Basketball

What you need to know about every D-I men’s college basketball league halfway through 2022-23

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  • Graduate of Minnesota State University, Mankato

Men’s college basketball’s November and December slates were entertaining, intriguing and, in some cases, surprising. North Carolina went from preseason No. 1 to unranked in a few weeks. Kentucky, Duke and Gonzaga — also perennial powers — have wrestled with significant flaws. Purdue star Zach Edey aims to challenge Oscar Tshiebwe for national player of the year. And Kansas seems to possess the talent to defend its national title.

But there were also off-the-court developments that affected the sport, at Texas and New Mexico State.

If you were locked onto the college football scene and missed the opening chapter of college basketball, we’re here to help.

Here are the top storylines in every league in America entering conference play in 2022-23:

American Athletic Conference

Houston pushes for an undefeated league season

With 17:18 to go in its lone blemish of 2022-23 — a 71-65 loss to Alabama last month — Houston had a 15-point lead. That rare collapse said more about the Crimson Tide’s ceiling than the Cougars’ flaws. Since Marcus Sasser’s (15.9 PPG) return from injury, Houston has been an efficient offense, with a defense ranked second in adjusted efficiency on KenPom. UCF (49th) and Memphis (32nd) are the only AAC teams with top-50 rankings on KenPom, which means Houston’s season could end without another conference loss, and set up a strong argument for a top seed in the NCAA tournament.

America East Conference

Vermont tries to keep its crown

Vermont (7-8 entering the week) has not had a sub-.500 record through 15 games since 2014-15. Two years later, the Catamounts began a run of six consecutive America East conference titles. But the offseason departures of former stars Ryan Davis and Ben Shungu, coupled with the rise of UMass Lowell’s Abdoul Karim Coulibaly (13.0 PPG, 8.6 RPG) and a Bryant team that beat Syracuse on the road in nonconference action, could knock John Becker’s squad from its perch.

Atlantic Coast Conference

North Carolina will try to salvage its season

The Tar Heels still haven’t recovered since the four-game slide that made them the sixth team since at least 1961-62 to go from preseason No. 1 to unranked in the AP poll. Friday’s 76-74 road loss to Pitt, which finished 6-14 in league play last season, showcased the ongoing challenges for a squad that has struggled from the 3-point line (30.9%), left the Roy Williams style of snatching offensive rebounds behind and failed to force many turnovers. The good news is UNC’s 9-5 record isn’t dramatically different from last season’s 10-4 start — which preceded an eventual run to the national title game.

Atlantic Sun Conference

Darius McGhee makes a case for All-America recognition

McGhee rejected the transfer portal in the offseason and returned to Liberty after his team failed to capture the ASun’s automatic berth to the 2022 tournament. The result? He’s off to an incredible start that, if this pace continues, will not only deserve conference player of the year recognition — he has already won it twice — but also All-America consideration. McGhee’s numbers (22.2 PPG, 1.9 SPG, 48% from 3) could have him joining Ja Morant and other mid-major stars who’ve secured All-America slots in recent years.

Atlantic 10 Conference

Dayton is grappling with key injuries that could impact the race

Entering the week, Dayton (No. 54 on KenPom) was the only A-10 squad in the top 100 of the NCAA’s NET rankings, and one of two A-10 teams, along with Saint Louis (No. 80), to have a top-100 KenPom ranking. But injuries to guards Kobe Elvis (knee) and Malachi Smith (ankle) have had a significant impact on Anthony Grant’s backcourt as conference play commences. With DaRon Holmes II (18.9 PPG, 8.2 RPG, 1.9 BPG), Dayton can beat any team in the league. But until Elvis and Smith return, its limited depth could make it more challenging to do so.

Big East Conference

This could be America’s most entertaining conference battle

UConn has been widely viewed as one of the country’s best teams this season. But Xavier’s 83-73 home win over the Huskies — who were undefeated entering the game — on Saturday highlighted the competition Dan Hurley’s team will have to navigate to win the conference crown. Sean Miller’s squad has won its first four conference games. Providence (4-0) also entered the week undefeated in Big East action. At Marquette, Shaka Smart has a unit ranked fourth in adjusted offensive efficiency on KenPom. And preseason league favorite Creighton is still one of the Big East’s top-50 squads on KenPom (No. 26), despite a recent six-game losing streak. A healthy Villanova squad — Justin Moore is back in practice after last year’s Achilles injury, and NBA prospect Cam Whitmore is growing — could find a rhythm, too.

Big Sky Conference

Eastern Washington’s strong start could make waves in March

The Big Sky race seems cloudy right now. Northern Colorado, picked to finish second in the preseason league poll, has stumbled, as star Daylen Kountz’s numbers are down. The 3-point shooting woes (30.8%) for Montana State, the preseason favorite, have become a problem, and Montana, picked third, is struggling with second-chance points. But Eastern Washington’s 2-0 Big Sky start, road wins over Montana and Montana State over the weekend, could prove to be a deciding factor for the Big Sky battle at the end of the season.

