Campus Sports Top 25: Spartans stay on top as conference play begins

Hey, fans, it’s time for the best part of college basketball season!

No, not the tournament, but I’m talking about conference play!

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, the long days of tune-up games and random non-conference matchups are over. At long last, in just a couple of days, the games that really matter will take place and the championship landscape will start to take shape very soon.

But here’s the most important question: who can stop Michigan State? The Spartans may be down their best player, but look far from finished. In fact, they look even stronger.

No time to dawdle. Here’s the latest Campus Sports Top 25!

 

1. Michigan State (13-0)

The Spartans needed overtime to take down Oakland before Christmas and though the team wasn’t at its best with team leader Denzel Valentine out with an injury, it’s safe to say that this team is going to be just fine. Bryn Forbes has settled into his role has a shooter, but West Virginia transfer Eron Harris shined bright in extended minutes and made an art out of driving the lane and drawing fouls, scoring 27 points.

And next, Tom Izzo’s team will take a trip to take on an Iowa team that has gotten off to a decent enough start and already has a win against Wichita State this season. With Valentine still likely sidelined, this could wind up being quite the test.

 

2. Oklahoma (11-0)

The Sooners are for real, having pulled off a number of signature wins already, namely against Villanova. But playtime is now over as the team will have a few days to rest after winning the Diamond Head Classic in Hawaii, but then have to host Iowa State on Saturday.

The good news is that Buddy Hield is really coming into his own as a scoring guard and so long as Oklahoma’s attack aside from him can come together, the team could be primed for a long Big 12 run.

 

3. Kansas (10-1)

Kansas has one more non-conference game before opening Big 12 play against Baylor on Saturday, but it’s far from a cakewalk. The Jayhawks take on UC-Irvine, who has 7-foot-6 Mamadou Ndiaye manning the middle. Not to sound like a broken record, but here I go: BILL SELF, GIVE CHEICK DIALLO MORE MINUTES.

Seriously, unless the five-star freshman big man gets more playing time to develop as a shot blocker and rebounder, Kansas is only keeping itself from taking a step forward and with one non-conference loss to Michigan State already on the seasonal resumé, losing to a team from the Big West will NOT look good.

 

4. Virginia (10-1)

It wasn’t pretty, but Virginia took down Cal to keep the momentum rolling. But the party won’t start just yet, as the Horizon League’s Oakland Golden Grizzlies are next, on Wednesday. Given how this team almost defeated Michigan State, Virginia had better be prepared.

That said, by proving that the Grizzlies were only taking advantage of an ideal situation in Denzel Valentine being injured, the Cavaliers can once again prove to be for real in the ACC when it’s time to play Notre Dame on Sunday.

 

5. Maryland (11-1)

After taking down Marshall yesterday, the Terps have no time to celebrate. Their Big Ten schedule starts Wednesday when Penn State comes to town, and the Nittany Lions could prove to be a tough competitor. Penn State hasn’t defeated anyone of note, but started 9-4. Clearly, this team is slowly turning a corner under Pat Chambers.

But so is Maryland under Mark Turgeon and with the team looking as strong as ever despite being in the tough and physical Big Ten, their experience should help them get over the boys from Happy Valley.

 

6. Xavier (12-0)

Xavier just barely beat Wake Forest in Winston-Salem before the holiday, but Big East play gives the Musketeers a true run for their money at the start. On Wednesday, Chris Mack’s squad travels to Philadelphia to take on Villanova, who despite some losses are still looking like a strong team.

The good news is that Xavier is looking stronger than it did last year despite losing a key player and so long as the on-ball defense is strong, pulling off a road win is easily achievable.

 

7. North Carolina (10-2)

The Tar Heels’ shift into ACC play might be easier than anyone else in the conference, especially since they still have a game against the UNC-Greensboro Spartans tonight! After that game comes Clemson on Wednesday and Georgia Tech on Sunday, not exactly ACC heavyweights despite the Yellow Jackets’ 9-3 start. Despite that, Roy Williams’ team already has two tough non-conference losses and will be playing fully focused, even if big man Kennedy Meeks is still hurt. Long story short, the Tar Heels should open ACC play with a bang.

 

8. Arizona (12-1)

Arizona has won seven in a row and gets this week off before opening Pac-12 play against Arizona State a week from today, and that could prove to be a test against this run-and-gun team. The Sun Devils play a tough defensive game with strong emphasis on rebounding and are 9-3 in their first season under Bobby Hurley, and the Wildcats are missing quite a few players from last year’s incredibly talented team.

Pretty much, so long as there’s no hangover from a week off, Arizona should keep the streak going and continue rising in the rankings.

 

9. Iowa State (10-1)

Iowa State shook off a loss to Northern Iowa by just barely beating Cincinnati and gets a nice tuneup game on Wednesday against the MEAC’s Coppin State Eagles before facing Oklahoma on Sunday. This means that with fresher legs, the Cyclones could easily be the ones to hand the Sooners their first defeat, so that matchup is not one to be missed.

 

10. Kentucky (10-2)

It wasn’t pretty, but Kentucky reasserted its dominance with a tight win over Louisville at Rupp Arena over the weekend. The Wildcats now get the rest of the week to decompress, but shouldn’t get too comfortable. SEC play starts on Sunday with the ever-tough Ole Miss Rebels coming to Lexington, led by hotshot scorer Stefan Moody and Spanish big man Sebastian Saiz.

Kentucky is deep enough that it will still find a way to contend once again this year, even if Skal Labissiere has been a bust thus far, but this game needs to be treated as a must-win. Barring a hangover from the Louisville game, Kentucky should be able to win this game with ease.

 

11. Butler (10-1)

The Bulldogs are riding high after wins over Purdue and Southern Utah and have another cupcake game today against the Summit League’s IUPUI Jaguars, but New Year’s Eve brings a tough test. The Bulldogs will host Providence, a team that has worked its way into the AP Top 10 and is looking stronger than it has in almost two decades.

By defeating the Friars, Butler can prove that it is one of the rulers of the roost in the Big East. Heck, even in a close defeat, it can establish just that. But in a blowout, the Bulldogs could just become another face in the crowd.

 

12. Providence (12-1)

Speaking of Providence, they’ll be prepping all week for their game against Butler. The Friars will be boosted by the return of star guard Kris Dunn, who finally beat a stomach bug, but should be prepared for Butler’s strong on-ball defense. After all, this is the team that beat big and strong Purdue.

So long as Dunn can get other teammates involved and beat Butler’s lockdown defense, the Friars should continue to rise in the rankings. Otherwise, they may be as good as exposed.

 

13. Miami (10-1)

The Hurricanes get a bit of a breather when they take on Princeton tomorrow, but shouldn’t get too comfortable because Syracuse comes to town on Sunday. Though the Orange are 10-3 and all losses came to unranked opponents, they’re still a much more experienced team than young Miami.

Fortunately, the game is in Coral Gables and the defense has looked strong enough that Syracuse’s offense could be stifled easily. Oh, and let’s not forget that Miami has already beaten Utah and Butler this season. With signature wins like those, ACC play could wind up being a walk in the park at some points.

 

14. Purdue (12-1)

The Boilermakers bounced back from a loss to Butler with a win over Vanderbilt, but there’s no break before starting Big Ten play tomorrow against Wisconsin. Purdue should run rampant over the Badgers, who have gotten off to a slow start, but the game is also in Madison.

Sure, Purdue may be favored but on the road, anything can happen.

 

15. Duke (9-2)

Duke hasn’t played since losing to Utah back on the 19th, and will have two tuneup opportunities against Elon today and Long Beach State on Wednesday before visiting Boston College to begin ACC play on Saturday. Not having Amile Jefferson manning the paint will hurt the Blue Devils’ rebounding game until he gets back from an injury, but the good news is that freshman Luke Kennard proved against Utah that he can be a viable scoring option off the bench, scoring 24 points.

By utilizing him and, in small doses, Chase Jeter off the bench until Jefferson gets back, Duke can potentially and quietly do well to start ACC play, especially with BC kicking off the conference schedule.

 

16. Villanova (9-2)

The Wildcats have proven to be more mortal than they were last year with losses to Oklahoma and Virginia, but a tuneup game against Penn today should allow Villanova to enter Big East play with a clear head. The only problem is that the team plays Xavier on New Year’s Eve and the way the Musketeers have been playing, Villanova could open conference competition with a loss unless coach Jay Wright moves away from run-and-gun and uses more isolation plays.

Simply put, Villanova needs to and is capable of beating Xavier at its own game and if the team wants to be taken seriously at all, executing a win and ending Xavier’s winning streak can make that happen.

 

17. SMU (11-0)

Say what you want about the Mustangs not being in the tournament this year. They still look great and should look as strong as ever now that coach Larry Brown is back on the sidelines, especially when they open AAC play against Tulsa tomorrow.

They may be banned from the postseason, but five’ll get you ten that this team plays hard from start to finish and treats every game like the final in 2015-16.

 

18. West Virginia (10-1)

Unfortunately for the Mountaineers, their final game before Big 12 play is a bit tough. The team plays Virginia Tech in Blacksburg on Wednesday, and the Buzz Williams-coached squad could prove tough to handle. Simply put, in order to enter conference play on a high note, West Virginia needs to win decisively because with a loss, their hopes of drawing a high seed in the tournament and for the rest of the season could be sunk even if they do win the Big 12.

 

19. Texas A&M (9-2)

The Aggies will have had 10 days off when they take on Cal Poly on Tuesday, and then scrappy Arkansas on Saturday, but this team is different from Texas A&M squads of years past. With wins over Baylor and Gonzaga already in the books, this team can seriously make a lot of noise in the SEC this season and so long as there aren’t any stumbles once conference play begins, they could become a serious dark horse come tournament time.

 

20. Utah (10-2)

The Utes have the ultimate tune-up game today, taking on the Division III College of Idaho, and then open Pac-12 play at Stanford on New Year’s Day. This team had some stumbles early on in the season and is still learning to play together as a unit, but Jakob Poeltl is looking more and more dominant every game and could carry this team on another deep tournament run depending on how the rest of the season goes.

 

21. South Carolina (11-0)

It’s official. Gamecocks basketball is back with a vengeance. The team doesn’t have much in terms of signature wins but with a game against Division II Francis Marion on Wednesday and then Memphis on Saturday, we’ll soon have a better idea of what to expect of this squad once it opens SEC play against Auburn next week.

The record is probably overachieving, but the long and short of it is that 11-0 starts are not something that can be simply taught.

 

22. Baylor (9-2)

Baylor is still in a position to contend in the Big 12 despite two losses to Texas A&M and Oregon, but conference play doesn’t come lightly after one final tuneup game against Texas Southern on Wednesday. Rather, Baylor takes on Kansas on Sunday in a true test of how it will measure up against other teams in the conference.

If the game can be kept close, then Baylor could be a team to watch for the rest of the campaign. However, in a blowout, their conference title hopes are as good as sunk.

 

23. Louisville (11-2)

This past weekend, the Cardinals did what a lot of teams can’t: take Kentucky to the brink. Even in a 75-73 loss, Louisville looked strong in every single way, proving that a deep run could once again be in the cards.

It also helps that Rick Pitino’s boys have a week off before opening ACC play against Wake Forest on the 3rd so with plenty of time to shake off the loss to Kentucky, look for the Cardinals to come out swinging once conference play begins.

 

24. Ole Miss (10-2)

The Rebels haven’t had to play much in terms of top competition so far, save for a win against Memphis back on the 18th, but have quite the test after a 10-day layoff. You see, the team takes on Kentucky on Saturday and though this is the most talented Rebels team that we’ve seen in a while, the game is at Rupp Arena and Kentucky is, well, Kentucky.

Just the same, coach Andy Kennedy seems more determined than usual to bring Ole Miss back to the NCAA Tournament and go on a deeper run and by defeating the Wildcats, Ole Miss will immediately be placed into the SEC championship conversation.

 

25. George Washington (10-2)

Even after getting shellacked by seemingly lowly DePaul, GW is still a team worthy of the Top 25. Not only are they putting the A-10 on the map even more, but they’re still a strong team and have wins against Virginia and Seton Hall to prove it.

The Colonials close exhibition play against Central Florida tomorrow before facing revitalized Fordham next week, and now is the time to prove that the hot start isn’t just early season magic. By dominating UCF and then fellow Atlantic 10 rivals, GW can prove that it’s not just about academics and also deserves respect in the basketball department.

 

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*Featured Photo (above) credit to USA TODAY Sports