Hoops' halfway honors

We're at the halfway point of the NBA season. We're just about at the halfway point of the college basketball season, though conference play is just starting to heat up. So time to take a step back and take stock of what we've seen so far in both the NBA and men's college basketball, as well as take a few guesses on what might happen the rest of the season. This is our midseason hoops report.

Best team Kentucky Wildcats

You figured John Calipari, right, would turn the Kentucky program around, but who thought he would turn it around this fast? The Wildcats are the nation's last unbeaten team at 18-0. But a little perspective — they had what appeared to be signature victories against the likes of UConn, Louisville and Florida, but perhaps those teams aren't as good as first thought. Still, undefeated is undefeated.

Best player

Is it even close? Kentucky freshman John Wall, below, has been so good that coach John Calipari not only thinks Wall will turn pro after this season, but says he will insist Wall turn pro. The 6-foot-4 guard is averaging 17.1 points per game with 6.9 assists and 3.7 rebounds. We could mention other outstanding players — Texas' Damion James, Ohio State's Evan Turner and Notre Dame's Luke Harangody — but it almost seems silly to mention them alongside Wall. He has been that good.

Most surprising team

Pitt Panthers

The Panthers lost three monster players — Levance Fields, Sam Young and DeJuan Blair — from last year's 31-5 team and some picked Pitt as low as ninth in the Big East. Because of NBA departures, injuries and one academically ineligible player, the Panthers started this season with no returning starters. But they raced to a 5-0 record in the Big East, including road victories at Syracuse, Cincinnati and UConn. They had a setback in their last game against Georgetown, but they've shown they're way better than ninth in the Big East.

Most disappointing team

North Carolina Tar Heels

It's often tough the season after a national title and the Tar Heels certainly had their share of departures and injuries. Still, this is North Carolina and it seems like a misprint that it stands 11th out of 12 teams in the ACC. The Tar Heels already have lost seven games — the same number they had combined the past two seasons. Heck, they even lost to College of Charleston. But you know what? After that, the losses haven't been that bad, including to Syracuse, Kentucky and Texas — teams all in the top five. With its talent and a heck of a coach in Roy Williams, you get the feeling North Carolina will right the ship in time for the tournament.

Best conference

While most college hoops fans like to argue about the ACC vs. the Big East, how about a little love for the Big 12? Kansas, Texas and Kansas State are all ranked in the 10. But perhaps the best story in college basketball this year is just how balanced the conferences are. In the latest Associated Press top 10, you have three teams from the Big 12 and Big East, two teams from the SEC and one team each from the ACC and Big Ten. But one league is clearly out of the discussion: the Pac-10, which not only doesn't have a team in the Top 25, but only one team (Arizona State) even showing up among the 22 teams "also receiving votes.''

Final Four prediction

Kentucky seems a lock. Texas has a loss, but it came to Kansas State and the Longhorns' resume this season has been even more impressive than Kentucky's. So Kentucky and Texas make up half of our Final Four. That leaves Kansas, Villanova, Michigan State and Duke on our short list for the other two spots. It seems crazy to ever pick against Michigan State and coach Tom Izzo. Kansas is awfully good, but we think the final spot will go to a Big East team, and we like Syracuse's grit. So, our Final Four looks like this: Kentucky, Texas, Michigan State, Syracuse.

NBA

Best team (Eastern Conference)

Cleveland Cavaliers

Sure, it's easy to just say Cleveland because the Cavs have the East's best record. But it's how they have soared to the top of the East that is so impressive. Through their first 44 games, the Cavs played 25 on the road and still had the best record in the East. And they just polished off a two-game season series sweep of the Lakers. The Magic still hasn't jelled with new addition Vince Carter. The Celtics, at times, look old and creaky, and the Hawks, while impressive, are 0-2 against Cleveland and 0-2 against Orlando.

Best team (Western Conference)

Los Angeles Lakers

Not only are the Lakers the best in the West, they are the best in the NBA. Surprisingly, the key is not Kobe Bryant, left, but big man Pau Gasol. Coming into this week, the Lakers were 20-3 when Gasol plays and 11-6 when he's out of the lineup. Still, the Lakers seem capable of taking their game to another level whenever they feel like it.

Most surprising team (Eastern Conference)

New York Knicks

Crazy that a team that started 16-24 could be a surprise, but it's a wonder the Knicks have won that many, especially after winning only one of their first 10 and three of their first 17. Since that 3-14 start, the Knicks are a respectable 14-10. They've cleared out so much cap space in hopes of signing LeBron James that the roster isn't full of NBA stars, but they play hard.

Most surprising team (Western Conference)

Portland Trail Blazers

Big man Greg Oden, left, is out for the season (again) and yet the Trail Blazers have their heads well above water. Here's what we like, too: they are 5-1 against the Spurs, Lakers, Nuggets and Mavs.

Most disappointing team (Eastern Conference)

Orlando Magic

How can a team that has one of the better records in the NBA be a disappointment? Well, maybe it's because expectations were so high. After making a surprising run to the NBA Finals a season ago, the Magic went through a stretch that no really good team should go through when it lost seven of 10. More ominous: In its first 19 games against teams with a .500 record or better, the Magic was only 9-10.

Most disappointing team (Western Conference)

Los Angeles Clippers

It's not really their fault that this seems to be the most-cursed franchise in sports. No. 1 pick Blake Griffin (fractured left kneecap) will not play a game this season, and the Clippers likely will miss the playoffs for the 12th time in the past 13 seasons.

First-half MVP

Carmelo Anthony, Denver Nuggets

Kobe or LeBron? LeBron or Kobe? That seems to the MVP talk every season with occasionally a name such as Dwight Howard or Chris Paul thrown in just to make it interesting. But Carmelo Anthony, left, is having a better season than all of them. He leads the NBA at 30 points a game and, this cool note from ESPN's Chris Mannix: Coming into Friday, Anthony had more 30-point games (21) than eight teams had combined.

Finals prediction

The season started as if we would have another chapter in the classic Lakers-Celtics rivalry. If the two teams do get there, it will be the 12th time they have met for the championship. Right now, we think the Lakers will get there, but something tells us the Celtics will physically break down before getting to the Finals. So, for now, we see a Kobe vs. LeBron matchup or, more interesting, a Kobe vs. Shaq matchup as the Lakers take on the Cavaliers.

Hoops' halfway honors 01/22/10 [Last modified: Friday, January 22, 2010 10:55pm]

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