Big South Conference

Gardner-Webb is chasing its first Big South title

The Bulldogs’ 72-66 road loss to the Tar Heels in November — Anthony Selden finished with 21 points — was a respectable effort for a team picked fourth in the Big South’s preseason poll. The Bulldogs began their conference slate with back-to-back wins over Campbell and Radford, and could chase their first Big South conference championship after joining the league in 2008. Longwood, Winthrop and UNC Asheville (starring Drew Pember, who’s averaging 18.1 PPG and connecting on 39% from beyond the arc) are all tough, but the Bulldogs are real contenders, too.

Big 12 Conference

The future of Chris Beard at Texas is overshadowing everything else

Kansas, anchored by Jalen Wilson and Gradey Dick, is dominating a league full of multiple challengers for the Big 12 title. Texas is one of those challengers. But until the school makes a decision on Chris Beard following an arrest on a domestic violence charge last month — his fiancée later refuted the initial police report that said he’d strangled her — it will remain not only the top storyline in the Big 12, but the top storyline in men’s college basketball. Acting head coach Rodney Terry has won his first five games, but even he’s not sure how long he’ll hold on to that post.

Big Ten Conference

We could see double-digit NCAA tournament bids

This 14-team league rarely provides any easy wins in conference play — and it’s certainly the case this year. Just ask AP No. 1 Purdue, following Monday’s 65-64 home loss to Rutgers. Zach Edey, the front-runner for the Wooden Award, and Purdue are still the team to beat, but entering the week, nine other Big Ten teams were listed in the top 65 of the NCAA’s NET rankings. The list doesn’t include teams with heavyweight wins: No. 68 Michigan State (win over Kentucky), No. 77 Nebraska (wins over Creighton, Iowa) and No. 82 Michigan (win over Maryland). Joe Lunardi’s latest Bracketology predicts double-digit NCAA tournament bids. Sounds more than reasonable.

Big West Conference

Hawai’i aims to end a seven-year conference championship drought

Picked to finish second in the Big West in the preseason, Hawai’i brings a six-game winning streak into 2023. The Rainbow Warriors have held their opponents to a 44.5% clip inside the arc thus far. That preseason buzz is real now for a team that hasn’t won a Big West championship since 2016. That could end this season, if Noel Coleman (13.9 PPG) and Co. sustain their current momentum.

Colonial Athletic Association

Charleston’s 3-point barrage could lead to a major turnaround

Nearly 48% of Charleston’s field goal attempts this season have been 3s: a top-15 mark nationally. But Pat Kelsey also has one of the top offensive rebounding teams in the country, and Dalton Bolon (12.3 PPG) is one of five Cougars players averaging double figures this season. They have one loss thus far — to North Carolina on Nov. 11. At this pace, and a year after finishing 8-10 in conference play, they could be the team to beat in the CAA.

Conference USA

Jordan “Jelly” Walker goes after the national scoring title

As a freshman at Seton Hall, Walker averaged just 8.0 PPG. Now at his third school, his numbers have soared. He’s on pace to lead the country in scoring after averaging 25.2 PPG (No. 1 in the nation) through his first 14 games of 2022-23. The 40.3% 3-point shooter could add a conference championship to the accolades if he continues to put up big numbers for UAB in C-USA action.

Horizon League

Antoine Davis is going after history, maybe Pistol Pete

The Detroit Mercy star said he hopes to make fans smile by leading his team to the NCAA tournament for the first time in his decorated career. It’s possible. But Davis’ move up the NCAA’s all-time scoring charts — he entered the week ranked seventh, with 3,103 points — is the bigger story. Davis should pass Freeman Williams (3,249) for second place all time during Horizon League play. And, if his team does make a run in the postseason, Pistol Pete Maravich’s all-time record (3,667) could be within reach for the fifth-year star.

Ivy League

Jordan Dingle is the most important player in the league’s title race

Since 2009-10, Penn is the only school not named Harvard, Princeton or Yale that has won the Ivy League title (in 2017-18). Picked to win the conference, Penn hopes to break up the party once again this season. While Dingle (24.1 PPG, No. 3 in the country) missed a recent game because of injury, he returned Monday to score 20 points in his team’s 76-68 win at Brown. That’s good news for fans, and the school’s aspirations.

Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference

This could be Rick Pitino’s last run at Iona

Pitino has loved his experience at Iona since the fallout at Louisville amid multiple scandals. The Independent Resolution Panel’s recent decision on the Cardinals’ NCAA infractions case exonerated him, which would seem to open the path for Pitino — who collected a MAAC title and an NCAA tournament berth in his first two years in New Rochelle, and is on track to win the league this season — to pursue Power 5 jobs once again. His current contract doesn’t have a buyout, and he said earlier this season that talks with the school about a lengthy extension “didn’t work out.”

Mid-American Conference

Emoni Bates tries to write his redemption tale

After two felony gun charges against him were dismissed and he was reinstated to the team in October, the Memphis transfer didn’t waste time making his mark at his new school, scoring 30 points in Eastern Michigan’s 88-83 season-opening loss at Michigan. But the Eagles enter this week with a 3-10 record, and only eight teams in America were ranked lower in adjusted defensive efficiency on KenPom. Still, all eyes will remain on Bates (20.8 PPG, 39% from beyond the arc) as he puts together the next chapter of a turbulent career in his hometown.

Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference

Joe Bryant Jr. hopes to put a bow on a storied career

At the end of last season, the Norfolk State guard became the fifth player in school history to win the MEAC player of the year award. This season, he could repeat that feat and lead the Spartans to their third consecutive regular-season title, and third consecutive NCAA tournament appearance. Bryant (16.1 PPG, 37% from 3) is already a MEAC legend, and another strong run will only enhance that legacy.

Missouri Valley Conference

Indiana State taps the transfer portal the right way

The arrival of Belmont from the OVC added another contender to the MVC race this season. But the most interesting competitor thus far has been Indiana State, which started the week in first place with a 4-0 conference record. Those four wins match last season’s conference win tally (4-14) in head coach Josh Schertz’s first season. For Year 2, Schertz turned to the transfer portal. DePaul transfer Courvoisier McCauley (16.9 PPG, 38% from 3) and Bradley transfer Jayson Kent (6.8 PPG) have been key pieces for a team initially picked to finish seventh that could now make a surprising MVC title run.

Mountain West Conference

Matt Bradley finds his rhythm

The San Diego State guard entered 2022-23 as one of top returning veterans in the country. But a handful of sloppy efforts against top competition in nonconference play — he was 4-for-13 in a loss to Saint Mary’s, 1-for-7 from 3 in a loss to Arkansas, 1-for-8 in a loss to Arizona — raised doubts about his ability to help the Aztecs reach their ceiling. “What’s wrong with Matt Bradley?” was the theme in college basketball circles in November and December. But, Bradley is back, it seems. He connected on 11 of his 17 3-point attempts in a pair of wins over Air Force and UNLV to begin MWC play. That’s the shooting stroke we expected all along.

Northeast Conference

A healthy Merrimack nears an NCAA tournament appearance

Entering the fourth year of their transition to Division I, the Warriors, picked first in preseason, can finally participate in the NEC’s postseason tournament. The league actually created a new rule allowing them to do so — although if they win, they still won’t secure the automatic berth to the NCAA tournament. Instead, it’ll go to the runner-up. That said, Merrimack has a lot of work to do to live up to the preseason hype. The team enters the week with a 3-13 record — although six of those losses came without Jordan Minor (16.8 PPG 8.1 RPG 2.7 BPG), who was dealing with an injury.

Ohio Valley Conference

Parker Stewart returns after his father’s death

Three years ago, UT Martin head coach Anthony Stewart died suddenly just before the start of the 2020-21 season. He was 50 years old. His son, Parker, transferred to Indiana the following year as he grieved. But Stewart (16.5 PPG, 39% from 3) returned to Martin this season, and is a strong candidate to win conference player of the year honors. He could also lead the Skyhawks, picked to finish third in preseason, to their first OVC title since 2009.

Pac-12 Conference

Jan. 21 and March 4 could determine the conference race, top tournament seeds

Per Lunardi’s latest Bracketology, Arizona State is projected to earn an NCAA tournament bid and Utah is on the early bubble. But Arizona and UCLA are far ahead of the pack, and both competing for No. 1 tournament seeds. Jaime Jaquez Jr., (17.2 PPG 6.3 RPG) is healthy, and Mick Cronin’s squad has wins over Kentucky and Maryland, while Arizona — which lost three players in the top 33 picks of the 2022 NBA draft — beat Indiana, Tennessee and San Diego State during its nonconference slate. Their faceoffs (Arizona will host UCLA on Jan. 21, UCLA will host Arizona on March 4) could be key in the Pac-12 championship race and impact the selection committee’s decisions, too.

Patriot League

Jalen Rucker could make history for Army

Only four Division I teams have failed to make an appearance in the NCAA tournament. Army is one of those teams. This season, the Black Knights were picked to finish fifth in the preseason, and although Tucker Richardson (15.5 PPG) and Colgate look strong, Rucker — a first team all-Patriot League preseason pick — could elevate Army to success in the conference tournament and win his squad its first automatic berth and NCAA tournament appearance.

