Early Highlights of the 2011 - 2012 College Basketball Season

        The college football spectacle is over and it's time for all sports fans to turn their attention full-time to the conference play and post-season play of college basketball. It's already the half-way point of the season and we have conjured up quite the list of surprises, disappointments, break-outs and some NCAA Tournament picks. Below, we highlight the 2011-12 season thus far and moving forward.

Top Story Lines

        Freshmen Spurn 2011 NBA Draft…and Now?: The jury is still out on one the four freshmen that decided to hit the books for at least one more season of college basketball instead of making the jump to the NBA. All four would have likely been lottery picks, even possible top-five picks had they declared; Jared Sullinger, Harrison Barnes and Perry Jones all lead their teams as NCAA Tournament Contenders and favorites to win their respective conferences. Terrence Jones, Kentucky's versatile forward, has suffered through inconsistencies and injuries and may now be best suited for another year.

        Xavier vs. Cincinatti: The Crosstown Shootout was as big of a blowout as we predicted it would be as the then-ranked No. 8 Musketeers beat-down the Bearcats by 23 and then an actual beat down ensued when a bench-clearing melee occurred.

        Resurgence of Indiana: Many analysts expected a strong start from the Hoosiers when taking a gander at their non-conference schedule, which was highlighted by such institutions as: Stony Brook, Chattanooga, Evansville, Savannah State, Gardner Webb, Stetson, Howard and UMBC. But where Tom Crean and his Indiana squad put the program back on the map was a thrilling one-point victory over Kentucky. That got everyone's attention. And just a few days after tipping-off conference play in the Big Ten, the Hoosiers promptly upset No. 2 Ohio State to become the fifth team in the last ten season to beat teams ranked No. 1 and No. 2 in the same season.

        Kentucky's freshmen as good as advertised: For the third consecutive year, John Calipari racked in the nation's top recruiting class, highlighted by NBA-DRAFT.com's top overall NBA Draft prospect, Anthony Davis, a top-five pick in Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, first-rounder Marquis Teague and future-pick Kyle Wiltjer. Davis is averaging 12.7 points, 10.6 rebounds (16th in the country) and a nation-leading 4.6 blocks. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist has been excellent with the inconsistencies of Terrence Jones, averaging 13.6 points, 7.8 rebounds and better than a block and a steal per game. Marquis Teague is still learning the point guard position, but leads the team with 4.5 assists per game to go along with his 10.8 points. And then finally, off the bench, Kyle Wiltjer has provided three double-digit scoring games.

        Newly-formed and wildly-unpredictable Pac-12: Colorado and Utah are having opposite feelings about their new-conference at this point in time. At just 4-11 overall and 1-2 in Pac-12 play, Utah is at the bottom of the standings, while the Buffaloes of Colorado stand alone at 3-0 in the conference. Aside from that little tidbit, pre-season favorites Cal (pre-season ranked 24) and Washington are 3-1 in the conference and in the non-conference slate, each has lost to far inferior opponents. Arizona was ranked 16th in the country before the season and has lost five games already this season, creeping up on their total from last season.

        This is the same conference that gave us Arizona's 1997 NCAA Championship, UCLA's 10th in 1995 and 50 current NBA players, second-most of any conference.

        On course for perfection: In the history of college basketball, nine teams have finished the regular season undefeated, with seven of those maintaining their perfect marks to win an NCAA title. At this point in the season, three teams still stand above the rest: Syracuse, Baylor and
Murray State. As the Big East and Big 12 teams tend to beat up on each other during these conference matches, it's unlikely that these two hold their mark, but Murray State, on the other hand, has a chance at becoming the tenth team in college basketball history.

National Contenders

Syracuse: One of three remaining unbeatens and the nation's No. 1 overall team in the rankings. Jim Boeheim has depth that is unmatched by any team of recent memory, including some rotational players that could field a respectable squad of their own. There is no star on this team, instead a whole bunch of versatile, young players that buy into the offensive and defensive mindsets of the Orange.

