Early favorite to win every major conference in college basketball
The turn of the calendars to a new year can mean only one thing for college basketball: Conference play is here!
The first two months of non-conference play can feel like the first quarter of a thoroughbred race. Jockeys move, shake, and jostle for positioning, but no mistake can truly cost a potential champion of their chance to win down the stretch. Teams from across the country play games that matter on their resumes but feature teams that will look and play differently than those we’ll be watching in March. True freshmen can look lost or unpolished. Veterans can dominate. Sleepy arenas in ignored holiday tournaments can lead to puzzling results.
Conference play, however, is here to save the day. Now we get to see packed student-sections (once all students return from winter break) and the rivalries we know and love. This is when college basketball hits its stride and we can really begin to assess every team on a familiar playing field.
Here, then, is the early front-runner for each power conference championship:
ACC – Duke
The Blue Devils are unquestionably the most talented team in the conference, but Duke’s schedule isn’t without its fair share of challenges. Coach K’s squad will play five road games against the KenPom Top 50, including three games against teams in the KenPom Top 10.
Virginia, though still undefeated this season, arguably has a tougher slate through conference play. The Cavaliers have six road games against top 50 competition still to come. Virginia and Duke are scheduled for a home-and-home that could provide the inside track to the regular season conference championship. Those two games will feature a radical clash in styles, with the Hoos forcing Duke to play at a slower pace. If Duke’s athletes are still able to force the issue in the halfcourt and use their speed and size to maximize their scoring chances, the Blue Devils can be successful against Virginia. If the Cavaliers can force RJ Barrett and Zion Williamson to settle for jump shots, they’ll have a tougher time in Charlottesville.
North Carolina will remain part of the race to the top of the conference as well if Coby White continues to play like an All-American. Of the three teams, Carolina has looked the most like a work in progress, but also sports the best win of any ACC club, as they handled Gonzaga fairly easily.
In the end, Duke’s top-level talent likely comes out on top. Even if they drop a game to UNC or UVA, the Blue Devils stars make them less susceptible to losing any other unexpected games in conference.
Big East – Marquette
For the first time in recent memory, the Big East is wide open. Even when Xavier has challenged Villanova in the last few seasons (and won the regular season crown last year), the Wildcats had distanced themselves from the middle of the pack. The third-place team in Big East play hasn’t finished within four games of the league leader since the conference realigned in 2013.
This season, there are no fewer than six teams capable of finishing the year atop the standings. Villanova has clearly taken a step back, but still is plenty capable of finding its way in time to win the conference. St. John’s is 13-1, having looked strong against a questionable non-conference schedule. Creighton, Butler, Xavier, and even DePaul will be competitive this season. Top to bottom, the league will feature great games all season long.
Marquette gets the nod as the early favorite thanks to the balance through its roster. The Hauser brothers make for a sturdy frontcourt, capable of controlling the glass. Theo John is a dominant rim protector off the bench for the Golden Eagles, while Joseph Chartouny adds a shooting touch on the outside.
Everything Marquette looks to accomplish, however, is driven by Markus Howard. The 5-foot-11 junior guard might be the best shooter in college basketball. He’s made 45 percent of the 500-plus long-range attempts in his college career, while missing just 22 of the 266 free throws he’s attempted. No player in the Big East can get hot as quickly as Howard, which he proved by scoring 40 points against Buffalo in the second half!
Even though Marquette lost its Big East opener at St. John’s, the Golden Eagles are best positioned to be the top seed at Madison Square Garden this March.
Big Ten – Michigan
It’s never easy to pick against Michigan State in the Big Ten, especially when this year’s Spartans have lost just twice, to Louisville in overtime and Kansas. It would take an elite team to not only challenge Sparty, but to have a leg up on Tom Izzo and company.
Down the road in Ann Arbor, Michigan is that kind of special elite team. Defensively, Michigan has been among the country’s best teams. The Wolverines are forcing opponents to score the 4th-highest percentage of points on 2-point baskets, while also allowing the 6th-worst shooting percentage inside the arc. Michigan funnels teams away from efficient scoring chances and right into difficult shots. It has worked like a charm, thanks in part to the teaching of de-facto defensive coordinator Luke Yaklich. Since his addition to the coaching staff last season, Michigan has leaped into the top tier of defensive scheming programs in college basketball.
