By Trent McCann, Sports Editor
Big East Conference
The “Catholic Ten,” if you will, has turned out to be a formidable conference this year. Creighton and Villanova are among some of the most highly regarded teams in the nation, while basically every other team but DePaul has an opportunity to make a run at a tournament bid. As expected, with the additions of Xavier, Butler, and Creighton, this remnant of the old Big East has produced stronger basketball than the American Conference.
Conference Favorite: Villanova Wildcats (19-2, 7-1). The only losses of the season come to no. 2 Syracuse and an absolute whooping at the hands of Creighton. Although Creighton currently sits atop the conference, the veteran leadership of ‘Nova and the experience of Coach Jay Wright should persevere. However, expect both teams to make some noise come national tournament time.
Surprise Team of the Year: Providence Friars (16-6, 6-3). After a respectable non-conference schedule (including a win over Vanderbilt and close losses to Kentucky, UMass, and Maryland), Providence stumbled into conference play. Solid play on their homecourt has solidified their record and moved them into third place.
Atlantic Coast Conference
With the additions of Syracuse and Pittsburgh, the ACC is arguably the strongest conference in the nation this year. Undefeated and second-ranked Syracuse leads the conference followed by Virginia, Pitt, and Duke. The top four are all locks to make the NCAA Tournament in March, barring a major collapse. A plethora of other teams (Wake, FSU, Clemson, Maryland, UNC, Miami, Notre Dame, NC State) are all competing for an at-large bid to the big dance.
Conference Favorite: Syracuse Orange (23-0, 8-0). I see Syracuse eventually dropping a game or two but the 3-2 zone has been too effective this year for ‘Cuse to not win the ACC. With this weekend’s win over Duke at home, Syracuse solidified their position as the best team in the ACC and, with Arizona’s loss, as probably the best team in the nation.
Surprise Team of the Year: Virginia Cavaliers (16-5, 7-1). After slowly improving over the course of the past few seasons, this Virginia team has put themselves in a very good position. However, they are 0-3 against ranked teams and will need to improve their play if they hope to make a splash.
Big 12 Conference
Kansas, despite a recent road loss to Texas, remains atop the conference standings and seems to be the cream of this conference. However, while Oklahoma State, Baylor, and Iowa State have all slowed down since conference play began, Oklahoma and Texas have shot up the standings. There is depth in this conference (the third best in the nation in my opinion), so don’t be surprised to see six or seven teams from the Big 12 make the field.
Conference Favorite: Kansas Jayhawks (16-5, 7-1). Although they stumbled against Texas, Kansas has the most talented frontcourt in the nation with Wiggins and Embid. Expect to see Kansas playing late into March.
Surprise Team of the Year: Texas Longhorns (17-4, 6-2). Ranked for the first time since 2010, the Longhorns have surged up the standings. Their recent success culminated with a convincing win over Kansas this weekend. Expect to seem them in the top 15.
Louisville, along with Cincinnati and Memphis, are the only current locks for postseason play from this makeshift conference. However, with the loss of many key pieces this year (such as Bohanon and Ware), Louisville is not the same team that won last year’s championship. Connecticut has slipped as of late, but the team still has plenty of season to prove themselves, while SMU has shot up the standings into fourth. Other than that, don’t expect to see any other teams from this conference playing late in the year.
Conference Favorite: Cincinnati Bearcats (20-2, 9-0). Currently sitting atop the conference with an undefeated record, the Bearcats are for real this year. Their only losses came early in the year to Xavier and New Mexico, both strong teams. Without a marquee win, many people were curious how good this team really was, but they proved themselves with a big win over Louisville this week.
Surprise Team of the Year: Southern Methodist Mustangs (17-5, 6-3). The Mustangs have quietly put together a very nice season. This weekend’s 15 point win over Memphis gave SMU the credibility they have been looking for.
Big Ten Conference
In my opinion, this is the second strongest conference behind the ACC. Michigan, Michigan State, Iowa, Wisconsin, Ohio State, and Minnesota are all tournament locks. With a strong finish, Indiana, Purdue, Northwestern, and Illinois can all add their names to the list. This conference is always a grudge-match with the season coming right down to the wire, and 2014 is no different.
Conference Favorite: Michigan State Spartans (19-3, 8-1). Despite falling at home to Michigan last week, the Spartans have the most talented team in the Big Ten. Over the course of the season, I expect their talent to prevail. Coach Tom Izzo always challenges his team with a tough regular season schedule, and I expect this strategy to pay dividends once again.
Surprise Team of the Year: Iowa Hawkeyes (17-5, 6-3). The Hawkeyes have followed up an impressive start to the season with a strong conference showing. All of their losses have come against very strong competition, and this team has shown they can hang with anybody.
Until Arizona’s loss at California this weekend, I would have considered ‘Zona to be the best team in the country. However, that title now belongs to the undefeated Syracuse Orange. Besides Arizona, none of the other teams in the Pac-12 have blown me away this year. UCLA has been solid and should be a safe bet to make the tournament field. Before Cal’s win over Arizona, they weren’t making much noise, nor was anybody else in this conference. I expect four to five (probably Colorado and Stanford/Oregon/Arizona State) teams to make it into the final field when all is said and done.
