-- After three weeks, we're already wondering. Questioning. Second-guessing.
Because that's how quickly college basketball will crush your assumptions or force you to adjust your doubts just a month before conference play commences and the level of realness escalates.
That's why this week's Syracuse-Wisconsin matchup in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge fits. It highlights the hovering murkiness -- the uncertainty, disappointments and surprises -- within the game.
It's too early to pen obits about conference-title hopes and postseason dreams. But it's not too soon to reconsider the landscape.
Remember when Syracuse limped into the season following an NCAA scandal that handed Jim Boeheim a nine-game suspension he'll serve during ACC play unless the school wins an appeal? Sure, the Orange had a solid recruiting class, key veterans such as Trevor Cooney and Michael Gbinije and a promising, yet oft-injured big man, DaJuan Coleman, who had not played a game in more than a year. Still, projections were modest.
And then, Syracuse cruised through last week's Battle 4 Atlantis and defeated ranked Connecticut and Texas A&M teams. Boeheim's squad looked like an ACC contender, not that also-ran many assumed it would be this season.
Syracuse's opponent in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge on Wednesday experienced the opposite opening chapter. Even though Wisconsin lost Sam Dekker and Frank Kaminsky, the Badgers still began the season as a top-25 squad. The Badgers always prove naysayers wrong. Until they don't.
After losses to Western Illinois, Georgetown and Oklahoma, it's not clear if Wisconsin's noteworthy record of finishing with a top-four slot in the Big Ten and reaching the NCAA tournament every season under Bo Ryan will last. Unless this is just another setup and the Badgers will ultimately find themselves in time to salvage the year and do what they've done consistently for more than a decade with Ryan on the sideline.
They're not the only program that has refused to abide by the preseason narrative.
Maryland fans? You all good after witnessing those unlikely deficits that the Terps endured against unheralded programs? Maybe.
Arizona and Cal finished first and second, respectfully, in the preseason Pac-12 poll on predicted order of finish, but this week's struggles (and Kaleb Tarczewski's injury for the Wildcats) did little to support that expected hierarchy. This week, the Wildcats travel to Gonzaga and the Bears go on the road against Wyoming, two key opportunities to impress or dissatisfy.
Anybody hear those footsteps in the Big Ten? That's just Purdue, which plays at Pitt this week, climbing the stairs to kick the door down on the conference race convo. The Boilermakers might be heavyweights.
Oklahoma handed Wisconsin a 17-point loss in Norman on Sunday. The Sooners seem equipped to handle any test in the Big 12, even a Kansas squad with now-eligible Cheick Diallo.
So far, we're just hypothesizing, though.
Perhaps the Big Ten/ACC Challenge and the other significant matchups this week will provide insight on how the next four months of college basketball will unfold.
Or maybe it will just leave us with more questions.
Here is a list of teams that might surprise us, a few that could disappoint us and others that we can't quite figure out yet:
Teams that might surprise
Dana Altman's undefeated Ducks boast wins over Valparaiso and Baylor. They're led by freshman guard Tyler Dorsey (52 percent from the 3-point line) and a fleet of talented athletes who've turned Oregon into a legit Pac-12 contender. And they're doing it all without Jordan Bell and Dylan Ennis, both sidelined by injury. If the Ducks are healthy in conference play, Oregon could leave Cal and Arizona behind and win the Pac-12.
The sex-scandal drama that prompted multiple investigations impacted projections about Louisville basketball and hurt the program's brand. But Damion Lee (17.4 PPG) might end the season in the All-American conversation. Plus, Rick Pitino's squad has held opponents to a Division I-leading 32.7 percent clip inside the arc. A Wednesday matchup at Michigan State in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge will give the Cardinals a chance to show critics that they're much more than a series of bad headlines.
Yes, the Commodores lost against Kansas in the Maui Invitational title game even though the Jayhawks' Perry Ellis finished 1-for-8. Still, Kevin Stallings' squad left Hawaii as a team that appears to be a serious threat to Kentucky's SEC title hopes. The Commodores possess size inside with 7-footers Damian Jones and Luke Kornet, and they have a young star in Wade Baldwin IV (13.5 PPG).
The Bearcats suffered from two issues that contributed to its low profile on the preseason-hype train: limited star power and an AAC with more appealing storylines (SMU's troubles, UConn's reinvention, Tulsa's potential and Josh Pastner's critical season at Memphis). But Cincy, unranked in the preseason polls, resembles the same gritty Bearcats they've been under Mick Cronin, and a win over a solid George Washington squad on Saturday in New York proved as much. Who wants to see them in March?
West Virginia Mountaineers
The Mountaineers continue to disabuse preseason notions about the Big 12 race, a race that once seemed set with Kansas, Iowa State and Oklahoma viewed as top contenders. But West Virginia beat San Diego State -- the same San Diego State that upset Cal last week -- by 22 points in the Las Vegas Invitational title game. They're ferocious on defense (No. 1 in defensive turnover percentage per KenPom.com). And you could do worse than a nucleus backed by Devin Williams (17.5 PPG, 11.0 PPG).