Offensively, John Beilein once again has his players running a pitch perfect motion system. While playing a slow pace, the Wolverines have committed the fourth-fewest turnovers in the nation. No team but Michigan in college basketball has had the ball stolen on fewer than five percent of their possessions.
Without extraordinary star power or overwhelming athleticism, Michigan is outsmarting and outworking every opponent they meet on the court. They look like a contender for both the Big Ten crown and the national championship.
Big XII – Kansas
If you want to pick anyone but Kansas, go ahead. I’ve considered it in past years or gotten my hopes about other contenders. Fool me once, shame on me. Fool me fourteen years in a row, well, welcome to Kansas’ dominance of the Big XII. The Jayhawks have at least shared the league title each of the last fourteen years, a stat you can’t avoid when watching any Kansas game. You hear less often that the Jayhawks haven’t even shared the title since 2013. This year would make six straight outright conference championships.
There’s certainly no reason to doubt that this is the Kansas team to let the streak die. Dedric Lawson has been a steady double-double machine. Devon Dotson is a joy to watch streak up and down the court. Udoka Azubuike is a monster in the paint. Lagerald Vick would like to have a word with me about me calling someone else the best shooter in college basketball a few paragraphs ago.
Even when five-star recruit Quentin Grimes got off to a slow start, Kansas was the clear favorite in the conference. Grimes was scoring just 7.4 points per game and shooting under 40 percent from the floor before Christmas. In Kansas’ last two games, the freshman has averaged 15 points per game and hasn’t missed a 2-point attempt.
Even though Texas Tech looks like an elite defensive team, if Grimes can get his game rolling, Kansas not only will win the conference, but will do so easily.
SEC – Tennessee
A team like the Vols loses a lot of cache when they fall from the ranks of the unbeaten. If Tennessee were still undefeated, they’d have a chance at the top spot in the polls and be atop the minds of everyone discussing the nation’s best. Even with one loss, they’ve become somewhat of an afterthought among teams ranked in the AP Top Ten. Their only loss to date came to Kansas, in overtime, in a game played in Kansas City.
Grant Williams has a real chance to repeat as SEC Player of the Year, and the rest of the Vols perfectly complement his game. Best of all, Tennessee is a hard-working team that will make any team fight for 40 minutes. Defending and battling the likes of Williams and Admiral Schofield wears teams down like a smashmouth running game in football. By late in the second half, the Vols punish tired teams around the rim.
Pac-12 – Arizona State
Earlier this week, this pick may have been debatable. Then we learned that Bol Bol would miss the rest of the season with an injury, severely damaging Oregon’s chances to challenge the Sun Devils.
Now the rest of the Pac-12 will chase Bobby Hurley’s squad like a roving pack of zombies after the conference had a dismal collective non-conference performance. UCLA grabbed the headlines with a four-game losing streak and by firing its coach, but the rest of the middle and back of the conference has been just as ugly. Arizona has four losses and narrowly avoided disaster in its last game before the holidays, beating UC Davis by just two at home.
Colorado lost back-to-back games to Indiana State and Hawaii. Oregon State lost to Kent State. Washington State has losses to Seattle, Montana State, New Mexico State (twice!), and Santa Clara. USC also lost to Santa Clara, Utah also lost to Hawaii, and Cal also lost to Seattle. For a power conference to have not just one-off losses to lowly programs, but multiple teams losing games to the same mediocre mid-majors, is embarrassing.
Collectively, the entire conference is just 5-26 versus the KenPom Top 50, and three of those wins are Arizona State’s. The other 11 schools have combined for a .074 winning percentage versus top 50 competition.
Touting Arizona State as the early favorite should have been more about the Sun Devils’ positive qualities, yet winning the Pac-12 this year looks like a low bar. If the Sun Devils can’t surge to a decisive lead in the standings, there will be no team in the league that will look capable of a run in March. That surge got a bit harder after Arizona State stumbled and lost to Utah at home to open conference play. If the Sun Devils can’t bounce back, the Pac-12 may be in serious danger of being a one-bid conference on Selection Sunday, for the first time since 1978 when the conference had just eight schools.
Shane McNichol covers college basketball and the NBA for Larry Brown Sports. He also blogs about basketball at Palestra Back and has contributed to Rush The Court, ESPN.com, and USA Today Sports Weekly. Follow him on Twitter @OnTheShaneTrain.