Ness Notes (CBB): Conference Games Take "Center Stage!"

by Larry Ness

The 2021-22 NCAAB season opened back on November 9 and now gets set to move into the 2022 part of its season. Selection Sunday isn't until March 13, 2022, when 32 automatic bids will be handed out, along with 36 "at large" ones. The Final 4 is set for Caesars Superdome (New Orleans) for April 2 and 4. That's a L-O-N-G way off but let me take 'a peek' at what's happened so far, as conference play is about to take "center stage!" 

The AP's preseason No. 1 team was Gonzaga, to no one's surprise. Gonzaga head coach Mark Few has led Gonzaga to 21 straight NCAA berths in his 22 years (2020 tourney was canceled), doing everything BUT win a national championship. However, he's led the Bulldogs into the title game TWICE in the last four seasons. Last year's loss was a 'killer,' as Gonzaga was No. 1 wire-to-wire and at 31-0, was looking to match Bob Knight's 1975-76 team, which was the last team to go unbeaten (32-0) and win the title. However, 73 years after it last played for a national title, Baylor 'jumped all over' the Bulldogs early in the game and never looked back in an 86-70 victory. It was Baylor's first national title and extinguished Gonzaga’s ambitions for end-to-end perfection.

Gonzaga stayed No. 1 for the first three polls but when it lost 84-81 in Las Vegas to Duke on Nov 26, it dropped to No. 3 in the Nov 29th AP poll. "The Dookies," in Coach K's final season, jumped from No. 5 to No. 1. For Coach K, it was the 127th time in his career his Blue Devils had earned the No. 1 ranking (UCLA's John Wooden ranks 2nd with 134 No. 1 rankings). However, Duke's stay at No. 1 lasted just one week, as the Blue Devils lost on Nov 30th 81-76 at Ohio St in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. When the new AP poll came out on Dec 6, 8-0 Purdue found itself atop the AP poll for the first time in school history, getting all 61 votes. Somewhat 'quietly,' defending champ Baylor (also 8-0) moved to No. 2 in that poll, having opened at No. 8 in the preseason poll.

Purdue's stay at No. 1 lasted just one week, as the Boilermakers lost 70-68 at Rutgers on Dec 9 as 13.5-point favorites. That meant there would be a new AP No. 1 when the next poll came out on Dec 13. Lo and behold, last season's national champs (Baylor), earned the No. 1 ranking with its 9-0 record and overall 15-game winning streak going back to last year's NCAA Tournament run. The Bears won their title last season without ever being ranked No. 1 and got all 61 votes. It marked the FOURTH consecutive week in which the AP featured a different No. 1 school. Recapping the progression, the No. 1 ranking went from Gonzaga, to Duke, to Purdue and then to Baylor.

A combination of cancellations and the holidays made for a quiet past week in men's college hoops and the latest AP poll (Dec 27) reflected the light week. 11-0 Baylor remained No. 1 for the THIRD straight week (winning streak is up to 18 in a row), receiving all 61 first-place votes. The Bears had 60 first place votes a week ago but were a unanimous selection this week after Arizona's loss at Tennessee (Wildcats had received one first-place vote in the Dec 20th poll). Things have seemingly settled down (but for how long?), as the top-five remained the same from last week, with Duke, Purdue, Gonzaga and UCLA behind Baylor. In fact, no teams dropped out of this week's poll, meaning none climbed into the poll as well.

Baylor is one of FIVE schools that remain unbeaten. The others are No. 7 USC (12-0), No. 8 Iowa St (12-0), No. 16 LSU (12-0) and No. 20 Colorado St (10-0). Colorado St is the least-known of the group, but the Rams were 20-8 last season (made the NIT's 'Final 4') and head coach Niko Medved, entering his fourth season in Fort Collins, returned all FIVE starters from last year's team. Colorado State moved up a spot to No. 20 this week, the program's highest ranking since reaching No. 19 in 1954. The Rams have been ranked for THREE straight weeks for the first time in school-history. However, the Rams have been on a COVID-19 pause since Dec 17. They are expected to return for a game against Air Force on Jan 4 (fingers crossed).

The biggest surprise has to be Iowa St, as head coach T.J. Otzelberger was hired in March of 2021 at Iowa State to replace Steve Prohm, whose Cyclones went 2-22 last season, including 0-18 in Big 12 play. Otzelberger made a name for himself by leading South Dakota St to back-to-back NCAA bids in 2017 and 2018, allowing him to move to UNLV. Things didn't quite work out for coach and school, as the Rebels were just 29-30 in his two-year stay. However, Iowa St and Otzelberger have the James Hilton Coliseum 'rocking' again, going 10-0 at home.

Let me NOT overlook 12-0 USC and 12-0 LSU. USC made an Elite-8 run last season, finishing 25-8. However, Evan Mobley left after his freshman season to become the No. 3 overall pick of the 2021 NBA Draft. Head coach Andy Enfield made a HUGE 'splash' in 2013 when the Florida Gulf Coast Eagles earned a No. 15 seed in the South Region of the NCAA tournament. They upset No. 2 seed Georgetown in the first round and No. 7 seed San Diego State in the second round, making them the first No. 15 seed to reach the "Sweet 16." Enfield is in his ninth season at USC and won 26 games back in the 2016-17 season and as noted, 25 games last season, However, this looks like the best team he's had in Los Angeles, as the Trojans are holding opponents to 60.9 PPG on 35.2% shooting (3rd-best in the nation). What's more, USC has held ALL 12 of its opponents to under 40% FG shooting, the first D-I team to do so in the first 12 games of a season in more than 15 years.

LSU's Will Wade has had some controversy since arriving in Baton Rouge. Wade coached the 2018–19 team to the Southeastern Conference regular season championship but in March of 2019 he was indefinitely suspended amid charges of recruiting violations. LSU lifted that suspension on April 14, 2019. Wade's Tigers won 21 games in the 2019-20 season (cut short because of COVID) and 19 games last year, losing to Michigan in the second round of the Big Dance. He lost FOUR starters off that team but has LSU unbeaten through 12 games.

In closing, I'll check in on the 11 teams ranked in the AP preseason top-25 but are not among the top-25 as of Dec 27th's poll. The 'worst offenders' are No. 6 Michigan (now 7-4), No. 12 Memphis (6-4), No. 13 Oregon (7-6), No. 20 Florida St (6-4), No. 21 Maryland (6-4) and No. 25 Virginia (7-5). The other five top-25 preseason teams not ranked at the present time are No. 11 Illinois (9-3), No. 16 Arkansas (10-2), No. 19 North Carolina (9-3), No. 23 St Bonaventure (8-3) and No. 24 UConn (10-3).

Happy New year...Larry

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