Conference Favorite: Arizona Wildcats (21-1, 8-1). Despite falling to Cal this weekend, they are still the best team in this conference. Behind the scoring strength of Nick Johnson and Aaron Gordon, Arizona is an athletic and versatile force who plays stout defense. In my opinion, only Syracuse and maybe Kansas have the chops to compete with ‘Zona over the course of an entire season.
Surprise Team of the Year: Colorado Buffaloes (16-6, 5-4). Although they’ve lost more than they’ve won lately, the Buffaloes started the year very strong. They won against Kansas and took Oklahoma State to the wire. With a relatively weak schedule to finish the year, I expect UC to step up and be on top of their game come postseason time.
This has been a strong year for a usually middling basketball conference. Florida has replaced Kentucky as the best team in the Southeast, but UK is still strong. Along with good years from Missouri, LSU, Ole Miss, and Tennessee, this conference will be strongly represented when the end of the year rolls around. Kentucky and Florida still have to play twice, including the final regular season matchup of the season, so the SEC is still far from decided.
Conference Favorite: Florida Gators (19-2, 8-0). With their only losses of the year going to UConn and Wisconsin early in the year, the Gators have dominated SEC opponents. Billy Donovan’s tough defense has only allowed more than 62 points to an SEC team once so far this year (an 84-82 overtime victory against Arkansas) and has held four SEC teams to 51 points or less.
Surprise Team of Year: LSU Tigers (14-6, 5-3). With non-conference wins over Butler and Texas Tech and a tough loss to Memphis, LSU set the tone early on this year. They carried their strong play into the conference games, where they were able to take down no. 11 Kentucky as well as Missouri and Vandy.
Mountain West Conference
San Diego State has once again proven they are a team to be reckoned with. After starting the season unranked, they’ve shot all the way up to fifth in the nation. I expect two or three other teams from this conference to secure a bid as well. New Mexico should be in as long as they continue to perform, along with the likes of UNLV, Boise State, or Utah State.
Conference Favorite: San Diego State Aztecs (19-1, 8-0). If you’re not picking the Aztecs to win the Mountain West this year, you’re crazy. This team is clearly superior to the rest of the conference and is among the most athletic teams in the entire nation.
Surprise Team of the Year: New Mexico Lobos (17-4, 8-1). After losing their rivalry game at home versus New Mexico State, with their best win coming early against Cincinnati, this seemed like it would be a down year for the Lobos. But they bounced back with a win against Marquette, and other than a tough loss to UNLV, they have dominated the MWC so far. With two games yet to go against SDSU, anything could happen atop the conference standings.
This has been one of the best seasons for the A-10 in recent memory. A basketball-only conference, the A-10 could send as many as five teams to the NCAA Tournament this year. Keep an eye on this mid-major, as I could definitely see one of these teams fighting into the late rounds of the tournament.
Conference Favorite: Virginia Commonwealth Rams (18-4, 6-1). Although they currently sit in second behind St. Louis University, I expect the experience of VCU and Head Coach Shaka Smart to prevail. VCU and SLU still meet twice this year, so this conference is very much up for grabs.
Surprise Team of the Year: Massachusetts Minutemen (17-4, 4-3). Despite dropping three of their last four games and possibly dropping from the top 25 rankings, UMass has an excellent resume this year. The team suffered a tough loss versus Florida State, but a number of quality non-conference wins — against Boston College, LSU, Nebraska, New Mexico, Clemson, Brigham Young, and Providence — speaks for itself. As long as they don’t continue to falter, UMass will be around in March.
Other Teams to Watch
Wichita State Shockers (23-0, 10-0). Dominating a relatively weak Missouri Valley Conference is still good enough to get yourself ranked no. 3 in the nation. Non-conference wins over St. Louis, Tennessee, Alabama, and Davidson should be good enough to get the Shockers a no. 1 seed if they finish out the season unbeaten.
Florida Gulf Coast Eagles (14-9, 8-2). Last year’s Cinderella sweethearts have picked up their play lately, giving themselves an opportunity to advance beyond the Atlantic Sun Conference tournament. Tough early season losses to major conference teams set the Eagles back to start the year, but I think we’ll be seeing them in the field of 64 again this year.
Harvard Crimson (17-4, 4-0). We saw their talent in the NCAA tournament last year, and this year’s team is just as solid. Their losses have been respectable (UConn, Colorado, Florida Atlantic), but they don’t have any marquee wins, their best coming against Vermont or TCU. I think they’ll run the table in their remaining Ivy League games to secure the auto-bid.
Davidson Wildcats (12-11, 8-1). My pick to win the Southern Conference, the Davidson Wildcats are as potent a shooting team as ever. Scheduling a grueling non-conference slate (Virginia, Wichita State, Duke, UNC, New Mexico, Clemson, and Charleston) has this team prepared to take on the weaker competition of the SoCon.