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College Basketball Kicks Off Conference Season — Who’s Got a Shot at the Crown?

Gonazaga Bulldogs center Chet Holmgren and UCLA Bruins wing Peyton Watson could be two players vying for the NCAA Championship in the spring of 2022.
Gonazaga Bulldogs center Chet Holmgren and UCLA Bruins wing Peyton Watson could be two players vying for the NCAA Championship in the spring of 2022. Wikimedia Commons

As men’s college basketball wraps up a wild preseason, potential contenders for the 2022 NCAA title have risen and fallen. According to the NCAA, the eventual winner appeared on the top 11 Associated Press preseason poll in 12 of the past 14 seasons. (Future champion Connecticut was 38th in 2010-11 preseason voting.)

After a November filled with exciting games providing expected finishes, conference play opens up over the rest of this month before beginning in earnest in January. Despite a lot of shifting amidst its teams, only one top 11 team has slipped out of its preseason perch: Illinois, which was replaced by now number nine Alabama. 

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  1. Purdue 8-0

For the first time in its history, Purdue is ranked number one in the Associated Press men’s college basketball poll. The Boilermakers were a unanimous choice for Monday’s poll.

Purdue reached No. 2 in consecutive seasons under Gene Keady in 1986-87 and 1987-88, but didn’t present a team anywhere as close to as intimidating as this 2021-2022 version. The Boilermakers routed Florida State last week, scoring 93 points against a stout defensive squad, and followed that up with a lackadaisical Big Ten opener in which they only beat Iowa, 77-70 on Friday. Potential top five NBA draft pick guard Jaden Ivey finished with a ho-hum 19 points and two steals.

Purdue is going to be a nightmare matchup for anybody. It would be little surprise to see them hoist the trophy in April. 

  1. Baylor 8-0

Baylor was expected to have some growing pains after it lost critical cog and fierce guard Davion Mitchell to the NBA last season. Instead, the Bears cruised through the Battle 4 Atlantis with an easy victory over Michigan State and have looked fantastic in an undefeated start. 

Instead of a ferocious defense, Baylor is riding scoring guards James Akinjo and LJ Cryer, who scored 20 points off the bench in Saturday’s 99-54 win over Arkansas-Pine Bluff. The Bears’ next game is Sunday against Villanova. That game is in Waco after eight days to rest and prep for the top 10 matchup, which should say a lot about how these teams might look in the Big Dance. 

  1. Duke 7-1

Duke has answered the clamor that is legendary coach Mike Krzyzewski’s final season with two top ten wins, first over fellow blue blood Kentucky and then in an epic showdown with then number one Gonzaga in Las Vegas. After besting fellow potential number one pick Chet Holmgren, forward Paolo Banchero is trying to lead Duke to a storybook of the Coach K Age. 

Duke’s only blemish unfortunately came in its last game — a no-show in the last minutes against Ohio State, when Duke was outscored 14-1 in the final five minutes of Tuesday’s 71-66 loss. They’ll have time to get right before the ACC season beginning with its next game on Tuesday, a cupcake against South Carolina State.

  1. UCLA 8-1

After losing to then number one Gonzaga on a neutral floor in Las Vegas, UCLA appears to be laser-focused on learning from that loss. Tyger Campbell finished with 21 points, seven rebounds and five assists in Wednesday’s 73-61 win over Colorado in Wednesday’s PAC-10 opener. The Bruins moved to 2-0 with a weird win, inconsequential to the rankings, when Washington was forced to forfeit due to a COVID outbreak.

We will find out a lot about how much this team has grown over the next couple of weeks as they visit Marquette in a tough road matchup next Saturday before returning home to face the up-and-coming North Carolina Tar Heels game the following Saturday.

