-- Later this week, conference play will begin in the high-major leagues and the most significant nonconference action will cease. Yeah, we'll get the Big 12/SEC Challenge (Kentucky vs. Kansas; Iowa State vs. Texas A&M; Oklahoma vs. LSU) on Jan. 30 (thank you, league officials) and a Gonzaga-SMU pairing in Dallas on Feb. 13.
We're ready for conference action, though. But first, we need to examine the trail of chaos that November and December created with a list of winners and losers in nonconference play.
Tom Izzo led Michigan State to Indianapolis last spring, and then the seven-time Final Four participant -- not one, not two, not three -- guided the Spartans to the No. 1 slot in the first two months of the 2015-16 season as Denzel Valentine (18.5 PPG, 8.3 RPG, 7.1 APG), currently sidelined by a knee injury, emerged as a top contender for the Wooden Award. The Spartans also boast the most impressive collection of nonconference wins (Providence, Florida, Kansas, Louisville) in America. All of this just days before Michigan State's football team heads off to the College Football Playoff for a national semifinal game with Alabama. Right now, East Lansing, as the young folks say ... it's lit.
The Big Beast, uh, Big East
Two years ago, Big East commissioner Val Ackerman told reporters who gathered at the conference's inaugural media day in New York City that she was not here to play games. "We're going to make this conference a force," she said. Sure. You're going to turn the new Big East into a player? Really, commissioner? Well, last week's top 25 featured four Big East schools: Xavier (6), Butler (9), Providence (10) and Villanova (17). Marquette hasn't lost since Nov. 20. Seton Hall has won eight of its past nine, a stretch that includes a win over Wichita State. Right now, the Big East is the strongest conference in America. And Ackerman is probably sitting in her office listening to "How You Like Me Now?" by The Heavy or "Hi Hater" by Maino.
Oklahoma fans forced to follow the undefeated Sooners to Hawaii twice
The Sooners defeated Villanova at Pearl Harbor in Honolulu on Dec. 7, and then they won the Diamond Head Classic in Honolulu over Christmas weekend. Oh, those poor Oklahoma fans who had to send their bosses "Um, I have to go to Hawaii again for another family thing" emails as they traveled to paradise for the second time in two weeks in support of their favorite squad. Yeah, we're jealous.
Virginia and its high-powered offense
The Cavs possess one of America's most exciting offenses right now. Yeah, they've built their legacy on defense in the Tony Bennett era. But Virginia is ranked second in KenPom.com's adjusted offensive efficiency ratings. They're still tough on defense, but they're also doing some wonderful, must-see-TV stuff on offense. What was this guy thinking when he wrote this?
The Kansas backcourt
The first question every season for Bill Self: What's up with the Kansas backcourt? Right now, however, the Jayhawks' backcourt is full of answers. Wayne Selden Jr. (55 percent from the 3-point line) looks like an all-Big 12 first-teamer. Self can trust Devonte' Graham and Frank Mason. Svi Mykhailiuk is averaging 7.5 PPG. Self's backcourt possesses the depth and talent necessary to pursue the program's 12th consecutive Big 12 title and a Final Four run.
Coach Frank Martin, a former bouncer at Miami bars frequented by drug dealers and mob bosses in the 1980s, leads a South Carolina squad that's 11-0, a potential factor in the SEC race and 16th in adjusted defensive efficiency, per KenPom.com. This is Martin's best South Carolina squad. And if you disagree, keep it to yourself. Read the first sentence again.
The rules committee
A new 30-second shot clock. A new restricted arc in the lane. Stronger application of the freedom-of-movement regulations. The rules committee's ploys to bolster the flow of the game could have backfired with universal foul-heavy, sloppy competition. Instead, the tweaks enhanced the game. Possessions, scoring and points per possession (fouls, albeit slightly, too) are all up compared to last season. Yes, conference play is the true test but this is a fine start. Take a bow, rules committee. Then again, that might look like a flop and cost you a technical. (Yes, we do know how corny that sounds.)
Miami (wins over Butler, Utah and Florida) looks like a legit ACC threat right now. And Jim Larranaga's squad is led by seniors, so it will maintain the necessary poise to pursue the crown. We think.
