1. Conference USA is eating its own. It’s one of the more competitive leagues this season, which is great for balance but not so much for separation. UCF could afford to lose at Memphis, UAB or UTEP but not at Houston. Southern Miss can afford to lose to Marshall on the road, but not by 30. Memphis can’t afford to squeak by East Carolina by just three points. Conference USA teams will beat each other up. But the challenge for the league is to prove to the selection committee that it is worthy of multiple bids in March. The league won’t lack for quality, entertaining games, as evidenced by the triple-overtime affair between UTEP and UAB, but that still doesn’t help impress the committee. There needs to be a clear separation from the top to the bottom in this conference.
2. This may be the last reference to Mississippi State you hear from me for a while but what occurred Saturday just added to the train wreck this season has become. Coach Rick Stansbury played a ridiculous schedule (five games in 11 nights, with travel from the Bahamas to Hawaii to Las Vegas) for the sole purpose of having point guard Dee Bost and Renardo Sidney eligible to play in the Bulldogs’ SEC opener at home against Alabama. Boost’s combined suspension for missing the NBA draft withdrawal deadline and being academically ineligible meant he had to sit 14 games. Jamming in those games in such a short period allowed Bost to be eligible for the SEC opener. Then Stansbury reinstated Sidney after his two-game suspension for fighting with Elgin Bailey in Hawaii. Bailey was jettisoned after he “elected to transfer.” So what happened in the big debut? The Bulldogs got rocked at home, 75-57, by a Crimson Tide team that has struggled this season. Sidney was 1-of-8 while Bost scored 14 points. The offseason can’t come soon enough for Mississippi State.
3. The race to be the second-best team in the ACC should be as good as some finishes for first. That doesn’t mean many of the teams competing to be Duke’s runner-up will make the NCAA tournament, but there is real competitive balance among them. North Carolina should be the second-best squad and had a quality road win at Virginia (which was playing without its best player, Mike Scott). NC State held off Wake Forest as it gets used to having its best player (Tracy Smith) back in the lineup. Just when it was time to dump Virginia Tech due to injuries, the Hokies proved they aren’t going away with a win over Florida State at home. Boston College sits at 2-0 with a road win and Maryland, which is still waiting to find itself, can’t be ruled out, either. The trouble for the aforementioned teams is that outside of Maryland’s game at Villanova, they don’t have another game against a ranked opponent not named Duke. That could change, of course, but for now, that doesn’t look promising unless Carolina gets on a run.
4. I’m not sure there is a team that needs to play at home as much as Missouri. The Tigers didn’t look like the same team in their loss at Colorado. Missouri’s “fastest 40 minutes of basketball” feeds off the emotion of playing at the Mizzou Arena or a Tiger-friendly crowd at the Sprint Center in Kansas City (see: overtime loss to Georgetown). The Tigers were flat against the Buffaloes. That has to change. This team must play at a frenetic pace to reach its potential. The difference between Kansas and teams like Kansas State and Missouri is that the Jayhawks find ways to win gritty Big 12 road games even when it’s not at its best. By the way, is there a more nondescript top 25 team without much buzz than Texas A&M? Mark Turgeon keeps the Aggies chugging along without any kind of headlines.
5. It’s not crazy to think Washington could run the table in the Pac-10 or at least get out of the conference with a minimum of two losses. The Huskies already swept the L.A. schools and the only two possible losses remaining may just be at Washington State or at Arizona. The Huskies are off to a 4-0 start in the league after sweeping the Oregon schools. Washington seems to have a second gear at home, able to step on the pedal in the second half to extend leads. Matthew Bryan-Amaning's inside play of late has been as consistent as any big man in the Pac-10 and he scored 24 points and grabbed 15 boards in a win over Oregon State. Of course, UW could then go and lose to Stanford or Cal on the road this week to blow up my theory. But I’m circling visits to Washington State (Jan. 30) and Arizona (Feb. 19). I don’t see the Huskies losing at home. That adds up to a gaudy record for the Huskies that may not have a single win over a ranked team, maybe not even an NCAA tournament team. It will be interesting to see how the Huskies get seeded.