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Benedetto blog: The gift of conference play

December 27, 2017 Updated: December 27, 2017 at 10:25 pm
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photo - Arizona State guard Tra Holder (0) in the first half during an NCAA college basketball game against Vanderbilt, Sunday, Dec 17, 2017, in Tempe, Ariz. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)
Arizona State guard Tra Holder (0) in the first half during an NCAA college basketball game against Vanderbilt, Sunday, Dec 17, 2017, in Tempe, Ariz. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri) 

The holiday season brings one last gift, college basketball conference play. Gone are the days of buy games and expected blowouts. It’s time to return to rivalries and conference title races.

To celebrate, let’s take a look at the first question that came to mind when catching up with the seven best conferences, starting with the best RPI - the Big 12 - and working down.

What does Silvio De Sousa give Kansas?

The Jayhawks are in fine shape, sporting a 10-2 record after losing to Washington and Arizona State - the most surprising team in the country - consecutively in early December, but could use more depth inside. Bill Self’s squad is taking unconventional route to getting that help, as De Sousa - one of the top power forward recruits in the country - completed his academic requirements at IMG Academy and has joined the Jayhawks for the rest of the season. If De Sousa can give the Jayhawks 10-15 minutes, they shouldn’t have much problem continuing their Big 12 dominance. If De Sousa isn’t ready to contribute, there’s a group of teams in West Virginia, Oklahoma, TCU, Texas Tech and Baylor that could make the conference race a messy one.

If you haven't seen Trae Young play, make an appointment to watch. There’s a reason the freshman is getting compared to Steph Curry and is shooting up mock drafts.

Who’s No. 2 in the Big East?

It’s not Villanova, as the Wildcats are the league’s only unbeaten and hold on the top spot in the AP poll. And it’s probably not Butler, Providence, Georgetown or DePaul - the presumed bottom four. The other five teams in the league could probably make a push to be the two seed heading into the conference tournament.

Seton Hall was the early favorite to put up a fight against the Wildcats, but the Pirates’ ship seems a little unstable after senior forward Ismael Sanogo was suspended indefinitely and freshman Jordan Walker briefly left the team.

Xavier looks to be best equipped to take down Villanova with wins over Cincinnati and Baylor, and its lone loss coming to the Sun Devils, but the gap between the Musketeers and the other contenders isn’t as big as the rankings might reflect.

Can Florida figure it out in the SEC?

Mike White’s Gators were the darlings of college basketball, if only for a moment. Florida and Gonzaga rewarded those that fought off an early slumber on Black Friday with a double-overtime classic in the PK80 tournament. The Gators pulled away for a 111-106 win in the best game of the non-conference slate. What followed, however, was a three-game skid started by Duke before less inspiring losses to Florida State and Loyola Chicago. A win over a Top-20 Cincinnati broke the streak before the Gators dropped a contest to Clemson. If Chris Chiozza, KeVaughn Allen and Jalen Hudson can give the Gators their groove back, Florida can contend in the SEC. If not, it looks like a two-horse race between Kentucky and Texas A&M.

How costly is Duke’s lone loss?

The Blue Devils enter the gauntlet that is ACC league play with just one loss in their first 13 games. The problem is that loss in to Boston College in a rare first-semester conference game, starting Duke in a small hole. It won’t prevent a one or two seed come March, but the loss increased the window for the likes of North Carolina, Virginia, Louisville and Notre Dame to make a run at the league title.

Is the Big Ten worth watching?

Not unless Michigan State is playing Purdue. Disappointing starts from a couple teams in the second tier - Northwestern and Minnesota - pretty much reduced the league to a two-horse race between the Spartans and Boilermakers. Ohio State is the only other 2-0 team in the league, as the Big Ten got a jump-start on its conference slate so it could start the conference tournament a week earlier than usual, but the Buckeyes making a sustained run at the title would be one of the most surprising things to happen this season.

Just how good is Arizona State?

We’ll find out soon, as Bobby Hurley’s squad opens Pac-12 play against a ranked rival in Arizona on Dec. 30. A win in the conference opener would cement the Sun Devils as a league favorite and a true contender come March. ASU is off to its best start in program history, sitting at No. 3 in the AP poll and No. 4 in the coaches’ rankings after wins over Kansas and Xavier. Adding a victory over the Wildcats on Saturday would sound the loudest message that the Sun Devils are not to be taken lightly.

How does Wichita State handle its new setting?

The Shockers aren’t in the Missouri Valley Conference anymore. At full strength - that means a 100-percent Markis McDuffie - the Shockers are the American’s best bet to make an extended run through March Madness. Gregg Marshall’s squad has talent, depth and no obvious holes. The only thing that could hurt the Shockers is a slow adjustment to a much more grueling travel schedule partnered with the absence of easy wins. The cellar of the AAC isn’t great, but it’s more challenging than the bottom half of the MVC.

And as a final gift, I’ll leave my five favorite albums of 2017.

1. SZA - “Ctrl”

2. Vince Staples - “Big Fish Theory”

3. Courtney Barnett & Kurt Vile - “Lotta Sea Lice”

4. Julien Baker - “Turn out the Lights”

5. Joey Bada$$ - “ALL-AMERIKKAN BADA$$”

(With an honorable mention to Run the Jewels’ “RTJ 3” which came out at the end of 2016)

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