With the calendar turning to 2009 last week, college basketball fans from across the country rejoiced – yes, it’s that time, it’s time for conference play. The next two months could mean more this year than most seasons, too, as there are plenty of teams from around the country that have eerily similar resumes – you know, the ones with 11 or 12 wins, including maybe one over a decent team and then a bunch of cupcake victories. League play in the “Big Six” conferences aims to separate the pretenders from the legit contenders. It started with a bang last week, as nine top-25 teams already have at least one conference loss, with several more likely to fall this week as conference play heats up and the temperatures drop.
While many of the major conferences this season are one or two-team races, every “BCS” league has a multitude of contenders and sleepers that are difficult to differentiate. That’s what makes projecting the NCAA Tournament so difficult to do right now – there are too many teams that could potentially contend for bids come Selection Sunday. As a result, it’s time for me to take a stab at breaking down the big conferences. There are just enough games played already and enough left in the season to make an educated guess as to what is going on in the major conferences. Next week, I will breakdown the mid-major conferences.
Favorite: North Carolina: Despite the Tar Heels' loss to Boston College, they are still clearly the team to beat. They have the most talent, depth and experience and they are simply too good to bet against them. However, they do need to shore up their perimeter defense if they are going to win the national championship.
Sleeper: Maryland: The Terrapins have just two losses on the season, to Gonzaga and Georgetown.Sure, they were both blowout losses, but the Terps have the talent to beat some quality teams, as evidenced by their wins over Michigan State and Michigan. Greivis Vasquez is one of the best guards in the country.
Bust: Miami (Fl.): The Hurricanes were supposed to be a threat to finish in the top couple of spots in the conference. That can still happen, but an embarrassing 19-point loss at home against Clemson to open ACC play is not the message they wanted to send. They are very deep, but need to develop some consistency.
Team to Watch in the Conference Tournament: Virginia Tech: The Hokies finished last season very strongly before falling short of the NCAA Tournament, and have not continued that momentum this year. However, they have an outstanding trio in Malcolm Delaney, A.D. Vassallo and Jeff Allen and can compete.
Surprise So Far: Boston College: The Eagles might have been in this space even before their win at North Carolina, but that victory solidified it. Tyrese Rice is arguably the best guard in the conference, and Joe Trapani leads a group of forwards who can create match-up problems for most defenders. Al Skinner always seems to get it done.
NCAA Tournament Teams: North Carolina, Duke, Wake Forest, Clemson, Boston College, Miami (Fl.), Maryland
Bubble Teams: North Carolina State, Virginia Tech
Favorite: Pittsburgh: Although I think that Connecticut is the best team in the league, nothing so far would indicate that they have the consistency, discipline and focus to beat the Panthers over the long haul. Pittsburgh has an excellent trio in Levance Fields, Sam Young and DeJuan Blair and plays outstanding defense.
Sleeper: West Virginia: I'm very impressed with the Mountaineers this season. They have perimeter guys who can score the ball in Alex Ruoff and Da'Sean Butler and frontcourt performers who can create match-up problems in Devin Ebanks and Kevin Jones. If Joe Mazzulla returns at the point, he adds a different dimension.
Bust: Louisville: What else is new? The Cardinals are underachieving, as they seem to do every season around this time. Of course, they kick it up in February and become an NCAA Tournament threat by March. If that is going to happen this year, Rick Pitino is going to need more consistent point guard play from Edgar Sosa.
Team to Watch in the Conference Tournament: Providence: The Friars are a veteran team with a multitude of scoring options on the perimeter, making them difficult to defend when they are hitting their shots. Furthermore, they are very balanced -- seven players average between 22.1 and 28.5 minutes, and 8.7 and 13.9 points.
Surprise So Far: Syracuse: Most people thought the Orange would be a very good team and an NCAA Tournament team, but this good? This quickly? Take away the 60-foot heave by Cedric Jackson to give Cleveland State a win over Syracuse, and they would be one of the top teams in the country. Jonny Flynn is outstanding.
NCAA Tournament Teams: Pittsburgh, Connecticut, Georgetown, Syracuse, Notre Dame, Marquette, West Virginia, Louisville, Villanova
Bubble Teams: Cincinnati
Favorite: Oklahoma, Texas: It's going to be a two-team race all season, but in this sport, the title will be decided on the court -- not by rankings. Oklahoma has the best player in Blake Griffin, but Texas has the best inside-outside duo in A.J. Abrams and Damion James. The difference will be defense and consistency.
Sleeper: Missouri: The Tigers have gotten off to a great start this season, behind the inside duo of DeMarre Carroll and Leo Lyons. They have a very deep team, with 10 guys playing at least 11.7 minutes per game. Missouri takes care of the ball and plays Mike Anderson's "40 Minutes of Hell" defense, which is a nightmare for opponents.
Bust: Kansas State: Most people knew the Wildcats would have a down year after the losses of Bill Walker and Michael Beasley, but Kansas State is 0-3 against BCS teams, including defeats at the hands of lowly Iowa and Oregon. Their best wins are over Southern Mississippi and Cleveland State -- a far cry from last season.
