What we've learned in the first half
The national-title race that once seemed so boring is heating up
The one thing that most teams would give anything for? A point guard
The scariest incident so far this year has become a YouTube sensation
Now that we're halfway through the conference season, here's a look at the top 10 lessons we've learned so far:
1. A national-title picture so boringly in focus in October -- with North Carolina as a unanimous preseason No. 1, and everyone else just fighting to be the runner-up in Detroit -- has become delightfully blurry. Frontrunner status has been a curse for the Tar Heels: Wooden Award winner Tyler Hansbrough was sidelined with a stress fracture in November; freshman 7-footer Tyler Zeller scored 18 points in his first game and then in his second, suffered a season-ending broken left wrist; senior defensive stopper Marcus Ginyard, a starter last season, has opted to take a medical redshirt; and sophomore forward William Graves, who was playing double-digit minutes as a backup, has been suspended for remainder of the season. If Carolina wins the national title, it should be considered a feat of perseverance rather than a coronation. With the Heels' size and depth depleted to the point that they're merely one of a pack of title contenders (they're still Vegas' favorite, but mine is UConn, and Pitt, Louisville, Wake Forest and Duke are all reasonable candidates as well), the NCAA tournament field will be wide open.
2. It's agonizing to see so many teams have everything but a point guard. Texas doesn't have a suitable replacement for lottery pick D.J. Augustin, and despite being loaded at the 2-3-4-5 spots, doesn't look like a real NCAA tournament noisemaker. Louisville would love to swap in a true playmaker for current starter Edgar Sosa, but doesn't have a good option -- a problem that may doom the Cards' title bid. Memphis would probably prefer not to have to play super-frosh Tyreke Evans at the point so he could be freed up on the wing, but he's their best available ball-handing option. Xavier is dominant in the frontcourt but relies on an unsteady true freshman, Terrell Holloway, as its floor general. As for what happens when coaches recruit a point guard surplus, take a look at Duke, which became a legit title contender by promoting last season's backup, sophomore Nolan Smith, in the starting lineup over senior Greg Paulus. UConn uses three point guards (A.J. Price, Craig Austrie and Kemba Walker), sometimes all at once, and is nearly impervious to defensive pressure. Just ask Louisville.
3. The most drastic reaction to the new three-point line has been seen at Wake Forest. The Demon Deacons take just 19.7 percent of their field-goal attempts from beyond the arc, which ranks them 342nd out of 344 D-I teams. They're getting by just fine using this approach, with a 17-3 record and a No. 7 ranking. But it's a marked change from last season, when 33.0 percent of their attempts were threes -- and they were 17-13 and unranked. All of their marginal perimeter shooters (basically, everyone not named Jeff Teague) have limited their launching and focused on scoring more in the paint.
The tracker on kenpom.com says three-point volume nationally has fallen just 1.4 percent, from 34.4 to 33.0. At Wake, it's dropped 13.3 percent. That's a sea change in offensive philosophy.
4. Although we've seen court-stormings at Wake Forest and Clemson, the season's scariest and most memorable one to date consisted of a single fan -- a player's sibling, actually -- in the middle of a game. The circumstances surrounding Jonathan Xavier's interruption of Providence's Jan. 17 loss to Marquette to contest a no-call of a elbow to the face of his brother, Jeff -- cameras were on Jonathan from the moment he got out of his lower-level seat; his path onto the floor went right through the Friars' bench; he was wearing a poofy fur-collared jacket; security let him walk untouched right up to a ref; and above all, it wasn't worth arguing about because it was inadvertent contact -- have made it a YouTube classic. Not just among sportswriters, either. I recently walked into a major D-I team's academic center with an interview subject, and found three of his fellow players gathered around a computer, in stitches over the clip. They were most amused with something I hadn't even noticed: Jonathan Xavier had a towel wrapped around his hand, and in their opinion, he was trying to mimic holding a semi-concealed weapon. Not cool, Jon. Not cool at all.