Southeastern Conference

The rift between fans and John Calipari continues

When Calipari stepped onto the stage at Big Blue Madness in Lexington in October, he didn’t get the cheers he’s accustomed to hearing. Things have changed. Two years ago, he recorded one of the worst seasons (9-16) in school history. Last year, the Wildcats lost to Saint Peter’s in the opening round of the NCAA tournament. A public spat with football coach Mark Stoops this summer didn’t help his cause. Kentucky, led by Wooden Award winner Oscar Tshiebwe, has losses to Michigan State, Gonzaga, UCLA and Missouri. Calipari has a lifetime contract with the school, but the public reaction from his passionate fan base will be the story of the SEC if he can’t put together a winning streak soon and find success once again in the postseason.

Southern Conference

An intraleague transfer could affect the conference title race

A year ago, Jake Stephens was a star for a VMI squad that finished 9-9 in league play before losing to Wofford in the first round of the SoCon tournament. Stephens decided to transfer and joined Chattanooga, last year’s SoCon champ that lost Malachi Smith to Gonzaga. Stephens (20.6 PPG, 42% from 3) has stopped a potential freefall for a Mocs squad that lost its top player. His former program, meanwhile, enters the week with a 5-10 record (0-2 in league play) and the conference’s worst rating on KenPom.

Southland Conference

Texas A&M-Corpus Christi could either rise or fall

After a First Four run last year, Islanders head coach Steve Lutz avoided transfer portal disruption and returned all five starters, his top five scorers, for this season. They were picked as a sizable favorite, securing 11 of 20 votes in preseason Southland poll. But a 30.5% clip from 3 so far could put them in more close games than necessary and lead to another difficult stretch — they lost six of seven at one point last season. Or this experienced squad could march through the league slate without any real competition.

Summit League

Max Abmas is on a mission for his first regular-season conference title

The star guard went viral when he led Oral Roberts to the Sweet 16 in the 2021 NCAA tournament after wins against Ohio State and Florida. Then, he returned last season, despite reports about a potential leap to the NBA. The now-senior is back again, pursuing the one accomplishment that has eluded him throughout his time in Tulsa: a regular-season conference championship. The Golden Eagles, picked to win in the preseason poll, haven’t won a league championship since 2012. Abmas (19.7 PPG) hopes to change this.

Sun Belt Conference

League favorites try to bounce back and match the preseason buzz

Louisiana, Texas State and South Alabama were picked to finish first, second and third, respectively, in the league’s preseason poll. Early results, however, have shown that the Sun Belt title race could be more competitive than preseason analysis might have suggested. All three of the above kicked off league play by losing their first six league games combined. Sure, there’s plenty of time to bounce back, but there might be a bigger crowd at the top of the league than the pollsters anticipated.

Southwestern Athletic Conference

SWAC seeks respect after nonconference gains

The winner of this stacked title race will deserve all the praise that comes with that achievement. The SWAC begins conference play with its head held high after a superb effort in the nonconference season. Jackson State beat the AAC’s SMU. Grambling beat Colorado and Vanderbilt. Texas Southern beat Arizona State, a potential NCAA tournament team. Prairie View A&M defeated Washington State, and Alcorn State beat Wichita State. Some of those matchups were buy games — for which SWAC teams were paid with the expectation that they would lose. But the fact remains: The SWAC is growing.

Western Athletic Conference

Any potential fallout from Mike Peake’s self-defense shooting still unknown

WAC officials will want to focus on the league’s strong basketball product — five top-150 KenPom teams — in the weeks ahead. But Peake remains suspended indefinitely from New Mexico State following what local police have called a self-defense shooting in November on the University of New Mexico campus. Both local authorities and NMSU officials are investigating the actions of the NMSU staff after the shooting. It’s unclear what’s next in this process but without a resolution, the NMSU situation remains the top storyline in the league.

West Coast Conference

Gonzaga’s backcourt challenges could open the door for Saint Mary’s

Drew Timme (22.7 PPPG, 8.3 RPG) is vying for national player of the year honors after earning a preseason All-America nod for a team that lost Chet Holmgren to the NBA. But the departure of point guard Andrew Nembhard — who’s currently averaging 8.1 PPG for the Indiana Pacers — might have had a more significant impact than expected. Nolan Hickman, Rasir Bolton, Hunter Sallis and Chattanooga transfer Malachi Smith have all faced challenges this season, as Mark Few continues to search for backcourt consistency and stability. Meanwhile, Logan Johnson (11.1 PPG) and Co. are rolling (four losses by 15 points combined this season, 37% from 3, top-10 defense) and might be ready to challenge the Zags in this year’s WCC race.

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