Two days after Smart led Texas past No. 2 North Carolina in Austin, Andrew Jones, a prep guard from the Dallas area who is ranked 35th in ESPN 100, committed to Smart and turned a nondescript incoming crew into the No. 16 class in America. Smart has to hit the state hard to succeed in the future. Jones' commitment is a major move toward that aim.
Kentucky looks soft in the middle and Jamal Murray's fluctuation from chaotic to brilliant makes the Wildcats a beautiful, talented mess of a national title contender. But Ulis is a 5-foot-9 point guard with the heart of a linebacker -- his standoff with Demarcus Cousins proves as much -- and he's arguably the best pure point guard in college basketball right now. Michelle and Kelly couldn't do much alone. Add Beyonce (Ulis) and you have Destiny's Child. Kentucky is Destiny's Child. This makes sense to us.
The Wooden Award race
Yeah, Ben Simmons (19.1 PPG, 13.1 RPG) is the truth. But he's not snatching that Wooden Award without a fight from Valentine, Buddy Hield, Kris Dunn, Georges Niang, Malcolm Brogdon, Anthony Gill and others. Can't wait to see how this all unfolds.
Wins over North Carolina and Iowa State. A point guard, Wes Washpun, with the coolest high-top fade in the game. And now Northern Iowa enters Missouri Valley Conference play as a threat to Wichita State's reign.
Anyone with tickets to the Kris Dunn Experience
You don't know what Kris Dunn will do each night because Kris Dunn doesn't know what he'll do each night. You just let him go and he never disappoints. His big numbers (16.5 PPG, 7.3 APG, 6.1 RPG) impress. But watch him for two halves and you'll see a guard that never quits on either end of the floor. And yes, we'll call this the Kris Dunn Experience all season.
The Arizona schools
Sean Miller lost three NBA guys -- T.J. McConnell, Stanley Johnson and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson -- and his starting center, Kaleb Tarczewski, has missed a lengthy stretch because of injury. But the Wildcats are a top-10 team that's favored to win the Pac-12. Bobby Hurley and the fighting Bobby Hurleys of Arizona State started the season with a loss to Sacramento State -- ugh -- but they've won six of seven and own a win over a top 25 Texas A&M squad. That's how you kick off a rebuilding job.
Monmouth, the team not the bench
Yeah, the bench antics are cool, but don't forget the squad. Monmouth has defeated UCLA (true road game) USC, Georgetown (true road game) and Notre Dame. Give Justin Robinson (20.3. PPG) and the other key contributors on that team the credit they all deserve.
A nine-game suspension for head coach Larry Brown. No postseason, the final judgment from the NCAA following an academic scandal. Could you blame Nic Moore, Jordan Tolbert and Markus Kennedy if they moped and pouted all season? Nope. But that's not what they're doing. The undefeated SMU Mustangs, led by that group of seniors, have decided to smash the world until they're no longer allowed to compete. That's true pride.
The Horizon League
Valparaiso beat Oregon State and Rhode Island (true road game). UW-Milwaukee has wins over Wisconsin and Minnesota. Kahlil "The Hypnotist (he puts defenses to sleep)" Felder (37 points) and Oakland gave Michigan State fits in Detroit last week. Plus, Felder scored 38 points in Oakland's 97-83 win at Washington on Dec. 19.
The regulatory folks in Indianapolis really took some extreme measures to turn college basketball fans against them this year. Let's see ... There was the last-hour notice when Jim Boeheim's nine-game suspension was adjusted. There was that time they kept Tacko Fall off the court, even though he'd aced his summer courses at Central Florida. Oh, and then they wrapped it all up with their decision to ignore Kansas as they investigated Cheick Diallo. Keep doing you, NCAA. Keep. Doing. You.
Long before Kentucky fans captured video of Rick Pitino's apparent gesture after he suffered his eighth loss to the Wildcats in his past nine tries, he was battling a sex scandal that could rock the program once the NCAA, local law enforcement and school officials all unveil the results of their simultaneous investigations. He lost both games -- at Michigan State and at Kentucky -- that would have convinced skeptics the Cardinals were more than a team that could crush low-level opponents. Now, road losses to the Spartans and Wildcats aren't justification to dismiss the Cardinals as contenders in the ACC, but they don't have a signature win yet. Meanwhile, Pitino's son, Minnesota coach Richard Pitino, recently suffered losses to both South Dakota and South Dakota State. He needs top-50 recruit Amir Coffey -- now.
