Now that conference play is upon us it will be the true litmus test for a number of teams that have gotten off to good starts. For Virginia Tech, USC, TCU and Northwestern it will be the gauntlet of the ACC, Pac-12, Big 12 and Big Ten respectively that will show whether these are NCAA Tournament worthy or just a product of easy non-conference schedules.
Buzz Williams’ Virginia Tech Hokies are 11-1 with the lone loss coming at the hands of Texas A&M at the Wooden Legacy 68-65. They also had wins over Mississippi, Nebraska and Michigan in the middle of their current seven game winning streak. The Hokies have five guys averaging double figures in scoring and are led by a couple of seniors that have accepted bench roles this season. Zach LeDay leads the team in scoring at 16.5 while grabbing 7.5 rebounds per contest and Seth Allen is adding nearly 11 points per game. Sophomore guard Chris Clarke has really come into his own averaging 10.8 points and 8.1 rebounds while fellow sophomore Justin Robinson and junior Ahmed Hill fill up the stat sheet with 26.2 points, 7.4 rebounds and 6.1 assists per contest. We should find out about Virginia Tech pretty quickly, after a home date with Duke on New Year’s Eve they have road tilts with N.C. State, Florida State, Clemson and North Carolina in January. Add in a home game against Notre Dame sandwiched in between and the Hokies have the chance to build a very solid resume before the calendar even turns to February.
Andy Enfield parlayed his success at Florida Gulf Coast and the birth of “Dunk City” into a gig at USC and now he has his Trojans sitting at 14-0. While the win total may be impressive, the marquee wins among them are a two-point road win at Texas A&M and a seven point neutral court win over BYU. While the opponents may not be impressive, what is impressive is that they have nearly six players averaging double figures (freshman De’Anthony Melton is averaging 9.7 points). They are led by juniors Elijah Stewart and Jordan McLaughlin and their 29 points, 9.4 rebounds and 6 assists per game. Sophomores Chemizie Metu and Shaqquan Aaron also average double figures at 13.5 and 10.2 points respectively and Metu is the team’s leading rebounder at 7.9 per game. The most impressive thing may be that the Trojans have done all of this with sophomore Bennie Boatwright playing in just five games and is currently out six weeks with a sprained knee. Boatwright averaged 11.5 points and over five rebounds a game as a freshman and even bigger things are expected of him this season. He flashed that talent with 38 points in a two game stretch, both wins over SMU and Cal-Santa Barbara. The Trojans open conference play at Oregon tomorrow but their tournament hopes may come down to two four-game stretches. From Jan. 15-25th they travel to Colorado and then host Arizona, Arizona State and UCLA and then from Feb. 11th-25th they host Oregon and then travel to UCLA and the two Arizona schools.
Jamie Dixon’s first season at TCU has been a successful one thus far. The Horned Frogs sit at 11-1 with their standout victories probably being back-to-back wins over Washington. Not only does TCU average nearly 80 points per game but they give up just 63.3, 32nd best in the country. They have four players averaging double figures ranging from 10.4 to 10.8 points per game but they also have nine players averaging at least 12 minutes per game. The Horned Frogs are a young squad with just two of those players averaging 12 minutes per game are seniors (Brandon Parrish and Karviar Shepherd) while four of them are freshmen or sophomores including leading scorer Alex Robinson (10.8) and freshman Jaylen Fisher (10.5) while junior Kenrich Williams is averaging a double-double with 10.4 points and 10 rebounds. While the 11 wins is nice, Dixon and the Horned Frogs will be judged by what they do in conference beginning tomorrow night when they host Kansas, and for a team that has won a total of six conference games over the last three seasons here is Dixon’s chance to show this is a different era in Fort Worth.
There are 51 teams that have never made the NCAA Tournament but only one hails from a Power 5 conference, the Big Ten’s Northwestern Wildcats. The 12-2 start has many wondering if this is the year that Coach Chris Collins and his team finally breaks through. They have a win over then #22 Texas and their two losses are by a total of six points to Butler and Notre Dame both of whom are now ranked in the top 25. The Northwestern staple so far this year has been sharing the ball with 18.3 assists per game 18th best in the country and playing defense allowing just 64.5 points per game. Junior Scottie Lindsey leads the team with over 16 points per game while sophomore Vic Law (13.6 points) leads the team in rebounding with 5.6 per contest and junior Bryant McIntosh (12.1 points) leads the team in assists at 5.6 per game. The Wildcats opened conference play with a 10 point win at Penn State and have a big test at Michigan State tomorrow but with only three Big Ten teams currently in the top25 the key for Northwestern will be avoiding bad losses to teams they should beat.
These four teams have gotten off to good starts but it is conference play that will determine whether it is the same old song and dance for these teams or if they are ready to take the next step.