Thursday, January 14, 2010

Big-League Breakdown

With the calendar turning to 2010 two weeks ago, college basketball fans from across the country rejoiced – yes, it’s that time, it’s time for conference play. The next month and a half 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 has already started with a bang, as only 13 teams from the BCS conference still remain undefeated in league play. Furthermore, six of those are in the SEC, which still has teams yet to play a conference games.

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: Duke: Despite the Blue Devils’ loss to Georgia Tech over the weekend, they are still the team to beat. With North Carolina struggling and everyone else way too inconsistent, it is tough to imagine anyone else winning the conference. Jon Scheyer, Nolan Smith and Kyle Singler are a terrific trio.

Sleeper: Florida State: I know the Seminoles have lost back-to-back games, including one at home to North Carolina State, but they still have the pieces to make some noise. Chris Singleton and Solomon Alabi are a solid duo up front, and FSU has plenty of perimeter players who can fill it up from the perimeter.  

Bust: Boston College: Everyone knew the Eagles would be down a bit from last season after the loss of Tyrese Rice, but this bad? BC has home losses to Harvard and Maine, as well as a neutral-court loss to Saint Joseph’s. The Eagles have talent, but a 10-7 record was certainly not expected this season.

Team to Watch in the Conference Tournament: Maryland: An experienced group led by do-everything guard Greivis Vasquez is not the type of team you want to play on short rest. The Terrapins have scorers on the perimeter, and developing players up front in Landon Milbourne and freshman Jordan Williams.

Surprise So Far: Miami (Fl.): Although the Hurricanes did not have an overly difficult non-conference schedule, no one thought that they would have gotten off to a 14-1 start before their loss to Virginia Tech on Wednesday. They have wins over Minnesota and Wake Forest and could get a bid come Selection Sunday.

NCAA Tournament Teams: Duke, North Carolina, Clemson, Georgia Tech, Florida State, Wake Forest, Miami (Fl.)

Bubble Teams: Virginia Tech, Maryland

Big East

Favorite: Syracuse: West Virginia and Villanova were the preseason favorites, and both are still Final Four-caliber teams, but Syracuse has the most weapons and the best chance to be consistent throughout the season. Wesley Johnson might be the league’s best player, and the Orange have both inside and outside talent.

Sleeper: Marquette: The Golden Eagles are only 1-3 in the Big East this season, but don’t write them off just yet. Their losses were to West Virginia and Villanova (twice) by a combined five points. Marquette showed it can win games when it beat Georgetown on January 6 – keep an eye on this team for the next month.

Bust: Connecticut and Louisville: No one is really surprised when Louisville starts off slowly, but the Cardinals need to turn things around quickly if it wants to make the Big Dance. Meanwhile, Connecticut has lost to all good teams, but the Huskies lack a marquee win and sit firmly on the bubble right now.

Team to Watch in the Conference Tournament: Seton Hall: The Pirates aren’t consistent enough defensively or smart enough offensively to get an at-large bid, but they aren’t easy to play. They love to get up-and-down the floor, and they have a multitude of scorers that can get hot and hurt opposing defenses.

Surprise So Far: Pittsburgh: The Panthers lost arguably the most talent in the country from last season (outside of North Carolina), so things looked pretty grim. However, after beating Connecticut on the road on Wednesday, they are now 4-0 in the Big East with road wins over UConn, Syracuse and Cincinnati.

NCAA Tournament Teams: Villanova, Syracuse, West Virginia, Georgetown, Pittsburgh, Connecticut, Notre Dame, Louisville

Bubble Teams: Cincinnati, St. John’s, Seton Hall, Marquette

Big 12

Favorite: Kansas, 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. Kansas has the inside-outside duo of Sherron Collins and Cole Aldrich, as well as Xavier Henry, while Texas has tons of depth and more weapons that one can count.

Sleeper: Kansas State: Everyone knew about the Wildcats’ dynamite backcourt of Jacob Pullen and Denis Clemente, but the difference this season has been the frontcourt. Jamar Samuels and Connecticut transfer Curtis Kelly, along with freshman Wally Judge, have made the Wildcats a threat in the Big 12.

Bust: Oklahoma: Most people knew the Sooners would have a down year after the loss of Blake Griffin, but the return of Willie Warren and co. was expected to ease the blow. Not so much. Oklahoma is just 10-6 on the season, with losses to VCU, San Diego and Houston. Jeff Capel needs to straighten things out in a hurry.

Team to Watch in the Conference Tournament: Missouri: Coming off an Elite Eight appearance, Missouri is going to do its best to get back to the NCAA Tournament. The Tigers started slow, but have since won nine in a row, including wins over Kansas State and at Texas Tech. Their defense makes them tough.

Surprise So Far: Baylor: Sure, the Bears lost to Colorado on Tuesday, but don’t discount their season just yet. LaceDarius Dunn and Tweety Carter can really score from the perimeter, while Ekpe Udoh has made a huge impact down low. This team needs some marquee wins in Big 12 play, but they’ve been very good so far.

