Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Big-League Breakdown

With the calendar turning to 2011 about three 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 very 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 five teams from the BCS conferences still remain undefeated in league play.

While some 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 break down the mid-major conferences.


Favorite: Duke: This isn’t even close. Despite the Blue Devils’ loss to Florida State last week, I don’t foresee anyone finishing within three games of Duke. There are spots where they can slip-up, but the gap between them and the rest of the ACC is enormous. If Kyrie Irving returns, that gap will grow exponentially.

Sleeper: Florida State: The Seminoles have looked awful at times this season, but they are the only team to beat Duke – and they did it in impressive fashion. Combine their suffocating defense with a deep and experienced frontcourt, and this team likely won’t lose at home during ACC play.

Bust: North Carolina State: The Wolfpack have as much talent as anyone in the ACC, but they have had various issues holding them back throughout the season. They are 0-4 on the road this season, and have also had troubles at home. Unless the freshmen turn it around, this team will fall short of the Big Dance.

Team to Watch in the Conference Tournament: Maryland: The Terrapins have come close at Duke and Villanova in the past couple of weeks, and have not lost a game by double-digits this season. They have the best per-possession defense in the country, and Jordan Williams is a player who can dominate in the paint.

Surprise So Far: Boston College: New coach Steve Donahue didn’t inherit the most talented team in the league, but he has done a masterful job with this team – aside from when it faces Ivy League opponents. The Eagles have a win over Texas A&M and have also won at Maryland. Reggie Jackson is a stud.

NCAA Tournament Teams: Duke, Boston College, North Carolina, Maryland, Florida State

Bubble Teams: Virginia Tech, North Carolina State, Clemson

Big East

Favorite: Pittsburgh: The Panthers are the most efficient offensive team in the country, and the defense will get there eventually. Brad Wanamaker and Ashton Gibbs are an excellent backcourt, and the Panthers have plenty of depth and high-quality role players. Can they rid their NCAA Tournament underachiever label?

Sleeper: Connecticut: Everyone keeps waiting for the Huskies to fall apart and drop out of the rankings. Well, it’s not happening. They went to Texas and won and then held off Villanova on Kemba Walker’s last-second shot. With Walker leading the way, this team is capable of beating anyone in the country.

Bust: Seton Hall: With 11 teams in the NCAA Tournament hunt, there are slim pickings when it comes to possible busts. The Pirates were expected to contend for a berth before the season, and have simply underachieved. They have lost seven of their last nine and are just 8-11 overall. Tough first season for Kevin Willard.

Team to Watch in the Conference Tournament: Marquette: Another season, another slew of close losses for the Golden Eagles. They have lost all six games by eight points or fewer, but don’t overlook them. Jimmy Butler and Jae Crowder are match-up problems at forward, while Darius Johnson-Odom can shoot.

Surprise So Far: Cincinnati and Notre Dame: Mick Cronin’s bunch have struggled a bit since entering conference play, but the Bearcats are still in line for an NCAA berth. Notre Dame is one of the top threats in the Big East, and is nearly impossible to beat at home. The Irish have tons of high-quality wins.

NCAA Tournament Teams: Pittsburgh, Syracuse, Villanova, Connecticut, Notre Dame, West Virginia, Georgetown, Louisville, St. John’s

Bubble Teams: Marquette, Cincinnati

Big 12

Favorite: Kansas: The Jayhawks are one of three unbeatens left in the country, and after their domination at Baylor on Monday, I don’t foresee them losing for a while. They play tremendous half-court pressure defense and are highly efficient and balanced offensively. They’re only getting better and better, too.

Sleeper: Texas A&M: If not for a two-point loss against Boston College in late November, the Aggies would be the talk of the nation. Instead, at 16-1, this team is underrated. They have only played two road games all season, but their defense and balanced offensive makes them a tough out.

Bust: Baylor, Kansas State: Both of these teams have severely underachieved this season. Baylor just got obliterated by Kansas and don’t own anything resembling a quality win this year. Kansas State went from being my national champion pick to a team on the verge of falling to the bubble. Both need to turn it around.

Team to Watch in the Conference Tournament: Colorado: As Doc Sadler said to me last night, the Buffaloes have one of the best offenses in the country. Alec Burks and Cory Higgins give this team one of the best one-two scoring punches in the league, and they’ve been playing better defense in league play.

Surprise So Far: Nebraska: The Cornhuskers went 12-2 in league play and then lost a couple of close ones to Missouri and Kansas. Don’t count them out, though. They play excellent defense, forcing difficult shots and controlling the backboards. They have a deep and balanced scoring rotation at the other end.

