AS THE CONFERENCE seasons get under way (Big East this week, Atlantic 10 next week), it is time to assess where the City Six has been and is likely to go.
The season projections on kenpom.com reveal that three teams are expected to finish with 20 wins and one with 19. They also reveal what the nonconference games and the early City Series games have shown: Everybody is competitive; nobody is great.
Well, Temple might be at least really good, but we have not yet seen the real Owls team. The projection is 21-9, 11-5 A-10. But that projection is based on what has gone down so far and the players who have been in those games.
Micheal Eric has been out for several weeks. Scootie Randall has not played at all. So, assuming those players get back at some point relatively soon and are near their normal levels of production, the Owls could easily win 25 games and challenge for the A-10 regular-season title. Even without them, this is still a team nobody will want to play. With them, I think this is a Sweet 16 team.
The most fascinating projections are Saint Joseph's and La Salle. The early numbers have been crunched, and the records are no mirage. Each is projected to finish 20-11, 9-7. Don't know anybody who would have predicted that exacta when the season began.
Well, you knew the Hawks would be better, but getting from 20 losses to 20 wins in one season rarely happens. Assuming they beat Morgan State tonight at home, SJU will be halfway there. The numbers-inside-the-numbers show the development, especially on defense. Last season, according to the kenpom efficiency ratings, SJU had the 108th-rated offense and 259th-rated defense. This season, it is 61 and 108, respectively. If this team can win its home games and get a few on the road, the NCAA Tournament is now a realistic goal.
La Salle's improvement is strictly because of defense. Last season, the Explorers' defense was ranked 240th. It seemed worse. This season, it is 60th. The ball pressure by their wings is terrific. And their back line is athletic enough to challenge shots at the rim. It has been exactly 20 years since La Salle was last in a postseason tournament. The NCAA is probably a reach this season, but the NIT is there for the taking.
Nobody will be surprised that Villanova is predicted to finish 16-14, 9-9 in the Big East. This never looked like an NCAA team on paper. Winning on the road in the league will be very difficult. The Wildcats are still a terrific home team on campus. If they win all or most of those games, 16 wins and the NIT seem about right.
By the way, St. Joe's, La Salle and Villanova have exactly one senior (La Salle's Earl Pettis) in their rotations.
Penn is projected to finish 15-16, 7-7 in the Ivy League. I think that is wrong. I think Penn will make a run at the Ivy title. The .500 record so far is mostly a product of the schedule which gets no easier with games against Davidson, Duke, La Salle and St. Joe's still left.
When they get into the Ivy, the Quakers will be taking a significant drop in class. The problem is that the Ivy is more than just Harvard, 10-1 at the moment and projected to finish 26-4, 12-2. Yale is 8-2. Columbia has won seven straight after losing its first four. Those two, however, have not played the same caliber of competition as Penn. Cornell is better than last season. Princeton is not as good as last season, but it is still Princeton. Penn seniors Zack Rosen and Tyler Bernardini have the look of players who want a championship enough to do whatever it takes to get it. Won't be easy, but they are in with a realistic chance.
Drexel was picked to win the Colonial for one very good reason. The Dragons have the experienced talent to contend in a league that has been good enough to send two teams to the Final Four in the last 6 years. Drexel is projected to finish 19-10, 12-6. Given the strength of the CAA, that projection is not unreasonable. If some of the young players, such as Frantz Massenat and Damion Lee, continue to get better and veterans such as Samme Givens and a now-healthy Chris Fouch do what they have done in the past, I could see the Dragons winning the regular-season title.
Still, without any nonconference resumé, to get to the NCAA, the Dragons probably must win the CAA Tournament in Richmond the first weekend in March, possibly having to beat one or more of those Virginia schools in the state capital. The game Monday at Georgia State, which has won nine straight, will tell a lot.
THE BIG EAST STORY
As the league schedule begins, it is still unclear just where the league fits nationally because of the schedule. Big East teams are 115-10 at home, 16-13 on the road and 20-20 on neutral courts.
Syracuse, Louisville and Connecticut are Final Four contenders. Marquette is very good. Georgetown is better than anticipated. Seton Hall may be the most improved team in the country. The Pirates have a nice, easy league opener tonight at No. 1 Syracuse
Seton Hall big man Herb Pope is having a breakout season, averaging 20.3 points and 11.4 rebounds, putting him in the top 20 nationally in both categories.
HOW GOOD ARE GATORS?
According to the numbers, Florida is the most efficient offensive team in the country, averaging 120.7 points per 100 possessions. The Gators' only losses were at No. 2 Ohio State by seven points and at Syracuse by four points. If their defense gets better (ranked 61st), this team has Final Four possibilities. Remember, they lost to Butler in overtime last season in a regional final. They play at Rutgers tomorrow.
THE BENNETT FACTOR
Tony Bennett, who did such a wonderful job at Washington State, appears to be turning a corner in this third season at Virginia. The Cavaliers are 11-1 and look like a team that can hang right behind North Carolina and Duke in the ACC. The Cavs are doing it with defense. Their defense is ranked seventh, allowing just 86.7 points per 100 possessions.
Mike Scott (17.1, 9.9 rebounds) is the star, but point Sammy Zeglinski (Penn Charter) is the glue.
Not sure what this means, but four of the six players from Bennett's first recruiting class have left.
THIS AND THAT
* Do not miss No. 4 Louisville at No. 3 Kentucky Saturday (noon, CBS). The sideshow should be as good as the main show.
UK coach John Calipari said a while back that there is only one team that matters in the state. You can imagine Louisville coach Rick Pitino was particularly pleased to hear that.
Some coaching feuds are manufactured. This one is not.
* By the way, guess where Kentucky is almost certain to start NCAA Tournament play in March - Louisville's KFC Yum Center. By rule, Louisville can't play on its home court.
They really do love their hoops in Kentucky. In 36 games played at Rupp Arena and the Yum Center last season, the teams drew 812,509 fans. Kentucky was first in the nation with an average of 23,603. Louisville (21,832) was third. Syracuse was second.
Those attendance numbers would suggest that there really is room for more than one team in the state, not that Coach Cal would notice or care.
* If Louisville beats Connecticut this season, the Cardinals will have beaten the defending Division I, D-II and NAIA champions. They beat Bellarmine and Pikeville in exhibition games.
* Syracuse is slipping. The Orange now actually has more turnovers (146) than steals (145).
* Former Penn guard and Temple assistant Matt Langel is off to a nice start in his first head-coaching job at Colgate. Now 5-6 may not seem like much until you realize that Colgate was 27-62 in the previous three seasons.