First Take: State of the Conferences, Part 1
A look at the races in the Big Six.
In honor of President Obama’s State of the Union Address last night I decided to take a break from the standard recap of the previous night’s games. With the halfway point of the regular season having come and gone, this seems like a great time to do a breakdown of the conference races as they start to shape up. Which teams are in it for the long haul and who is just stopping by for a visit at the top? We’re starting big today with a look at the Big Six conferences and will continue tomorrow with some of the other heated races in the conferences not getting their due.
Contenders: Duke, Maryland, Wake Forest
The Blue Devils don’t really need much of an explanation other than when they are hitting on all cylinders they are the best team in the conference, even with the lack of a physical interior presence. Maryland could easily be 5-0 right now if not for a last second overtime loss to Wake Forest, but they certainly have the necessary components to hold onto their current first place position. Greivis Vasquez may be trailing Jon Scheyer for ACC POY voting right now, but there isn’t a more dynamic player in the conference, having really hit his stride since a slow start. What makes him all the more dangerous this year is the presence of consistent scoring options flanking him in senior Landon Milbourne and sophomore Sean Mosley. Freshman big man Jordan Williams is anchoring the Terps inside and Gary Williams has his best defensive squad in five years right now, just ask Miami. The Demon Deacons are a bit of a dark horse here, but wins over Maryland and North Carolina definitely help their cause. The loss to Miami is perplexing and the 20-point shellacking they took at Duke was much closer than the score indicates. The key to their chances will be with point guard Ishmael Smith who has been somewhat inconsistent but is capable of being one of the elite players in the conference.
Sorry Cavaliers fans, but the early success isn’t going to last. A team’s non-conference schedule is generally a pretty good indicator of how good they are and UVA lost all four games it played against BCS teams outside of the ACC, those being to South Florida, Stanford, Penn State and Auburn. Not exactly a murderer’s row of quality teams. This also isn’t a very deep team outside of super sophomore Sylven Landesberg, even forward Mike Scott has been up and down this season despite leading the team in rebounding. With games still left against Duke, Carolina, Maryland (2) and one more against Wake who they just lost to, it’s very likely Virginia will be sliding back to the middle of the pack.
Contenders: Kansas, Texas
Now that Cole Aldrich operating at peak ability, I really think Kansas is capable of running the table in the Big 12. That may be crazy talk considering the Jayhawks still have two games with Kansas State and of course their clash of the titans matchup with Texas, but this team just looks like they get it right now. Prior to the loss to Tennessee there was criticism of the sometimes one-on-one play by the team as well as some mediocre defensive stretches, but those have been alleviated for the time being. The Longhorns are in a rut at the moment with back-to-back losses followed up by a below par showing in a win over Texas Tech, but this team is too talented to stay down for long. Is it going to be tough to catch Kansas, yes, that one game deficit is going to seem a lot bigger than it is as the seasons progresses, but Texas can definitely stay in the race. Saturday the team hosts a very good Baylor team and will have a chance to show if they can turn it around with a convincing win.
Pretenders: Kansas State
Is it a little harsh to call a team ranked 11th in the country a pretender? Maybe, but the single biggest factor working against the Wildcats taking a stab at the conference championship is Kansas; they play them twice and I don’t see KU losing either of those games. Having already lost to Oklahoma State, I’m predicting at least three losses for KSU when it’s all said and done, keeping them from the top of the hill, but they can make up for it with a run in March.
Contenders: Villanova, Syracuse
The only team in the Big East that can beat Villanova right now is Syracuse and despite their loss to Pitt earlier in the year, the Orange are playing at a level where I don’t think anyone is beating them. Of course we have to wait a full month before these two teams clash in upstate New York, so we can only speculate for now. ‘Cuse is the most complete team from top to bottom in the conference and what ‘Nova may lack in a dominant frontcourt presence, they more than make up for with the wave after wave of perimeter players they can throw at a team. The Big East may put as many as eight teams into the NCAA Tournament, but the regular season championship is a two horse race.
