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Not sure what's really important in college hoops? Here's your guide

After Monday night's College Football Playoff National Championship presented by AT&T, the airwaves will open for the perennial deluge of college basketball.

The televised SEC wars on the gridiron will become Saturday afternoon hardtop battles between the ACC's best. Big Ten football fans will attempt to diagnose a tattered basketball league. Backers of a Washington football squad that reached the national semifinals will check on their hoops team and wonder how a squad with the projected No. 1 pick in June's NBA draft (Markelle Fultz) could sink to the bottom of the conference.

Kansas fans will treat friends from rival schools with the same braggadocio they endured throughout the football season.

This, however, is not the beginning. It's the final push toward the NCAA tournament. We're nearly midway through the 2016-17 season.

If you've boarded this ship late -- or far too early if you root for the New York Giants -- you've missed plenty. No worries, though.

The final weeks of this chaotic season will move fast. We'll help you tread water until you get comfortable.

We're here to tell you the names, places, trends, coaches and players you should know -- all pivotal elements in the next chapter of college basketball:

Westwood

Last season, angry UCLA fans bought billboards and flew "Fire Coach [Steve] Alford!" banners over campus when the Bruins failed to reach the postseason after back-to-back Sweet 16 runs. The UCLA turnaround espouses the benefits that powerhouse programs enjoy in the one-and-done era.

You can blow on the cartridge, put it back into the old Nintendo and reset the game if you attract the right kids in your next recruiting class. Alford did just that when he landed lottery-bound prodigies Lonzo Ball, a Wooden Award contender and a projected top-five pick in this summer's NBA draft, and T.J. Leaf, an efficient big man who will dunk on you and everyone you know.

Now, the Bruins enter Pac-12 play as the favorites to win the conference crown -- yes, we watched the UCLA-Oregon game in Eugene, folks. After the road win over Kentucky on Dec. 3, the Bruins are a promising thoroughbred in the race for the Final Four.

3s all day

Once the Cleveland Cavaliers finalize their deal for Kyle Korver, the NBA champs will add a player with a 43 percent career clip from the 3-point line in their fight to defend their crown against the sharpshooting Golden State Warriors, who signed superstar Kevin Durant in the offseason.

The enhanced value of the 3-ball has changed the NBA title race, and college basketball also continues its move from an inside-outside tradition of balance to a game with fewer "true" big men and an emphasis on the perimeter as the nucleus of the 21st century offense.

Proof? Last season, 3-pointers accounted for 35 percent (or more) of the offensive output for 45 Division I programs, per KenPom.com. Entering this week, 71 teams are in that category.

Hot tempers after New Year's


We haven't reached mid-January and we've already witnessed Clemson coach Brad Brownell's scolding of North Carolina's Roy Williams after a contentious matchup, Oregon forward Dillon Brooks' swift kick to a Washington State player's sensitive region, coaches from Missouri and Georgia fighting midway through a game, and Duke guard Grayson Allen's third trip of an opponent (plus a weird, seemingly unintentional near trip against Boston College on Saturday).

Calm down, people.

Baylor is No. 1 ... for now

Yes, the Baylor Bears of Waco, Texas. No, we're not joking. Fine, call your buddy and ask him, since you doubt us.

The resume of coach Scott Drew's unbeaten squad includes wins over Louisville, Oregon, Michigan State, Xavier and VCU. The Bears will play five of their next seven games on the road, a torturous slate. That began with a trip to Morgantown, West Virginia, on Tuesday and ends with a visit to a place called the Phog in Lawrence, Kansas, on Feb. 1. The trip hasn't started well -- Baylor got drilled by West Virginia on Tuesday, meaning come Monday, that No. 1 ranking will likely be gone.

That's rough.

Jim Boeheim is over it

OK, so here's the thing about Jim Boeheim. In recent years, he's entered just-let-me-coach-and-leave-me-alone mode. The wild, unpredictable start of a 10-6 Syracuse squad shoved Boeheim into dude-why-I-am-still-doing-this mode. He'll retire soon. But he's over it now. All of it.

The following are real Boeheim quotes this season:

"If you go to the Final Four, you can lose 20 games and it doesn't matter."

"We cannot play man-to-man. We can't press, either. Two things we can't do."

"[Last year we] led the league in steals. We couldn't lead the local high school in steals with this team. We can't get a steal."

Listen, this will only get better.

The Australians have come to ruin your bracket

There is nothing nice about Saint Mary's, 11th in adjusted offensive efficiency per KenPom.com. The Gaels follow a star named Jock Landale (18.4 PPG, 9.7 RPG), one of seven Australians on a roster capable of blocking Gonzaga from the West Coast Conference's throne.

