Conference play in college basketball is among the most exciting regular season set-ups in all of sports. Leagues feature either match-ups between longtime hated rivals or newly aligned set-ups that make for must-see games. Teams travel to deafeningly loud gyms, packed with student-sections losing their collective voices thanks to screams of celebration and rage. And while the conference tournaments and NCAA bracket are as wild as anything, it’s conference play that takes up the biggest chunk of our time and the longest portion of the calendar. No one who loves college basketball waits until the tournament to tune in. This is when hoops hits its high point!
Ok, maybe that is a stretch, but success in conference play goes a long way. We once looked at the future success of conference champions and there was absolutely a correlation. Teams that survived the gauntlet of their conference were poised for success in March. This season’s races in each of the six big leagues are all worth checking out as they get into gear this week.
Instinct would suggest Duke is the favorite in the ACC, as they are every year, but recent history disagrees. Duke hasn’t shared an ACC regular season crown since 2010 and hasn’t won outright since JJ Redick was in Durham. This year, Coach K has the most talent, the best home court advantage, and as good a case as anyone to take home the title.
Early results didn’t do Duke any favors. Duke has played two conference games already, losing at Boston College and beating Florida State at home. Come season’s end, it’s hard to envision an ACC champ with a loss in Chestnut Hill on its resume. One game certainly doesn’t eliminate the Blue Devils, especially after escaping an upset bid from the Seminoles, but it puts Duke behind the eight-ball to start.
Each of the other three top contenders for the conference championship have only played one ACC game, and all three of those teams started off with a win. North Carolina slipped up and lost to Wofford out of conference, but has the talent and experience to slog through the ACC slate. Miami is one of the fiercest teams in college basketball, playing top ten defense and has a cadre of guards all capable of filling up a stat sheet.
With Duke already a game behind, Virginia likely now stands as the favorite to win the conference. The Hoos have the nation’s best defense, a hot shooting offense, and one of the best coaches in college basketball.
Winning a conference regular season title, especially in a league as deep and challenging as the ACC, is as much about performing well in trap games and collecting expected wins as it is about beating the other top teams. Virginia’s defense is so finely tuned that it’s hard to imagine lesser opponents surprising the Cavaliers, while Virginia’s trio of shooters gives them a chance to beat anyone. The 15 teams in the ACC play 19 league games. Virginia and Miami both play the other three contenders only once. Duke plays at Miami, Carolina goes to Virginia, and the two Tobacco Road schools play a home-and-home.
My Pick: Virginia
Ever since the much ballyhooed death of the old Big East (may it rest in peace), Villanova has seen little competition at the top of the conference. The Wildcats have won the league outright every season since the exodus of five schools to other conferences. This year appeared to be more of the same, with Villanova undefeated and ranked first in the polls entering conference play. Jay Wright’s club then got blitzed by a three-point barrage by Butler at Hinkle Fieldhouse. The other conference contenders are fighting an uphill battle, but a one game lead this early helps even the playing field a bit.
Seton Hall is likely the most viable challenger to Villanova’s bid for a fifth straight title. With three productive seniors who have been contributing since Seton Hall beat the Wildcats for the Big East Tournament crown two years ago, the Pirates are good enough to compete for the title and aren’t afraid of the Villanova machine. Angel Delgado has been an absolute monster this season. Delgado has posted 12 double-doubles in 15 games to date, and one of his non-double-double games was a 7 point, 21 rebound performance. He will test every big man in the conference in the paint, especially Villanova redshirt freshman Omari Spellman. The Pirates already have a win over a tough Creighton team in conference play.
Creighton is stacked with veterans, and maybe the best backcourt in the conference with Kansas State transfer Marcus Foster and defensive stopper Khyri Thomas. The Bluejays are playing at a break-neck pace, scoring at will, and have been able to get enough stops to win games. This season, Creighton has lost to Gonzaga, Baylor, and at Seton Hall in the three biggest games on its schedule. Even with solid wins over Northwestern and UCLA, it remains to be seen if the Bluejays can consistently beat good teams and compete for the conference title.
