Four weeks into conference play, preseason predictions already have been shaken like a cocktail.
Five different No. 1 teams have rotated their way through the Associated Press poll, and Oklahoma became the fifth to fall only hours after being anointed Monday. Duke and Kentucky, expected front-runners, are looking average. Big Ten favorites Indiana and Michigan State have been mind-numbingly inconsistent.
Hot Pac-12 pick Arizona is losing the spotlight to unlikely Southern California. The ACC is more confusing than the 2016 presidential field. The Big 12 has become a dogfight. Schools such as West Virginia and Iowa have sprung from the edges of uncertainty and firmly into the national conversation.
The flip-flop, though, might have less to do with teams such as the Hawkeyes and others separating themselves and more to do with the fact that everything is pretty close right now. There’s a lot of parity, a lot of unexpected chaos and, frankly, a lot of inconsistency. Most teams aren’t that much better than anyone else.
But for all the griping about there being no truly elite college basketball teams this season, we’ve been treated to some pretty darn good basketball. The fact that the college scene is a bit turbulent right now is as exciting as it is anything else — drama and intrigue rule in a much more wide-open season than we anticipated, one coming a year after Kentucky went into the Final Four undefeated.
What does the current college basketball mixed drink look like now? From where I stand, the five teams below all have as good as anyone’s chances to cut down the nets in April.
In reality, there are at least four or five other teams I could argue on to this list — North Carolina, the preseason No. 1, might return there next week despite an epic Marcus Paige slump; Maryland stands to get better as the year goes on and Diamond Stone continues to develop; Kansas might have been on this list until a 10-point loss to Oklahoma State made me question the strength of their backcourt.
The circle of “good” teams is wide, but the inner ring of elite is still up for discussion. Here are my picks for now — but hurry up and digest ’em. Everything could change again in another week.
• Iowa (15-3): The Hawkeyes have charged through what might have been one of the toughest starts to any conference play, topping Purdue, Michigan and Michigan State twice, the second time by 17 points on the road despite the return of Denzel Valentine.
• Oklahoma (15-2): Even after a loss at Iowa State on Monday, the Sooners and shooting phenom Buddy Hield still might be the best team out there, especially if it can shore up its rebounding concerns. But they are likely gone from their new perch at No. 1 after snatching the spot for the first time in more than 25 years.
• Virginia (14-4): The potential is obvious with victories over West Virginia, Villanova and Miami. But weirdly, it’s the defense that’s held back this normally sturdy squad in the head-scratchers the Cavaliers lost. A glance at Tony Bennett’s résumé makes me believe that will change.
• West Virginia (15-3): Bob Huggins’ frenetic defense will confound most offenses, even very good ones such as Kansas and Oklahoma at times, even if the Mountaineers are subject to foul trouble like they were in a home loss to Texas on Wednesday.
• Villanova (17-2): Few are talking about the Wildcats as one of the nation’s best — and yes, we’ve all been burned by ’Nova before — but advanced metrics love them, they haven’t lost in conference play in over a year and the offense remains underrated.
WEEKEND GAME TO WATCH
No. 1 Oklahoma at No. 13 Baylor, 11 a.m. Saturday (ESPN)
The Sooners are in the midst of their last real brutal stretch of the year — topping No. 6 West Virginia by two before falling at No. 19 Iowa State — and the Bears’ bruising frontcourt figures to play a key role in determining just how sturdy Oklahoma is at this point of the season. If the Sooners don’t pull out of this three-game death valley with at least two W’s, questions will arise.
NUMBERS TO KNOW
3 Upsets of No. 1 teams by schools in the state of Iowa: Iowa, Iowa State and Northern Iowa.
19 Losses by top-five teams so far this season, which according to ESPN Stats and Info is the most through Jan. 19 in college basketball history.
22 Losses by top-25 teams in the past 11 days.
Southern Methodist might not be in the “elite team” talk and its certainly not going to “win it all” — the school is banned from postseason play due to NCAA sanctions — but the Mustangs have been consistently good when the rest of the college hoops world hasn’t. Now the only undefeated team remaining (18-0), SMU got half of its wins without even its head coach leading the charge, when Larry Brown served his suspension at the start of the year. Now, the Mustangs just keep on winning and surprising, which makes it an absolute shame we won’t see this squad kicking deep into March.
BIG TEN POWER POLL
Iowa (16-3, 6-0): The Hawkeyes haven’t started Big Ten play with a 6-0 record or better since 1986-87, but Iowa is rolling now.
Maryland (17-2, 6-1): While at times the offense comes and goes, the Terrapins defense keeps them steady.
Indiana (16-3, 6-0): I’m not here to take away from what the Hoosiers have done so far, but it’s been in the context of the softest league slate.
Michigan (14-5, 4-2): The Wolverines are vulnerable when they’re not lighting it up from three-point range.
Purdue (17-3, 5-2): The Boilermakers’ defensive efficiency rating was fourth nationally heading into Thursday night, which explains how Purdue beat Ohio State shooting only 39 percent from the field.
Michigan State (16-4, 3-4): How bizarre: The Spartans went 3-1 without star Denzel Valentine in the lineup but are 1-3 since getting him back.
Nebraska (12-8, 4-3): It’s hard to understand what’s going on in Lincoln, but the Huskers have just won four consecutive games, most recently at Michigan State.
Northwestern (15-5, 3-4): The Wildcats are far from a finished product, but it’s clear they are going to fight every game as witness by a near-miss in an overtime loss at Maryland.
Ohio State (16-4, 4-3): Jae’Sean Tate scored 17 vs. Purdue on Thursday, but all four other Buckeyes starters combined for just 16 points.
Wisconsin (11-9, 3-4): The Badgers had a rough start to the year, but have shown some finishing power in tight games, winning the past two over Michigan State and Penn State by two possessions or fewer.
Penn State (11-8, 2-5): The Nittany Lions brought the score within three of Wisconsin’s lead but ran out of time to pull out another upset after beating Northwestern on the road.
Illinois (9-10, 1-5): Indiana can score a little bit, but when the Illini let the Hoosiers post 103 points Tuesday, it was the first time Illinois had allowed that many since 1993.
Gophers (6-13, 0-7): The losses aren’t ceasing yet, but the Gophers have dropped the past two by just 12 points total after throwing away the previous two by 50.
Rutgers (6-14, 0-7): When things are this bad, competing means something. So the Scarlet Knights’ relatively close eight-point deficit to Iowa at the half means at least there’s some passion remaining.