5. The two most sorely missed players from last season aren't on NBA rosters. Their names? Brian Butch and Michael Flowers. No team has undergone a more disastrous identity change than Wisconsin, which boasted the nation's No. 2 most-efficient defense in '07-08 and went to the Sweet 16 as a three-seed. The current Badgers have lost six straight in the Big Ten and likely aren't going to make the NCAAs -- because their defense has slipped all the way to 107th in the efficiency rankings. Flowers was their perimeter stopper; with him gone, their three-point percentage allowed has jumped from 31.3 to 35.1. Butch was their 6-foot-11 polar bear; with him gone, they lack any real size on the interior and their two-point percentage allowed has jumped from 41.7 to 48.3.
6. Stephen Curry is doing just fine as a point guard. In the year after Jason Richards' graduation from Davidson, I feared Curry would come down with at least a mild case of Justin Gray syndrome (Gray, you may recall, was the Wake shooting guard who did not fare so well after being converted to the point following Chris Paul's departure). But Curry is not only leading the nation in scoring this season: He's also dishing out 6.5 assists per game and putting on the best show in college hoops. There is something to be said for the fact that I've been to Purdue-Oklahoma, UNC-Wake Forest and UConn-Louisville this season -- all huge games between top 10 teams -- and I was more hyped to cover West Virginia-Davidson than I was for any of those. Steph Curry was the reason for that. And he didn't disappoint.
7. The SEC is much worse than anyone expected it to be in the preseason. Part of the blame goes on underperforming powers (I'm looking at you, Tennessee and Kentucky). Some of it can be chalked up to bad luck or a cyclical downturn: Alabama fell apart when Richard Hendrix turned pro too early and Ronald Steele was hurt; Mississippi State crumbled when Jamont Gordon made a poor draft decision and Ben Hansbrough transferred to Notre Dame; Ole Miss' breakthrough season was derailed by early injuries to Chris Warren and Eniel Polynice. Instead of a highlight reel, the league's most-watched video is of the Rebels' coach saying to his arresting officer (after being accused of assault on Dec. 18 in Cincinnati): "I'm playing Louisville and Rick Pitino tomorrow. I was the UC head coach. I am going to be on national television. If I'm not standing there at 9 p.m. tomorrow, this is an international altercation."
While the league may earn the same number of NCAA tournament bids as the Pac-10, the current frontrunner, LSU, could be no higher than a five-seed due it its glaring lack of a quality out-of-conference victory. I pored over old tourney brackets and had to go all the way back to 1989 to find a season in which the SEC was in such bad shape: That year, it received five bids, all seeded in the 6-10 range, and all five teams lost in the first round. You'd think at least either the Wildcats, Vols, Gators, Tigers or Gamecocks is capable of making a surprise run to the second weekend, but their early matchups won't be easy.
8. The state of this year's freshman class versus last year's can be summed up by visiting two Web pages. Load Rivals.com's Top 150 for the class of 2007 and look at the guy in the first photo. He scored 32 points and grabbed 24 rebounds in his first college game, probably should have won the Wooden Award, was the No. 2 pick in the 2008 NBA draft and currently plays major minutes for the Miami Heat. Now load Rivals.com's Top 150 for the class of 2008 and look at the guy in the first photo. He scored seven points and grabbed three rebounds in his first game and currently comes off the bench for a middling Big Ten team.
9. The most valuable commodity in college hoops is length. The best way to counteract the burly power forwards -- the Hansbroughs, Harangodys and Griffins of the world -- who tend to dominate D-I is not to match them blow-for-blow, but rather drive them nuts trying to shoot around a long-armed giant. Unfortunately, very few of those giants exist, and their college stays tend to be brief. Which is why UConn, the nation's seventh-most efficient defensive team, is so lucky to have a third-year, 7-foot-3 center in Hasheem Thabeet, who absolutely destroys opponents' best-laid offensive plans. Jim Calhoun calls this effect the "Hasheem Presence." For an example, watch tape of how Harangody operates down low versus, say, Marquette (he has a field day right next to the hoop), and then watch how he operates versus the Huskies (he turns into a jump-shooting small forward). The difference is stunning.
10. Bob Knight's quest to get back into coaching -- possibly at Georgia -- couldn't have been helped by the tantrum his son threw during Texas Tech's loss to Nebraska on Jan. 31. Pat Knight's absurd behavior, for which he drew a double-technical and was ejected, then sprinted back onto the court to serve up yet another verbal assault, served as a reminder of what having a Knight at the helm does for you in present-day D-I hoops: It makes you far more likely to appear on SportsCenter for an uncomfortable incident than for contending for a conference title.