Butler entered the conversation with a marquee win over Villanova. If they shoot as well as they did against Villanova, they could beat the Harlem Globetrotters, let alone any team in the Big East. That’s easier said than done, though the Bulldogs have seen that mountaintop once already. The Bulldogs can win any game at Hinkle Fieldhouse, but to be a factor in the conference, we need to see them win on the road. Losing at Xavier on Tuesday was the perfect yin to the yang of the big win over Villanova.
Xavier has lost just once this season, on a neutral court to top ten ranked Arizona State. Trevon Bluiett is one of the most prolific scorers in college basketball. He shot more threes and made more threes than any other player in the conference last season. With an effective shot fake and mid-range game, he’s a complete scorer that demands attention from opposing scouting reports. Unlike Seton Hall, Xavier’s players have not been around for much success in the league, particularly against Villanova. The Musketeers have played at Villanova four times since joining the Big East and lost by an average of 23 points in those four games. Overall, Xavier has played Villanova nine times since 2014 and won just once. We’ll believe it when we see it.
My Pick: Villanova
No conference is as simple as the Big Ten this season. Michigan State and Purdue are two of the best teams in America. There’s then a big gap to the next best team in the league, whomever that might be. Minnesota, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State, and Wisconsin will all be challenges and each have a moment at some point this season, even if none is good enough to keep pace with Sparty and the Boilermakers. Maryland was likely the third best team in the Big Ten before losing forward Justin Jackson to a season ending injury. While the Terps will still fight for a tournament bid, dreams of a conference title are likely dashed.
The top two teams will square off only once, on February 10 at Michigan State. Homecourt advantage in the biggest game of the season is one reason to favor the Spartans, but the list doesn’t end there. Michigan State has played historically great defense so far this season, allowing opponents to shoot just 32 percent inside the arc and 33 percent from the entire field. The big, athletic lineups at Tom Izzo’s disposal have proven too potent for most opponents. Purdue has a great mix of inside power and skill on the perimeter themselves. Matt Painter is the only coach in America who can reply on two centers taller than 7’2, with Isaac Haas and Matt Haarms, and both have been productive. Purdue can also count on efficient point guard PJ Thompson, scoring machine Carsen Edwards, solid veteran Vince Edwards (no relation), and elite three-and-D player Dakota Mathias. It’s a really talented roster that fits together nicely. Even if the Boilermakers will push Michigan State at every turn, winning in East Lansing is likely too tough of a task.
My Pick: Michigan State
We’ll breeze through the West Coast, thanks to a healthy bias toward games ending before midnight ET and because we’ve covered the topic in this space recently. The so-called Conference of Champions essentially comes down to Arizona and Arizona State, with a few other plucky challengers nipping at their heels. Arizona held serve and beat the Sun Devils in Tucson, but the two will meet again in Tempe later this season. If Arizona wins that as well, it’s nearly impossible to imagine any other school winning the league title.
My Pick: Arizona
The last time Kansas didn’t win or share the Big XII title, George W. Bush was President of the United States and the top song on the Billboard charts was “Yeah” by Usher. The Big XII Player of the Year that season was Tony Allen, who is now 35 years old. Picking a champion for this conference is more about determining if any of the other schools have a prayer to beat Kansas.
This year, they do.
No Big XII team scores a higher percentage of its points from beyond the arc than Kansas. The Jayhawks have already had two hiccups this season, shooting a combined 19 for 58 from beyond the arc in back-to-back December losses. With freshman big man Billy Preston trapped in illegal benefits purgatory after crashing “someone’s” SUV on campus, Bill Self is stuck playing lineups with four guards and very little inside scoring ability. If they can’t make a ton of outside shots, Kansas just can’t score.
