Conference play tips off in earnest this week beginning Wednesday night. Below is a quick look at each of the strongest conferences ranked from 1 to 9.
1. BIG 12
Preseason pick to win the league title: Kansas
Current pick to win the league title: Kansas
Projected NCAA tournament teams: 7 (Kansas, Oklahoma, West Virginia, Baylor, TCU, Texas Tech, Texas)
Three conference player of the year candidates: Trae Young, G, Oklahoma, Devonte Graham, G, Kansas, Jevon Carter, G, West Virginia
Biggest surprise: Oklahoma’s Trae Young blossoming from consensus top 30 freshman to early favorite to win national player of the year. The skilled combo guard is averaging a national-best 28.7 points and 10.4 assists.
Biggest disappointment: Prized Kansas freshman Billy Preston’s absence. The missing piece in the Jayhawks’ thin frontcourt is sitting out while school officials seek a “clearer financial picture” of the vehicle he was driving during a preseason one-car accident.
Coach under the most pressure: Bruce Weber, Kansas State
Outlook: If Kansas hopes to capture at least a share of the Big 12 title for a record-breaking 14th straight season, then the Jayhawks will have to survive what is by far the nation’s deepest conference. Six Big 12 teams are ranked in the latest AP Top 25. No Big 12 team has more than three losses (Texas) and only Iowa State (No. 76) is outside the KenPom top 50. Oklahoma, West Virginia, TCU, Texas Tech and Baylor all have the talent and experience to not just make the NCAA tournament but perhaps advance beyond the first weekend. The key for Kansas will be finding someone besides Devonte Graham who can create offense and bolstering its undermanned frontcourt. Udoka Azubuike is currently the Jayhawks’ only capable rim protector and rebounder, but the potential addition of freshmen Billy Preston and Silvio De Sousa would help.
Preseason pick to win the league title: Duke
Current pick to win the league title: Duke
Projected NCAA tournament teams: 9 (Duke, North Carolina, Virginia, Miami, Louisville, Notre Dame, Clemson, Virginia Tech, Florida State)
Three conference player of the year candidates: Marvin Bagley, F, Duke; Bonzie Colson, F, Notre Dame; Joel Berry, G, North Carolina
Biggest surprise: Despite the departure of star Jaron Blossomgame, Clemson so far appears to be a much stronger team, especially on the defensive end. The Tigers (11-1) have defeated Florida, Ohio State and South Carolina and ride a seven-game win streak into conference play.
Biggest disappointment: An anemic offense made worse by season-opening suspensions to Josh Okogie and Tadric Jackson has derailed Georgia Tech. Expected to contend for an NCAA bid, the Yellow Jackets are instead off to a 5-6 start that includes losses to Grambling, Wright State and Wofford.
Coach under the most pressure: Brad Brownell, Clemson
Outlook: A prolific offense headlined by Marvin Bagley and Grayson Allen makes Duke the favorite to win the ACC, but the Blue Devils must get better defensively. They’ve looked vulnerable against the best teams they’ve faced this season because they’re often out of position on pick and roll defense and slow to rotate in the paint or close out on shooters. If defense proves to be Duke’s undoing, Virginia and North Carolina appear best positioned to take advantage. The Cavaliers once again boast the nation’s best defense along with a favorable schedule that includes only one game apiece against Duke, North Carolina, Miami and Notre Dame. North Carolina’s strength is a deep backcourt that surrounds rapidly improving inside-outside threat Luke Maye.
3. BIG EAST
Preseason pick to win the league title: Villanova
Current pick to win the league title: Villanova
Projected NCAA tournament teams: 5 (Villanova, Xavier, Seton Hall, Creighton, Butler)
Three conference player of the year candidates: Jalen Brunson, G, Villanova; Trevon Bluiett, G/F, Xavier; Khyri Thomas, G, Creighton
Biggest surprise: Mikal Bridges’ transformation from intriguing prospect to polished two-way star. The 6-foot-6 wing has developed a reliable jump shot, which has enabled him to nearly double his scoring average and emerge as the quintessential 3-and-D NBA prospect.
Biggest disappointment: Emmitt Holt’s season-ending injury. The 6-foot-9 Indiana transfer could have been the bruising frontcourt presence Providence has lacked this season. Instead he’s redshirting with an ab injury.
Coach under the most pressure: Chris Mullin, St. John’s
Outlook: Don’t count on this being the year someone unseats Villanova as Big East champion. The Wildcats proved they’re a worthy favorite to claim a fifth straight outright league title by storming to a 12-0 start that includes victories over Gonzaga, Tennessee, Temple and Northern Iowa. The Wildcats are top 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency and boast a perfect blend of talent and experience, whether it’s prospective All-American point guard Jalen Brunson, emerging star Mikal Brunson or interior standout Omari Spellman. The Big East is fairly deep behind Villanova, but only Xavier, Seton Hall and Creighton appear to have a realistic chance of challenging the Wildcats. Xavier, so far, has been the best of the chase group as its lone loss came against unbeaten Arizona State in November.
