The Super Bowl is in the books, and the sports calendar officially flips into the relatively quieter month of February. The Olympics will draw the attention of a lot of people, but here at TheSportsNotebook the subject that’s most interesting is the college basketball conference races. Our Notebook Nine, the nine points to focus on, will sweep through the nine major conferences in the country.
One thing to note before beginning, is that this focus is very specifically on the push for league championships. I’m perhaps one of the last holdouts in insisting that winning a conference title—not just getting a seed in the NCAA Tournament—should be the real motivator for top teams, and that such a championship has value regardless of what happens in March Madness. With that out of the way, here’s a primer on how the biggest of those races is shaping up…
*The Big Ten is considered the best conference in the land by a lot of people, and Michigan and Michigan State are in a dead heat at the top, having achieved separation from the pack. Wisconsin and Ohio State are big disappointments already, and each have difficult road games on Tuesday (at Illinois and at Iowa respectively) that could make things worse.
*Don’t look now, but Virginia is hanging right with Syracuse in the ACC. The Cavs got a big win over Pitt this weekend and have only one league loss. The Orange are still unbeaten after their thrilling Saturday night win over the Blue Devils. Syracuse has to try and win on a quick turnaround tonight against Notre Dame (7 PM ET, ESPN). This race could be tied by the weekend.
*The beat just keeps going on at Kansas. The Jayhawks have won the Big 12 regular season title nine times in a row, and after a loss at Texas, are still alone at the top. The Longhorns’ win over KU on Saturday did keep the race within one game. The big disappointment is Baylor, who can still save its season and make an NCAA Tournament push, but needs to start when they host Kansas on Wednesday night (7 PM ET, ESPN2).
*Perhaps no team’s dominance of their league is more surprising than Cincinnati being 10-0 and holding a two-game lead the loss column over Louisville in the American Athletic. The Bearcats knocked off the ‘Ville in Freedom Hall last Thursday to get control of the race. Let’s get head coach Mick Cronin in national Coach of the Year conversations.
*The newly revised Big East has a top-heavy race with Creighton and Villanova separating from the pack, each with one conference loss. Creighton won the first head-to-head game in Philadelphia when they rained treys all over the Villanova defense, but no team can stay as hot as the Bluejays were that night. The rematch and the rest of the race should be neck-and-neck.
*Florida is in control in the SEC at 8-0, but Kentucky and Ole Miss are each in striking distance at 6-2. The Wildcats host the Rebels on Tuesday night (7 PM ET, ESPNU), with the loser up against it in terms of the race for first place. Tuesday will be a good night of SEC hoops with Florida hosting Missouri at 9 PM ET on ESPN.
*Arizona’s loss to Cal over the weekend knocked the Wildcats from the ranks of the unbeaten and kept the Pac-12 race interesting from the time being. UCLA and Cal are still two games back. It’s tough to see this as more than a blip on the radar for Arizona though. Their Thursday night home game with desperate Oregon (9 PM ET, ESPN) will tell us is the loss of forward Brandon Ashley for the year has weakened the Wildcats enough to put this league back in play.
*The Atlantic 10 has an entertaining four-team race with St. Louis setting the tone at 7-0. The Billikens are a game up on Virginia Commonwealth and plus-two on George Washington and St. Joe’s. A key Tuesday night visit by St. Louis to Philadelphia and a game with St. Joseph’s offers the Billikens a chance to knock one challenger out.
*San Diego State is unbeaten in the Mountain West and no one really doubts they’re the best team in the league, but New Mexico is 8-1 and only a half-game back. Surprising Nevada has suddenly risen after a disastrous start in non-conference play, and the Wolfpack are 7-2. Nevada will have desperation going for them if nothing else, as their poor start means they almost certainly need a championship to even get in the NCAA Tournament.