The LSU Tigers have added some pieces. Craig Victor and Keith Hornsby have helped Johnny Jones' squad at both ends of the floor. And perhaps, now that the Tigers are healthy, we'll see the LSU team we imagined once Ben Simmons signed and anchored a stunning recruiting class. Or maybe not. The Tigers are so bad on defense (112th in adjusted defensive efficiency per KenPom.com) that they're ruining this brief opportunity to give LSU fans a special season. A team that's led by the projected No. 1 pick in next summer's NBA draft shouldn't suffer four losses against a nonconference schedule that's ranked 322nd by KenPom.com.
Big men everywhere
Kaleb Tarczewski. Przemek Karnowski. Mangok Mathiang. Amile Jefferson. Amida Brimah. Kennedy Meeks. Marcus Lee. Just a list of significant big men who've missed time because of injury this season. And that doesn't include Cheick Diallo (NCAA issues), A.J. Hammons (academics), Stephen Zimmerman Jr. (illness) and some of the other bigs who've missed action because of non-injuries.
The West Coast
Cal features two NBA lottery prospects, Ivan Rabb and Jaylen Brown, but the Bears' troubling defense (its opponents are shooting 38.9 percent from the 3-point line, No. 313) led to their fall from the national rankings and losses to San Diego State and Richmond. And they couldn't finish Virginia in a thriller last week. They showed heart in Charlottesville, but heart alone doesn't secure NCAA tournament bids or help you contend for Pac-12 championships. Stanford just lost Reid Travis to a stress fracture in his leg; the team struggled even when he was healthy. Oregon, nursing significant injuries, lost to UNLV and Boise State. Oregon State doesn't look like the sleeper it appeared to be entering the season. Washington State lost to Idaho. Gonzaga hasn't been the same squad without Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr.
College's basketball's opening weekend
For the third time in three seasons, an intriguing matchup on opening weekend, this time Pitt-Gonzaga at the Armed Forces Classic in Japan, was canceled because of slippery conditions.
The departure of legend Bo Ryan followed a rocky start for the Badgers that included losses to UW-Milwaukee and Western Illinois. Now Greg Gard acts as an interim coach for a program that's entering a major transition for the first time in 15 years.
The Wichita State mascot thought this year would be filled with reasons to cheer. But Fred VanVleet's hamstring injury derailed the first portion of the Shockers' schedule. And now they might need an MVC tournament title to get into the Big Dance.
Indiana's coach began the season with a warm seat, it appeared, and now that a talented Hoosiers squad maintains its disregard for respectable defense, things might stay rocky for Crean and Indiana in Big Ten play.
Beat The Buzzer
Really, George Washington? Really?
So a team that handed Virginia its only loss of the season just suffered a 21-point loss at DePaul? Explain that, GW. Kudos to Dave Leitao for holding former No. 20 George Washington to a 3-for-14 clip from the 3-point line.
Diamond Stone still under the radar
The field is littered with elite freshman bigs. Diamond Stone is one of them. But the hype that surrounds Skal Labissiere, Ivan Rabb, Stephen Zimmerman Jr. and Henry Ellenson has suppressed Stone's achievements. But in his past four games, he has averaged 13.7 PPG and 7.0 RPG. He could end the season as the most important Maryland player not named Melo Trimble.
Don't believe Kentucky's numbers vs. Louisville yet
Yes, the Wildcats connected on a wild 11-for-23 mark from beyond the arc in their win over the Cardinals on Saturday. But they're still shooting just 31.7 percent from the 3-point line, one of the worst marks in America. We won't know if they've actually improved as an offensive unit before we see how they perform in the first month of conference play.
North Carolina more active on defense since Texas loss
The Tar Heels missed a multitude of opportunities to create turnovers in Austin on Dec. 12. But in their past three games, they've forced 47 turnovers. They're such a good team in transition that those additional opportunities in a top-heavy ACC could be the difference between winning the crown and battling to remain among the top three.
That's somebody's child, Alex Poythress!
Not again, Alex. Why are you doing this? You didn't see Anas Mahmoud and Deng Adel standing there when you rumbled through the lane and dunked on the world in Kentucky's 75-73 win over rival Louisville? (Missed it? See it again here.)You saw them, Alex. We know you did. You just didn't care. My goodness. Send them a few gift cards or something, man.