The Halftime Show: Non-conference winners and losers
Sports Illustrated’s college hoops team is rolling out its midseason package, “The Halftime Show,” this week. Over the next few days, we’ll have several features looking back at the first semester of hoops — and looking forward to the second. Up first: five teams that took advantage of their non-conference schedules by notching signature wins and five that missed big opportunities.
Teams that stepped up
No. 8 Villanova
When the bracket for the 2013 Battle 4 Atlantis was revealed this summer, few expected Villanova to emerge unscathed from a field featuring No. 18 Kansas, Tennessee and No. 20 Iowa. The Wildcats knocked off USC, the Jayhawks and, in the championship game, the Hawkeyes to move to 7-0 on the season. They finished their non-conference slate off strong by thumping Rider as well as Big 5 opponents Penn, St. Joe’s and LaSalle. Villanova fell at No. 2 Syracuse on Dec. 28 but remains the frontrunner to win the Big East.
No. 1 Arizona
In the preseason, the Wildcats non-conference schedule looked like one of the toughest in the country. With games lined up against No. 13 San Diego State, No. 16 Duke, UNLV, New Mexico State, and Michigan, surely Sean Miller’s team would slip up at some point, right? Nope. Arizona navigated its treacherous mix of home, road and neutral site tests to stay perfect through the season’s first two months. It has owned the No. 1 spot in the AP poll for five consecutive weeks.
No. 19 UMass
When coach Derek Kellogg helped devise his team’s non-conference schedule, he clearly knew it could handle tough competition. Not all of UMass’s wins look quite as impressive now as they did earlier in the season, but the Minutemen still faced a number of challenging games – Louisiana State, New Mexico, Clemson, BYU, at Ohio, Florida State, Providence – and won all but one of them (against the Seminoles). There won’t be many chances for UMass to pick up marquee wins in Atlantic 10 play, but it has already amassed a number of quality wins that will go a long way on Selection Sunday.
No. 4 Wisconsin
Has any team other than Arizona looked more impressive this season than Wisconsin? The Badgers began the season by beating St. John’s on a neutral court, then took down no. 10 Florida, survived a tricky road game at Green Bay, beat Saint Louis and West Virginia on neutral courts, won at Virginia and edged Marquette. Even if Bo Ryan’s team stumbles a few times in Big Ten play – and it almost certainly will – it looks well positioned to earn a high NCAA Tournament seed. The Badgers are a No. 2 seed in SI’s latest Bracket Watch.
No. 13 San Diego State
If “good losses” exist, the Aztecs suffered one on Nov. 14 when they dropped a home gam to Arizona. They haven’t stumbled since, rolling off an 11-game winning streak that includes victories over Creighton, Marquette, Washington and, their biggest triumph, Kansas. San Diego State’s win on Sunday at Allen Fieldhouse was arguably the most significant in program history and marked the first time Kansas has lost at home to a non-conference opponent since November 2006.
Teams that flopped
Perhaps no team has been more disappointing so far this season than Marquette. Voted to finish first in the Big East’s preseason coaches’ poll, the Golden Eagles whiffed on all five of their opportunities to pick up a signature non-conference win: No. 3 Ohio State, at Arizona State, San Diego State, Wisconsin and New Mexico. Buzz Williams’ team has its work cut out for it in Big East play; the Golden Eagles’ margin of error between now and March is small. Their neutral court win over George Washington is a nice result, but it’s the only bright spot on an otherwise barren resumé.
The Cougars picked up what looked like a nice win when it beat Stanford in Palo Alto on November 12, but that result looks less impressive in light of the 9-4 Cardinal’s mediocre non-conference performance. The Cougars had plenty of opportunities to secure big wins over the next two months, but lost to No. 9 Iowa State, No. 6 Wichita State, UMass, Utah and No. 17 Oregon. BYU’s wins over Stanford, Texas and Utah State should reflect favorably in the eyes of selection committee, but the Cougars will likely need to win the West Coast Conference Tournament to make the field of 68.
If Marquette isn’t the most disappointing team in the country, Boston College might be. It’s reasonable to think Coach Steve Donahue misjudged the quality of his team when he helped put together its non-conference schedule, because the 4-11 Eagles clearly weren’t ready to navigate a slate that included games against Providence, UMass, Toledo, UConn, Purdue, VCU, Harvard and Clemson (among other semi-challenging games). It’s going to take a miraculous turnaround in ACC play for the Eagles to get into the NCAA Tournament discussion.
Most every preseason projection of St. John’s included some iteration of the following description: “most talented team in the Big East.” If that’s true, the Red Storm certainly hasn’t looked like it so far. It fell to Wisconsin and Penn State on neutral courts and let a huge opportunity slip away when Syracuse eked out a five-point win at Madison Square Garden. There will be chances for St. John’s to secure a few big wins in Big East play, but it no doubt would have liked to begin its conference slate with at least one notable victory.
Alabama football fans probably won’t look to the hardwood to lift their spirits after a disappointing end to their team’s season, but if they do, they won’t like what they see. The most significant thing the Crimson Tide did over the first two months of the season was push Duke in a hard-fought, 10-point loss in the semifinals of the NIT Season Tip-Off. Alabama also dropped games to Oklahoma, Drexel, South Florida, Wichita State, Xavier and UCLA. Much like Boston College, the Tide played a rigorous non-conference schedule that it wasn’t equipped to handle. Alabama will need to capitalize on the few opportunities for big wins available in SEC play, which began Tuesday with a home win over Vanderbilt.