Preseason pick to win the league title: Florida
Current pick to win the league title: Texas A&M
Projected NCAA tournament teams: 7 (Texas A&M, Florida, Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, Arkansas, Missouri)
Three conference player of the year candidates: Collin Sexton, G, Alabama; Tyler Davis, F, Texas A&M; Kevin Knox, F, Kentucky
Biggest surprise: Auburn is 11-1, and Bruce Pearl is still its coach. Didn’t see either of those developments coming two months ago when the FBI investigation ensnared the Tigers program and robbed them of two key starters.
Biggest disappointment: A Vanderbilt team projected to finish in the middle of the SEC instead is the league’s only team with a sub-.500 record. The Commodores have played a murderous schedule, but they’ve yet to beat a single team rated higher than No. 147 in the KenPom rankings.
Coach under the most pressure: Mark Fox, Georgia
Outlook: The SEC’s basketball renaissance has arrived. While Kentucky has yet to distinguish itself and Florida has been up and down, the rest of the league has outperformed expectations so far this season. Texas A&M is a three-point loss to Arizona in Phoenix away from taking an undefeated record into conference play. Tennessee, Alabama and Arkansas have both performed like NCAA tournament teams. Don’t count out Missouri or Auburn either despite a potentially season-ending injury to Michael Porter and the FBI-related suspensions of Austin Wiley and Danjel Purifoy. Could Kentucky win the SEC if its freshman-laden rotation improves over the next three months? Yes. Could Florida win the SEC if its defense gets better and its shooters hit jumpers like they did in Portland? Yes. But Texas A&M enters league play as the favorite, and a couple other teams are also legitimate contenders.
5. BIG TEN
Preseason pick to win the league title: Michigan State
Current pick to win the league title: Michigan State
Projected NCAA tournament teams: 5 (Michigan State, Purdue, Minnesota, Michigan, Maryland)
Three conference player of the year candidates: Miles Bridges, F, Michigan State; Carsen Edwards, G, Purdue; Jordan Murphy, F, Minnesota
Biggest surprise: Ohio State wasn’t expected to be relevant in Chris Holtmann’s debut season, but the emergence of Keita Bates-Diop has helped the Buckeyes exceed expectations. At 2-0 in league play already and with no bad losses, Ohio State has the look of a team that could stay on the bubble into March.
Biggest disappointment: Is it a five-loss Northwestern team that has bellyflopped a year after making its NCAA tournament debut? Or is it a seven-loss Wisconsin team in grave jeopardy of not making the NCAA tournament for the first time in 19 years? We’ll go with the Wildcats only because they had more returning talent and preseason fanfare.
Coach under the most pressure: Tim Miles, Nebraska.
Outlook: Whether it’s Wisconsin’s early nosedive, Northwestern’s inability to build off last year’s momentum or Indiana, Iowa and Illinois all suffering bad non-conference losses, this hasn’t been a banner season so far for the Big Ten. Michigan State and Purdue appear a cut above the rest of the league with Minnesota, Michigan and Maryland headlining the primary chase group. The Spartans appear to be the Big Ten’s best hope of ending its national title drought thanks largely to an absurd collection of frontcourt talent. Whenever point guard Cassius Winston is taking care of the ball and wing Josh Langford is knocking down shots and attacking the rim, the Spartans are very, very hard to beat. Purdue, owners of five top 50 KenPom wins, have also looked dangerous of late. Nobody has more size than Purdue and nobody shoots it better from the perimeter.
Preseason pick to win the league title: Arizona
Current pick to win the league title: Arizona
Projected NCAA tournament teams: 5 (Arizona, Arizona State, UCLA, USC, Oregon)
Three conference player of the year candidates: DeAndre Ayton, F, Arizona; Tra Holder, G, Arizona State; Reid Travis, F, Stanford
Biggest surprise: Who would have thought a month ago that unheralded Arizona State would be one of college basketball’s last unbeaten teams? The Sun Devils have upset Kansas at Allen Fieldhouse, hung 102 points on a formidable Xavier team and also tallied victories against Kansas State, San Diego State, Vanderbilt and St. John’s.
Biggest disappointment: So much for Stanford as a potential breakout team. Despite surrounding star forward Reid Travis with three other returning starters and a strong recruiting class, the cold-shooting, turnover-plagued Cardinal still don’t score efficiently enough. They are 6-7 with losses to Long Beach State, Portland State and Eastern Washington.
Coach under the most pressure: Sean Miller, Arizona
Outlook: The Pac-12 race could come down to a duel in the desert. Arizona and Arizona State both appear to be the class of the conference, though UCLA, USC and Oregon could each be a factor before the season is done. The Wildcats have reemerged as the Pac-12 favorite since they went 0-for-the-Battle 4 Atlantis last month. They need to get more from their non-DeAndre Ayton freshmen and continue to improve on defense, but they’ve beaten Texas A&M, Alabama, UNLV and UConn over the past month. Arizona State looks like a worthy challenger after a non-conference performance nobody saw coming. The aggressive, guard-heavy Sun Devils have been very difficult to guard because they spread the floor with shooters and allow Tra Holder and Shannon Evans to create.
