Commentary

Blazing a new trail to New Orleans

Originally Published: January 10, 2012
By Jason King | ESPN.com

The confetti has barely been cleared at the Superdome, but we're already turning our attention toward a new championship path being blazed to New Orleans, which will play host to another trophy ceremony April 2.

As we pass the baton from the gridiron to the hardwood, the King's Court brings you up to speed on everything you need to know about the first half of the 2011-12 regular season, as well as a preview of what may lie ahead. Let's start things off with teams that have their sights set on a trip to the Big Easy, as well as those that may well crash the party.

Safe bets for the Superdome

Kentucky: This is a much better team than the Wildcats squad that made the Final Four a year ago. Freshmen Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist are both national player of the year candidates. Kentucky should take a major step forward once freshman point guard Marquis Teague develops some consistency. Terrence Jones (injured pinkie) also needs to get back to 100 percent. With the SEC struggling, UK is a lock to roll through conference play and earn a No. 1 seed.

[+] EnlargeJared Sullinger and Aaron Craft
Brian Spurlock/US PresswireWith Jared Sullinger down low and Aaron Craft running the show, OSU will be in the thick of the Big Ten race and in the hunt for a 1-seed.

North Carolina: Other than a somewhat surprising loss to UNLV in November, the preseason pick to win it all hasn't done much to squelch optimism about its NCAA title hopes. The Tar Heels average a national-best 87.8 points per game and also lead the country in rebounding. North Carolina touts arguably the nation's top defender in forward John Henson, a 7-footer (Tyler Zeller) who can handle the ball and score both inside and out, and a surefire lottery pick in leading scorer Harrison Barnes (17.6 ppg). The Heels have won their last six games by 15 points or more.

Ohio State: Not many teams boast a better blend of talent and experience. National player of the year candidate Jared Sullinger battled health issues early -- he didn't play in the Buckeyes' loss at Kansas -- but is back to his old self with averages of 17.1 points and 9.6 rebounds. Some pundits believe that Aaron Craft is one of the top point guards in the country, and Deshaun Thomas is a future NBA draft pick who is enjoying a breakthrough season. Playing in the Big Ten, easily the nation's toughest conference this season, will help prepare Ohio State for March.

Syracuse: From a consistency standpoint, no team in the country has been as impressive as the No. 1-ranked Orange. The nation's deepest team features 10 players who are averaging double-digit minutes. Their overall balance is remarkable. Jim Boeheim and the Orange deserve loads of credit for blocking out the distractions that accompanied the Bernie Fine mess and keeping their focus on the court. Syracuse doesn't play another ranked team until Feb. 8, so don't be surprised if its run continues.

Tempting picks … but something is holding me back

Baylor: At 15-0, the Bears are off to their best start in school history and have realistic hopes of winning their first conference men's basketball title since 1945. Led by sophomore Perry Jones III, Baylor touts seven players who are capable of scoring 20 points or more, and their height and length in the paint make them tough to guard down low. Only North Carolina and Kentucky have more pure talent than Baylor. The problem is that the Bears are reckless and sloppy at times, often taking ill-advised shots or committing senseless fouls and turnovers. They've traditionally been a poor road team, although victories away from home against BYU, Mississippi State, West Virginia and Saint Mary's have been impressive.

Duke: This team isn't as good as the 2010-11 outfit that featured Kyrie Irving, Nolan Smith and Kyle Singler. But that doesn't mean Duke isn't scary. Forwards Mason and Miles Plumlee have stepped up their game along with Ryan Kelly, and freshman guard Austin Rivers -- who averages a team-high 14.7 points -- is improving with each game. Duke's biggest downfall could be its defense. Or rather, its lack of it. Temple shot 54 percent in a win over the Blue Devils last week before struggling Georgia Tech made 49 percent of its shots in a close loss Saturday.

[+] EnlargeMike Krzyzewski and Austin Rivers
AP Photo/Gerry BroomeDoes college basketball need better organization on a day-to-day basis? Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski seems to think so.

Indiana: The Hoosiers are legit, folks. If a victory over Kentucky didn't convince you, a win against Ohio State certainly should've. Sure, both of those triumphs came at home. But other than a loss to Michigan State -- in a very competitive game until the final few minutes -- Indiana hasn't been terrible on the road, either. Talent-wise, the Hoosiers are lacking compared to other teams in this category. But they've curbed that shortcoming by showing patience on offense and taking good shots. Still, on a neutral court, it's tough to see this team beating North Carolina or Kentucky.

