Now’s the time when a lot of sports fans take their first serious look at college basketball, as we come out of the football season and into the final four weeks of the regular season. Here’s a summation of what to watch for in the push for conference championships and for the NCAA Tournament…
BIG 12: This is the best race in America and the Baylor-Missouri-Kansas power trio is the top story in college hoops for February. The three teams are all tied at 8-2 and each plays a distinctive style. Missouri is heavily oriented to the guards, while Baylor is muscle up front. Kansas plays a two-man game with guard Tyshawn Taylor and power forward Thomas Robinson. They’ve all played once head-to-head, and Missouri stole a road win at Baylor, in addition to Saturday night’s thriller over Kansas. But they still have to go to Lawrence. The pick here at TheSportsNotebook has been Baylor all year long, but their rivals have handled the road better so far.
Don’t sleep on Iowa State either, at 7-3 and still with a shot at a dark horse conference title. More realistically, the Cyclones are looking at a solid NCAA Tournament seed. And it’s up for grabs after that. Kansas State is the fifth-best team right now, with Texas & Oklahoma still having a chance to make a move.
BIG EAST: Jim Boeheim is doing a terrific job with this Syracuse team that doesn’t overwhelm you talent-wise and has just gone several games without suspended post player Fab Melo. He’s back now, and along with Kris Joseph, the Orange are solid up front and have a respectable backcourt. While it’s a good team I just can’t look at them and see a group that should have command of the Big East race. But that’s exactly what Syracuse has. They hold a two-game lead in the loss column on Georgetown, Marquette and Notre Dame. The Hoyas make a trip to the Carrier Dome on Wednesday night to see if they can make this a race.
Louisville is in solid shape for an NCAA bid, and after that comes Cincinnati, West Virginia, UConn, Pitt and Seton Hall. The Pirates aren’t playing well, while the Panthers are starting to come on. UConn coach Jim Calhoun is sidelined right now. The race for the tournament is anybody’s game at this level of the conference.
ACC: Duke’s upset loss to Miami yesterday marked the Blue Devils’ second loss at home and left Florida State and North Carolina in a two-way tie for the lead. Duke takes on Carolina on Wednesday, but I think FSU is one of the real darkhorses nationwide. They’ve already beaten UNC by 33 points and won at Duke. A tough win over a good Virginia team that’s just off the pace of the leaders kept the Seminoles rolling. N.C. State is in sound position to be a fifth NCAA team, while Maryland and Miami have a shot, but need to improve. The Hurricane win yesterday was a big shot in the arm—but don’t forget that Virginia Tech beat Duke last season at a much later point in the year when they were on the bubble and it didn’t hold up for the Hokies on Selection Sunday. Miami needs to keep winning.
BIG TEN: Ohio State hasn’t dominated this conference the way they were expected to, but that might be a problem of unrealistic expectations. The Buckeyes are still 20-3 and with a win at Wisconsin on Saturday, they are in sole possession of first place at 8-2 in the league. Michigan State is hanging right on their heels at 7-3.
Everyone else has at least four conference losses. Wisconsin, Michigan and Indiana are NCAA locks barring complete collapse. Illinois and Purdue would look to be in good shape, although the Illini in particular have given the look of a team whose wheels are ready to come off. Northwestern is 14-8 and still hoping to end the misery of being the only BCS conference program never to make the Dance.
ATLANTIC 10: Temple is 6-2 and holds the lead here, thanks to the disappointing play of Xavier. The Musketeers were a top-heavy favorite in preseason, but are one of five teams who’ve lost three conference games. Temple’s cross-city rival in LaSalle has been a pleasant surprise, and the Explorers are in the group of three-loss teams, as is another surprise in UMass. And if you go out to the Midwest, where geographic misfit St. Louis is coached by Rick Majerus, you find the Billikens at 6-3. A surprise team to keep an eye on is St. Bonaventure. They’re 5-3 in the league, 12-10 overall, but with a dominant post presence like Andrew Nicholson, they can get in a run here in February or in the league tournament.
PAC-12: Washington’s Lorenzo Romar needs to get some serious love in the National Coach of the Year conversation. The Huskies were a rebuilding program and the league, while not being confused with the Big East, is better than has been the case in recent years. Yet here we are the day after the Super Bowl and Washington’s alone in first place. Another rebuilding team in Colorado is right on their heels, as is Cal, who is the more talented and experienced team. Oregon, Arizona and Stanford are all in the hunt for NCAA berths and the guess here is that the Pac-12 will get at least five teams in the Dance.
MOUNTAIN WEST: San Diego State-UNLV is shaping up as a solid two-team race and they have a head-to-head matchup ahead in San Diego. The Aztecs hold a one-game lead and have the coming showdown at home, so they have to be considered the favorite right now. Given how much they lost off last year’s conference champ and #2 NCAA seed, that’s a credit to head coach Steve Fischer. New Mexico is also sitting a game back and poised to be NCAA-bound, and Wyoming’s got a very good shot at getting the league a fourth bid. The Cowboys upset UNLV this weekend, both helping their own chances and re-shaping the contours of the championship race.
SEC: We’ll save the top-ranked team in the country for last. Kentucky may be 23-1 and one buzzer-beater shot at Indiana away from undefeated, but Florida is hot on their heels in the SEC race, just one game back and both head-to-head games are ahead. Mississippi State and Vanderbilt are tournament-bound, while Alabama and Arkansas give the league a puncher’s chance at six bids. The SEC has better overall depth than they’ve had for some time, and you can’t even entirely rule out Ole Miss and LSU.
The way the landscape is shaping up suggests that the power conferences will gobble up an even higher percentage of the NCAA bids than normal. Even coming off a year where Virginia Commonwealth and Butler made the Final Four, the numbers this year favor the establishment.
Harvard is a solid midmajor and ranked in the Top 25, but the Ivy League does not play a postseason tournament, so the Crimson will not have to risk losing their automatic bid. The West Coast Conference has what’s become the usual suspects of St. Mary’s, Gonzaga and now BYU. At least one, and perhaps two at-larges come out of that group. Middle Tennessee could get an at-large if they don’t win the Sun Belt tournament. Conference USA has a shot to pick up an at-large, especially if someone can knock off front-running Southern Miss, and watch Long Beach State. Their 17-6, which doesn’t dazzle you, but the 49ers played a brutal December schedule that may stand up to Selection Committee scrutiny if they don’t get an automatic.
Whether it’s a fight for conference championships or the race to March Madness, there’s no reason to turn off the games because football’s over. The fun’s just starting in college hoops.