Originally Published: December 23, 2012

Time to see what's under the tree

ESPN.com staff
ESPN.com

Admit it: You've already clandestinely shaken a couple of the smaller packages under the tree, eyed that "hidden" box at the back of the hall closet and hinted about those last few pieces of fun you'd love to find stuffed in your stocking come Tuesday morning.

In the spirit of all that anticipated holiday gift-giving, we figured, "Why wait?"

After watching Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim join the 900-win club, Duke beat three top-five teams in the span of a month, Doug McDermott and C.J. McCollum take the "mid" out of mid-major performances and a Butler walk-on upset top-ranked Indiana in a Hollywood moment -- all gifts themselves for those who love college basketball -- hoops junkies will now get a much-needed break.

So our not-so-secret Santas have been busily pondering what early presents -- and/or holiday wishes -- they'd like to bestow on some particular college basketball teams in need. (No coal allowed.)

As we unwrap our choices, we also wish you and yours a wonderful holiday.

--Robbi Pickeral

To: Baylor

From: Andy Katz

The Bears can win games in the airport, during warm-ups and certainly when you watch them run the floor. But I'd like to give this Baylor team a prescription for defense, intensity and toughness.

Baylor has enough talent on the perimeter with Pierre Jackson and Brady Heslip to score against anyone on its schedule.

But the inexperience inside, despite having overwhelming length and talent, is a question mark. How can a team beat Kentucky at Rupp Arena but lose at home to the College of Charleston and Northwestern?

Well, it would help if the Bears played every game with the same intensity they showed in Lexington. Baylor lost quite a bit from last season's Elite Eight team, notably an enforcer in Quincy Acy. The Bears don't have a player who can duplicate his efforts, but there is enough talent to be the second-best team in the Big 12.

Whether they become that or not will ultimately be up to the frontcourt players who need to max out their abilities in the coming months.

To: Kansas

From: Myron Medcalf

My gift to Kansas is not cheap, but it's necessary. For around $400, you can purchase a high-quality safe that can protect documents from a fire that burns for an hour at 1,700 degrees. Bill Self needs this for the blueprint that details his secret formula for assembling a program that's managed to win eight consecutive Big 12 titles and enter conference play in 2012-13 as the favorite again. I know there's a document somewhere in Lawrence.

Even in today's one-and-done culture, which allows elite teams to stack talent and leave the rest of the country searching for the right combo of vets and youth to compete, the best programs go through occasional slumps. But Kansas has found a way to win eight consecutive titles with talented big men, savvy guards and in-your-face defense. And there's no team in the Big 12 that appears to be equipped to stop the Jayhawks from winning their ninth in a row this season.

They lost Thomas Robinson and Tyshawn Taylor but kept rolling. Jeff Withey enhanced his inside game during the offseason. Kevin Young and Perry Ellis have added depth in the post. And Ben McLemore continues to prove that last season's rumors about his exploits in practice were legit. Self is the king of the reload. Just when you think Kansas has lost too much and will finally finish the season without a slice of the Big 12 crown, it wins another one. The Jayhawks reboot as well any team in the country. It's time for Self to put that blueprint in a safe place.

To: Kentucky

From: Dana O'Neil

To the Big Blue Nation and John Calipari, I offer a collection of Legos -- those complex, 4,000-piece creator sets my 11-year-old daughter loves to build.

When she pulls the pieces out of the box, they're all separated in little plastic bags. Bag No. 1 builds the base, No. 2 the roof and No. 3 the decorations.

The pieces are shiny and pretty, because they're new but separate from one another. Without my daughter's care and patience to painstakingly fit them all together, they don't amount to much. Eventually, though, with time and hard work, she builds something pretty miraculous -- a building, an airplane or even a perfect replica of a Volkswagen van.

Perhaps over the holiday break, Big Blue Nation, Calipari and even the Wildcats themselves can each grab a Lego kit, pour out the pieces and remember how hard it is to build something from scratch, how long it takes and how sometimes you've got to try a few pieces together incorrectly before you realize your mistake.

To: North Carolina

From: Robbi Pickeral

To Roy Williams and North Carolina, let me present the FrankenCenter.

It morphs the three big men who have been rotating at starting center -- Brice Johnson, Joel James and Desmond Hubert -- into one Transformer-like player, combining all of their strengths (and leaving their weaknesses on the bench).

Hubert, a sophomore, adds the defensive component and experience (he's the best blocker of the trio and has been on the team a season longer than the others). James, a 6-foot-10, 260-pound freshman, provides the power and upside (he's been playing since he was only a sophomore in high school, so think of the improvement to come). And then there's Johnson, a freshman who seemingly scores a bucket every minute and is fifth on the team in points. He adds the offense.

Thus, the FrankenCenter gives the the Tar Heels just what they need entering the ACC season: a wide-bodied 5 who never fails to grab offensive rebounds (a la the East Carolina game, when no post player did), who battles for position on the block so often that teammates can't fail to find him and who consistently gets to the free throw line. Oh, and he swats shots, scores and is only going to continue to get better, too -- meaning Williams no longer has to answer the question, "Have you decided on a starter at center yet?"

