College basketball enters its next chapter as more meaningful, entertaining conference play begins.
The list below features a multitude of squads that should remain relevant on the national scene through March.
Certain elements of their respective journeys, however, suggest that a cautious approach to any projections is prudent.
Here are 10 teams you shouldn’t trust yet:
This team’s victory over Louisville, achieved in part by UK’s 48 percent clip from beyond the 3-point line, masked Kentucky’s ongoing challenges on offense. The Wildcats failed to register more than a point per possession in losses to LSU (86th in adjusted defensive efficiency) and Ohio State (35th). Per hoop-math.com, the Wildcats are ranked No. 202 on 2-point jump shots (35.1 percent) and No. 279 in 3-point shooting (31.6 percent). Kentucky is still an SEC contender with a high ceiling. Beyond that? We’re not sure.
Yes, this is not the same team that didn't exactly live up to expectations in the first two months of the season, which ESPN.com’s Eamonn Brennan addressed in his recap of LSU’s upset of the Wildcats on Tuesday night. Arizona transfer Craig Victor's eligibility and Keith Hornsby's return from injury have shaped the impactful supporting cast around the game’s best player, Ben Simmons. But this is the same team that suffered a home loss to a Wake Forest outfit that’s not even ranked in the top 100 in defensive efficiency. Let’s see if this Kentucky win is a breakthrough or an anomaly.
The Panthers cracked the Associated Press poll this week after an eight-game win streak that did not feature the contenders Jamie Dixon’s squad will eventually meet in ACC play. Some of the offensive metrics suggest that the nation’s best free throw-shooting squad (78.6 percent) will justify the ranking when it faces better competition. But the Panthers also allowed a 5-9 Western Carolina squad to register 1.06 points per possession.
It’s really simple for Scott Drew’s team. We all know the Bears are talented. The foursome of double-figure scorers Rico Gathers, Taurean Prince, Al Freeman and Johnathan Motley should keep them in most games. But the Bears are just a different team away from Waco, Texas. They’ve lost their three road games against opponents ranked in the top 25 when they played them (Oregon, Texas A&M and Kansas) by 54 points combined. The Bears must prove they can handle the road in Big 12 play.
Steve Alford had a contender in Los Angeles, it appeared. The Bruins beat Kentucky and then traveled to Spokane, Washington, where they upset Gonzaga and established their status as a Pac-12 championship threat. But ... turnovers. The Bruins, who were swept on the road by Washington and Washington State over the weekend, have committed 51 turnovers in their past three losses (North Carolina, Washington, WSU). Those struggles coupled with a lazy defense make UCLA a team you shouldn’t trust right now.
The Bulldogs continue to play phenomenal offense now that Domantas Sabonis has assumed a greater role with Przemek Karnowski sidelined by injury this season. In their first four WCC games, Gonzaga recorded 1.57, 1.44, 1.20 and 1.22 points per possession, respectively. And yet, the Zags were down big in their come-from-behind overtime victory against San Francisco and they were tied with Santa Clara with four minutes to go in a two-point win in their most recent WCC contests. This is the West Coast’s best offense, but you wonder if a squad that’s allowing a 43 percent clip inside the arc will run through the WCC again and end the year with a deep run in March if its defense does not improve.
There’s Good Utah and Bad Utah. Both are led by potential lottery pick Jakob Poeltl (averaging 17.7 points, 9.3 rebounds and 2.1 blocks per game). Good Utah defeated Duke at Madison Square Garden in December and scored victories over San Diego State, Texas Tech and BYU before conference play. Bad Utah lost at Stanford in overtime Friday, even though injured forward Reid Travis (12.8 PPG, 7.1 RPG) wasn’t available for the Cardinal. The Utes have lost to Miami, Wichita State (in Wichita, Kansas) and at Cal by 54 points combined.
You have to give Steve Wojciechowski credit for the growth we’ve witnessed thus far at Marquette. The services of a future lottery pick, Henry Ellenson (16.0 PPG, 9.9 RPG, 1.5 BPG), have certainly helped the program go from 13-19 overall in 2014-15 to an 11-4 start in 2015-16, a surge stamped by Tuesday's 65-64 road victory over No. 8 Providence. That’s promising, but the Golden Eagles had just lost to Seton Hall at home and Georgetown on the road by 30 points combined. They lost to Iowa by 28 in Milwaukee two months ago, too. This Marquette team can compete with the best of the Big East. Clearly. We’re just waiting to see if this group will evolve into a more consistent force.
First, it’s unfair that the Hoosiers will finish the season without injured wing James Blackmon Jr. (15.8 PPG). He’s a talented young man who should continue to blossom once he overcomes a knee injury. Indiana showcased its depth as it won its first three Big Ten games without Blackmon, though it was a fairly manageable stretch (at Rutgers and Nebraska, home to Wisconsin). Will the Hoosiers’ offense carry the team if their defensive struggles (94th in efficiency) persist? That’s the biggest question in Bloomington.
10. South Carolina
The only thing that Frank Martin’s team needs is a victory that legitimizes one of the greatest starts in school history. Saturday’s home matchup against Vanderbilt will give the Gamecocks a chance to prove that their perfect start and success from the perimeter (38.2 percent from beyond the arc) say more about their talent than their schedule (287th per KenPom.com).