Medcalf/Brennan: At The Watercooler

Originally Published: January 8, 2012
ESPN.com

Every Sunday, two of our writers will gather at the proverbial watercooler -- in this case, the digital one -- to discuss all the latest happenings in college basketball. At the end of a weekend that saw three top-10 teams from the Big East lose to unranked foes, Myron Medcalf and Eamonn Brennan kick things off there …

Myron Medcalf: Eamonn, one thing is clear right now: Syracuse is No. 1 in the Big East and in the nation. Marquette put up a fight late but Syracuse didn't panic Saturday. The "Are they really No. 1 in the nation?" questions must stop.

As far the rest of the Big East goes, however, I'm clueless. UConn has gone from contender to confusion. Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright took more shots than Andre Drummond, Alex Oriakhi and Jeremy Lamb combined in the Huskies' loss to Rutgers. I think the G'town loss said a lot about West Virginia and the parity in that league (below Syracuse). The Hoyas were going to lose at some point. They fell to a WVU squad that's putting it all together with Kevin Jones playing up to his potential.

[+] EnlargePeyton Siva
Jamie Rhodes/US PresswireAfter a 12-0 start, Peyton Siva and the Louisville Cardinals have lost three of their last four.

Louisville? Let's move on. They are who I thought they were. A squad that squeezed out a few tight wins at home but fell apart against better competition. UL's health is an issue. But the Cardinals had so many chances in that double-overtime loss to Notre Dame. Can't use that as an excuse forever, fellas.

Eamonn Brennan: First of all -- greetings, Mr. Medcalf! I look forward to these Sunday email exchanges. I think you're spot on about the Big East. UConn's offense was a bit of a mess Saturday, but this season its biggest issue is defense. Not forcing turnovers is one thing, but a team with this kind of size and athleticism on the low block shouldn't allow its opponents to track down 34 percent of their possible offensive rebounds. The Huskies have a couple of big, glaring flaws, particularly on the defensive end, and if they don't solve them in short order, it appears the Big East is going to be Syracuse's going away.

Connecticut is the only team that can match the Orange on a pure talent level. Or so we thought. At this point, it's Syracuse and maybe Georgetown and then everyone else, and that "everyone else" is pretty far off the pace.

Then there's Pitt. It would appear the Panthers are in for their worst season in Jamie Dixon's tenure. It's one thing to look shoddy on the road at Notre Dame. It's another entirely to lose to DePaul. The Blue Demons are slightly improved, but still. Without that steady Pitt presence near the top of the league, the whole thing feels a bit down.

Let's turn our gaze to the Big 12 momentarily -- did Missouri's rather uninspired effort at Kansas State in its first loss of the season change your impression of this team?

Myron: Greetings as well, Mr. Brennan. I like this concept, too. We probably need a logo. Or maybe a symbol. I'm in Minnesota. I'll ask Prince for suggestions.

On the Big 12, the Missouri loss certainly affected my perception of its league title hopes. I think the Tigers are really good. But how on earth are they going to guard any team with a respectable frontcourt? I had questions about Missouri's size pre-Kansas State. But 42-16 in the paint. Really? This is where the Laurence Bowers injury starts to hurt this squad.

Baylor is big. Kansas is big. Even a fringe contender such as Iowa State could pose problems with Royce White in the middle. It's the same issue that Florida, Marquette and the Tigers all face. Can you win at the highest levels without any depth inside? All three teams struggled this weekend.

But the Big 12 isn't the only confusing conference. What's going on with the SEC? Can any squad in that league catch Kentucky?

Eamonn: Missouri's margin for error is just so small. Any injury or foul trouble in the frontcourt could cripple it against the opponents you mention. But even if the Tigers are healthy, it's going to be very difficult to play so well on the perimeter -- keeping turnovers low, hitting shots efficiently, all of that -- to keep the offensive pace when you can't rebound or score in the paint and you aren't particularly tough on defense anyway. The Tigers are good, and they can do a lot of things to put bigger teams on their heels, but I'm not sure the benefits of that kind of matchup clash can frequently outweigh the downsides. It's a tall task. (No pun intended.)

As for the SEC, it's obvious Kentucky is the best team in the league. No doubts there. That said, I'm not closing the door on Florida's chances just yet. As we saw all over the country this weekend, and as we'll continue to see in the next eight weeks, winning on the road in conference play is just tough. The Gators have some serious question marks, particularly in their shot selection, but if they hit 3-pointers the way they did in nonconference, they can hang with any team in the country.

[+] EnlargeJeffery Taylor
Charles Small/US PresswireThe Commodores were considered a huge disappointment early on. Did we give up on them too early?

The biggest question mark in this conference is Vanderbilt. We didn't learn much about the Commodores this weekend. (They crushed Auburn at home, but Auburn is really bad, so you know, whatever.) But they do appear to be playing much better basketball these past few weeks. I was prepared to write Vandy off as a we-know-what-they-are reprise of last season: decent, not great, plenty of flaws, and so on. But maybe Kevin Stallings' team is the one to push UK at the top of the league, the way we expected before the season began.

Myron: It's possible. The good thing about Vandy is that it was never about talent with this team. Ezeli, Taylor, Jenkins -- they brought back skilled veterans. For whatever reason (the Ezeli suspension/injury didn't help matters), they got off to a slow start. But the SEC's No. 2 slot appears to be wide open right now. Not one squad that I fully trust, though.

And I can't figure out Florida's shot selection, either. Patric Young doesn't get the ball enough. Boynton and Beal taking 12 shots apiece can't be the plan going forward. It's a long season. But the Gators are still trying to find balance. I do like the Kentucky-Florida matchup on the perimeter. But what will the Gators do inside? UK's inside-outside attack is a matchup nightmare for every team in that conference.

