- Jason King
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Syracuse is the best team in the country. At least for now. There's certainly no denying that.
The Orange are 15-0, and all but three of their victories have come by double digits. Even though Jim Boeheim's squad touts just one win over a Top 25 team (Florida), placing Syracuse atop the poll should be an easy decision for voters.
But who comes next?
Is Kentucky a clear-cut No. 2? And where do you rank two-loss teams such as Ohio State and North Carolina? Where do undefeated Baylor and Missouri fit in? Hasn't Indiana done enough to warrant a top-five ranking? What about Duke?
A month ago it seemed as if three or four teams had set themselves apart from the rest of college basketball's upper echelon. But now it appears there's parity throughout the top 10 or 15, and that has made this season fun thus far.
We'll discuss those things and more in this week's edition of King's Court.
In a zone
Sixth men: Some of the top players on the country's best teams aren't even starters. They include the likes of Will Sheehey of Indiana, Darius Miller of Kentucky, Ryan Boatright of Connecticut and Baylor's Pierre Jackson. And don't forget about B.J. Young (Arkansas), Michael Dixon (Missouri) and Dion Waiters (Syracuse).
Trey Burke, Michigan: The Wolverines are off to a 12-2 start thanks, in large part, to the 6-foot-1 freshman guard. Burke is averaging 14 points and has reached double figures in scoring in all but two games. He scored a career-high 27 points on 8-of-11 shooting in Sunday's victory over Minnesota.
Saint Mary's: It probably shouldn't come as a surprise that the Gaels are 13-2 with wins over NCAA tournament hopefuls BYU, Missouri State and Northern Iowa. Randy Bennett's squad has won 25 or more games in four consecutive seasons, and with Matthew Dellavedova (14.3 points, 6.5 assists) at point guard, this season will be more of the same.
Kevin Willard: A few weeks ago it would've been easy to point to Seton Hall's soft nonconference schedule as the only reason for its hot start. But it may be time to take the Pirates and second-year coach Willard a little more seriously after Friday's 19-point win over West Virginia. Next up: Tuesday's home game against No. 8 Connecticut.
Baylor's balance: Much as been made the past few weeks about Perry Jones III's passive play in the paint. And rightfully so. The All-America candidate will never reach his potential until he quits shying away from contact. Luckily for Baylor, Jones' inconsistent production hasn't mattered. Five Baylor players average between 10 and 13 points -- and that doesn't include veterans A.J. Walton and Anthony Jones, who have been off-and-on starters throughout their careers.
Syracuse's schedule: The 15-0 Orange may not lose until February. Here's a list of the nine games Syracuse will play between now and a showdown against Georgetown on Feb. 8: at Providence, Marquette, at Villanova, Providence, Pittsburgh, at Notre Dame, at Cincinnati, West Virginia, St. John's.
In a funk
Kohl Center: Wisconsin entered the 2011-12 campaign with a 155-12 record in its home gym under coach Bo Ryan. But midway through the season, the Badgers have already dropped two games at home. The first one, against Marquette, was understandable. But losing to a rebuilding Iowa team at the Kohl Center was a shocker.
Pittsburgh: Last season's Big East champions have lost three straight, to Wagner, Notre Dame and Cincinnati. The Panthers also fell to Long Beach State earlier this season. Freshman forward Khem Birch, a McDonald's All-American, has left the team, and morale is low. It's a rather stunning dropoff for a program that has been among the country's best the last few years.
Kansas' bench: The Jayhawks got just nine points from their reserves in Saturday's 84-58 victory over North Dakota -- and all of them came from shooting guard Conner Teahan. Part of the reason is because Bill Self is clearly losing trust in his non-starters. Only five Jayhawks played double-digit minutes Saturday.
Chris Mack: Three weeks ago Mack's Xavier team boasted a top-10 ranking, an undefeated record and legitimate hopes of another Atlantic 10 title. All of that momentum apparently died following the Musketeers' Dec. 10 brawl against Cincinnati. Xavier has lost four of its past five games since the fight, with the most recent setback coming in a 72-65 home defeat against Gonzaga.
Oklahoma State's 2009 recruiting class: All seven members of Travis Ford's 2009 haul have left the team. The most recent defections were Reger Dowell and Fred Gulley, both of whom announced their intentions to transfer during the past few weeks. Freshman Le'Bryan Nash continues to struggle, and the Cowboys got more bad news over the weekend when forward J.P. Olukemi -- the team's third-leading scorer -- was lost for the season to a torn ACL.
Questions for the King
Who is a "sleeper" team to watch for during the second half of the season?