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

Bubble Teams: Colorado, Nebraska, Oklahoma State, Iowa State

Big Ten

Favorite: Ohio State: The Buckeyes have won four straight games by five points or fewer, but they remain undefeated. Jared Sullinger is a beast down low, and William Buford, David Lighty and Jon Diebler form a great perimeter trio. This team is efficient offensively and extremely disciplined on the defensive end.

Sleeper: Wisconsin: When will we stop doubting Bo Ryan teams in the preseason? The Badgers have a couple of tough road losses in Big Ten play, but Jon Leuer and Keaton Nankivil are match-up nightmares at the forward spot, while Jordan Taylor provides balance on the perimeter. The pace makes them tough, too.

Bust: Michigan State: The Spartans were picked in the top-three nationally by most rankings and analysts, and they are clearly nowhere near there. They are only 12-6, including a blowout loss at home to Texas. Everyone believes Tom Izzo can turn every team around, but this could be a difficult season.

Team to Watch in the Conference Tournament: Northwestern: All the talk about this being the year the Wildcats finally make the NCAA Tournament has subsided, but they are still a difficult team to play. Offensively, they are fantastic, with John Shurna, Drew Crawford and Juice Thompson leading the way.

Surprise So Far: Purdue/Minnesota: The Boilermakers were written off as a Big Ten title threat when Robbie Hummel when down with an injury, but they are still right in the mix. Minnesota has had personnel problems throughout the season, but the Golden Gophers are poised for a gaudy record and an NCAA berth.

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

Bubble Teams: Northwestern, Penn State


Favorite: Washington: Outside of the ACC and Duke, this is going to be the biggest gap between first and second. Once the Huskies went on the road and swept UCLA and USC, this race was done. The loss at Stanford was surprising, but even without Abdul Gaddy, Washington is by far the class of the conference.

Sleeper: UCLA, Washington State: One of these two teams will find themselves in the title hunt by the end of the season. UCLA had a couple of nice road wins at Oregon and Oregon State last week – their first road victories of the season. Washington State doesn’t have Reggie Moore, but Klay Thompson and Faisal Aden can score.

Bust: Arizona State: I had no idea what to do with this category, as there were a clear-cut top few teams at the outset, and none of those teams have faltered terribly. As for the rest of them, Arizona State returned some nice pieces and brought in a deep freshmen class – 9-8 overall and 1-4 in the Pac-10 isn’t cutting it.

Team to Watch in the Conference Tournament: USC: The Trojans looked like a potential NCAA team a couple of weeks ago, but losses at both of the Oregon schools dropped them to 10-8 overall. However, they have a very good starting five and already own non-conference wins over Tennessee and Texas.

Surprise So Far: Stanford: The Cardinal struggled throughout the non-conference season, losing by 33 to Butler and not racking up too many impressive results. However, they defeated Washington at home last week and are 3-2 in the conference. They play a slow tempo and lock down defensive in the half-court.

NCAA Tournament Teams: Washington, Arizona, UCLA

Bubble Teams: Washington State


Favorite: Kentucky: The SEC is impossible to figure out at this point, but the Wildcats have the most talent in the league and the highest ceiling. Terrence Jones is a match-up nightmare, and Brandon Knight and Doron Lamb provide scoring in the backcourt. Josh Harrellson will be the key to this team’s success.

Sleeper: Vanderbilt: The Commodores suffered two disappointing road losses to South Carolina and Tennessee, adding to a string of close defeats on the season. They have the potential to beat anyone in the league, with John Jenkins and Jeffery Taylor on offense and a suffocating and disciplined defense at the other end.

Bust: Mississippi State: This is more than just on-court problems. Renardo Sidney’s suspension and fight with Elgin Bailey, combined with Dee Bost’s suspension, set this team back for most of the season. They have won two in a row, but a team with this much talent shouldn’t be 10-7 right now.

Team to Watch in the Conference Tournament: Georgia: The Bulldogs struggled to start the season, but ran off nine straight wins, including a victory over Kentucky. They have only close losses this season, and Travis Leslie and Trey Thompkins form a very potent frontcourt tandem. Gerald Robinson is a solid guard.

Surprise So Far: Alabama: Guess who has sole possession of first-place in the conference? The Crimson Tide, after their win over Kentucky last night, are 3-1 in the SEC and have won 10 straight at home. They own one of the most efficient defenses in the country, and have a variety of athletes offensively.

NCAA Tournament Teams: Kentucky, Florida, Vanderbilt, Tennessee, Georgia

Bubble Teams: South Carolina, Alabama

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