Marching toward Madness: Ranking the most compelling major-conference races

Sporting News

The most underrated portion of the college basketball season — at least to the portion of the world that foolishly chooses not to follow this sport closely — is conference play.

Yes, March matters. March is a blast. March is where legacies are made. But conference play is a blast too, and anyone who says a league championship doesn’t matter ought to try selling that nonsense to former Purdue coach Gene Keady. He’s in his 80s, but I wouldn’t talk that mess around him.

Of course, not all conference races are created equal. Some include more legitimate contenders. An imposing favorite in one conference is more imposing than the favorite of another.

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This is how Sporting News sees the 2019-20 races in college basketball 's biggest conferences. They are ranked not in in order of their relative strength, but how compelling and entertaining the competition figures to be:

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10. Mountain West

Favorite: San Diego State

Leading contenders: Utah State, New Mexico

Sleeper: Nevada. The Wolf Pack have lost the majority of their most difficult games, but Eric Musselman left just enough talent for Steve Alford — who wouldn’t want Jazz Johnson on their side? — that Nevada will remain a threat.

Spoiler: UNLV. After a tough experience in nonconference play — five losses in the first seven — the Rebels are starting to play well under first-year coach T.J. Otzelberger. Their 3-0 Mountain West record already includes some an upset: a 70-53 win over preseason favorite Utah State.

Overview: It’s quite possible the Aztecs ended the league race when they went into Utah State and won on the league’s second weekend. That’s the kind of thing we analysts say … and then regret as the depth of February wears on even the best teams. But it’s going to take an exceptional performance from someone else to close the gap.

9. Atlantic 10

Favorite: Dayton

Leading contenders: VCU, Richmond, Saint Louis

Sleeper: George Mason. They’ve lost to Maryland, TCU and at VCU. So the NFL Patriots aren’t the only Patriots not quite good enough to win their league this season. But Mason is good enough — with four regulars averaging double-figure scoring — to have a say about who does.

Spoiler: Duquesne. It has been more than four decades since the Dukes last appeared in the NCAA Tournament. It’s been a decade since they even slipped into the picture for a moment, when Ron Everhart got them to the Atlantic 10 tournament final in 2009. But Keith Dambrot was a spectacular hire, and you can see that in the team’s start this year. They aren’t ready to make an at-large run, but do not be at all surprised if they shake things up at the tournament in Brooklyn.

Overview: It seems unlikely anyone but Dayton will win the A-10. The Flyers have a tremendous homecourt advantage and an even better roster. But there is plenty of danger throughout the league. What others may not tell you: If Dayton romps through this league, it should be in the picture for a No. 1 seed.

8. West Coast

Favorite: Gonzaga

Leading contenders: Saint Mary’s, BYU

Sleeper: Pacific. One year removed from a 4-12 conference season, coach Damon Stoudamire has the Tigers at 2-0 in the WCC with a 14-4 overall mark. They avoided playing high majors in the pre-conference schedule and now have the confidence to close out a game like they did against Saint Mary’s late Saturday. They’ll be a threat at home to the league’s best teams.

Spoiler: Santa Clara. Herb Sendek has wins over California and Washington State in the books and a 14-2 start. He has built the program gradually over the past four years and has the Broncos defending the lane fiercely, allowing only 42.2 percent shooting on 2-pointers.

Overview: There were more than a few analysts who assumed that, once Gonzaga got ahold of the No. 1 ranking, it wouldn’t be threatened in a conference like the WCC. Three words for that: ho, ho, ho. This Zags team is better than it has a right to be, given that they lost two top-20 NBA picks from last year’s top West Region seed. And another rampage through the WCC would be, just that, another. They know how to travel this road. But there are better teams up and down this conference, including two legitimate NCAA Tournament teams in Saint Mary’s and BYU. The Zags will have to work for this title, which would be their eighth regular-season championship in a row and 19th in the last 20 years.

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7. ACC

Favorite: Duke

Leading contenders: Louisville, Virginia, Florida State

Sleeper: N.C. State. There isn’t much to recommend the Wolfpack at the moment — not with losses to Georgia Tech and Clemson already on their record. They aren’t defending anyone, at any level, and it’s hard to win league games like that. They’ve got the No. 8 offense in Division I, though, and someone has to fit into this category. So there we are.