  1. Gonzaga 7-2

What a rollercoaster season it’s already been for Gonzaga. After losing another heartbreaker in last year’s championship game, seven-foot beanpole freshman Chet Holmgren has led his team to two top five wins, first over Texas and then a beatdown of UCLA. After Thanksgiving, however, the Bulldogs have lost their bite, first going down to Duke, then barely surviving Tarleton State before getting beat down by Alabama. Holmgren missed each of the four three-pointers he attempted in the 91-82 loss that saw Alabama attempt thirty-four three-pointers out of its 72 shots. 

As has always been the blessing and the curse of playing in the West Coast Conference, Gonzaga is not scheduled to face another ranked team during all of conference play this year. 

  1. Villanova 6-2

Despite two tough losses, first on the road in overtime to UCLA and then to now-number one Purdue, the Wildcats have the looks of a contender going into Big East play. 

According to Ken Pom, Nova is the third-best offensively efficient team in the country, just behind Gonzaga and Purdue. They also sport a typical collection of savvy scoring guards, led by Collin Gillespie, who finished with 23 points and four rebounds in Saturday’s 81-52 win over Saint Joseph’s. The Wildcats’ next game is Tuesday against Syracuse whom the ‘Cats better not look past before Sunday’s big showdown against Baylor. 

  1. Texas 6-1

Despite a solid start to the Chris Beard era in Austin, the Longhorns aren’t getting a lot of national love. If the NCAA tournament has shown anything over the decades, though, it’s that you need guards to win and Texas has something special in its three ball handlers, Minnesota transfer Marcus Carr, Andrew Jones, and Courtney Ramey.

The team’s deep and talented bench also keeps showing out in different ways with Christian Bishop finishing with 17 points off the bench in Friday’s 88-58 win over UT Rio Grande Valley. With a matchup Thursday against Seton Hall and a mid-December tilt against Stanford, the Longhorns won’t begin Big 12 play in earnest until Jan. 1. Don’t sleep on them in March.

  1. Kansas 6-1

It’s been a typical up-and-down beginning for Kansas, showing out against Michigan State to open the year before being stunned on a last-second shot against Dayton. The Jayhawks rebounded to rout St. Johns. Guard Christian Braun is the latest ‘Hawk to break out of an early season funk, finishing with 31 points and eight rebounds in the 95-75 win.

There’s depth on this team and a nice blend of youth and experience. Kansas coach Bill Self will have to steady the ship, though, if this team is going to make noise in March. It’ll have plenty of time to prep as the Big 12 doesn’t really ramp up until the beginning of 2022. 

  1. Alabama 7-1

Is it too much to say that Alabama is threatening to become a basketball school? Almost definitely. Coach Nate Oats has got the Tide riding high, however, with a new school, analytic-tilted approach.

The team forced its way into the top ten this week with a drubbing of Gonzaga, in Seattle no less. The Tide made 10 of its 13 first three-pointers and was led by guard Jaden Shackelford’s sharp shooting. After leading by 16 at halftime, they withstood every second half charge the Bulldogs made to cruise to a 91-82 win. They’ll face another ranked team in Houston Sunday before tuning up until the end of December when the SEC schedule gets going in full.

  1. Kentucky 6-1

Kentucky features its typical talented crop of freshman and has played a predictable cupcake schedule so far that makes the team hard to gauge. Oscar Tshiebwe finished with 20 points and 15 rebounds in Monday’s 85-57 win over Central Michigan, but the MAC team is not even close to the Wildcats’ level.

That will change over the next two weeks with games against Notre Dame, Ohio State, and Kentucky and then opening up SEC play in LSU on Jan. 4. 

  1. Arizona 7-0

First year coach Tommy Lloyd has done a masterful job so far. The team’s offensive machine has yet to score less than 80 points, with that number marking its signature win, an 80-62 win over Michigan in Las Vegas. Arizona is locking teams down at 26% from 3-point range. 

The Wildcats will get a chance to show if they’re real in December with tough tilts in Illinois, Tennessee, and finally in Los Angeles on Dec. 30 against UCLA.

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