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From Year of the Freshman to Duke to Villanova, it's time to re-evaluate

Just like we expected, the freshmen are doing their thing. But nobody is doing it as well as UCLA's Lonzo Ball. Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

The past year offered few surprises on the national sports scene. Yes, the Chicago Cubs won the World Series and the Cleveland Cavaliers overcame a 3-1 deficit in the NBA Finals.

But the highs and lows throughout the calendar year mostly followed preseason presumptions. Usain Bolt is still the fastest man in the world. Alabama is back in the College Football Playoff. The Golden State Warriors added Kevin Durant, and they're favored to rep the Western Conference in the NBA Finals again.

Surprised? Nope. It all went according to script.

But college basketball put October's predictions in a paper shredder. In the words of Dave Chappelle's Rick James: "That was weeks ago!"

As conference play commences, so much has changed.

What we thought then: It's Grayson Allen's Wooden Award to lose. The rest of the nation is pushing for second place.
What we think now: Ladies and gentlemen ... Mr. Lonzo Ball. Also, Josh Hart says hello.

Before Grayson Allen's indefinite suspension for tripping a third opponent in less than a year, Luke Kennard (20.4 PPG) had snatched his spot as Duke's most promising Wooden Award candidate. Jayson Tatum (15.4 PPG, 7.6 RPG, 92 percent from the free throw line) might warrant consideration by season's end.

But if the season ended today, UCLA freshman star Lonzo Ball would compete with Villanova's Josh Hart as the top two candidates for the award. Ball's numbers (13.7 PPG, 8.3 APG, 5.8 RPG, 1.5 SPG, 43 percent from the 3-point line) have propelled the Bruins into the No. 2 ranking and an unblemished record. He has made an impact unrivaled by a freshman point guard since Penny Hardaway averaged 17.4 points, 5.5 assists, 7.0 rebounds and 2.5 steals for Memphis during the 1991-92 season.

Hart had two goals when he decided to return for his senior season: help the Wildcats defend the national title and boost his NBA draft stock. Check and check. He's averaging 20.1 points per game. He has made 64.4 percent of his shots inside the arc, 43.3 percent of his 3-pointers and 81 percent of his free throw attempts. Per hooplens.com, Villanova scores 1.25 points per possession when he is on the floor and just 1.02 points when he's on the bench.

Right now, Hart and Ball lead the early race for the Wooden Award. Allen? He isn't a prominent mention in the conversation right now. And his suspension could ruin any chance he had to regain his preseason status in ACC play.

What we thought then: Without Ben Simmons, Buddy Hield and Denzel Valentine, college basketball will lose some of its must-see appeal.
What we think now: Are you watching this right now?!?!

We've barely survived the nonconference season, and now we'll watch the nation's captivating conference battles. We need oxygen.

We started the season with an Indiana-Kansas overtime game and an Arizona win over Michigan State via Kadeem Allen's late layup -- both games played in the Armed Forces Classic in Honolulu. That's how this season began. Kentucky and UCLA battled in a furious matchup on Dec. 3 in Lexington. Then the Wildcats knocked off North Carolina in Las Vegas when Malik Monk hit a late, game-winning 3-pointer in a 47-point, he-is-on-fire performance. Villanova overcame an 11-point deficit, and Josh Hart scored a career-high 37 points against Notre Dame in what felt like an Elite Eight game earlier this month.

And have you watched the Bruins? Creighton? Gonzaga? Arizona's Lauri Markkanen? Saint Mary's Jock Landale?

Have you set your DVR to record everything Lonzo Ball does between today and his final collegiate game sometime in March or April? You should.

This season is lit, as the kids say. Buddy Ball, Valentine's versatility and the "What is Johnny Jones doing with Ben Simmons?!" fiasco carried last season before Kris Jenkins hit the game-winning shot in the national championship game.

This season will not rely on one or two storylines. Interesting players, coaches and teams thrive throughout the country this year. Don't blink.

What we thought then: Yes, UCLA is talented. But Steve Alford won't coach these guys to their potential.
What we think now: Steve Alford is the top contender for national coach of the year.

In his first three seasons in Westwood, Steve Alford failed to earn the benefit of the doubt. He earned only the doubt. Those back-to-back Sweet 16 appearances in his first two years followed rocky regular seasons, and he missed the postseason in 2015-16. Why would anyone expect UCLA to play to its potential in 2016-17?

Now Alford leads an undefeated Bruins squad with the makings of a Pac-12 king and prospective national champion. His past performances led to appropriate misgivings about his potential this season. Alford even seemed to validate those concerns when, shortly after last season, he returned the extension UCLA had given him in 2014.

He deserves praise for his efforts thus far, though. He took a team anchored by two freshmen, Lonzo Ball and T.J. Leaf, and Bryce Alford, his son and starting shooting guard who evolved into an efficient playmaker off the ball, and he earned the most impressive win by any team in America: UCLA's Dec. 3 road victory over then-No. 1 Kentucky. It was the first home loss for John Calipari's Wildcats in two-plus seasons.

In the national coach of year conversation, you could make a strong case for Mark Few, Bill Self, Matt Painter, Rick Pitino, Jay Wright, Scott Drew or Greg McDermott. But Alford is the only coach in the convo relying on multiple freshmen to lead his program. Plus, he won at Rupp Arena. From no postseason to national coach of the year candidate: The Steve Alford Story.

What we thought then: Yes, Denzel Valentine is gone, but Michigan State has a top-10 recruiting class. Tom Izzo will compete for another Big Ten crown.
What we think now: Wait ... Did the Spartans just lose to Northeastern?