Spoiler: North Carolina. The Tar Heels are flat broken right now. Will it stay that way? As long as freshman star Cole Anthony is out, the answer, to some degree, is yes. But remember: When he was healthy, UNC defeated Oregon, Alabama and Notre Dame. It would be nice to see him back in a Tar Heels uniform.

Overview: It’s hard to see Duke not running away with this league title. The Devils don't have the overwhelming talent in the starting lineup that last year’s edition did, but coach Mike Krzyzewski is getting contributions out of more players than in any season in memory: Ten guys average double-figure minutes (though Wendell Moore is now out after having surgery), with only point guard Tre Jones over 30. They have a top-five offense and top-five defenses and three double-digit, high-major road wins on their resume.

6. American

Favorite: Memphis

Leading contenders: Houston, Wichita State, SMU

Sleeper: Cincinnati. The Bearcats’ results have been woefully inconsistent through the first half of the season, but there have been moments — even within games they lost — where one could glimpse what this team has been before and might be again.

Spoiler: Tulane. After half a season with the Green Wave, we’ve seen what a whole lot of high-major programs ought to have figured out by now: Ron Hunter is one of the best coaches in college basketball, and those who either passed on hiring him or failed to consider it missed a real opportunity.

Overview: The beauty of this conference race is that we don’t know just how mighty Memphis is now that James Wiseman has chosen not to continue his college basketball career. The Tigers have been amazingly resilient, continuing to pile up victories with a young squad that is unable to rely on extensive experience and now can’t lean on the top-five NBA talent who was supposed to serve as the team’s foundation. Penny Hardaway is showing everyone he’s a legit coach, but Kelvin Sampson of Houston and Gregg Marshall of Wichita already have been to the Final Four. This battle is going to be a blast.

5. SEC

Favorite: Auburn

Leading contenders: Kentucky, LSU, Arkansas

Sleeper: Florida. It is a mark of how the Gators have fallen that they began the year in the top five of Sporting News' preseason rankings and now are viewed as a team that could put enough together to be a factor in this race. Was their come-from-behind, double-OT home win over Alabama just another piece of evidence that they’re not very good, or a sign they will begin competing?

Spoiler: Georgia. Going into Memphis and winning was a huge step for the Bulldogs. And yes, they put a Maui scare into Michigan State, but only after falling so far behind they seemed to have no chance. Otherwise, most of their wins seemed to be of modest consequences. Now teams in the league will look at UGA and the presence of uber-freshman Anthony Edwards with some degree of fear.

Overview: Auburn entered the season without guard Jared Harper (currently averaging 20 points in the G League) but with a roster that still contained plenty of talent (Anfernee McLemore, Danjel Purifoy, Samir Doughty, Austin Wiley). And we don’t really know that much more about them even after 13 games, all victories. Except we know they won’t beat themselves. Richmond, N.C. State and New Mexico are quality opponents, and winning on the road at Mississippi State matters. But one imagines the folks at Kentucky and LSU are eager for their shots at the Tigers.

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4. Big 12

Favorite: Kansas

Leading contenders: West Virginia, Baylor, Texas Tech

Sleeper: Oklahoma. This is not a great Sooners team, but it has the same great coach in Lon Kruger. Somebody is going to go into Norman and leave with an L, and the balanced Big 12 schedule gives everyone a more-or-less equal shot at that.

Spoiler: Oklahoma State. When the Cowboys get beat, they don't mess around. Their past four losses, coming within the last six games, were by an average of 22 points. The return from injury of guard Isaac Likekele didn’t stop that skid against Texas Tech or WVU, but those were some tough games for a guy just getting back. The Cowboys still could be dangerous.

Overview: As much as those of us who analyze college basketball have said there are no great teams — and meant it — that doesn't mean there will be no dominant teams, meaning one that wins a clear majority of its games. There is no certainty KU will be such a team, but it's one of two or three with a chance. Perimeter shooting remains a periodic issue for the Jayhawks, but it’s not an overwhelming weakness. They feature one of the nation’s best defenses and can manhandle opponents along the baseline.

Baylor is the team best situated to delay KU’s return to the top of the league, but the Bears haven’t won a regular-season conference title since 1950, as members of the Southwest Conference. That’s 70 years. Texas Tech has almost an entirely overhauled roster, and yet coach Chris Beard is likely to figure out how to make the Red Raiders relevant.