Michigan State: The Spartans dropped their first two games of the season against UNC and Duke but haven't lost since. It may be premature to say that Tom Izzo's squad is the Big Ten favorite, but the smart money has MSU and Ohio State battling it out for the conference crown. Draymond Green, Derrick Nix, Adreian Payne and Branden Dawson form one of the nation's top frontcourt rotations, but the Spartans' outside shooting is suspect. They're making just 33 percent of their attempts from beyond the arc.

Missouri: The Tigers were shooting a nation-best 52.2 percent from the field before Saturday's meltdown at Kansas State. It was the first loss of the season for Mizzou, which may have been exposed a bit. Frank Haith's squad has just two players who stand over 6-foot-6, and its nonconference schedule may not have prepared it for what's ahead in the Big 12. Still, a four-guard lineup can be tough to defend, so don't count Missouri out of any game.

Final Four? I'd have called you crazy in November, but now …

Georgetown: Monday's loss at Cincinnati stung, but for the most part the Hoyas have hardly missed a beat following the graduation of guards Chris Wright and Austin Freeman. Senior center Henry Sims has finally become a presence in the paint, small forward Hollis Thompson is an NBA prospect, and Jason Clark is a veteran on the perimeter. Georgetown is well-coached, but for whatever reason, the Hoyas often go through scoring droughts. Winning six straight games in March is tough when you're scoring in the 50s.

[+] EnlargeThomas Robinson
AP Photo/Sue OgrockiSure, Kansas isn't as talented and deep as in years past, but with a player like Thomas Robinson, dismiss the Jayhawks at your peril.

Kansas: An eighth straight Big 12 title hardly looked like a possibility after the Jayhawks lost to Davidson last month. But anyone who has seen Kansas play lately would probably tab Bill Self's squad as the favorite. Forward Thomas Robinson is the leading candidate for national player of the year honors and small forward Travis Releford is averaging 22 points in his last two games. Turnovers and a lack of depth are KU's weaknesses.

Kansas State: Frank Martin is doing the best job of his young head-coaching career with this season's Wildcats, who boast quality wins over Alabama, Long Beach State and Missouri. There are no stars on this year's squad, and Kansas State's players seem fine with that. Defense has long been a K-State trademark, but selflessness on offense sets this team apart from others.

Marquette: The Golden Eagles opened the season with 10 straight wins but have now lost four of their last six games -- all against quality opponents. Marquette blew a 17-point lead in a setback against Georgetown and, three days later, nearly came back from a 23-point deficit in a road loss to No. 1-ranked Syracuse. This still might be the second-best team in the Big East, though Marquette's lack of size could be a major factor in March.

Mississippi State: Talent-wise, the Bulldogs are the second-best team in the SEC behind Kentucky. The frontcourt of Renardo Sidney and Arnett Moultrie can be intimidating. And senior point guard Dee Bost is one of the league's best. Depth is also a strength. If Rick Stansbury can find a way to get maximum effort out of his team every night -- which hasn't been easy -- then there's nothing Mississippi State can't accomplish.

It's a long shot, but don't count them out

Connecticut: I know, I know. It seems a bit strange seeing the tradition-rich Huskies -- last season's NCAA champion -- in the "long shot" category. But a lot of people gave up on Connecticut after losses to Central Florida, Rutgers and Seton Hall. I wasn't one of them. This team has too much talent to write off just yet. Freshman Andre Drummond looked dominant against West Virginia on Wednesday, and Jeremy Lamb is still one of the most talented players in America.

[+] EnlargeDoug McDermott
AP Photo/Lenny IgnelziDoug McDermott is averaging 25 points a game and is shooting 58 percent from 3-point range for Creighton this season.

Creighton: Don't be fooled. There is more to this team than All-American candidate Doug McDermott and his father, Greg, who is the Bluejays' head coach. Greg Echenique is one of the nation's premier post defenders and point guard Grant Gibbs is a Gonzaga transfer who averages 6.1 assists. No one wants to see the Bluejays on their side of the bracket.

Gonzaga: Zags coach Mark Few loves this team, and it's easy to see why. Freshman Kevin Pangos leads Gonzaga in scoring and assists, while Robert Sacre and Elias Harris average a collective 14.5 rebounds. The Zags' only two losses are against Illinois and Michigan State, each by seven points. This is a tougher, more physical team than Gonzaga squads of the past. I fully expect the Zags to win their 12th straight West Coast Conference title.

Murray State: Don't be surprised if the Racers finish the regular season undefeated, which would help make them everyone's favorite team entering the NCAA tournament. Murray State's best wins are against Memphis, Dayton and Southern Miss, so they won't be all that battle-tested entering the NCAA tournament. But they'll be full of confidence.

