Road to Arlington: NCAA hoop powers benefit from early showdowns

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College basketball consistently has an intriguing and entertaining nonconference schedule.

Big-time programs play each other early. Marquee matchups so far include Syracuse-Indiana, Kansas-Duke, Michigan State-North Carolina and, Saturday, Louisville-Kentucky.

But the nonconference season is winding down. That means rivalry games are on the horizon and Selection Sunday (March 16) isn’t too far away.

With that, we take a look back at five key storylines from nonconference play that could foreshadow who has the potential to reach the Final Four at AT&T Stadium in Arlington:

1. Freshmen shining

The highly touted freshman class hasn’t disappointed.

Jabari Parker has become a force down low for Duke, and the same can be said for Julius Randle at Kentucky. Aaron Gordon has helped Arizona become the top-ranked team in the country, and Noah Vonleh has been close to a double-double machine at Indiana.

And there hasn’t been a mention of Kansas’ star freshman, Andrew Wiggins, yet. The Canadian continues to get better, along with fellow freshman teammate Joel Embiid. Then there is Tyler Ennis at Syracuse, Jordan Mickey at LSU and Jabari Bird at California.

The freshman class is deep and talented and will be a factor in March.

2. Mid-majors impress

With the successes of Butler, Gonzaga and Virginia Commonwealth in past seasons, it’s not a surprise the mid-majors have played well so far.

Wichita State, which made the Final Four last season, is undefeated and in the top 10. The Shockers have wins over BCS schools such as Tennessee and Alabama, and have road wins at Tulsa and Saint Louis.

Memphis, San Diego State, Massachusetts and Gonzaga also are ranked and should be threats to make a run in the NCAA Tournament. And don’t forget about Creighton, which has a player of the year candidate in senior Doug McDermott.

3. Texas revival

No Texas school made the NCAA Tournament last year, a first since 1977. That won’t happen this year.

Baylor is a virtual lock for the field and has already built a nice nonconference résumé with victories over Kentucky, Colorado and South Carolina. The Bears have one of the best frontcourts in the country with Cory Jefferson and Isaiah Austin.

Texas also has emerged in nonconference play and could be back in the NCAA Tournament after a one-year hiatus. The Longhorns have a marquee victory over North Carolina, and should find themselves at least on the bubble come Selection Sunday.

SMU should also be a bubble team, and UT Arlington and North Texas could find ways to win their respective conference tournaments.

4. Not just football

Ohio State, Wisconsin, Oregon and Florida are among the ranked teams known more for their football programs than basketball.

But all four are again playing well on the hardwood.

Ohio State and Wisconsin are undefeated, ranked in the top five and should contend for conference championships. Oregon is also undefeated and Dana Altman appears to have his best team in four seasons with the Ducks.

And Florida continues to be steady under Billy Donovan. The Gators won back-to-back games over ranked opponents in Kansas and Memphis earlier this month.

Adjusting to the rules

Much was made of the new rules — stricter hand-check calls and more difficulty in drawing charges.

Some coaches supported it, while others were critical of it.

But those stories have settled down substantially a couple of months into the season. The players have seemed to adapt to the rule changes, and the worries of games stretching past the dedicated two-hour window have subsided.

Three games to watch

Villanova at Syracuse ( 1 p.m. Saturday, KTVT/11): A matchup between undefeated top-10 teams. It should be entertaining from start to finish.

SMU at Cincinnati (5 p.m. Wednesday, ESPNU): Both teams are 10-2 as they begin American Athletic Conference play. Since both teams appear poised to be on the bubble on Selection Sunday, this head-to-head game could have a lasting effect.

Oregon at Utah (7 p.m. Thursday, Pac-12): Undefeated Oregon has wins over Georgetown and Illinois and has gotten stellar play from transfers Joseph Young (Houston) and Mike Moser (UNLV). Utah, meanwhile, hasn’t lost at home.

Drew Davison, 817-390-7760 Twitter: @drewdavison

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