Teams that might disappoint
Well, this is simple: Everyone knows that Tom Crean guides one of America's most effective offenses. But last week's losses to UNLV and Wake Forest also reminded us that Indiana's defense (opponents have connected on 48.8 percent of their 2s) is so bad that the Hoosiers could also lose to anyone. A win at Duke in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge would quiet the growing criticism. A lopsided loss would only encourage it.
So far, the Tigers have mimicked Adele's new album: a bunch of fanfare and anticipation based on the star on the cover but overall, a disappointing, subpar package. The Tigers' brass promoted Ben Simmons' arrival, which elevated the program's profile and magnified external expectations. After back-to-back losses to Marquette and NC State, however, does anyone believe that LSU is anything beyond a band called Simmons and Some Guys We're Not Sure About Yet? But Keith Hornsby's return and Craig Victor's midseason arrival should solve some of LSU's issues.
The return of Caris LeVert, once a projected lottery pick, seemed to ensure that Michigan would return to Big Ten contention following a lackluster 2014-15 season impacted by injuries. But double-digit losses to good Xavier and UConn teams within the past two weeks diminished the early praise and showcased the same challenges the team wrestled with last season: an unremarkable interior presence that has spawned offensive rebounding troubles and challenges with post defense. The Wolverines also allowed UConn and Xavier to connect on 42 percent of their 3-pointers.
The Bruins are young at key positions. Maybe that's a valid excuse for a team that asked freshmen to play significant roles and minutes. But that's not why the Bruins are on this list. They're here because you can't trust a team that's committing turnovers on 20.3 percent of its possessions (249th per KenPom.com). Prince Ali, Aaron Holiday and Isaac Hamilton are all committing turnovers on nearly a quarter of their possessions. That's how you lose to Monmouth and Wake Forest and get dominated against Kansas. That's also how you potentially finish in the bottom half of the Pac-12.
Teams we're not sure about yet
Here is the transcript of a conversation between two Maryland fans during their favorite team's home win over Rider on Nov. 20:
Maryland Fan No. 1: Let's beat these guys and get out of here. I have things to do.
Maryland Fan No. 2: Yep. Me too.
Early in the second half ...
Maryland Fan No. 1: We're down by 14 points against Rider!!!!
Maryland Fan No. 2: It's over, man. We're done.
OK, we admit that we imagined this exchange. But we're also sure that the close calls reminded Terps fans that six of Maryland's 28 victories a season ago came by three points or less. And they're curious if that propensity for drama will affect the Terps in the Big Ten's gauntlet or earlier. We're with you. We still don't know what to think of Maryland. But we're ready to see the Terps battle North Carolina in the most exciting Big Ten/ACC Challenge matchup.
Cal Golden Bears
It's not easy to score 90 points, commit just eight turnovers, shoot 54 percent from the field and lose by four points. But the Bears -- a team anchored by NBA prospects Jaylen Brown, Ivan Rabb and Tyrone Wallace -- did that in a loss to Richmond in the Las Vegas Invitational. They scored 58 points in a loss to San Diego State before that. Ugh. Most expected Cal to put together a run in Vegas that would solidify the unprecedented excitement around the program. Instead, Cuonzo Martin's talented-on-paper team left Sin City as a crew desperate to put last week's blemishes behind it -- possible wins against Seattle and at Wyoming this week probably won't flush its memory. But we believe the Bears are better than what their failures suggested in Vegas. It's on them to fix things, however, or they'll earn national recognition as one of the year's biggest disappointments.
So a week after praising Miami for its startling run through the Puerto Rico Tip-Off -- the Hurricanes defeated Utah and Butler -- Jim Larranaga's squad has found a spot on this list. How? Well, Miami followed its Tip-Off championship with a 78-77 home loss to Northeastern on Friday. We rarely co-sign the transitive comparisons, but the Huskies had previously lost to Miami (OH). Last season, Miami beat Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium and then tumbled into the NIT. Its porous defense and inconsistent offense were the culprits. So after watching the Hurricanes abandon perimeter defense (54 percent clip from the 3-point line for the Huskies), we're going to pull back the hype we promoted last week.
Will Wichita State recover?
And they're running low on opportunities to secure quality wins. They'll face Utah in a significant matchup on Dec. 12. But Gregg Marshall said recently that he will only bring VanVleet back when he's ready. Conner Frankamp, the transfer from Kansas, will be eligible next month. That should help. But right now, Wichita State looks like a squad that might need a conference tourney title to get into the Big Dance.
That's somebody's child, Pac-12!
Last week, Colorado's Tory Miller ended a scramble for a loose ball by biting Air Force's Hayden Graham. He was assessed a flagrant foul 2 and ejected in his team's Wednesday matchup against the Falcons. Over the weekend, the Pac-12 publicly reprimanded Miller but did not suspend him. Miller apologized. He's clearly disappointed in his behavior. But what does a man have to do to earn a one-game suspension in the Pac-12? Miller bit another player. That has to be an automatic suspension. Contrition shouldn't erase the punishment for an action that just can't occur in college basketball.