North Carolina: The Tar Heels have to be ahead of Kentucky despite the Wildcats being ahead in the standings (and the head-to-head win) at this point due to their star-studded frontcourt of Harrison Barnes, John Henson and Tyler Zeller. Let's not leave out point guard Kendall Marshall, who has more 10+ assist games (seven) than the rest of the ACC combined (just one). This team can score the basket in every conceivable way and that's going to make them one tough out in March and April.

Kentucky: Just a shade below UNC, UK could kick it up a notch if Terrence Jones gets back healthy and productive. Anthony Davis is a tremendous talent and defensive-stalwart with his length (10.6 rebounds, 4.6 blocks per game), while Michael Kidd-Gilchrist has been exceptional this season. The often overlooked player on this team is Doron Lamb- the team's best perimeter shooter and play-maker. The team will go as far as he, not Marquis Teague, can take them.

Ohio State: The Buckeyes have had the daunting challenge of traveling to Lawrence, Kansas without Jared Sullinger in the lineup and then conference foes Indiana and Illinois on the road. Those are their three losses, while posting wins over top-ten foes Duke and Florida to balance out. With a healthy-Sullinger in the lineup, combined with senior guard, William Buford, one of the most underrated players in the country, Ohio State has the inside-outside game of a potential national champion.

Just A Step Behind

Baylor: The Bears are undefeated and have answered skeptics' questions by winning on the road and away from home, something they failed to do last season. JuCo transfer Pierre Jackson has been a terrific spark, while Boston College transfer Brady Heslip has been just as important with his dead-on perimeter accuracy. And then there is the frontcourt combination of length and athleticism: Perry Jones, Quincy Miller, Quincy Acy and Anthony Jones. But the problem is their sloppiness and decision-making: turning the ball over way too much, forcing up ill-advised shots and getting in foul troubles with senseless fouls.

Duke: This team isn't as good or as complete as past teams. They lack the guard play that Kyrie Irving and Nolan Smith offered and as good as Austin Rivers has been, he is not an offensive initiator or playmaker for others. Is Quinn Cook the answer? Tyler Thornton sure wasn't, but the Blue Devils also suffer from horrendous perimeter defense that allows opposing guards to penetrate and score in the paint or kick the ball out at a much too high rate.

Missouri: The Tigers have sure as heck been fun to watch this season as their four-guard lineup puts up points in a hurry. Marcus Denmon is a player of the year candidate and Ricardo Ratliffe has been excellent as the team's long big man. But can a team with just two players over 6'6" compete for a national title?

Michigan State: By building a winning streak that has lasted since the first week of the season, the Spartans find themselves as a top six or seven team in the country. Draymond Green is one of the best all-around players in college basketball and creates one of the most underrated frontcourts with Branden Dawson, Adreian Payne and Derrick Nix. But their backcourt is of nowhere near the same caliber. Keith Appling has talent, but is inconsistent and MSU as a team struggles to make perimeter shots.

Indiana: The resurgence of this slumbering program is probably the story of the year, but Michigan State beat them by double-digits in East Lansing, raising the question, can the Hoosiers win away from Assembly Hall? We know they can win their with two top-two wins, however, they have much to prove if they want to be considered a favorite.

Midseason National Player of the Year

1. Thomas Robinson, Kansas: No player has been as good as the Kansas forward this season. Robinson has been a super-sub off the bench during his first two seasons, spelling several All-Americans, but this year as a starter, he has taken over his team's production, almost single-handedly leading them to their 12 wins. Robinson's 17.5 points per game rank third in the Big 12, while his 12.1 rebounds not only pace the league, but are second in the country. His standout game is a 30-point, 21-rebound performance with four assists, while certainly would have been more had his teammates been able to knock down their open shots.

2. Jared Sullinger, Ohio State: The pre-season favorite for the award has taken a backseat due to injuries, but with a strong second-half, Sullinger could come out on top. When healthy, Ohio State is as good as any team in the country because of his ability to dominate down low. In the 15 games he has taken a part of, he is averaging 17.4 points on 60.5 percent shooting from the floor and 9.3 rebounds.

3. Kevin Jones, West Virginia: For three years, Jones has taken a backseat to his teammates, but finally, in his senior season, the inside-outside 4-man is busting out as one of the top performers. His 19.9 points and 11.1 rebounds per game are both tops in the Big East Conference for the 12-5 Mountaineers. Against Baylor's dynamic frontline, Jones posted 28 points and 17 rebounds in the two-point defeat.

4. Doug McDermott, Creighton: Last season, we had the Jimmer-craze and while McDermott does not get nearly as much press as he deserves, he is still one of the top players in the entire country and the reason why his Bluejays are ranked. There is more to the team than just him, but his gaudy numbers have him ranked here. His scoring at 25.2 points, which ranks second nationally and rebounding 8.3 boards per game, which is second in the Missouri Valley Conference. More impressively, McDermott's scoring is super-efficient: his .632 field-goal percentage is 20th in the country and his .582 3-point marksmanship is third nationally.

5. Anthony Davis, Kentucky: His spot here is the exact reason why Davis is still No. 1 in our Mock Drafts and atop our Big Board- his length and athleticism is befuddling to opposing offenses where he not only blocks 4.6 shots to lead the country, but alters many more in the paint. His presence down low defensively makes him an intimidating force, where he capitalizes on his opponents' misses by chasing down rebounds (10.6 per game) and gets up and down the court in transition. Davis' athleticism makes him the ideal candidate for alley-oops and forceful dunks on the offensive end despite his limited skills.

Midseason Freshman of the Year

1. Anthony Davis, Kentucky: There is not much more to say here that we did not list above- Davis has been a tremendous asset and impact player for the Wildcats. He isn't an offensive force just yet, but he is one of the best rebounders and shot-blockers in the country.

2. Cody Zeller, Indiana: The agile 7-footer has sparked the revival of one of the game's storied programs by leading the Hoosiers to wins over No. 1 Kentucky and No. 2 Ohio State thus far this season. His name is being dropped in the National Player of the Year voting as well as he leads the team in scoring (14.2 points), field-goal percentage (66.1- ninth nationally), rebounding (6.4), blocks (1.5) and is second in steals (1.7) per game.

3. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Kentucky: Perhaps an underrated and overlooked member of the Wildcats because he is not particularly flashy or a potent scorer, but Kidd-Gilchrist does a lot of the dirty work. In fact, he may be one of the hardest workers in the country with his motor. Statistics cannot measure the leadership he has exhibited as a freshman, but it can measure his scoring and rebounding prowess; he is second on the Wildcats in scoring with 13.6 points and rebounding with 7.8 rebounds per game. Defensively, he has proven himself as a lockdown defender averaging better than one steal and one block per game.

4. Tony Wroten, Washington: Most of the attention the Pac-12 receives is negative press for the inconsistency and low-level of play amongst its members. But if there has been one consistent, stand-out player in the West, its been the freshman point guard, in fact, he is up at the top of the conference player of the year at this point too. He has unseated former-starter Abdul Gaddy at the point and the results have been solid- Wroten leads the team in scoring at 17 points per night, which is second in the Pac-12 and he chips in with 4.6 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 1.9 steals per game.

5. Trey Burke, Michigan: Burke has had the challenge of replacing do-it-all guard Darius Morris and thus far, has succeeded at it. His poise and leadership, not to mention scoring as well, is the main reason why the Wolverines have not seen a drop-off, in fact, they are even better this season than they were last year with Morris. Burke is second on the team in scoring at 13.8 points per game (12th in the Big Ten) and his 5.0 assists per game are third in the conference.

By President - Corey Ruff - 1-11-12