UNLV: First-year coach Dave Rice is off to a hot start at his alma mater. The Runnin' Rebels upset then-No. 1 North Carolina in November before embarrassing Illinois and Pac-12 favorite Cal by 17 and 18 points, respectively. UCLA transfers Chace Stanback and Mike Moser have provided huge boosts for UNLV, which may be the top non-BCS team in all of college basketball.

Don't believe the hype

Florida: Road losses at Rutgers and Tennessee have soured a season that began with a top-10 ranking and hopes of an SEC title. Highly touted freshman Bradley Beal averages 14.1 points, but he's shooting 41 percent from the field and 31 percent from 3-point range. There are still plenty of opportunities for wins against struggling SEC teams, but at this point a deep NCAA tournament run seems unlikely.

[+] EnlargeBilly Donovan
Joel Auerbach/Getty ImagesBad road losses make it difficult to buy into Florida as a Final Four contender, though Billy Donovan has the talent to turn things around in a weakened SEC.

Louisville: The Cardinals are one of the country's top defensive teams and are incredibly well-coached. But they're not talented enough to contend for a league title. The Cards, who have had terrible luck with injuries, opened the season with 12 straight wins thanks to a soft nonconference schedule that featured 11 home games. They have since lost three of their last four, including two at the KFC Yum! Center.

Memphis: The Tigers are a threat simply because of their talent alone, but poor decision-making and an occasional lack of effort will doom this squad. In fact, if Memphis isn't careful, it could miss the NCAA tournament altogether. Beating Conference USA foes such as Marshall, UCF and Southern Miss won't be easy.

Vanderbilt: Early-season home losses to Cleveland State and Indiana State squelched the enthusiasm in Nashville, where the Commodores opened the season ranked No. 7. But now Vandy has won five straight and is beginning to surge. It'll be interesting to see whether Kevin Stallings' squad can carry the momentum into March. Vanderbilt's last three NCAA tournament appearances have ended with first-round upset losses.

Xavier: The Musketeers were undefeated and rolling before their highly publicized brawl with Cincinnati. They've yet to regain their swagger. The free-fall has been shocking for a team that appeared to have one of the nation's top backcourts in Mark Lyons and first-team All-American candidate Tu Holloway.

My midseason player of the year ballot

1. Thomas Robinson, Kansas: No player has been as physically dominant and unstoppable as the Jayhawks' 6-9 forward, who averages 17.5 points and 12.1 rebounds while shooting 53 percent from the field. Robinson's soft shooting touch and ability to handle the ball make him almost as lethal from the perimeter as he is in the paint.

2. Jared Sullinger, Ohio State: The preseason favorite to win this award missed a highly anticipated matchup with Robinson and KU because of back spasms. When healthy, though, Sullinger has been nearly as effective as Robinson with averages of 17.6 points and 9.6 rebounds.

[+] EnlargeKevin Jones
David Butler II/US PresswireWest Virginia forward Kevin Jones leads the Big East in both scoring and rebounding.

3. Kevin Jones, West Virginia: It'll be a shame if the most underrated player in America doesn't earn first-team All-American honors. A senior forward, Jones is averaging 19.8 points and 11.9 rebounds and has posted a double-double in all but six games. He had 28 points and 17 boards against Baylor's vaunted frontcourt.

4. Anthony Davis, Kentucky: The likely No. 1 pick in this summer's NBA draft has been the main reason for the Wildcats' 15-1 start. Davis is averaging 12.7 points, 10.6 rebounds and 4.6 blocks. He's also altered countless shots in the paint, which makes him one of the nation's most imposing defenders. The 6-11 220-pounder will continue to get better as he adds muscle and strength.

5. Doug McDermott, Creighton: McDermott is averaging 25.2 points (second nationally) and 8.3 rebounds. Watch him play just once, and it's obvious he'd be able to post gaudy statistics in any of college basketball's big six conferences. A sophomore, McDermott is shooting 63 percent from the field and 58 percent from 3-point range. That's not even fair.

Five others on the cusp: Jeremy Lamb, Connecticut; Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Kentucky; Marcus Denmon, Missouri; Draymond Green, Michigan State; John Henson, North Carolina

Conference power rankings

1. Big Ten: It's not even an argument at this point. No one would be shocked if Ohio State or Michigan State made the Final Four, and Indiana has defeated two top-five opponents. Michigan is off to a 13-3 start -- with each of its losses coming against a ranked team -- and Wisconsin and Illinois have spent time in the polls, too. This is the strongest this conference has been in years.

