As conference play begins, several things have become clear:
• There are some really good basketball teams out there, and many capable of winning four straight games in the NCAA tournament to reach a Final Four.
• There are many terrific young talents in the game who have "must see" written all over them.
• There are some really good upperclassmen who are outstanding college players, but may not have the pro potential of some of their younger competitors.
Yes, college basketball has some greatness in it this year, but no team has stepped forward as being historically great ... yet. There is still time, and with so much youth, some team might still establish itself as truly great. But preseason expectations have yet to be met for some teams and players -- and might not be met this year. Duke, Louisville, North Carolina and Michigan are all good teams but have not been quite as good as people expected. Meanwhile, some teams have exceeded expectations and have "put themselves into the conversation" (The Bilastrator has always enjoyed this phrase, as no conversation has ever determined the outcome of a play, game or league race), including early surprises Wisconsin and Villanova, who will be there for the long haul.
All of this is clear to the gigantic basketball brain of The Bilastrator, the driving force behind The Bilas Index, a ranking of the 68 best teams in the country. The Bilas Index is not limited to The Bilastrator's supersized cranium full of round-ball knowledge and analytical prowess (although more is certainly not needed, because The Bilastrator's brain is more than enough), but it also incorporates analytics like KenPom.com, Sagarin, the UPS Team Performance Index, ESPN's Basketball Power Index and Synergy Sports Technology. In addition, proprietary technology is used to distill the data into a form that allows smaller brains (and let's face it, all but The Bilastrator must make do with smaller brains) to understand and digest.
The Bilastrator has been interested in adjusted pace of late, as many coaches publicly declare that their teams play up-tempo, full-court basketball. The numbers indicate otherwise and that coaches have been keeping their up-tempo styles a profound secret. Of the top 20 teams in KenPom.com's efficiency numbers, 10 of them are rated among the bottom third of Division I in adjusted tempo (Wisconsin 331st, Syracuse 329th, Florida 322nd, Michigan 309th, Pittsburgh 304th, Arizona 298th, Ohio State 268th, Wichita State 261st, San Diego State 246th and Creighton 245th). Playing faster sounds great, but many have decided it is not for them.
Here is our latest ranking of the top 68 teams in college basketball.
Moving in: Texas, Kansas State, Toledo, Utah, UNLV
Moving out: UAB, Providence, Alabama, Drexel, Charlotte
(Note: The Bilastrator mistakenly left out Xavier when this article was first published. The Musketeers have since been added.)
1. Arizona Wildcats (Previous ranking: 2)
Sean Miller has the best and most complete team in the country. Are the Wildcats unbeatable? Hardly. Remember, Arizona started 14-0 last season, too. But the Wildcats can rebound and defend the paint, and their depth of quality athletes with length is unmatched. The Wildcats are one of the best rebounding teams in the country, ranking eighth in offensive rebounding percentage and 13th in defensive rebounding percentage, according to KenPom.com. Arizona can be beaten, but you'll have to play really, really well to do it. You'll certainly have to be better than Washington State did, as no defense is good enough to hold a good team to 25 points in 40 minutes of play. Arizona was very good, but Washington State was awful.
2. Syracuse Orange (Previous ranking: 3)
Basketball is a game of easy baskets. The best teams get them and also don't allow them. Syracuse gets a fair amount of easy baskets, and the Orange don't give too many of them up. The question is how do they do it? It might be hard to believe, given their reputation as a slower-paced team, but the Orange are getting it done in transition. The Orange are in the bottom third of Division I in tempo but have a 25.9 percent turnover percentage, second nationally behind VCU. Syracuse gets out and runs, playing ahead of the defense more often than anyone except the Rams. The Orange run off of your mistakes, and they run off of your quick and bad shots. Against a half-court defense, 5-on-5, the Orange are pretty darn good, but most of the success comes from Trevor Cooney, C.J. Fair, Tyler Ennis and the offensive glass. Take care of the ball and make Syracuse play 5-on-5 for 40 minutes, and you have a chance. Let the Orange play ahead of your defense, and Jim Boeheim wins. Again.
3. Michigan State Spartans (Previous ranking: 1)
The Michigan State team that came out for the second half at Penn State can win the national championship. A great passing team that is second in the nation in assists, the Spartans are getting healthy and doing a better job of running offense. The keys are Gary Harris taking over (as he did against Indiana, with 26 points), Branden Dawson throwing his considerable athletic ability around, and getting to the free throw line. For Michigan State, "No free throws, no rings" would be a good mantra. In Harris, Michigan State has the best and most versatile scorer in the league. In a season of very good but imperfect teams, The Bilastrator likes Michigan State's chances to reach the Final Four in Dallas -- and win it all.