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Tuesday, December 13, 2011
Writer roundtable: Five big questions

ESPN.com

Our writers go around the country to answer five big questions in college basketball:

1. Syracuse is the latest new No. 1. Name the date of the Orange's first loss:

Eamonn Brennan: In addition to being weak and homebound in the nonconference, Syracuse's schedule stacks up very well for a deep undefeated run. I don't think NC State will get them Saturday, nor do I think DePaul or Providence will utilize home court on Jan. 1 or Jan. 4. I'll go with Jan. 7 at home versus Marquette. But even that would be somewhat of a slight upset. Looking down the line, there isn't a single game in which the Cuse won't be favored all the way until a Feb. 13 road date at Louisville. Yeah, this could take awhile.

Kris Joseph
Kris Joseph and SU are unbeaten, but will NC State give the Orange their first loss on Saturday?

Andy Katz: NC State is fully capable of knocking off the Orange. But the Wolfpack haven't shown they can successfully finish a game. The beginning of the Big East schedule sets up well for the Orange with games against Seton Hall, at DePaul and at Providence. My prediction is the Orange don't lose until Marquette visits the Carrier Dome on Jan. 7. Yes, the Golden Eagles are the type of team that can go into Syracuse and win.

Jason King: I'll go with a Jan. 7 home game against Marquette, but wow, the Orange have a favorable schedule over the next two months. Jim Boeheim's team plays just two ranked teams between now and Feb. 8, and both of those games (Marquette and Pitt) are at home.

Diamond Leung: Jan. 11 at Villanova. I think Syracuse comes off the high of beating Marquette and then gets surprised by the Wildcats, who aren't having their best season thus far but should be improved by then. It happens.

Myron Medcalf: I'll go with Jan. 7, when the Orange face Marquette at home. The Golden Eagles are surging and their speed and versatility could present matchup problems for Syracuse. But Saturday's road game at NC State could be dangerous, too.

Dana O'Neil: Dec. 17 at NC State. The Orange are good, very good, but haven't been tested at all. The farthest they've traveled from their Dome home is to New York City, not exactly a hostile environment. More than that, Syracuse's bread and butter has been its defense, but in the Wolfpack, it meets a team that takes smart shots. NC State shoots 47 percent from the floor. The combination of the top ranking, their first true road game and a better-than-expected Wolfpack team will end the Orange's undefeated run.

2. The age-old debate: As we stand right now, what's the best conference in America?

Brennan: I think it's the Big Ten, and I don't think it's close. As ESPN Stats and Info guru Evan Kaplan wrote on the blog Monday, the Big Ten has the best nonconference winning percentage of any league and is the clear favorite of ranking systems like Ken Pomeroy's, which has all but three (including Nebraska) of the Big Ten's 12 teams ranked No. 52 in the nation or higher, and only two of its teams (Iowa, Penn State) ranked outside No. 76. The league is tough at the top, but it's also very deep. Pound-for-pound, the Big 12 and Big East aren't close.

Katz: I've previously stated the Big Ten is better than the Big East this season. It's close, and for this week I'll stay with that pick, as Ohio State (once Jared Sullinger is back) is a title contender. The top of the Big East has two title contenders with Syracuse and Connecticut. The depth is there with Marquette, Louisville, Pitt, and Georgetown. But I have a hard time going beyond those six for locks in the NCAAs. I feel confident that six of the 12 Big Ten schools will be in the NCAAs (OSU, Wisconsin, Purdue, Michigan, Michigan State, Illinois) and possibly Indiana. That would be a higher percentage than the Big East.

King: It's closer than it's been in a while, but I still the give the Big East a slight edge over the Big Ten. I'll take Syracuse, Pittsburgh, Marquette, Connecticut, Georgetown and Louisville over Ohio State, Wisconsin, Michigan State, Indiana, Michigan and Purdue.

Leung: The Big East is the best. There are three teams -- Syracuse, Louisville and Connecticut -- in the top 10. Marquette is undefeated, while Pittsburgh and Georgetown are off to good starts. It's about teams that can compete for the national title, and the Big East is loaded with them.

Medcalf: It's still the Big Ten in my book. Ohio State, with Jared Sullinger, would be the No. 1 team in the country. The Indiana win over Kentucky solidified the conference's post. No other league can match its depth.

O'Neil: For top-to-bottom supremacy, it has to be the Big Ten. With Indiana's return to the rankings, there are six teams in the Top 25, and you could easily make a case for seven with Purdue. That's half the league. The conference also has more wins against top-40 RPI opponents than anyone else this season (eight).

3. Which disappointing preseason top-10 team has greater potential for a March run: Memphis or Vanderbilt?

Brennan: I'll go with Memphis. The Tigers have problems, sure, but we saw them forge an identity last season and give Arizona a serious scare in the NCAA tournament. I think there's still plenty of time for Memphis to sort itself out this season. That's still a really young team, one that just hasn't found the right combination of talent yet. Vanderbilt, meanwhile, appears to be what it is -- a talented offensive team that can't defend opposing guards and doesn't excel late in close games. Come tourney time, those traits turn dire.