The Big Ten's big mess


Do not ignore the cool storylines in the Big Ten. Nebraska's surprising start. Northwestern's serious push for the program's first-ever NCAA tournament bid. Minnesota's rise under coach Richard Pitino. All fascinating. But those highlights do not overshadow the problems for the league's staples. Michigan State just lost at Penn State, extending the challenges for the Spartans in the post-Denzel Valentine era. Indiana can't guard anyone, and the Hoosiers' carelessness (21.5 percent turnover percentage, according to KenPom.com) complicates their push to compete for anything beyond a first-weekend exit in March. In the conference rankings by ESPN's BPI, the Big Ten stands behind the Big 12, the ACC and the Big East.

The Big B(East)

Few knew what to expect when the Big East regrouped in 2013 with a bunch of private schools after losing the powerhouses and pizazz of the league's original assembly.

Well, now the Big East is a major player on the national scene, with reigning national champ Villanova aiming for a repeat. Creighton, Butler and Xavier could all make a serious run in the NCAA tournament, too. Villanova guard Josh Hart (19.8 PPG, 39 percent from the 3-point line) could soon make the race for the Wooden Award nothing more than a competition for second place. Coach Chris Mullin's St. John's squad recently won its eighth game, matching last season's win total.

The Big East, which could send 60 percent of its membership to the NCAA tournament, continues to rise.

Craig Neal and the great collapse


Maybe you're convinced it's over for your favorite squad. Lost too many games. Best player is injured. Don't trust the coaching.

Before you abandon the bandwagon, however, please call New Mexico coach Craig Neal and just say, "What happened?"

He may share the story through tears, so give him a moment. At some point, however, he'll explain -- he'll try to explain -- how his team blew a 14-point lead with 70 seconds to play in regulation of a 105-104 overtime loss to Nevada on Saturday. Then you'll believe again. Anything is possible.

Malik Monk and De'Aaron Fox

Last week, NBA star (and former Kentucky star) Demarcus Cousins told ESPN's Jeff Goodman that Kentucky freshmen guards Malik Monk and De'Aaron Fox remind Cousins of John Wall and Eric Bledsoe, two NBA stars who led the Wildcats to the Elite Eight in 2009-10, coach John Calipari's first season in Lexington.

That's high praise from a great player, and it's not hyperbole.

You can point to Kentucky's challenges: inexperience, struggles at the free throw line and average 3-point shooting.

But answer this question: If Monk (21.9 PPG, 42 percent from the 3-point line) and Fox (16.3 PPG, 6.7 APG) come to ball in March, how many teams can beat Kentucky on a neutral floor? This duo is special. Monk and Fox will give Kentucky a chance to crush the SEC and compete for the national title.

Leonard Hamilton


When the season began, most expected Duke, North Carolina and Virginia to vie for the ACC title. Hamilton's 15-1 Florida State team features two projected first-round picks, Jonathan Isaac and Dwayne Bacon. This is also Hamilton's best defensive squad in years.

Florida State didn't ask for an invitation to the ACC race, but the program is right there with the league's bluebloods.

The West Coast's international infusion

The last time a West Coast school sent a team to the Final Four, Kevin Love played for a UCLA team that reached the national semifinals for a third consecutive season in 2007-08.

That West Coast drought could end this season, especially if the region's international stars continue to shine. We've already discussed Saint Mary's. Plus, Arizona's Lauri Markkanen (Finland) and Dusan Ristic (Serbia) could lead Arizona to a Pac-12 championship. Gonzaga's Przemek Karnowski (Poland) is healthy again after missing a chunk of the season with a back injury. His freshman teammate, Killian Tillie (France), enhances the depth of coach Mark Few's post rotation. Cal's Kingsley Okoroh (England) is second on the team with 6.8 RPG. And three of the top four scorers on Oregon's roster (Chris Boucher, Dillon Brooks and Dylan Ennis) are Canadians.

Jeff Capel's audition?


With coach Mike Krzyzewski sidelined by back surgery, associate head coach Jeff Capel will take the reins at Duke and try to prove he's a worthy successor to the winningest coach in NCAA history.

Capel's tenure at Oklahoma did not end well. He has rebounded as a top assistant at Duke, and most insiders credit him with helping Krzyzewski make a successful transition into the one-and-done era. Now, Capel will lead the most promising roster in America. Duke is a serious threat to every opponent in the country. If Capel can help the Blue Devils navigate the next stage in ACC play, Duke's supporters could demand that he take Krzyzewski's place once the legend retires.

What's wrong with ...

Texas? It's complicated. Michigan State? Injuries and youth. Yes, it's still early, but it's also an appropriate time to examine the early problems endured by teams that were ranked in the preseason polls -- Iowa State, Rhode Island, Syracuse, UConn -- and wonder if they'll ever salvage the rest of their respective seasons.

We don't have the answers to that, either.

The powerhouses still rule ... but fear the party crashers


Yes, we have some chaos.

But we also have familiar faces ruling the game.

Duke, North Carolina, Kentucky, UCLA, Louisville, Kansas, Villanova. All national title contenders. They're not alone, though. Who would be surprised if Oregon, Gonzaga, Butler, Baylor or Purdue found a way to reach the Final Four and win the national title?

Not us.

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