2. Big East: The conference has fallen off significantly since last season, when 11 schools received NCAA tournament bids. Still, with Syracuse undefeated and ranked No. 1 and Marquette, Georgetown and Connecticut (and perhaps Louisville) all with top-10 potential, this is still a strong, strong league. The emergence of schools such as Seton Hall and Rutgers has enhanced the depth.

3. Big 12: The Big 12 has more parity at the top than any league in the country. Baylor, Kansas, Missouri and Kansas State all have a legitimate chance to win the league title, and Iowa State is talented enough to upset just about anyone. It should be a riveting race. The problem is that there's a huge drop-off with the bottom five teams. Six of Texas' top eight players are freshmen, Oklahoma State and Texas A&M have been huge disappointments, Oklahoma isn't nearly as good as its shiny nonconference record (12-2), and Texas Tech is rebuilding under first-year coach Billy Gillispie.

4. SEC: Considering the preseason hype, the SEC has been a huge disappointment. Vanderbilt opened the season in the top 10 before losing at home to Cleveland State and Indiana State. Florida, another preseason top-10 school, lost to Rutgers and Tennessee. Alabama was ranked as high as No. 12 before falling to Dayton, Kansas State and Georgetown. Only 15-1 Kentucky has lived up to expectations.

5. ACC: For the second straight season, the tradition-rich ACC is the second-worst of the big six conferences. North Carolina and Duke are both Final Four contenders and Virginia has been one of college basketball's biggest surprises. But after that there isn't a single school that's even receiving votes in the Top 25 poll, although North Carolina State has improved significantly under first-year coach Mark Gottfried.

6. Mountain West: It's not very deep, but at least the Mountain West Conference has something the Pac-12 doesn't: three really good teams. UNLV (16-2), New Mexico (14-2) and San Diego State (13-2) are strong enough to compete with almost any school in the country, and Wyoming is off to a 14-2 start under new coach Larry Shyatt. And oh yeah, the MWC is 11-3 against the Pac-12.

7. Pac-12: At this time last season it didn't seem possible for the Pac-12 to get any worse. But it has. UCLA -- the school some prognosticators picked to win the conference -- opened the season with losses to Loyola Marymount and Middle Tennessee. Arizona is no better than mediocre without Derrick Williams, and Washington is underachieving once again. It's pretty sad when you have to count Oregon State's victory over Texas as your best nonconference win. Don't be surprised if the Pac-12 gets only one or two bids.

8. Missouri Valley: Remember 2006, when four Missouri Valley teams participated in the NCAA tournament? It could happen again this season. At the very least the league deserves three bids. Creighton is led by one of the top players in America in Doug McDermott, and Wichita State has garnered votes in the Top 25 poll. Missouri State, Illinois State, Indiana State, Northern Iowa and Evansville are all good enough to win any league game.

9. Atlantic 10: Xavier's decline has caused the conference to lose some prestige in recent weeks. The Musketeers have won five straight league titles, but that streak appears to be in jeopardy, as Xavier has gone just 2-5 since that ugly brawl at the end of its game against Cincinnati on Dec. 10. Dayton has pulled off some nice wins (against Minnesota, Alabama and Temple) under first-year coach Archie Miller. Saint Louis, Saint Joseph's and La Salle are much improved.

10. Conference USA: Memphis hasn't lived up to its billing after entering the season ranked No. 9, although the Tigers are talented enough to turn things around at any moment. Central Florida has one of the country's hidden gems in forward Keith Clanton, who helped the Knights beat UConn. And Larry Eustachy is doing a nice job at Southern Miss. Marshall is also very strong. Rebuilding years at UAB and UTEP are hurting the league, but I've still got it slightly ahead of the WCC.

Freshman of the year (so far)

Anthony Davis, Kentucky: Some of Davis' top performances have come in the Wildcats' biggest games. The nation's leading shot-blocker (4.6 per game) had seven blocks in a victory over Kansas and eight against North Carolina, including a game-saving block of John Henson's potential game winner in the final seconds. Davis' 18 points and 10 rebounds also helped Kentucky beat rival Louisville.

[+] EnlargeDavis
Mark Zerof/US PresswireFreshman Anthony Davis gives Kentucky a dimension few teams can contend with, let alone match.

Speaking of freshmen …

Five who have exceeded expectations:

Trey Burke, Michigan: Wasn't a McDonald's All-American, but averages 13.8 points and a team-high five assists.
Eli Carter, Rutgers: Had huge games in wins over Florida (31 points) and Connecticut (19 points).
Thomas Gipson, Kansas State: Has been the top post player for one of the Big 12's top teams; averaging 9.6 points and 6.6 boards.
Maurice Harkless, St. John's: Ranks first on the team in rebounds (8.5) and second in points (15.3).
Otto Porter, Georgetown: Averages a team-high 6.8 rebounds off the bench.
B.J. Young, Arkansas: Sixth man averages 14.8 points for the 12-3 Hogs.