To: Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott

From: Jason King

To Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott, I offer a set of defibrillators to shock some life back into his struggling conference. Or maybe 11 truckloads of Red Bull to use as wake-up potion at every institution other than Arizona, which is the only school keeping the league relevant. The Pac-12 has been down for a few years now, but this was supposed to be the season when things began to turn. Instead, UCLA's high-profile players are still searching for chemistry, Kevin O'Neill is learning the Land-of-Misfit-Toys approach won't work at USC and Cal is still, well ... Cal, which isn't much. Arizona State was supposed to be better, but the Sun Devils just lost to DePaul. Oregon is the only team in the nation to beat UNLV, but instead of capitalizing on the momentum, the Ducks lost to UTEP. Colorado made a name for itself by beating Baylor and Murray State -- and by escaping in overtime against 1-10 Texas Southern, losing to Wyoming and getting smacked by 36 points against Kansas. Here's hoping the holiday season brings a jolt of energy to the Pac-12.

To: Pittsburgh

From: Eamonn Brennan

This Christmas, I would like to get the Pitt Panthers a time machine. Why? Because it would be nice to go back in time, "Looper" style, and prevent their nonconference schedule from ever happening in the first place.

The Panthers are one of the nation's 10 best teams to date. They rank No. 2 in adjusted offensive efficiency, per KenPom.com; they score, rebound and prevent turnovers at top-10 rates; and they are clinically effective finishing inside the 2-point line. Talib Zanna, Tray Woodall, Lamar Patterson, James Robinson and Dante Taylor are all having hyper-efficient seasons so far, and star 7-foot freshman Steven Adams is right there with them.

The trouble? No one has seemed to notice. And while it would be easy to rail about how people just don't understand per-possession statistics and how wrong the polls are every week (I've been there), it's hard to blame it on the voters. Pittsburgh had one marquee nonconference game on its schedule -- against Michigan in Madison Square Garden. It played well and lost. The rest of the schedule has been bunk, and no, I am not awarding credit for playing Lehigh and Detroit at home.

If a Pitt fan tells you his team is underrated, he has a seriously good case. At which point you tell that Pitt fan: OK. Beat someone first, then I'll believe you. That is not an unfair response.

Which is why I'd like to give the Panthers a noncon-schedule time machine just in time for Christmas. We can invent one of those, right?

A stocking full of coal for the SEC

By Myron Medcalf
ESPN.com

Every week, I handle the SEC in ESPN.com's conference power rankings. This week, I'll probably go with Missouri at No. 1, Kentucky at No. 2, Florida at No. 3 ... and an 11-way tie for last place. There's limited, if any, separation after the top three or four teams in this subpar assembly.

Sure, the SEC is the prince of college football. But the conference is college basketball's pauper right now.

[+] Enlarge
Jamie Squire/Getty ImagesThe SEC should send a holiday card to Frank Haith and Missouri.

The league's lackluster Saturday proved its mediocrity. Missouri, the new resident that some of the conference's supporters booed when it announced its move to the SEC, actually saved the day with an 82-73 win over No. 10 Illinois in St. Louis.

The rest of the conference, however, did little to boost its overall rep.

Southern is ranked 248th in Ken Pomeroy's rankings, but the Jaguars were sharp enough to beat Texas A&M 53-51 on the road. Alabama's recent string of injuries -- Carl Engstrom and Andrew Steele are both out -- has clearly taken its toll. Still, Mercer shouldn't have outscored Bama 44-32 in the second half of a 66-59 win -- in Tuscaloosa.

And don't believe the margin in LSU's 84-80 loss at Marquette. The Tigers were down 43-22 in the first half against a Golden Eagles squad that lost to UW-Green Bay last week.

The same Winthrop team that lost to James Madison and Wofford by a combined 25 points managed to beat Auburn by seven.

Plus, Ole Miss -- a team that's averaged more than 80 points per game against one of the nation's weakest nonconference schedules -- lost to Indiana State 87-85 in overtime. The Sycamores, much like Middle Tennessee State, put up a fight, and the Rebels ultimately lost. That's just Ole Miss basketball, right?

I still believe Florida is an elite team even though the Gators stumbled in the final minutes of their Dec. 15 loss at Arizona, and they couldn't handle a hungry Kansas State squad in Kansas City. But they haven't looked like the dominant squad they were in November and the first half of December.

Saturday's SEC wins -- Kentucky over Marshall, Arkansas over Alabama A&M, Georgia over USC, South Carolina over Manhattan and Mississippi State over Central Arkansas -- didn't resolve anything, either.

There are far more questions than answers about the SEC right now.

Last season, the Pac-12 was the nation's target, as average teams beat other average teams in pursuit of the league's championship. The SEC deserves the same scrutiny right now. Once you move past the conference's best three or four teams, there's just not much substance.

Missouri and Florida are potential contenders. Kentucky could evolve into a national power again. And Tennessee has improved in recent weeks. As for the rest of the conference? Ugh.

Per ESPN.com's RPI ratings, only five SEC teams have a nonconference strength of schedule in the top 100, and the league is 1-9 against teams in the top 25 (RPI).

So every week, it seems, I end up with the same list. I put Missouri, Florida and Kentucky -- not necessarily in that order -- at the top of my conference power rankings. And then, I struggle with the other 11 teams, because they're all so ordinary.

Saturday's performances confirmed as much.

Well, at least the SEC can count on Missouri now. Fans around the league should thank the Tigers for accepting the invite.

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