While we are heading into the second phase of the college basketball season -- the beginning of conference play -- there still are lots of questions that remain unanswered after the first month of play. Here are my answers to some of those questions:
Is Indiana all the way back?
This is a qualified "no." While the win over Kentucky at Assembly Hall was a spectacular scene and the next step in the rebuilding of the Hoosiers' program, I think Indiana is the recruiting class of 2012 away from being a top-10 program again.
Wins over rebuilding NC State, Butler and Notre Dame, as well as walkover wins early in the season have given Tom Crean's team a newfound confidence and should be helpful once Big Ten play begins. I love the improvement of guys like Victor Oladipo, Jordan Hulls and Will Sheehey, and the team's 3-point shooting has been scorching.
The entire key to this season has, obviously, been freshman center Cody Zeller. He's been efficient in every area you'd want out of a young big man. He rebounds, blocks shots, makes everything around the basket and has gotten himself to the foul line almost nine times a game. He will be why Indiana gets back to the NCAA tournament and sets the foundation for a renaissance of Hoosier hysteria.
I expect to say a year from today that Indiana is back for good.
Who is the third-best team in the ACC?
I believe that it is 9-1 Virginia.
First of all, this is the third season of coach Tony Bennett's tenure and the system is in place. The Cavaliers' "Pack Line" man-to-man defense is yielding 0.85 points per possession, sixth-best in the NCAA. It puts them in the same rarified air as Wisconsin, Kentucky and Louisville. Virginia gives up the second-fewest offensive rebounds in the country, and it's reflected in a 2-point field goal defense of 41 percent.
Secondly, Bennett has welcomed back a healthy Mike Scott to the lineup after Scott missed most of last season with an ankle injury. He is one of the most efficient low post scorers in the ACC and an excellent rebounder. In fact, he is the league's active double-double leader, with 27.
Finally, this has become an experienced team under Bennett, with the most career starts returning in the entire conference entering the 2011-12 season. Center Assane Sene has become a 7-foot defensive force, and 6-foot-6 sophomore guard Joe Harris is starting to develop into more than just a shooter.
The Cavaliers have a chance to enter ACC play 13-1. It's clear that while not one of the league's three most talented teams, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts because this team is very well coached.
Is the Pac-12 as bad is it seems?
Yes, but there is a silver lining this season. Some teams that have been the league's bottom-feeders recently are a lot better and will contend for the Pac-12 title.
I watched Stanford control the NIT Preseason Tip-Off championship game in Madison Square Garden against No. 1 Syracuse for 37 minutes before succumbing late in the game. Johnny Dawkins' team is deep, athletic and has the size to punish most of its conference opponents. Josh Owens, a 6-8 forward, is healthy and tough to handle inside.
Across the Bay Area, Cal could have a team that can get to the Sweet 16. Coach Mike Montgomery has a one-man wrecking crew on defense in 6-4 senior Jorge Gutierrez. Friday night he locked up Weber State's outstanding point guard, Damian Lillard, holding him to 4-of-17 shooting. Gutierrez also added 24 points in the win.
It's not a deep Cal team but few in coaching get more out of their players than Montgomery.
Oregon State coach Craig Robinson finally has three years of his own recruits in the program and progress is evident. While Jared Cunningham has become one of the league's most notable players because of his above-the-rim game, the development of sophomore guards Roberto Nelson and Ahmad Starks has been critical. Both are fearless and can shoot it from deep.
I drank a lot of Arizona Kool-Aid early in the season and still believe the Wildcats will be near the top of the Pac-12 when it's over. But Sean Miller might be dealing with the pitfalls of recruiting, where some of his high-level recruits haven't "unpacked their bags yet" and already have their eyes fixed on the NBA.
Are Baylor and Missouri for real?
Absolutely. And it's too bad Frank Haith and Scott Drew couldn't swap one of the Tigers' guards for one of Drew's big men. Both teams would be Final Four contenders then. Still, both are on the way to terrific seasons.
Baylor is so deep up front that redshirt 6-9 sophomore Cory Jefferson, the team's fourth post player and an NBA prospect, would start for virtually every other team in the Big 12 with the possible exception of Kansas. And it's clear that fellow sophomore Perry Jones III has started to recognize his immense talent and is putting it to good use, as he's looking like a top-3 pick in next June's NBA draft.
The pleasant surprise for Drew has been in the backcourt. Junior college transfer Pierre Jackson has been just what the doctor ordered. While his assists-to-turnover rate could be better, he is explosive and an outstanding shooter and a willing passer. Boston College transfer Brady Heslip not only is a great shooter, but he also is a calming influence. Turnovers should be less of an issue for the Bears this season because of Heslip.
Give Missouri's players credit for making the seamless adjustment from Mike Anderson's "40 Minutes of Hell" to Haith's more controlled style. The Tigers still take care of the ball like they did under Anderson and are still pushing the pace -- they are 14th in kenpom.com's adjusted tempo, but their offensive efficiency has improved from No. 35 to No. 2 this season.
The confidence factor for the Tigers is sky high as senior Marcus Denmon has picked up where he left off from last season, when he was one of the nation's most efficient guards. Fellow senior Kim English has regained the confidence he lost a year ago, as he's shooting 53 percent from behind the arc. Michael Dixon Jr. might not start, but he's scored 19 points or more three times off the bench already this season.
The Tigers have absorbed the initial blow of losing one of the conference's best big men, Laurence Bowers, who suffered a knee injury during the preseason. Ricardo Ratliffe was the league's Newcomer of the Year last season and can score inside. He must stay healthy and out of foul trouble for Haith's team to have a chance to win the Big 12.
Is Pittsburgh off its game despite being 10-1?
Yes, and it's not because freshman Khem Birch unexpectedly transferred. The Panthers have a plethora of talent up front and should be able to absorb the defection. Instead, I worry about the depth in Jamie Dixon's backcourt.
Junior Travon Woodall has been out four games with a groin strain and is expected to miss a couple more weeks. It has forced Big East Player of the Year candidate Ashton Gibbs to handle even more of the ball-handling and scoring duties, and he's averaged over 36 minutes a game. It's affected his shooting, too, as he's made just 32 percent of his 3-point attempts in that time.
Dixon has thrust freshman guards John Johnson, Cameron Wright and Isaiah Epps into action a little earlier than he might have liked. And, though the experience will pay dividends later in the season, the three have combined for just two double-figure scoring games.
History dictates the Panthers will be very good in Big East play, and this team does have a talented roster. However, where Dixon has relied heavily on veterans during his tenure, he won't have the luxury this season.