LW: 2)
Buddy Hield dominated Hawaii as he begins to make his case for the NPOY award following Oklahoma's two trips to the island state. Hield's last five games have yielded an outrageous offensive output of 29.8ppg on 59.7% shooting (57% from 3). The Sooners may have the most difficult start to the new year of any team in the country as they welcome Iowa State to Norman before putting the #1 ranking up for grabs when they face the Jayhawks in Lawrence on Monday (assuming they don't lose to the Cyclones). The Big-12 could legitimately place 3 teams in the Final Four, and has an argument as the nation's most top-heavy conference thanks to Oklahoma's emergence.