Nonconference play can present more noise than signal about what a team is and what it will become. Sometimes slow starts can portend future struggles, sometimes the randomness of college basketball leaves a teams' résumé lacking but there's nothing to glean from it, and other times there's outside factors to consider that explain away why a team underperformed relative to expectations.
So as conference play starts, there's two ways things can go for struggling teams: they'll either continue mired in mediocrity or get off the mat and get hot.
Today I've picked out seven who fit the latter category and may be primed and ready to shake off some struggles to get hot as conference play kicks into high gear. Let's jump into the seven.
Current record: 9-7 | Projected regular-season record: 22-9
Creighton on paper looked like the class of the Big East and a bona fide Final Four contender in the preseason after adding Baylor Scheierman to a core group that included returning stars Trey Alexander, Ryan Nembhard, Arthur Kaluma and Ryan Kalkbrenner. That's not been the case thus far. Creighton has instead been the definition of a rollercoaster en route to its 9-7 start with some good wins early (Arkansas, Texas Tech) sprinkled in with some frustrating falls of late (it lost six straight from the end of November to middle of December). The Bluejays, though, still have the talent to be a force in the league and beyond even if they've already put themselves behind the eight ball to win the league. The upcoming schedule is daunting but with Kalkbrenner back in the lineup this team has the goods to start rolling, and I expect as March hits this team will look much closer to the one we expected in the preseason.
Current record: 10-5 | Projected regular-season record: 21-10
Quite possibly the single most frustrating team in college basketball this season. It has notched signature wins (UCLA and Texas on a neutral) but also has been susceptible to laying gigantic, dinosaur-sized eggs at random, too. At 10-5 this team is 1-3 in Big Ten play and at an inflection point after five-star freshman Skyy Clark recently stepped away indefinitely. But Brad Underwood has the coaching chops and the roster to steer this ship back into a good flow behind Terrence Shannon Jr. and a nice supporting cast that includes Dain Dainja, Matthew Mayer, Coleman Hawkins and Jayden Epps.
Current record: 11-5 | Projected regular-season record: 23-8
Coming off a national runner-up finish last season and returning almost every meaningful piece (sans Brady Manek), UNC was a consensus pick from the CBS Sports experts to win the ACC and a chalky pick to make it back to the Final Four. Instead the Tar Heels in record pace went from No. 1 to unranked in a dreadful 5-4 start. But quietly things are looking up in Chapel Hill with six wins in their last seven (let's pretend the loss to Pitt didn't happen, shall we?), producing for the first time some optimism that some early season struggles may be ready to shake loose.
Current record: 12-4 | Projected regular-season record: 23-8
What we've seen so far from Duke this season -- especially from true freshman five-star Dereck Lively -- suggests this may be slightly misguided. But two of the other five-stars in Dariq Whitehead and Kyle Filipowski have been increasingly reliable and the other, Mark Mitchell, has flashed some major potential. The pieces are in place for Duke to eventually get things on track as the youngsters develop behind Jeremy Roach, even if it feels like it's taking longer than normal Duke teams do.
Current record: 4-13 | Projected regular-season record: 16-15
Texas Southern had one of the five hardest nonconference schedules in college basketball so the 4-13 record is wildly misleading. Under Johnny Jones the Tigers typically flip things around in league play. The 0-4 start in the SWAC is going to throw people off the scent but they've been competitive in almost every game and are really close to turning the corner. If they get back to the NCAA Tournament again this season it wouldn't be a surprise.
Current record: 14-4 | Projected regular-season record: 25-6
Saint Mary's isn't even cracking the top 25 right now at 14-4 but the metrics love the Gaels. They're 17th at KenPom.com and sixth (!!) at BartTorvik.com behind a respectable O and a lethal D. Really good chance this team is no longer flying under the radar soon. They have a solid chance to win out in the regular season (the only losses I projected them for are the two Gonzaga tilts).
Current record: 10-6 | Projected regular-season record: 20-11
Maybe I'm on an island here but I just can't quit the Hawkeyes. Kris Murray is a superstar. Filip Rebraca and Tony Perkins wildly underrated. And Payton Sandford's 22-point explosion vs. Rutgers over the weekend suggests he's on the upswing. I like Iowa's prospects moving forward even if the first few months have been inconsistent. With three upcoming home games they could very easily jump to 5-3 in the conference and back into the mix as a legit tourney team.