Will Barton
Despite some early-season struggles, don't count Will Barton and Memphis out just yet.

Katz: Vanderbilt. The Commodores are still learning how to play with Festus Ezeli back in the lineup. The guard play of John Jenkins, Jeffery Taylor and Brad Tinsley is more than capable of shooting the Dores deep into the tournament. Vandy still has issues closing games but will have experience. Memphis, outside of a win at Miami, hasn't shown yet that it can handle a major challenge.

King: Memphis, simply because of its talent level. The Tigers seem like a team that has the ability to flip the "on" switch. I worry about Vanderbilt's confidence -- especially in March. The Commodores have no swag.

Leung: Memphis because of its abundance of young talent that has room to grow. Will Barton, Joe Jackson and Adonis Thomas are bound to improve.

Medcalf: Vandy. Ezeli has returned. And the roster is comprised of motivated veterans who have the mental fortitude to withstand the early struggles and finish strong. Plus, the SEC doesn't look like the Kentucky-and-everyone-else league it appeared to be a few weeks ago.

O'Neil: I have to lean toward Vanderbilt because while the Commodores have struggled, they at least can say they aren't at full capacity. They were without Ezeli, one of Vandy's best players and a guy who immediately makes the Commodores better. You can't say that about Memphis. The Tigers are who they are, and while the talent is there, the focus hasn't been. It's far too early to write off Memphis, but there's less reason to have faith on Beale Street than in Nashville.

4. Which current top-15 team do you still not fully trust?

Brennan: It's not that I don't trust them, per se, because I think they're obviously talented and coached by one of the all-time greats … but are we sure Louisville isn't ranked just a little bit too high? They're No. 4 this week, almost by default, but their best win is at home over Vanderbilt in overtime. Their next- best win was (probably) at Butler. Maybe Long Beach State. This team will be more than the sum of its parts, so in many ways I do trust it. But as the fourth-best team in the nation? No way. Not yet.

Katz: Louisville. The Cardinals continue to impress, but the majority of the games have been at the impenetrable Yum! Center. The Cards are overachievers, and they will win a lot of games. But I'm still waiting to fully judge this crew during the rigors of the Big East schedule on the road.

King: Louisville. I love the Cardinals' cohesiveness and mental toughness and the pride they take in playing defense. But I'm not sure there's an NBA-caliber player on the roster. That will catch up with them eventually.

Leung: Kansas surprised me by beating Ohio State even without Sullinger. We also know the Jayhawks are great at home. The question is whether or not they have enough depth to sustain themselves throughout the season and navigate a difficult Big 12 schedule.

Medcalf: Louisville. With all of their injuries, the Cardinals are the feel-good story among the top 15. But they're essentially at No. 4 by default. They needed overtime to dismiss Vandy -- the only ranked opponent they've played. Big East play could lead to a major drop for Rick Pitino's squad.

O'Neil: Florida. The Gators are supremely talented, but their lack of discipline worries me. Case in point: the win against Arizona. Patric Young scored 25 points in that game. He could have (and should have) had more, but his backcourt insisted on jacking up shots instead of feeding him the ball. Erving Walker and Kenny Boynton are terrifically talented, but until they recognize how to run a game, the jury -- for me, at least -- remains out on Florida.

5. Most dangerous mid-major: Creighton, Murray State or Harvard?

Brennan: I think it's Creighton, and that's thanks largely to Doug McDermott and Gregory Echenique, two high-major talents in mid-major clothing. McDermott was clearly underrated coming out of high school; he isn't hugely athletic, but his size (he's 6-foot-7) and versatile scoring ability (no player in the nation has had a better all-around scoring year thus far) make him incredibly dangerous. Echenique, the Rutgers transfer, can match up with bigger teams' size. If Creighton starts defending a bit better, look out. It is already very dangerous.

McDermott
Doug McDermott makes Creighton a dangerous mid-major team.

Katz: Murray State may run the table in the regular season. Harvard should win the Ivy. But Creighton is built for a deep run in the NCAA tournament. McDermott is one of the best shooters/scorers in the country. Echenique gives the Bluejays legit size inside, and Antoine Young is an experienced lead guard.

King: Creighton. Anytime you have a player the caliber of McDermott, there is potential for great things. And his dad is an excellent coach.

Leung: Murray State. The undefeated Racers have players on their roster who have already experienced NCAA tournament success (in 2010). Creighton has a star in McDermott, and Harvard showed it could hang around with UConn. It's just that Murray State is used to winning and has continued that under Steve Prohm.

Medcalf: Murray State. It has a talented, veteran floor leader in Isaiah Canaan. Plus, the Racers have won in a variety of scenarios (tough road game at Memphis, double overtime against Southern Miss, down by 12 in the second half against UAB).

O'Neil: Tough one because I believe all three are awfully dangerous, but I'll lean toward Creighton. The Bluejays will be tested more in the Missouri Valley than the other two in their conferences. Also, Creighton has the sort of transcendent player in McDermott who makes good mid-majors truly great.