Labeling Michigan State as a sleeper may be a bit of a stretch but, for whatever reason, the Spartans have been out of the limelight since losing their first two games of the season against North Carolina and Duke. Since then, Michigan State has reeled off 13 straight victories, with one of the most recent a 15-point blowout of Indiana. Tom Izzo's team might be Ohio State's biggest challenger for the Big Ten title.
Who is the best team from the western part of the country?
With the Pac-12 struggling and Jimmer Fredette now in the NBA, there aren't many teams turning heads out west. One exception is UNLV, which probably has the best résumé of any Pac-12, Mountain West, Western Athletic or West Coast conference school thus far. Along with dismantling Final Four-favorite North Carolina, the Runnin' Rebels thrashed Illinois in Chicago before embarrassing Pac-12 contender Cal. UNLV's administration couldn't be more pleased with first-year coach Dave Rice.
Is Memphis still a lock to win Conference USA?
Hardly. The Tigers were the overwhelming favorites in the preseason based on talent alone. But their recent struggles -- Memphis has lost three of its last six, and point guard Joe Jackson threatened to transfer -- has created serious doubt about its chances to win the league title. Look for Southern Miss, Central Florida and Marshall to challenge Josh Pastner's squad in the race for the C-USA trophy.
Good things come in threes
Three players poised for a breakthrough second half:
1. Andre Drummond, Connecticut: The 6-foot-11, 275-pound freshman forward is already a beast defensively, but his offensive game will explode during Big East play.
2. Jordan Taylor, Wisconsin: The Badgers' senior point guard entered the season as All-America candidate, but so far he's shooting just 39 percent from the field and 33 percent from 3-point range. There's nowhere to go but up for Taylor, who averages 12.7 points.
3. Austin Rivers, Duke: The freshman shooting guard leads the Blue Devils in scoring at 15.4 points per game, but he isn't anywhere close to reaching his ceiling.
Three most exciting conference races
1. Missouri Valley: Creighton, the favorite, lost its league opener to Missouri State at home but responded by beating Wichita State on the road just three days later. Look for all three of those teams to be in the mix along with Indiana State. And don't count out Northern Iowa or Evansville.
2. Big 12: Kansas has won seven straight conference titles, but No. 8 may not come as easily. The Jayhawks aren't nearly as good as they've been in the past, while Baylor and Missouri have looked like Final Four contenders at times.
3. Big East: Syracuse has played the best thus far, but don't be surprised if reigning national champion Connecticut is in the mix at the end. And maybe Georgetown, too.
Three celebrity fans
1. Toby Keith, Oklahoma: The country crooner is a regular at Sooners games and used to play pickup ball with former coach Jeff Capel.
2. Jason Sudeikis, Kansas: The "Saturday Night Live" cast member showed up at Allen Fieldhouse last month with girlfriend/actress Olivia Wilde.
3. Ashley Judd, Kentucky: The actress -- who has appeared in such films as "A Time to Kill," "Heat" and "Kiss the Girls" -- is a Kentucky grad and rabid Wildcats fan. She's one of many celebrity faces often visible in a Rupp Arena crowd that has also featured Jay Z, Drake and LeBron James.
Three things for fans to debate
1. National coach of the year (so far): Is it Tom Crean, John Thompson III, Dave Rice -- or someone else?
2. Was the SEC overrated, or has it lived up to expectations?
3. Who is the country's most underrated player? Watch the video to get my pick.
A: Michigan State's frontcourt: The post players at North Carolina, Kentucky and Baylor have received most of the attention thus far, but Michigan State's frontcourt definitely belongs in the conversation with those units. The trio of Draymond Green, Derrick Nix and Branden Dawson lead a team that ranks 11th in the country in rebounding. Not many teams are as physical down low as the Spartans.
B: Virginia: Monday's 57-52 victory over surging LSU in Baton Rouge marked the 11th straight win for Tony Bennett's Cavaliers, who are 13-1. Crazy to think that Virginia would be one of five undefeated teams in the country if not for a 57-55 loss to TCU on Nov. 18.
C: Louisville: Even though the Cardinals suffered back-to-back losses to Georgetown and Kentucky last week, I was impressed that Rick Pitino's squad kept things so close against teams with noticeably superior talent. The Cardinals may be good enough to finish fourth or fifth in the Big East if they get healthy, and that would be quite an accomplishment.
D: Rutgers: I'm shocked the Scarlet Knights didn't do a better job of capitalizing on the momentum they should've had after beating Florida on Thursday. Three days later, Rutgers laid an egg against South Florida, one of the worst teams in the Big East.
F: Phil Martelli and Saint Joseph's: The coach and the school still won't sign a release that would allow former player Todd O'Brien to play at Alabama-Birmingham. Shame on them.