The Big Ten's cage match for this season's championship involves another set of powerful contenders (Purdue, Indiana and Wisconsin) and intriguing middle-of-the-pack upstarts (Minnesota, Ohio State, Michigan and Northwestern). Missing from the mix? A Spartans team that entered the season ranked No. 12.

Now, Tom Izzo's squad is 8-5 with a 61.9 percent clip from the charity stripe (329th in the nation). Michigan State is not healthy. Miles Bridges, the team's top scorer and a projected first-round pick, Ben Carter (8.6 PPG for UNLV in 2015-16) and Gavin Schilling are all sidelined. The team suffered its first four losses against top-25 teams (Louisville, Baylor, Duke and Kentucky). That's a tough schedule.

But last week's loss to Northeastern (BPI rating: No. 129) in East Lansing unraveled all suggestions that the Spartans are just a good team beset by a series of injuries that cost the squad opportunities against elite opponents. The Spartans missed 10 of their 26 free throw attempts and surrendered a 48 percent clip from beyond the arc against the Huskies. That's a problem.

How will Izzo's squad handle the Big Ten?

What we thought then: In a rebuilding season for the Big 12, Kansas will coast to its record-tying (UCLA) 13th consecutive Big 12 title.
What we think now: Kansas will secure its record-tying 13th consecutive Big 12 championship, but West Virginia and Baylor will attempt to complicate its plans.

After Kansas defeated UNLV 71-53 last week in its first true road game, Bill Self offered a measured assessment of a Jayhawks squad that outscored its opponents 42-20 in the first half before the Rebels made a run after halftime.

"If you tell us before the game, you would win by 18 on the road, you definitely take that," Self told reporters after the game. "We had a chance to play much better than that."

That's the scary part. Josh Jackson, Frank Mason, Devonte Graham & Co. can play better than that. This is a Kansas team that has won 11 in a row since suffering an overtime loss to Indiana in its season-opener. Self's squad won 10 of those 11 games by double digits. Duke, which lost to the Jayhawks by two in November, is the only Kansas opponent that tested Self's squad.

Kansas looks like the Big 12 champion -- again.

But Scott Drew's Baylor squad has the most impressive résumé in America (wins over Xavier, Louisville, Michigan State, VCU and Oregon), and the Manu Lecomte-Johnathan Motley duo is a potent combo. Also, the West Virginia squad that lost Jaysean Paige and Devin Williams from last year's team has forced turnovers on 35 percent of its opponents' possessions, per KenPom.com. What?!

Kansas will likely win another conference crown and match UCLA's streak that began in the John Wooden era, continued with Gene Bartow and ended under Gary Cunningham. Baylor and West Virginia seem capable of obstructing Kansas' path this season.

What we thought then: Duke, when healthy, will bulldoze the ACC and the rest of the country.
What we think now: Duke won't bulldoze the ACC and the rest of the country, even when healthy and complete.

Jayson Tatum has found a rhythm. Luke Kennard looks like a Wooden Award contender. Amile Jefferson is a double-double monster. And Harry Giles is back. Once Grayson Allen returns, the Blue Devils could reach the peak most envisioned when the season began.

They won't steamroll the ACC, though, and that's because the ACC's top tier features a collection of serious challengers. Louisville just defeated Kentucky in a thriller. North Carolina is a physical powerhouse with an underrated young big named Tony Bradley. Virginia has held its opponents under 37 percent inside the arc. In total, 11 ACC teams are ranked in KenPom.com's top 50 right now.

Duke is still the favorite in this impressive conference. But an easy path to the title and the national championship? Nope.

What we thought then: This is the Year of the Freshman
What we think now: This is the Year of the Freshman -- and the veterans

The one-and-done era has granted a growing slice of preseason hype to incoming freshmen who might not compete beyond their first seasons on campus. Also due to the shift that began a decade ago, veterans are often overshadowed.

But this season features a nice balance of first-year stars and top upperclassmen.

The latter includes Villanova's Josh Hart, Baylor's Johnathan Motley, Louisville's Quentin Snider, Virginia's London Perrantes, Kansas' Frank Mason and others. Add that to a class of freshmen that features Josh Jackson, Charlie Moore, Lauri Markkanen, Jayson Tatum, Lonzo Ball, T.J. Leaf, Jonathan Isaac, Malik Monk and De'Aaron Fox. College basketball's next three months could satisfy both one-and-done advocates and opponents with its nice mix of youth and experience.

What we thought then: The buzz, the attention, the offseason losses and the typical post-title hangover will impact Villanova.
What we think now: Under Jay Wright, Villanova could become the first team to defend its national championship since Billy Donovan's Florida Gators in 2005-07.

Kris Jenkins, after he's done with basketball, should buy a home near Villanova's campus. He'll never pay for a meal. Hell, someone might pay for the house. He and his Villanova teammates will feast off last year's national title run for decades.

Entering the year, a repeat seemed possible but far from a guarantee. After losing Ryan Arcidiacono and Daniel Ochefu, Jay Wright had to replace pivotal veterans. Then Omari Spellman (No. 18 in the 2016 class per ESPN.com) was declared ineligible for the 2016-17 season.

Uh oh. That's why it's so hard to win consecutive national titles in the one-and-done era. It's difficult to build continuity and maintain an elite talent pool.

But Wright's Villanova squad is No. 1 in the country right now. The Wildcats deserve that slot after winning six games thus far by 19 or more points.

The Big East will present stronger opposition. Creighton, Xavier and others will compete with Villanova, a squad with a road win over Purdue and a neutral-site victory over Notre Dame. Right now, however, the Wildcats resemble the squad that won the national crown in April, a team that might repeat the feat in Arizona in three months.