If you want to get conceptual about it -- and I do, so bear with me -- the college basketball season can be divided into three distinct sub-seasons. There's the two months of nonconference play, which chaotically kicks things off in November and December. Then, obviously, there is the conference season, in which we sort the wheat from the chaff. And then, of course, there is the tournament. Perhaps you've heard of it.
Talking about these divisions got my editors and me thinking: What if we set out some key questions about some of the nation's best and most promising teams at the start of the season, and then checked back in on these things at each key juncture?
At best, we could end up with a really interesting portrait of each team's progression. At worst, we could get a reminder of just how wrong we were in mid-November. I'm hoping for the former and bracing for the latter -- but either way, it's worth a shot.
So, as we pivot away from the ESPN Tip-Off Marathon (get some sleep, guys), here's an introduction to some of the questions we'll come back to in January and March.
Is Indiana playing better defense?
No secret here: This is the single biggest key to Indiana's season. The Hoosiers were one of the best offenses in the country in 2011-12 -- efficient, excellent in the low block and lethal from 3, honed by March into a team capable of putting 90 on Kentucky in the Sweet 16.
If you'll recall, the Hoosiers lost that game by 12. Their defense ranked in the mid-60s in KenPom.com's efficiency stats, and rare is the national title contender with a so-so defense. The importance of IU's progress on this front is impossible to overstate.
Barometer: Defensive points per possession (KenPom rank)
Is Louisville playing better offense?
Take what we just said about Indiana and run it back; the symmetry is actually quite convenient. Indiana got to the Sweet 16 before falling to Kentucky. Louisville got to the Final Four before suffering the same fate.
The Cardinals progressed further in the tournament not only because they got magically hot at just the right time (i.e. just before the Big East tournament, which they won), but also because they had the best defense in the country, one good enough to get them by in single-elimination formats despite playing some truly ugly offense. That defense should remain intact this season. How much better will the offense be, if at all? Because the thought of last year's Louisville team with an efficient attack is absolutely frightening.
Barometer: Offensive points per possession (KenPom rank)
Is Nerlens Noel coming along?
Point guard always receives the most attention in John Calipari's world, and make no mistake -- Ryan Harrow will be a crucial character in Kentucky's tale. But I think Noel is hands down the most interesting, if not the most important, player in Lexington this season. His gifts are undeniable. His sheer size and athleticism makes all the lofty NBA projections reasonable. But Noel didn't arrive this fall fully formed.
As he showed in UK's first game, he has a lot of learning to do, from simple things such as box-outs and positioning to the technical skills of low-post offense. But Calipari's model is all about accelerating this kind of development, about cramming two or three years of growth into one eight-month period. Will it work with Noel? The answer to that question could also serve as the story of Kentucky's season.
Barometers: Individual offensive rating, rebounding rates, block rate, steal rate
Is the Pac-12 improving?
Nothing complicated here. Last season, the Pac-12's best nonconference win came when Oregon State beat Texas. That was it! Even if the conference wasn't historically bad -- and it was -- the league didn't build any equity during the nonconference season, making it impossible to prove otherwise. That's how you end up with your regular-season conference champion becoming the first power-six team not to earn an at-large invite to the Dance.
Fortunately, this will be easy to monitor, because we'll be able to keep an eye on the conference's performance throughout these opening two months, and able to review the league's status when the RPI starts to come into focus during conference play.
Barometer: Quality nonconference wins
Is Mason Plumlee making the leap?
It isn't often you see a player drastically improve between his junior and senior seasons. It just doesn't really happen. But Plumlee's development curve has been a bit slower than usual, and his occasional signs of brilliance (to say nothing of that size and athletic ability) have been dampened by marginal footwork, so-so touch around the rim and lack of court awareness.
But Duke has said it will play out of the post with Plumlee more often this season, and this may be the season it all comes together. Or not. We'll see.
Barometer: Usage rate, offensive rating, rebounding rates
Is Missouri's transfer project progressing?
The Tigers have the biggest disparity between their ceiling and their floor of any team in the country. On paper, this group might be even more talented than the 2011-12 team, but that squad had the benefit of long-term cohesion.
As opposed to a large group of veterans, this season Frank Haith must incorporate a load of transfers: Alex Oriakhi, Earnest Ross, Keion Bell and Jabari Brown are all new and must work into a backcourt that already includes potential All-American Phil Pressey and dynamic shooting guard Michael Dixon. The task of taking all of these disparate parts and making them into a whole will be an even greater challenge than Haith's inaugural season in Columbia.
Barometer: Wins, assists to made field goals, defensive efficiency rank
Is UNC point guard Marcus Paige ready yet?
There are many questions worth asking about Roy Williams' totally revamped UNC team. Is James Michael McAdoo as good as the hype? Can P.J. Hairston and Reggie Bullock become stars on the wings? Will this team rebound and defend even remotely as well as it did when John Henson and Tyler Zeller were on campus?
But perhaps the biggest question is whether the freshman Paige, who is getting the ball in his hands immediately this season, is ready to make Williams' up-tempo secondary attack system run.
Barometer: Assist rate
Are Baylor's bigs the real deal?
We know the Bears' backcourt is going to be good. Pierre Jackson is an excellent playmaker, and Brady Heslip is one of the two or three best shooters in the country. The threshold characteristic in Waco this season will be frontcourt play.
Specifically, it will hinge on whether freshmen Isaiah Austin (a 7-footer with legit guard skills who doesn't prefer to play in the post) and Rico Gathers (a bruising power forward type) are already good enough to rebound and defend with some of the best frontcourts in the country -- not least of all the Jeff Withey-led Kansas Jayhawks.
Barometers: Team rebounding rate, team block rate
Is UNLV's three-headed frontcourt working?
Last season, UNLV's Mike Moser was one of the best rebounders in the country. He played power forward. This offseason, UNLV landed the top power forward in the class of 2012, Anthony Bennett. It also drew closer to Pitt transfer Khem Birch -- the No. 1 center in the class of 2011 -- hitting his post-Christmas eligibility date.
So: Will Moser play small forward? That seems to be his best position at the next level, but is his perimeter game ready? Can Dave Rice really run with all that size on the floor? How does this problem -- a good problem, to be sure, but a problem all the same -- get resolved?
Barometers: Moser rebounding rate, team rebounding rate
Is the Big Ten really all it's cracked up to be?
If there is one overriding, widely accepted truth about the 2012-13 season, it's that the Big Ten is the best conference in the country, and the comparison isn't even close.
I tend to think this will hold true throughout the season -- the top end of the conference (Indiana, Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State, Wisconsin) is too good, and the rest of the league is too deep -- but hey, it wouldn't be the first time an overwhelming preseason consensus was overruled by December. We'll just have to wait and see.
Barometers: Team adjusted efficiency rankings, top 25 ranks, Big Ten/ACC Challenge, quality wins