Burning Questions Heading Into Conference Play

It appears that this could be a banner season in college basketball. There appears to be at least a handful of legitimately elite teams. Duke, Kansas, Michigan, Tennessee, Virginia, and Gonzaga all land in this category at the moment for my money.

Below that level, there's a lot of teams with a Final Four shot. Teams from less-heralded conferences like Nevada, Buffalo, and Furman have made waves in the non-conference season in a very welcome development. And there's a fun mix among the top teams of elite freshmen talent, veteran leadership, entrenched big-name programs, and schools on the rise.

But only about a third of the season's scheduled games have been played. That means a lot can and will change as the calendar shifts to 2019 and conference play.

Here are four of the biggest questions to answer as the college basketball season progresses.

Will Nevada stay undefeated?

There are still five undefeated teams in Division I men's basketball. Virginia, Michigan, and St. John's won't stay that way with the strength of their respective conferences and 18 or 20 league games to navigate. Houston, who has a range of fairly solid wins so far, could keep it going a while with a softer early conference slate, but the American is too good with Cincinnati and UCF, among others.

Nevada, though, has already played its toughest games on the schedule and won them all. The Wolfpack will be heavily favored in every game barring injuries to their star senior core. Fresno State, Utah State and San Diego State are the only other teams in the Mountain West currently in the top 100 in KenPom.

Nevada very well could have a bad night somewhere along the way and lose, but the Pack's chance to go 34-0 into the NCAAs is not insignificant.

How will the power conference gauntlets affect title contenders?

If you're reading this, you don't need me to tell you how much power the biggest conferences have in major college sports. In basketball this season, the best four conferences (ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, and SEC) are going to give teams strong tests twice a week through early March.

Here's how strong each of those leagues are as of Dec. 22:

• In the ACC, there's four teams in the top 10 in KenPom, nine in the top 40, and 11 in the top 55.
• In the Big 12, there's eight in the top 45.
• In the Big Ten, 11 in the top 50.
• In the SEC, 10 in the top 65.

Those numbers might not stay that top-heavy as conference play unfolds, but if you're Duke, Virginia, Tennessee, Michigan State, Michigan, or North Carolina, two-thirds or more of your games are going to be against tournament-caliber opposition. That means even the best teams could lose a handful of games or more.

Will the Pac-12 even be the best conference in the West?

This sounds like it should be an absurd question. We've just covered that Nevada should run through the Mountain West with one or two losses at most, and Gonzaga will be favored to waltz through the WCC for what feels like the 100th year in a row.

But I'd also like to show you all of the Pac-12's wins over top 50 KenPom teams this season:

• Oregon over Syracuse
• Arizona State over Mississippi State
• Arizona over Iowa State
• Arizona State over Kansas

That's it. That's the entire list.

Besides Arizona State, who looks like the class of the league (although we said that at this time last year, too), the only team in the conference with fewer than four losses in Colorado, and the Buffs' strength of schedule rank is 274.

It's unlikely but not impossible in the least that the Pac-12 ends up as a one-bid league on Selection Sunday should the Sun Devils run away with the regular season and tournament titles.

Meanwhile, the WCC also has San Francisco and St. Mary's who could be fairly strong teams, and San Diego and BYU are possibly on that second level, too. If someone in that conference can find a way to beat Gonzaga in any one game, that's a better resume-builder for the NCAA tournament than anything available in the Pac-12.

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Nothing but NET?

The RPI is finally and officially dead. May it never come back to life.

Despite all of its numerous faults, it was never ambiguous. The formula was pretty straightforward and replicable to anyone with enough time on their hands and the right programming/database skills. But it never honestly measured how good a basketball team was; just if it won games and if the team played good teams.

In its place, the NCAA Evaluation Tool (NET) has been rolled out and implemented for this year, and it thankfully includes factors like offensive and defensive efficiency. You know, things that actually measure how good a basketball team is at playing basketball. Fans have only been asking for something like this for 20 years or more.

But in typical NCAA fashion, NET has been rolled out in a shambolic manner and people don't know what the hell the formula is. Even though this new metric should, in theory, be an improvement to the NCAA selection process, it's nebulous right now. If it stays that way, there could be some extremely weird seeding and selection decisions come the middle of March.

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