NCAA Tournament Teams: Kansas, Texas, Kansas State, Texas A&M, Missouri, Texas Tech, Baylor

Bubble Teams: Oklahoma State

Big Ten

Favorite: Purdue: The Boilermakers have lost two in a row since starting the season 14-0, but I still think they are the favorites. They fell just short at Wisconsin and then Ohio State needed a Herculean effort from Evan Turner to pull the upset. Purdue has all the pieces necessary to make a deep run in March, although it does need more consistent point guard play.

Sleeper: Minnesota: The Golden Gophers have already played both Purdue and Michigan State on the road, and are 3-2 with a win over Ohio State. If they can hold serve at home and steal some road games, they will be in the thick of the race come March. Tubby Smith has done a great job with this team over the last couple of years.

Bust: Michigan: The Wolverines were expected to make a Sweet Sixteen run this season, but they will likely not even make the NCAA Tournament. They are only 7-7 right now, with losses to Indiana, Utah and Boston College. Manny Harris and DaShawn Sims have been great, but no one else has stepped up in support.

Team to Watch in the Conference Tournament: Penn State: I think that seven of the Big Ten teams will be in the at-large hunt come March, and Michigan is already a bust. That basically leaves Penn State. Six of the Nittany Lions’ eight losses have been by single-digits and Talor Battle is capable of carrying this team to victory.

Surprise So Far: Wisconsin: The Badgers lost plenty from last season, but they are still in the hunt for a conference championship. With a road win last night over Northwestern, they are now 4-1 in the Big Ten. Although Jon Leuer is out for an indefinite amount of time with an injury, the Badgers start thus far has been impressive.

NCAA Tournament Teams: Purdue, Michigan State, Wisconsin, Ohio State, Minnesota, Illinois

Bubble Teams: Northwestern


Favorite: California: No one in the Pac-10 really deserves this honor, but the Golden Bears look like the best bet to win the league. Jerome Randle and Patrick Christopher form a fantastic backcourt, while Theo Robertson is a very good third option. If they can get consistent inside play, they should be able to get the championship.

Sleeper: Arizona: The young Wildcats are just 8-8 right now, but that’s just fine in this league. They have developing talent and both of their Pac-10 losses have come by six points or less. Moreover, they blew out Washington and UCLA. Nic Wise is the type of experienced guard that can will this team to a victory.

Bust: Washington: The Huskies are still probably the second best postseason-eligible team in the league, but their 1-3 Pac-10 start is questionable. Each of the three losses was by double-digits, and they look out of sync. With only a win at Texas A&M to hang its hat on in non-conference play, Washington is in trouble.

Team to Watch in the Conference Tournament: UCLA: The Bruins got plenty of negative publicity early in the season for their terrible start, but that’s not specific to them anymore. UCLA beat Arizona State to open league play and also won at California in overtime. Malcolm Lee leads a host of young talent on the squad.

Surprise So Far: Arizona State: No James Harden and Jeff Pendergraph, no problem for the Wildcats. Although they don’t have the resume to get an at-large bid at this point, they have played every game tight, and have wins over Washington, San Diego State and Washington State. Derek Glasser has been a leader.

NCAA Tournament Teams: California, Washington

Bubble Teams: Arizona State, Washington State


Favorite: Kentucky: Was there really any question as to who I would pick? The Wildcats are a legit national title contender, and might have the most talent outside of the big two in the Big 12. John Wall is the best player in the country, and DeMarcus Cousins and Patrick Patterson form one of the better frontcourt duos around.

Sleeper: Mississippi State: Look out for the Bulldogs in the league race. They had some hiccups in non-conference play, but won at Ole Miss to open the conference and get both Kentucky and Tennessee at home. If they can win some more road games, this team will compete for a title. And if they get Renardo Sidney cleared to play . . .

Bust: South Carolina: Part of this can be blamed on injuries, as Dominique Archie was lost for the season back in November and Mike Holmes missed time before being dismissed from the team. However, this team has simply not looked that competitive at times. Unless Devan Downey carries this team all season, they will be in trouble.

Team to Watch in the Conference Tournament: Arkansas: I understand that the Razorbacks are just 7-8 right now, but only one of those games was played with Courtney Fortson – and they hung with Texas in that game. Combine Fortson with shooter Rotnei Clarke on the perimeter and Marshawn Powell and Michael Washington up front, and Arkansas as talent.

Surprise So Far: Vanderbilt: I was going to go with Alabama in this spot, but the Crimson Tide lost to the Commodores on Wednesday night, so I went with Vandy. Most thought they would compete for a bid this season, but road wins at Alabama and Saint Mary’s, as well as victories over Missouri and Florida, are impressive.

NCAA Tournament Teams: Kentucky, Tennessee, Vanderbilt, Mississippi, Mississippi State, Florida

Bubble Teams: Alabama, South Carolina

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