3. Pac-12

Favorite: Oregon

Leading contenders: Arizona, Colorado, Washington

Sleeper: Stanford. The Cardinal are defending at an elite level. That’s going to matter in a conference race, because it’s the easiest thing to repeat. Even great shooters will miss shots sometimes, but great defenders stick to their assignments and scheme. The question for Stanford is how well that will translate against the better teams in the Pac-12. It didn't matter much in a 72-56 nonconference loss to Kansas. The good news for the Cardinal: There isn’t a team quite like the Jayhawks in this league.

Spoiler: Oregon State. The Beavers’ victory at Colorado was one of the quietly shocking results in high-major basketball this season. Not loudly shocking like Evansville over Kentucky, and not shocking because the Beavs lack talent, but more so because the Buffaloes at home figured to be one of the few reliable bets in college hoops this season. Tres Tinkle is one of the nation’s most versatile players, the kind of guy who can mess up an opponent’s night on his own.

Overview: The Pac-12 is better. We know that much. It’s fair to say it couldn’t get much worse, but this is more than that. There are quality teams here, though none is quite all the way there, and that could be dangerous to their ambitions. Washington, for instance, already has a loss to an in-development UCLA team on its record. Arizona has dropped its most difficult games; what if that’s the Wildcats’ ceiling? This kind of unpredictability is why the Pac-12 figures to be among the most fascinating leagues to follow this winter.

2. Big Ten

Favorite: Michigan State

Leading contenders: Maryland, Penn State, Ohio State

Sleeper: Iowa. Can you win this league with the 98th-ranked defense, give or take a few spots, in college basketball? It surely will not be easy, but the Hawkeyes also are ranked third on offense, so there seems to be a chance.

Spoiler: Rutgers. This has a chance to be the best Scarlet Knights team in generations. Now, before anyone thinks that’s an unfair standard to present, understand how low a bar that is: Rutgers hasn’t been in the NCAA Tournament since 1991. Just making it to the show would be GIGANTIC. Fans have caught on to this team’s appeal and are making the Rutgers Athletic Center a beast of a homecourt. Teams that must go in there will not have an easy time getting a win.

Overview: Michigan State is not the team that opened as a unanimous No. 1 preseason choice. Everybody picked the Spartans: Athlon. Lindy’s, Blue Ribbon, AP, CBS Sports, NBC Sports, Sporting News. But that was before Joshua Langford was injured, and so before coach Tom Izzo needed to reconfigure the Spartans. At last, it’s working. They have one of the deepest teams and the No. 1 offense in college basketball.

Michigan might have been among the top contenders were it not for the badly timed injury to key forward Isaiah Livers. When he is healthy, the Wolverines will win big games again.

What is most interesting about the Big Ten is how many teams legitimately could enter the NCAA Tournament. It's mathematically difficult to produce 10 entrants from a 14-team league; that’s 71.4 percent, even better than the Big East’s 2011 haul (11 of 16 members, 68.8 percent) though not up to the level of the 1991 Big East (seven of nine members, 77.8 percent.) But there seems a better shot at 10 bids this year than last, because Northwestern and Nebraska have yet to demonstrate they can consistently threaten the better Big Ten teams.

1. Big East

Favorite: Villanova

Leading contenders: Butler, Seton Hall, Xavier

Sleeper: Creighton. The Blue Jays have one of the nation’s most dangerous offenses and a defense that needs work. Defense travels better in conference play, but there’s always a chance.

Spoiler: Providence. The Friars endured a miserable nonconference season, but everyone in the league recognized there was potential. Now they’ve won three of four.

Overview: We are in the seventh season of the Big East as we know it now, and in five of the previous six the winner was Villanova. (Oddly, the year the Wildcats fell short was their best team, which became the 2018 NCAA champion). So unless the Wildcats show up with a substandard team ... wait, no, because they kinda did last year and still won it. Yeah, it pretty much looks like Villanova is going to be the favorite in this conference for the foreseeable future.

Seton Hall looked like a serious threat to take down Villanova before the year began, but injuries messed with the Pirates’ pre-conference schedule. Then they made Georgetown look really bad, and the Pirates appeared ominous once more. They very much have the ability to win the league. Xavier’s ability to contend will depend on how this rugged group polishes its offense.

There is literally no team that could not potentially take a run at an NCAA Tournament bid, though Providence, because of a poor nonconference performance, would need to become a dominant team in a league that figures to permit few to reach that level.

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