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Wednesday, December 21, 2011

NCAA Basketball: Conference Predictions

The non-conference portion of everyone's schedules draw to a close this week.  After a weekend off for the holidays, the NCAA basketball season really gets started with conference play.  Some conferences will sort themselves out quickly while others may not ever (see Pac 10 in 2009) have a clear-cut order.  One thing is sure: conference play is where the majority of teams build their resume for postseason qualification.  A strong showing in January and February can override a ghastly start in November.  With the NCAA Tournament now selecting 68 teams to the foray, there's an extra four bubble spots to be won. Below I've gone through all the "Power" conferences and projected how things will shake out.

Conference Champ: North Carolina
Likely Tournament Teams: Duke, Virginia, Florida St.
Need a few breaks: Clemson, Virginia Tech,  Georgia Tech, Miami, North Carolina St.
Wait til Next Year: Maryland, Wake Forest, Boston College
The two things that stick out the most to me about the ACC are 1) the conference isn't nearly as good as everyone thinks it is and 2) the only team capable of winning a championship is North Carolina.  Virginia has been a pleasant surprise and Florida St. is consistently a tournament team.  The middle of the conference will have a couple of teams receive bubble interest but I doubt more than five schools make the tournament with four the most likely outcome.

Atlantic 10
Conference Champ: Xavier
Likely Tournament Teams: Temple, St. Louis
Need a few breaks: St. Joseph's, Dayton, St. Bonaventure, Richmond, LaSalle
Wait til Next Year: Charlotte, UMass, Duquesne, Rhode Island, George Washington, Fordham
Kenny Frease wears blood as war paint
Barroom brawls and on-court melee's aside, Xavier looks pretty good.  It wouldn't be a big surprise if they're able to capture a #2 seed again and if they're able to go undefeated in conference a #1 seed is plausible.  Temple and St. Louis look to be fighting for second place while St. Joe's, Dayton, and St. Bonaventure will fight to give the conference more than three bids for the first time since 2004.

Big 12
Conference Champ: Missouri
Likely Tournament Teams: Baylor, Kansas, Texas, Kansas St.
Need a few breaks: Oklahoma St., Oklahoma
Wait til Next Year: Iowa St., Texas Tech, Texas A&M
This is a really good conference.  The way they've played early on, Mizzu, Baylor, and Kansas all have a chance at earning a #1 seed in March.  Kansas St. is clearly underrated and should be ranked in the top 16.  For the other schools, a 9-9 conference record should be enough to lock an at-large bid if a couple of those wins are against the top five.  The only really bad team here is Texas Tech who might actually go winless.

Big East
Conference Champ: Syracuse
Likely Tournament Teams: Marquette, UConn, West Virginia, Pitt, Georgetown, Louisville
Need a few breaks: Cincinnati, Villanova, Seton Hall
Wait til Next Year: Providence, St. John's, DePaul, Notre Dame, Rutgers, South Florida
Syracuse is still undefeated and has quality wins vs. Florida and Stanford.  Despite a rash of injuries depleting them of two starters and other bench players, Louisville is 10-0.  This is the conference that will earn the most bids but should no longer be considered the best.  The bottom of this conference should provide automatic wins to the top six or seven teams and the three teams that need some breaks cannot afford to lose those games.  As usual there will be a plethora of chances for quality wins so nobody's really out of it yet.

Big Ten
Conference Champ: Ohio St.
Likely Tournament Teams: Wisconsin, Michigan St., Indiana, Purdue
Need a few breaks: Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, Northwestern
Wait til Next Year: Penn St., Iowa, Nebraska
Would OSU be undefeated if Sullinger had
played every game? And will his back problems
persist throughout the season?
As expected Ohio St. is the best team in the conference and would probably be undefeated if Sullinger had not rested for a couple of games. This is a team capable of winning it all.  Wisconsin, Michigan St., and now Indiana appear to have firm grasps on at-large bids already. Purdue is barely hanging on ahead of Illinois thanks to the NCAA's 310th best team free-throw percentage. Illinois and Michigan are the two teams most likely to move up while Minnesota and Northwestern seem quite likely to slip.  Penn St., Iowa, and Nebraska have been dreadful lately and have no chance barring a deep run in the conference tournament.  This is the nation's best conference so five teams will be locks while up to eight will likely be given serious consideration come March.

Conference USA
Conference Champ: Memphis
Likely Tournament Teams: Memphis looks like the lone rep right now
Need a few breaks: Marshall, Southern Miss, Tulane, Central Florida
Wait til Next Year: East Carolina, Houston, Tulsa, UTEP, UAB, Rice, SMU
Marshall is oh-so-close to being projected as an at-large team.  The only thing holding them back in my mind is just how mediocre Conference USA has been the last couple of seasons.  Memphis is nearly a lock to get in but anything more than a Sweet 16 appearance would be very surprising.  There's not a lot of key wins to be had in conference so anything less than 9-7 for anyone is an eliminator.  Marshall probably needs to go 11-5 to lock themselves in otherwise they may find themselves sweating on Selection Sunday.

Mountain West
Conference Champ: UNLV
Likely Tournament Teams: New Mexico, San Diego St.
Need a few breaks: Wyoming, Boise St., Colorado St.
Wait til Next Year: Air Force, TCU
This conference has improved by leaps and bounds.  Last year it was top-heavy with BYU helping the conference get two teams with protected seeds (SDSU was a #2 and BYU a #3).  This year it's the middle of the pack that makes it so formidable.  Who knew Boise St. would help the conference's basketball profile?  While it's unlikely more than three schools earn an at-large bid, stranger things have happened.

Pac 12
Conference Champ: Stanford
Likely Tournament Teams: Arizona, Cal
Need a few breaks: Oregon St., Washington, Washington St.
Wait til Next Year: UCLA, Oregon, USC, Arizona St., Colorado, Utah
I joked earlier this year about how the additions of Utah and Colorado made the Pac 12 a worse conference.  It's no longer a joke as Utah is 3-8 and their best win is at home vs. Portland while Colorado is 6-4 but was blown out against their only quality opponent (Wichita St.).  California, Stanford, and Arizona seem pretty even but my money's on the Cardinal since they've actually played well against their top competition.  Arizona played a tough non-con schedule but went 1-4 against potential tournament teams.  Oregon St. and  both Washington schools lack quality wins and need a strong conference season to help their cause. UCLA's terrible Maui performance is likely imprinted in everyone's minds eliminating them from NCAA consideration unless they win 10 games or something while USC, Oregon, and Arizona St. aren't quite as bad as Utah and UC.

Conference Champ: Kentucky
Likely Tournament Teams: Florida, Alabama, Mississippi St., Vanderbilt
Need a few breaks: Mississippi
Wait til Next Year: LSU, Arkansas, Georgia, Tennessee, Auburn, South Carolina
This is the nation's best team right now.
Kentucky looks really really good and should be back to being considered a legitimate title contender. Alabama's in a bit of a funk right now but still boasts quality wins over Wichita St., Purdue, and VCU. Florida's only two losses have come to Ohio St. and Syracuse, no shame in that.  Mississippi St. and Vanderbilt have compelling cases but opposite profiles. Miss St. has rolled through a weak schedule and positioned themselves as the fourth best team in a power conference.  Meanwhile the Commodores are only 7-4 but have two overtime losses to Xavier and Louisville. They should be in.  The rest of the conference is a bit jumbled up and will sort itself out as time goes.  It's early but the way things look right now I think five teams will be locks and I could see a sixth getting a shot in a play-in game.

That's 35 slots accounted for with 33 more to come.  Later this week I'll explore the mid-majors and see what's going on there. Stay tuned...
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