Thoughts from press row
1. Here's hoping Wednesday's game between Kansas and Kansas State at Allen Fieldhouse is better than the ones we've seen in the recent past. Kansas has won its last five games against the Wildcats in Lawrence by an average of 18 points. Kansas State usually plays well when the teams face off in Manhattan but, like most teams, the Wildcats tend to wilt at Allen Fieldhouse, where Kansas has won 82 of its past 83 games.
2. The loss of center Chris Otule to an ACL injury seems to have thrown a kink into Marquette's rhythm. The Golden Eagles are 12-2, with the losses (to LSU and Vanderbilt) coming in the past two weeks. With the 6-11 Otule out of the mix, Marquette has just one player (6-8 forward Davante Gardner) taller than 6-7.
3. One thing that's been lost amid the hubbub of Indiana's victory over Ohio State is that the Hoosiers won without key reserve Will Sheehey, who is averaging 10.7 points per game. That makes the win even more impressive.
4. Even though the games are on the road, Duke shouldn't have too much trouble with Temple (Wednesday) and Georgia Tech (Saturday). In other words, the Blue Devils' Jan. 12 game against Virginia can't get here soon enough. It seems like forever since Duke has played a quality opponent. Its last three wins have come by an average of 32.3 points.
5. Texas Tech has stayed out of the spotlight as the Red Raiders begin the rebuilding process under new coach Billy Gillispie, so you may not have heard of Jordan Tolbert. At this point, no other Big 12 freshman is playing as well as the 6-7 forward, who is averaging 15.4 points and 6.1 rebounds in his first college season.
6. I wonder how long Wake Forest will stick with Jeff Bzdelik.
7. Is it possible Virginia Commonwealth may be more than a one-hit wonder? The Rams -- who advanced to the Final Four last season after barely making the 68-team field -- lost three of their first six games but have now won eight straight. Bradford Burgess averages a team-high 15 points. "I feel like watching tape of them this time last year compared to now, I think they're a better basketball club," UNC-Wilmington coach Buzz Peterson said. "I don't know if they can go as far as they did last year but defensively, they can cause a lot of trouble for you."
8. Cincinnati will welcome suspended center Yancy Gates back for Wednesday's game against Notre Dame. But does his team even need him? Using a four-guard lineup, the Bearcats have gone 6-0 since the Dec. 10 brawl with Xavier that led to the suspensions of Gates and teammates Cheikh Mbodj and Octavius Ellis. In all seriousness, Cincinnati is a much better team with Gates on the court. It'll be interesting to see if he carries himself any differently after being the subject of so much public scorn.
9. Speaking of Gates what he did was obviously wrong and was an embarrassment to his team and his school. Still, to me, the only difference between Gates and every other player involved in the Dec. 10 fight was that Gates landed his punch. He's no more or less guilty of wrongdoing than anyone else.
10. Don't look now, but Purdue is 12-3 with a slate of winnable games the next few weeks. The Boilermakers' next two games are on the road against Penn State and Minnesota. Then it's back home for tilts with Wisconsin and Iowa. We may see the Boilermakers and Robbie Hummel (16.5 points, 6.2 rebounds) back in the Top 25 very soon.
Reading Terminal Market, Philadelphia: Sometimes, at airports or malls, I stand in the middle of the food court for 10-15 minutes trying to decide what to eat. So you can imagine how my mind was racing at Reading Terminal Market in downtown Philly. It's basically a warehouse lined with individually-owned, mom-and-pop food booths that cook up some of the finest grub you'll find anywhere. Pastrami sandwiches, wings, shrimp po' boys, gourmet pretzels, gyros, cheesesteaks, bread pudding and cinnamon ice cream. And that's just the stuff I've tried in my three visits. Reading Terminal Market truly is a food lover's paradise -- once you decide what to get, which is never easy.
Vitek's BBQ, Waco, Texas: I couldn't drive from Dallas to San Antonio for the Alamo Bowl without stopping into Vitek's for a Gut Pack, which has always been on my list of favorite food concoctions. A Gut Pack is a mixture of chopped beef, sausage, fritos, cheese, bread, pickles, onions and jalapenos -- all stirred together in one of those styrofoam to-go boxes. It's every bit as good as it sounds. I downed that sucker with no problems and even got a hot link sandwich for the road. Definitely a worthwhile stop.
Gordon Biersch, various locations: One of my favorite restaurant chains has opened near my house in Overland Park, Kan. Along with the tremendous beer selection, the brewery has plenty of food options on its menu. I can't imagine many are better than the cajun chicken pasta I had on New Year's Eve. The fish and chips and crab cake sandwiches are also tough to beat. But back to the pasta it was plenty filling, although I still managed to save room for popcorn a few hours later at the movie theater.
Jason King covers college basketball for ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKingESPN.