Commentary

Enjoy the unexpected turns

Originally Published: January 24, 2012
By Jason King | ESPN.com

The way we pundits saw it, the races were over before they began.

North Carolina would win the ACC with ease, just like Ohio State in the Big Ten and Syracuse in the Big East. The only intrigue in each league would involve the quest for second place.

[+] EnlargeXavier Gibson
Mark Dolejs/US PresswireFSU's victory over Duke was another step in the Seminoles' move into the ACC title chase.

Not so fast.

Florida State has shaken up the ACC race with victories over the Tar Heels and Duke, the latter of which occurred on the road.

Ohio State has already dropped a pair of Big Ten games and, with a 5-2 league record, is tied with Michigan State and Michigan for first place. Wisconsin (5-3) has won four straight and isn't far behind.

Despite falling at Notre Dame on Saturday, Syracuse is still the class of the Big East. But after its first loss of the season, and with Marquette and West Virginia surging, it's not out of the question to think the chase for the conference championship could turn into a three-team race.

That's what has happened in the Big 12, which touts three teams (Missouri, Kansas and Baylor) ranked in the top seven of the ESPN/USA Today coaches' poll.

Bottom line: Instead of looking too far ahead to the NCAA tournament, we should relish the conference races that will play out in the coming weeks. In some cases, winning a league title is even more difficult than succeeding in the postseason.

As always, King's Court is here to catch you up on what you may have missed -- and what you should be looking for in the week ahead.

In a zone

[+] EnlargeNotre Dame
Matt Cashore/US PresswireNotre Dame players were inspired by some movie memories before knocking off No. 1 Syracuse.

Notre Dame against No. 1 teams: Saturday's victory over Syracuse marked the eighth time the Fighting Irish have knocked off the nation's top-ranked team. That ties for fourth-most all time. North Carolina owns the record with 12. Irish coach Mike Brey showed his team a video featuring highlights of the previous seven victories before the game.

Florida State stars: Two games after Deividas Dulkys scored a career-high 32 points in the Seminoles' victory over North Carolina, Michael Snaer swished a buzzer-beating 3-pointer to catapult Florida State past Duke 76-73 Saturday at Cameron Indoor Stadium. The victory was the fourth straight for Florida State, which plays at Wake Forest on Wednesday.

Conference USA race: Much like higher-profile leagues such as the Big 12 and Big Ten, there is a ton of parity at the top of Conference USA. Central Florida is 5-1 while Memphis, Southern Miss and Marshall are all 4-1. Tulsa (4-2) isn't far behind. Memphis hosts Marshall on Saturday and Southern Miss plays at UCF.

Archie Miller: He's a long shot to win national coach of the year, but Dayton's Miller -- who is in his first season -- at least deserves to be in the conversation. The Flyers have won nine of their last 11 games, with the most recent victory a 15-point shellacking of Xavier on Saturday. At 14-5 overall and 4-1 in league play, Dayton is alone atop the Atlantic 10 standings.

SEC: Kentucky coach John Calipari made some good points Saturday when he fired back at the critics who have labeled the league as mediocre. Just this past weekend, Tennessee defeated an ultra-talented Connecticut squad while Arkansas beat No. 19 Michigan. Arkansas and Tennessee are considered bottom-half SEC teams, but those victories should enhance the conference's reputation.

In a funk

Connecticut: Considering their talent and experience, the Huskies are quickly becoming one of the season's more disappointing teams. Connecticut has lost four of its last six games, to unranked opponents (Seton Hall, Rutgers, Cincinnati and Tennessee). The schedule only gets tougher from here. Two of UConn's next five games are against Top 25 teams Syracuse and Louisville.

[+] EnlargeJ'Covan Brown
AP Photo/L.G. PattersonJ'Covan Brown has lost his shooting touch for Texas.

J'Covan Brown's quick trigger: The Texas guard was just 7-of-26 from the field in Saturday's loss to Kansas. Three days earlier he went 8-of-28 in a setback at Kansas State. That means Brown is 15-of-54 (27.8 percent) in his last two games. Brown shouldn't shoot that much and coach Rick Barnes shouldn't allow him to.

Towson and Binghamton: More than two months into the season, both teams remain winless. Binghamton is 0-19. Towson is 0-20 and is averaging just 49.5 points per game. All but three of Towson's losses have come by double digits.

Preseason All-American team: The list of Wisconsin's Jordan Taylor, Ohio State's Jared Sullinger, Connecticut's Jeremy Lamb, North Carolina's Harrison Barnes and Kentucky's Terrence Jones looked good at the time. But if the season ended today, only one of those players (Sullinger) would stand a chance to make the team.

Pittsburgh: It's amazing how far the Panthers have fallen. Last season they won the Big East title, but today the Panthers are dead last in the conference standings with a league record of 0-7. Pittsburgh wasted an excellent opportunity Saturday when it dropped a home game against Louisville with the "College GameDay" crew in attendance. Not even Xavier is in this big of a free fall.

Questions for the King

How will Dexter Strickland's knee injury affect North Carolina?

Make no mistake: This is a huge blow for the Tar Heels and their quest for a national championship. Strickland is far from the most talented North Carolina player. But he's one of the most important. Along with being the team's fastest player, Strickland is also the Tar Heels' top defender and second-best ball handler behind point guard Kendall Marshall. The one place the Tar Heels aren't very deep is on the perimeter, at least when it comes to point guard and combo guards. Seldom-used freshman point guard Stilman White may see increased minutes, and shooting guards such as Reggie Bullock and P.J. Hairston will have to step up their scoring.

Is the Big 12 the best conference in the country?

It's close, but I'll still take the Big Ten. The parity in that league -- from top to bottom -- is what makes it so special. Just look at some of the results: Northwestern over Michigan State, Nebraska over Indiana, Iowa over Wisconsin and Penn State over Illinois. The threat of upsets is much smaller in the Big 12. You won't see Texas Tech beating Missouri or Oklahoma State topping Kansas. Granted, I think the Big 12 has three legitimate Final Four contenders in Missouri, Kansas and Baylor. I'm not sure the Big Ten can make that claim. Still, parity-wise, the Big Ten is the better league.

Is there a better Final Four site than New Orleans?

It all depends on who you ask. I'm a big New Orleans fan. Love the restaurants, the nightlife, the restaurants, the game-day atmosphere, the restaurants. But I know a lot of other people who prefer San Antonio because of the Riverwalk, the weather and the proximity of the arena to the hotels and bars. Both are great places. I also thought Indianapolis did a nice job of hosting the Final Four in 2010.

Good things come in threes

Three teams that have failed to capitalize on momentum

1. Virginia: The Cavaliers got some well-deserved attention when they opened the season with a 15-2 record and a near upset of Duke. Then, somehow, some way, they lost to Virginia Tech on Saturday. Even worse: the loss was at home.

2. Seton Hall: The Pirates followed wins against two of the Big East's most talented teams by losing to South Florida and Villanova. Seton Hall needs to win a few road games in order to be taken seriously.

3. (tie) Illinois and Northwestern: The Illini followed up a victory over Ohio State with a loss to Penn State. After beating Michigan State, Northwestern lost to by an average of 21.5 points to Wisconsin and Minnesota.

Three teams that have performed well without their injured stars

[+] EnlargePressey/Ratliffe
AP Photo/Tony GutierrezMissouri is fueled by its guard play but the Tigers have found an extra dimension with the increased production of forward Ricardo Ratliffe, right.

1. Missouri: No Laurence Bowers? No problem for the No. 2 Tigers, who have adapted to the loss of their star forward -- who tore his ACL in the preseason -- by using a four-guard lineup that has given opponents fits.

2. Minnesota: As the Gophers' leading scorer and rebounder, Trevor Mbakwe would've been in the hunt for Big Ten Player of the Year honors had he not torn his ACL in November. Minnesota certainly isn't the same team without him, but its overall record of 15-5 -- and, to a degree, its 3-4 Big Ten record, as well -- is respectable considering the circumstances.

3. (tie) Arkansas and Notre Dame: Marshawn Powell was the Razorbacks' leading scorer and rebounder and was shooting 71 percent from the field after two games before injuring his knee. Still, the Razorbacks are 14-5 following Saturday's win over then-No. 19 Michigan. Notre Dame is off to a 4-3 start in conference play without Tim Abromaitis, an All-Big East-caliber player who played in just two games before tearing his ACL.

Three best road wins from a crazy Saturday

1. Missouri 89-88 at Baylor: Anyone who questioned whether the Tigers are legitimate Big 12 and NCAA title contenders couldn't say much after Missouri shot 54 percent from the field before a sellout crowd in Waco.

2. Florida State 76-73 at Duke: Michael Snaer's 3-pointer at the buzzer lifted the Seminoles to a shocking victory over the Blue Devils, who had won 45 consecutive games at Cameron Indoor Stadium.

3. Mississippi State 77-76 (OT) at Vanderbilt: The Bulldogs trailed by as many as 13 before before battling back and stealing a victory from the Commodores, who were on an eight-game winning streak. The win should be a huge momentum boost for Mississippi State, which had lost a pair of conference road games to inferior teams (Arkansas and Ole Miss).

Three things for fans to debate

1. Biggest disappointment of the season (based on expectations): Pittsburgh, Xavier, Texas A&M or Connecticut?

2. Best player from a non-BCS conference (other than Creighton's Doug McDermott): Scott Machado (Iona), Mike Moser (UNLV), Tu Holloway (Xavier), Damian Lillard (Weber State), Matthew Dellavedova (Saint Mary's), Will Barton (Memphis), Keith Clanton (Central Florida) -- or someone else?

3. Big East Player of the Year: West Virginia's Kevin Jones, Marquette's Darius Johnson-Odom or Syracuse's Dion Waiters?

Report card

A: Jarnell Stokes: Tennessee's freshman forward spent the first half of the school year in high school but graduated a semester early, so he joined the Vols earlier this month. That makes his accomplishments thus far nothing short of amazing. Stokes is averaging 12 points and a team-high eight rebounds through three games. In Saturday's win over Connecticut, Stokes had 16 points and 12 rebounds against the Huskies' talented frontcourt of Alex Oriakhi and Andre Drummond.

B: Cincinnati: Yes, I realize the Bearcats have lost two straight, at West Virginia and to Syracuse. But overall, how can anyone not be impressed with what this team has done in the aftermath of its Dec. 10 brawl with Xavier? Cincinnati is 10-3 since that game and is off to a 5-3 start in Big East play, including wins against Georgetown and Connecticut. Mick Cronin needs to be in the conversation for Big East Coach of the Year.

C-plus: Renardo Sidney: The Mississippi State forward is far from a finished product. But the big man came up huge in the Bulldogs' overtime win at Vanderbilt on Saturday. Sidney's 3-pointer with 1:22 remaining in the extra period turned a 74-73 deficit into a 76-74 lead. After Vanderbilt responded with a 3-pointer, Sidney came through again with a big-time bounce pass to a cutting Dee Bost, who capitalized with the game-winning layup.

D: Wednesday's games: What's usually a great night for college basketball may be underwhelming this week. There are zero games pitting Top 25 teams against one another. Instead the headliners are Duke-Maryland, Missouri-Oklahoma State, Minnesota-Michigan State, Notre Dame-Seton Hall and Villanova-Louisville.

F: Baylor's frontcourt: The Bears' poor performance in the paint in Saturday's 89-88 loss to Missouri was alarming. The Tigers -- who have just two players who stand over 6-foot-6 -- outscored Baylor 14-0 on second-chance points in the first half. At one point, Missouri had almost as many offensive rebounds (11) as Baylor had total rebounds (14). Instead of attacking down low and getting Missouri's one good big man (Ricardo Ratliffe) in foul trouble, the Bears settled for outside jumpers. Ratliffe finished with 27 points.

Thoughts from press row

[+] EnlargeKevin Jones
Jim Rogash/Getty ImagesWest Virginia's Kevin Jones is enjoying a season worthy of award consideration.

1. I still can't get over the "experts" who are leaving West Virginia's Kevin Jones off their candidate list for national player of the year. Jones had 26 points and 13 rebounds in Saturday's victory over Cincinnati and is averaging 20.7 points and 11.5 boards for the season. And it's not as if Jones is posting those numbers against mediocre opponents. Right now I have Jones second on my ballot behind Kansas' Thomas Robinson.

2. In all my years as a sportswriter, I can't remember interviewing an athlete as articulate and insightful as Missouri's Kim English. Check out the video interview I did with the Missouri star following the Tigers' victory over Baylor in Waco on Saturday.

3. One of the biggest surprises the last few weeks has been the play of South Florida. The Bulls are 5-1 since the turn of the new year, with victories over Rutgers, Seton Hall, St. John's, DePaul and Villanova. I realize those teams aren't all that great, but being regarded as "the best of the rest" in the Big East is a step up for the Bulls, who went just 7-6 in nonconference play.

4. Thomas Robinson and Tyshawn Taylor command most of the headlines for the Kansas Jayhawks, and rightfully so. But center Jeff Withey is the guy who has the potential to turn a good team into a great one. Withey had 10 points and eight blocks in Monday's 64-54 victory over Texas A&M. He also shoots 84 percent from the foul stripe, which is darn good for a 7-footer.

5. Speaking of schools with a coach who entered the season on the hot seat, Ole Miss has won three of its last four games and is now 13-6 overall. Victories over Mississippi State (finally) and Arkansas may have given pause to the fans and boosters who are ready for Andy Kennedy's ouster. Kennedy and the Rebels still have a lot of work to do, though, with a home game coming up against Florida followed by road tilts with Alabama and Mississippi State. The positive vibes may be short-lived.

6. Luke Harangody's younger brother, who goes by the name Jack Cooley, had 17 points, 10 rebounds and two blocks in Notre Dame's upset of then-No. 1 Syracuse on Saturday.

7. Frank Martin's decision to suspend center Jordan Henriquez for a violation of team rules makes me respect the Kansas State coach even more. I have no idea what Henriquez did to warrant the suspension, but credit Martin for not turning a blind eye to the situation. With averages of 7.1 points, 5.1 rebounds and 2.3 blocks, Henriquez is a huge contributor off the bench for the Wildcats and provides some much-needed size in the paint. But discipline comes first with Martin.

8. The baffling scores in the Pac-12 continued Saturday when one of the best teams in the league (Cal) lost to one of the worst (Washington State). One of the reasons may have been that leading rebounder Richard Solomon was declared academically ineligible for the remainder of the season, a major blow to the Golden Bears.

Pit stops

Dreamland BBQ, various locations in Alabama: I live in the barbecue mecca of Kansas City. But when the time came to have ribs shipped to family members as Christmas presents, I ordered them from Dreamland. There are a ton of rib joints out there, and I'll never be able to visit them all, but at this point in my career I can't say I've ever had any that are better than the ones at Dreamland (although Oklahoma Joe's in Kansas City runs a close second). I don't make it to Dreamland often, so when I do I make sure to order a full slab. It's a tough chore, but I'm usually up for the challenge.

Big Pink, Miami: Along with the sand and "scenery," the food in South Beach is really good, too. Actually, let me rephrase that: The food at Big Pink is really good. Whenever I'm in South Beach, I hardly eat anywhere else. Big Pink is a diner on Second and Collins with a menu as long as a Wright Thompson story. I've sampled about 3 percent of it, and I can honestly say I've never had a bad meal. The breakfast burrito is a personal favorite, along with the turkey burger and the homemade potato chips. Big Pink also has a full bar.

Late-night fast food: I've been on the road a lot lately, which usually means multiple late-night stops at the drive-thru at fine culinary establishments such as McDonald's, Wendy's, Burger King and the like. Some nights, when I'm leaving an arena at 1 a.m., there simply aren't a lot of options for high-end meals. So ... I've developed some opinions on fast food (which I rarely eat in the offseason, by the way). During a long drive home from Manhattan, Kan., earlier this month, I passed the time by developing a Top 10 list of my favorite fast-food items. Here it is:

1. McDonald's Chicken McNuggets (10 piece) with hot mustard sauce
2. Jack in the Box egg rolls with ranch
3. Whataburger Patty Melt (if you can wean yourself away from original Whataburger)
4. In-N-Out double-double with cheese and hot peppers
5. White Castle chicken sandwich (at least three with onion petals)
6. Sonic grilled chicken wrap
7. McDonald's McDouble (best dollar burger on the market)
8. Burger King Whopper Jr. (two, please)
9. Arby's large roast beef with cheddar
10. Chick-fil-A grilled chicken sandwich (note: try the chicken tortilla soup ... it's tremendous)

Any thoughts or recommendations? Feel free to pass them on.

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