Five who have lived up to expectations

Brad Beal, Florida: Shooting just 31 percent from 3-point range, but still managing 14.1 points per game.
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Kentucky: Do-everything forward has become Kentucky's "glue guy."
Quincy Miller, Baylor: Versatile forward averages 11.2 points and 5.6 rebounds in just 25 minutes.
Austin Rivers, Duke: Leads the Blue Devils in scoring with 14.7 points per game.
Cody Zeller, Indiana: Leads the nation's most surprising team in points (14.2) and rebounds (6.4).

Five who have underachieved

Khem Birch, Pittsburgh: McDonald's All-American left the team in December; will transfer to UNLV.
James Michael McAdoo, North Carolina: Hasn't had much of a chance to shine playing behind veterans Tyler Zeller and John Henson.
Le'Bryan Nash, Oklahoma State: Averaging 12.9 points but is shooting just 38 percent from the field and 26 percent from 3-point range.
Adonis Thomas, Memphis: Needs to become a bigger factor on the boards; averages just 3.7 rebounds.
Josiah Turner, Arizona: Point guard averages 6.8 points and 2.1 assists; work ethic has been an issue.

Ten teams that have exceeded expectations

Indiana: Many of the same players who endured an 8-46 Big Ten record in their first three seasons now find themselves in the Big Ten championship hunt.
Virginia: Tony Bennett has taken the ACC's most downtrodden program and turned it into a legitimate Top 25 team.
Missouri: Despite playing for a new coach and with a roster that features just two players over 6-6, Missouri is 14-1 and one of the most exciting teams in the country.
Kansas State: No Jacob Pullen? No problem for the Wildcats, who boast one of the most well-balanced teams in the Big 12.
Harvard: Tommy Amaker's squad is ranked for the first time in school history.
Seton Hall: The Pirates are 14-2 with wins over Connecticut and West Virginia. Herb Pope and Jordan Theodore form one of the nation's top inside-out combos.
San Diego State: The Aztecs aren't quite as good as they were a year ago, but they're in the Top 25, which no one could've predicted. San Diego State's only two losses are against Baylor and Creighton.
UNLV: The Runnin' Rebels' success under first-year coach Dave Rice should pay huge dividends in recruiting.
Georgetown: The Hoyas are getting more than they expected out of senior center Henry Sims and freshman forward Otto Porter.
Murray State: Isaiah Canaan averages 18.7 points for the Racers, who may not lose again during the regular season.

Five impact transfers

Mike Moser, UCLA to UNLV: The 6-8 forward is averaging 14.2 points and 11.1 rebounds.
Brady Heslip (Boston College) and Pierre Jackson (College of Southern Idaho) to Baylor: The backcourt duo combines to average 22.6 points and 5.6 assists.
Arnett Moultrie, UTEP to Mississippi State: Forward leads the team in points (16.2) and rebounds (11.3).
Royce White, Minnesota to Iowa State: Versatile forward posted a triple-double in Saturday's victory at Texas A&M.
Devoe Joseph, Minnesota to Oregon: Leads the Ducks in scoring at 15.1 points per game.

Coaches who would deserve a raise if the season ended today

Tony Bennett, Virginia
Tom Crean, Indiana
Scott Drew, Baylor
Frank Haith, Missouri
Rick Majerus, Saint Louis
Frank Martin, Kansas State
Archie Miller, Dayton
Rick Pitino, Louisville
Dave Rice, UNLV
Mike Rice, Rutgers
John Thompson III, Georgetown
Kevin Willard, Seton Hall

Coaches who are on the hot seat (or at least should be)

Ken Bone, Washington State
Jeff Bzdelik, Wake Forest
Jim Christian, TCU
Seth Greenberg, Virginia Tech
Darrin Horn, South Carolina
Andy Kennedy, Ole Miss
Chris Lowery, Southern Illinois
Doc Sadler, Nebraska
Herb Sendek, Arizona State
Tubby Smith, Minnesota

Take it to the bank: Four predictions from now until New Orleans

1. Ohio State, North Carolina, Syracuse, Kansas, Kentucky and Stanford will win conference championships, along with UNLV, Gonzaga, Creighton and Dayton.
2. A No. 14 seed -- perhaps Oral Roberts or Long Beach State -- will upset a No. 3 seed.
3. Three No. 1 seeds will advance to the Final Four, along with a No. 2 seed.
4. North Carolina will beat Kentucky in the NCAA title game.

Jason King covers college basketball for ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKingESPN.