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Inside the NCAA | Smart’s suspension, Syracuse dominance lead top stories in Div. I basketball

Published: Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Updated: Wednesday, February 12, 2014 09:02

The 2014 Super Bowl may be the most watched American sporting — no, television — event ever, but if we’re talking about sustained interest and anticipation of non-stop action, there is no place else to look but the 66-team field that is March Madness. Lucky for us, the NCAA Tournament is barely over a month away.

With the ACC and Big 10 conferences dominating the rankings, controversy plaguing star players and improbable upsets already coming in full force, Div. I men’s basketball is as chaotic and unpredictable as ever. Here is the Daily’s breakdown of the major stories in college basketball.

 

Front runners

Many conferences have been critiqued for being top-heavy and unbalanced, which leads to teams being untested and creates uncertainty come March. Despite this, the ACC and Big 10 combine to boast nine teams in the Top 25, while at the same time several mid-major conference leaders have also proven themselves through the season thus far.

Syracuse leads the pack as No.1 for the second week in a row, as the Orange are off to their best start in school history — not simply an aside considering the prolific past of head coach Jim Boeheim’s powerhouse. The Orange have reached the NCAA Tournament eight of the past 10 seasons since their 2002-2003 championship season with a team led by Carmelo Anthony. They also reached the Final Four last year before falling to Michigan.

This season, ‘Cuse looks poised to best that performance. Led by freshman Tyler Ennis, whom Boeheim has praised as one of the best point guards he’s ever coached, and leading scorer senior C.J. Fair, who put up a career-high 28 points in a thrilling overtime victory at Duke, Syracuse has proven itself worthy of the top spot thus far. With wins over then-No. 8 Villanova, Pittsburgh, UNC and Baylor, Syracuse has settled into the ACC nicely after the conference restructuring.

Also near the top are the No. 3 Florida Gators, who have reached their ranking with an impressive defensive focus. Through the past eight games, Florida’s opponents have averaged just over 60 points a game, and even better, they’ve only shot a combined 45 percent from the floor.

From the Missouri Valley Conference, the Wichita St. Shockers, who made the Final Four last year as a No. 9 seed, sit behind Florida at No. 4 in the country. The 25-0 Shockers, despite not having beaten a ranked opponent yet, are the only other undefeated team in the nation along with Syracuse. 

 

Midseason letdowns

The No. 7 Kansas Jayhawks feature one of the most prolific recruiting classes in the country, with No. 1 overall recruit Andrew Wiggins and top center on the ESPN 100 Joel Embiid among the field of five ESPN 100 players to be playing under head coach Bill Self this season. 

The Jayhawks, however, most recently slipped up in overtime against Kansas St., 85-82, in their sixth. After a slow start to the season from Wiggins, Kansas had started to pick up the pace with consecutive wins against then-No. 25 Kansas St. and then-No. 8 Iowa St. With this a second overtime loss in as many weeks, previously losing to Texas 81-69 on Feb. 1, Kansas may slip in the rankings.

Perhaps topping the list of disappointments this season has been sophomore guard Marcus Smart of Oklahoma State. Smart, who made the controversial decision to return to college basketball despite being almost guaranteed a top-10 NBA draft pick, was a unanimous selection to the preseason All-American team this year. Smart’s sky-high draft stock has taken a serious hit, however, after Smart was suspended three games after an incident with a fan in the team’s loss against Texas Tech on Feb. 8. 

Smart, the Cowboys’ current leader in points and assists per game, fell out of bounds after attempting to block a shot, and upon getting up, exchanged words with a fan which led to a physical altercation. Adding insult to injury, Oklahoma St. has fallen out of the top 25 and is riding a four-game-losing streak, meaning Smart and his team are both failing to live up to pre-season expectations.

 

Players to watch

Two players certainly making cases for the Naismith College Player of the Year Award are Creighton senior Doug McDermott and Duke freshman Jabari Parker, the respective leading scorers for their teams. McDermott, a finalist in last year’s Naismith voting, is second in the country in scoring, averaging 25.3 points per game for the No. 18 Blue Jays. The senior forward sunk five 3-pointers in Creighton’s demolishing of then-No. 4 Villanova, 96-68. 

Parker, on the other hand, leads a No. 8 Duke team that most recently won a resounding victory over conference-foe Boston College. Parker led the Blue Devils with the best performance of his rookie campaign — a double-double with 29 points and grabbing 16 rebounds, both game-highs. The 6’ 8”, 235-pound Parker, who hails from Chicago, will certainly be one of the most exciting players to watch as the ACC and NCAA Tournaments shape up in the upcoming weeks.

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