7. AMERICAN ATHLETIC CONFERENCE
Preseason pick to win the league title: Cincinnati
Current pick to win the league title: Cincinnati
Projected NCAA tournament teams: 4 (Cincinnati, Wichita State, SMU, Houston)
Three conference player of the year candidates: Landry Shamet, G, Wichita State; Rob Gray, G, Houston, Shake Milton, G, SMU
Biggest surprise: Turns out Houston is more than just the Rob Gray show. The Cougars have rebounded from a head-scratching November loss to Drexel by putting together an NCAA tournament-caliber non-conference resume that includes victories over Arkansas, Providence and Wake Forest.
Biggest disappointment: Wichita State’s 10-2 start is perfectly acceptable, but it masks the fact that the Shockers have been a mess at the defensive end. They’ve given up 50 or more before halftime three times already this season, an issue they’ll have to clean up if they hope to win the league title in their debut season in the AAC.
Coach under the most pressure: Tubby Smith, Memphis
Outlook: While name-brand programs UConn and Memphis have once again faded from relevance, the AAC has weathered that nicely this season. Newcomer Wichita State has joined Cincinnati in the league’s upper tier while SMU, Houston, Temple and UCF have formed a very credible second tier. The title race could come down to whether the return of injured wing Markis McDuffie helps solidify a Wichita State defense that has been uncharacteristically shaky so far this season. If so, the Shockers may have what it takes to outlast Cincinnati in their debut season in the AAC. If not, the balanced Bearcats have the offensive firepower to take advantage with SMU also capable of pouncing should both favorites falter.
8. MOUNTAIN WEST
Preseason pick to win the league title: Nevada
Current pick to win the league title: Nevada
Projected NCAA tournament teams: 2 (Nevada, Boise State)
Three conference player of the year candidates: Brandon McCoy, F, UNLV; Chandler Hutchison, G, Boise State; Jordan Caroline, F, Nevada
Biggest surprise: Fueled by the formidable frontcourt duo of Brandon McCoy and Shakur Juiston, UNLV is off to an 11-2 start that includes victories over Utah and Illinois and an overtime loss to Arizona. Not bad for a program that lost 21 games last season.
Biggest disappointment: Colorado State is the only team projected to finish in the upper half of the Mountain West that so far hasn’t met preseason expectations. The Rams don’t have any top 100 wins largely because they have struggled on offense. They are among the worst shooting teams in the country nad miss the scoring punch of graduated star Gian Clavell
Coach under the most pressure: Tim Duryea, Utah State
Outlook: Only four years after it finished No. 1 in conference RPI and sent five teams to the NCAA tournament, the Mountain West hit rock bottom last March. The league produced just one NCAA tournament team for a second straight season, a product of BYU and Utah bolting at the same time as flagship programs UNLV and New Mexico both faltered. The Mountain West hasn’t approached its previous heights this season, but it has improved considerably. At least two teams out of the Mountain West’s upper tier of reigning champ Nevada, Boise State, UNLV, San Diego State and Fresno State ought to be able to make the NCAA tournament. The wildcard is the Rebels, who have a history under their previous coaching staff of showing promise in November and December only to fall apart in conference play.
9. ATLANTIC 10
Preseason pick to win the league title: Rhode Island
Current pick to win the league title: St. Bonaventure
Projected NCAA tournament teams: 2 (Rhode Island, St. Bonaventure)
Three conference player of the year candidates: Jaylen Adams, G, St. Bonaventure; Peyton Aldridge, F, Davidson; E.C. Matthews, G, Rhode Island
Biggest surprise: Even though Jaylen Adams has only played in half St. Bonaventure’s games so far this season, the Bonnies are meeting or even exceeding preseason expectations. They’re 10-2 overall with a pair of notable victories over Maryland and Syracuse. Both losses came in November before Adams was healthy.
Biggest disappointment: Richmond was supposed to be down this season, but nobody thought the Spiders would be this bad. They’re 2-10 with losses to the likes of Delaware, Jacksonville State and Louisiana Lafayette. They have no outside shooting, nobody who can draw fouls and no offensive rebounders.
Coach under the most pressure: Chris Mooney, Richmond
Outlook: Two of the Atlantic 10’s powerhouse programs have taken a temporary step backward this season. Dayton lost a trio of double-digit scorers and its head coach this past spring, leaving it without any proven shot creators in the backcourt. VCU also endured a coaching change and massive roster turnover, leaving it lacking outside shooting and interior defense. The result is that both the Flyers (6-6) and the Rams (8-5) are long-shot NCAA tournament contenders and the Atlantic 10 is suffering as a result. The league is in real jeopardy of securing two or fewer NCAA bids for the first time in more than a decade. A deep, talented backcourt has helped preseason favorite Rhode Island (7-3) weather the loss of E.C. Matthews in the fourth game of the season. St. Bonaventure should also be optimistic after a 10-2 start. But beyond those two, every other A-10 team would have to do something truly special in league play to get into at-large contention.
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