Here’s the good news: Kansas can make a ton of outside shots. Devonte’ Graham, Lagerald Vick, and Svi Mykhialiuk are making 46 percent of their threes on a ridiculous 19 combined attempts per game. Entering play this week, there were just eight players in the entire nation shooting 45 percent from outside the arc on more than seven attempts per game, and two of them were Kansas Jayhawks! Every team in the Big XII will be game-planning to make Kansas shoot difficult outside shots. If successful, Kansas could lay a few duds on the conference slate. In just their second conference game, the Jayhawks laid their first dud, losing to Texas Tech at home on Tuesday. Kansas shot 6 for 26 from outside the arc and its lack of size was very apparent. The Red Raiders nabbed 18 offensive rebounds and outworked Kansas on the glass, and all over the floor, for 40 straight minutes. Kansas losing a home conference game means the Big XII is there for the taking.
Oklahoma is the top challenger, led by the nation’s best player in freshman point guard Trae Young. If Young can continue to play as well as he has, leading the nation in scoring, assists, and a host of other categories, the Sooners can compete with Kansas all season. Oklahoma will get two cracks at Kansas, but will need to survive a tough road schedule in one of America’s deepest conferences to even have a chance. The Sooners already completed one road test, beating TCU this past weekend. Nine of the ten teams in the Big XII are in the top 50 of the KenPom rankings. West Virginia’s pressure defense is as difficult as ever, led by a group of upperclassmen who can score as well. Texas is led by top NBA prospect Mo Bamba, who can take over any game on both ends of the floor. Those teams, along with TCU, Baylor, and Kansas State, will offer a tough test, though the title always runs through Lawrence.
Texas Tech has a serious leg up having already won at Kansas. Chris Beard’s team runs an effective motion offense that has resulted in balanced, efficient scoring. The Red Raiders defense is ranked in the top 5 nationally. Tech makes everything difficult for even good offensive teams, as we saw in their win over Kansas and victories against Baylor, BC, and Northwestern. Keenan Evans is a real deal playmaker with the ball in his hands. Norense Odiase is a bull in the paint. Senior Zach Smith and freshman Zhaire Smith share a last name and an ability to jump out of the building and off your TV screen. You may see Texas Tech as a football school with under the radar players and a fast-rising mid-major coach. They answered every question imaginable by beating Kansas.
My Pick: Texas Tech
John Calipari is always quick to compliment other schools and heap praise on other programs, especially in the SEC. In reality, this conference has been a cakewalk for Cal’s Wildcats in recent years. Big Blue has won the last three conference titles and four of the last six. Florida has traditionally been the only thing standing between Kentucky and total domination in the league. The Gators are a tournament team this season, but have struggled enough early on in the season to doubt their ability to compete at Kentucky’s level.
Instead, it’s traditional football powers that will take their best shot at the Wildcats. Texas A&M has one of the best starting frontcourts in America, punishing opposing bigs on a nightly basis. The Aggies are fighting the injury bug and got throttled by Florida on Tuesday.
Rick Barnes has Tennessee playing great basketball, with the Vols getting their first crack at Kentucky this weekend at home. Alabama has one of the hottest NBA prospects and best point guards in the nation in Collin Sexton. The freshman has been spectacular, even scoring 40 points in a wild game where the Tide played much of the second half with three players. Losing at Vanderbilt last night didn’t do Alabama any favors in the standings though.
Kentucky’s most ardent challenge may come from a feisty Arkansas team. The Hogs score at will, averaging the 6th most points per game in the nation. Senior guards Jaylen Barford and Daryl Macon both score more than 16 points per game and shoot better than 44 percent from outside. Freshman center Daniel Gafford is as athletic as any player in college hoops, with a wingspan like a rubber band. The Razorbacks collected big wins in the non-conference by beating ranked Oklahoma and blowing out future tournament teams Minnesota and Bucknell. In SEC play, the Hogs already topped Tennessee, but then dropped a game at Mississippi State. Did I almost publish a version of this post before that loss that included me picking Arkansas to win the SEC? You’ll never know!
My Pick: Kentucky, but it’ll be close.
Header image: Nick Krug, Lawrence Journal-World
Shane McNichol is the founder, editor, and senior writer at PalestraBack.com. He has also contributed to ESPN.com, Rush The Court, SALTMoney.org, Larry Brown Sports, and USA Today Sports Weekly. Follow him on Twitter @OnTheShaneTrain. If you have any suggestions, tips, ideas, or questions, email them to firstname.lastname@example.org
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