Team to Watch in the Conference Tournament: Oklahoma State: The Cowboys are not going to be a fun team to play at all this season. They have five big-time perimeter scorers who can all fill it up and have a big game. Plus, Obi Muonelo is a match-up nightmare and can create problems in the frontcourt.
Surprise So Far: Texas A&M: The Aggies are off to a 14-1 start, including wins over LSU, Alabama and Arizona. The lone loss was at the hands of Tulsa back in late November. Josh Carter still needs to find his three-point stroke, but Donald Sloan and Bryan Davis have improved greatly and form a nice inside-outside tandem.
NCAA Tournament Teams: Oklahoma, Texas, Baylor, Kansas, Missouri
Bubble Teams: Texas A&M, Oklahoma State
Favorite: Michigan State: The only legitimate Final Four contender from this conference, the Spartans have bounced back from their early struggles to become one of the best teams in the country. Raymar Morgan is one of the best players in the country, and Kalin Lucas has a ridiculous 4.94/1 assist to turnover ratio.
Sleeper: Illinois: The Fighting Illini have surprised everyone this season, getting off to a 13-2 start with the only losses against Clemson and Missouri. Mike Davis and Mike Tisdale have provided much-needed inside support, while Chester Frazier leads the way at the point. Kentucky transfer Alex Legion just became eligible.
Bust: Purdue: The Boilermakers were expected to be a threat at the top of the standings to win the conference. However, after last night's loss to Penn State, they are now 0-2 in the Big Ten and 11-4 overall. They need to get Robbie Hummell and Chris Kramer completely healthy for the stretch run if they want to contend.
Team to Watch in the Conference Tournament: Penn State: This was even before the Nittany Lions' victory over Purdue last night. They lost by just four at Wisconsin, and their three losses are by an average of only five points. Talor Battle is one of the most underrated all-around players in the country; he is a star.
Surprise So Far: Michigan: The Wolverines sent a message early in the season with their victory over UCLA, and then solidified it with a win over Duke a couple of weeks later. Guard Manny Harris and forward DeShawn Sims have become one of the best inside-outside tandems in the country; this is a very solid team.
NCAA Tournament Teams: Michigan State, Purdue, Wisconsin, Illinois, Ohio State, Minnesota, Michigan
Bubble Teams: Penn State
Favorite: UCLA: The Bruins are down from last season, but so is the Pac-10, so they are still the default favorite unti someone takes their throne. They don't have an impressive win all season, but they have won eight in a row and could be hitting their stride. UCLA has a ton of perimeter talent, but they need some inside consistency.
Sleeper: Stanford: Looks like Johnny Dawkins has taken the winning ways he gained from his days at Duke and just transferred them to Palo Alto. The Cardinal are 11-1 overall, with the lone loss coming against Arizona State. Anthony Goods is a big-time scorer and Josh Owens has been a surprise this season down low.
Bust: USC: Like Louisville, I feel like I write this about the Trojans every season. And then they seem to pick things up around mid-January and really start playing good basketball heading into the postseason. Could this year be different? Losing at Oregon State and snapping the Beavers' 23-game conference losing streak was shocking.
Team to Watch in the Conference Tournament: Washington State: Although the Cougars lost a lot from last season, they are still not a team anyone looks forward to playing. They pack it in defensively and force teams to beat them from the outside. Only one team -- Gonzaga -- has scored more than 70 points this season.
Surprise So Far: California: After losing Ryan Anderson to the NBA Draft, not many thought Cal would improve drastically. However, that is exactly what has happened. After defeating Arizona State by 10, the Golden Bears look like a contender; Jerome Randle has developed into one of the better point guards in the Pac-10.
NCAA Tournament Teams: UCLA, Arizona State, California
Bubble Teams: USC, Washington, Arizona, Stanford
Favorite: Tennessee: In what is by far the worst major conference in the country this season, the Volunteers look like the cream of a really watered-down crop. They have depth, talent and can force plenty of turnovers. However, they struggle to shoot the ball and their half-court defense is abysmal. Can Bruce Pearl right the ship?
Sleeper: South Carolina: The Gamecocks are finally running and gunning like their personnel suggested they should have been doing the past few years. Sitting at 11-2 with a win over Baylor, South Carolina is going to be a tough out. Devan Downey is one of the best guards around, and Zam Frederick can score from the wing.
Bust: Kentucky: The Wildcats have two players that can consistently score, and that's pretty much it. In this year's SEC, though, that might be enough to get an NCAA Tournament bid. If Kentucky wants to become a legitimate threat, however, a third option will need to step up and complement Jodie Meeks and Patrick Patterson.
Team to Watch in the Conference Tournament: Alabama: After the Crimson Tide's 1-2 start, which included a loss to Mercer and a 23-point drubbing against Oregon, they have turned it around. The only losses since then are an overtime defeat against Texas A&M and a close loss at Clemson last night. This team has talent.
Surprise So Far: Arkansas: The Razorbacks have separated themselves as the clear favorite in the West division. They have knocked off Oklahoma and Texas, and have won 10 in a row heading into SEC play. Courtney Fortson is a standout point guard as a freshman, and Michael Washington has really improved down low.
NCAA Tournament Teams: Tennessee, Arkansas, Florida, Kentucky
Bubble Teams: LSU, South Carolina, Alabama
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