We agree that the SEC's contenders are still figuring things out. It's too early to call the race. But I'm ready to declare the Tar Heels the 2012 ACC champs. That league is a mess. Florida State can't score. Seminoles are No. 10 on Pomeroy's adjusted defense ratings, 170th in adjusted offense. They scored 59 against a struggling Clemson squad. Virginia Tech lost at Wake. Duke should have lost to a subpar Georgia Tech team. Virginia has been impressive, but still just has one top-50 win.

Is this a three-bid league, Eamonn?

Eamonn: If nothing else, we can both agree that UNC is going to win the ACC. Duke isn't bad by any means, but its defense has been horribly out of character this season; we haven't seen a Duke team yield this many points per trip to opposing offenses in the past decade. The Blue Devils are still the best pick to finish No. 2, and while I'd like to see a bit more from Virginia in league play after Saturday's one-point home scare with a very so-so Miami squad, I think we can safely slot the Cavaliers in at No. 3.

From there, though, you're right. It's a mess. Which is actually a pretty good way to describe Florida State's horribly inept offense. If the Seminoles don't play near-perfect defense every night -- and giving up 79 points in 67 possessions to the same Clemson team that scored 48 points against UTEP is, you know, not that -- then Leonard Hamilton's team is going to have a hard time making an at-large bid case come March.

Frankly, as of now, who in this league but UNC, Duke and Virginia could? Two teams that may be able to get there before the season is over, provided they steal a Duke/UNC upset or two and don't lose too many bad games in ACC play, are NC State and Maryland, but neither of them posted a top-50 win in the nonconference. As of right now, three bids sounds right. But there are a few teams out there that could slide into those spots below that top three if only because the rest of the league is so down. We'll see.

This is the part of these emails when I considered bringing up the Pac-12, but let's save ourselves the anguish and just not go there. Instead, Myron, give me the one thing that surprised you most in the past week. Wisconsin's bad offense? So many road losses? Something cool I don't even know about?

Myron: The big surprise for me was that Iowa State looked like a factor in the Big 12. I'm not going to grant Fred Hoiberg's brainchild "contender" status. But the Cyclones are surging in a league that's open below Baylor, Kansas, Kansas State and Missouri. ISU could steal a couple from the top tier in this league and end up in the tournament.

[+] EnlargeRoyce White
AP Photo/Charlie NeibergallRoyce White is coming off a triple-double and is playing lights-out for a streaking ISU team.

They're on a seven-game winning streak and their past two victories came against Texas and Texas A&M. Hoiberg started his tenure by grabbing transfers who didn't necessarily leave their former schools on good terms. "Red flags," "character issues" and similar tags were attached to a recruiting class that included former Minnesota prep star Royce White (he quit the Gophers via YouTube) and Chris Allen (dismissed from Michigan State).

But Hoiberg looks like a genius right now. His players are not making news off the floor. Iowa State is No. 40 in Pomeroy's adjusted offense ratings. The Cyclones are second in the Big 12 in assist-to-turnover ratio (1.15). And they're building momentum at the right time. This team could make the Big 12 even more interesting if it continues to play the way it has lately.

Eamonn: Excellent point. I probably gave up on Iowa State a little too early this season. I expected big things right away but failed to take into account the fact that this team really just started playing together a couple months ago. This was going to take some time to figure out. If the Cyclones are all on the same page going forward, they have the talent to be a disruptive force in the Big 12. Just ask A&M. That was a very impressive road win for Hoiberg's team.

The biggest surprise of the week for me is Wisconsin. Any team can go through a shooting slump, which appears to be what's happening in Madison the past 10 days or so. But the Badgers' shooting has fallen off a cliff. Meanwhile, we keep waiting for Jordan Taylor to come out of whatever funk he appears to be in. The only problem? At this point of the season, we can't necessarily call it a "funk." What if it's a genuine drop-off?

This team is not built to survive inefficient offensive performances, and it's not built to thrive if Taylor isn't leading the way. Now, after three straight losses, including two at home, we might have to rework our expectations and understanding of this team. For such a consistent program -- and one that almost never loses at the Kohl Center -- that's been borderline shocking for me.

Then again, that's why we love this sport so much, right? It's already the second week of January, and we, like most teams and coaches across the country, are still basically just guessing. Next Sunday, we'll be back at the keyboard again, marveling over who-knows-what from the week that was. College hoops is great, huh?

Myron: This is exactly why we love this game. The Tebow-drama from Sunday's Denver-Pittsburgh game? We get that every week. If this is how we're going to start, I can't wait to see what happens as this season progresses.

As for this week, I'm looking forward to the Baylor-Kansas State matchup Tuesday. It's Baylor's first true road test since a Dec. 17 bout against BYU. And the Bears struggled in that game. Missouri-Iowa State on Wednesday should be good, and not just because I will be there. This is a huge opportunity for ISU to go after a vulnerable Mizzou squad that might be having some confidence issues after that lopsided loss to Kansas State over the weekend.

I'm also looking forward to Virginia-Duke on Thursday. UVa could make a statement with a big win against the Blue Devils. And if he continues his hot streak, Mike Scott will earn more national acclaim. If that happens, the "Mike Scott is underrated" pleas might cease. And let's not forget UNLV-San Diego State on Saturday and the Indiana-Ohio State rematch on Sunday. It should be another fun week in college basketball.

I'd make predictions, but based on what's happened so far this season, that doesn't seem like a good idea.