Pretenders: West Virginia, Pittsburgh
The Mountaineers have been somewhat of a disappointment in my mind, which seems somewhat ridiculous to say considering their #9 national ranking, but I also think they are highly overrated. Much of this stems from Devin Ebanks who has underachieved this season after missing a few games for personal reasons. They showed a lot of mental toughness coming back against a quality Ohio State team, but that was in the friendly confines of their home arena. Their best conference win right now? That would probably be Seton Hall and that came only after they allowed the Pirates to tie the game after trailing by 9 points with one minute remaining. Point being, the Mountaineers have lost the only two games they’ve played against teams in the top half of the conference and with a five game stretch coming up that includes two games against Pitt, as well as contests with Louisville and Villanova, things could get bumpy. As for the Panthers, they are one year away, this just isn’t their year to win the conference. There is no consistent third option on offense after Ashton Gibbs and Bran Wanamaker, but above all else, I think they were just playing above themselves the first stretch of the Big East schedule. Call it a gut feeling on this one.
Contenders: Michigan State
Pretenders: Everyone else
This is pretty cut and dry, the Spartans are a step above everyone else. They’ve blown out teams and they’ve performed in the clutch. You can point to the recent close calls with Minnesota and Michigan, but all I see is Tom Izzo’s team showing mental toughness in two tough road venues. I think they’ll probably split their two games with Purdue, but the Boilermakers shot themselves in the foot as far as the conference race is concerned by losing three straight. Wisconsin is the only team that could conceivably catch MSU, but I see Kalin Lucas and Co. finishing the season sweep of the Badgers next week.
Contenders: California, USC, Arizona, UCLA
This conference is an absolute mess. Not only is there no clear cut favorite but as I’ve mentioned, the Pac-10 at the very most is getting two teams in the Dance this year. Cal sits one game in front of the pack right now at 5-2 and on paper they are good enough to stay there. Jerome Randle and Patrick Christopher make up the best backcourt in the conference and having Theo Robertson back after he missed a handful of games earlier in the season is a big boost. If the Golden Bears have the best backcourt in the conference, then USC can lay claim to the best frontcourt thanks to the play of Alex Stephenson and Nikola Vucevic, who can each put up a double-double on any given night. Guard Mike Gerrity missed the first month of the season but gives the Trojans a deadeye shooter from the perimeter now that he is back. The team may only be one game over .500 in the conference, but none of those losses were by large margins. Arizona has the same caliber resume in that they have yet to be dominated by a team in conference and has put up convincing wins each of their last two times out on the floor. Freshman Derrick Williams has been a stud as an inside/outside forward and Nic Wise is a super talented guard is the kind of player who can lead a team to a championship. I can’t believe I have UCLA listed here, but the Bruins are finally starting to figure it all out and have the look of a team that could make a legitimate run at the Pac-10. The team is loaded with potential, chock full of former high school All-Americans, and they are starting to play like it. Malcolm Lee is a stat sheet stuffer even if his scoring numbers aren’t huge, while Michael Roll and Nikola Dragovic should be just enough veteran leadership to help out the youngsters as the season moves along.
Pretenders: Arizona State, Stanford
The Sun Devils don’t have that go to player needed to carry the team for stretches where everyone else is slumping. Fans may argue that either Rihards Kuksiks or Derek Glasser could fill that role, but both have been wildly inconsistent, equally capable of scoring 25 or five on any given night. Stanford on the other hand only has go to guys with Landry Fields and Jeremy Green forming one of the better scoring duos in the country. Unfortunately the rest of the roster is lacking in quality role players so you get results like a loss to Washington State where Green and Fields are cold from the field, but since no one else can do much, they simply shoot their team out of the game.
Contenders: Kentucky, Vanderbilt, Mississippi State, Mississippi
OK, just so there isn’t confusion, the first two teams are contenders for the SEC East while the latter two are in the West. Kentucky is an easy choice and I don’t feel like that needs to be explained. Vandy has been the surprise of the season in the conference, jumping out to a 5-0 start behind a super balanced and efficient offense that is shooting 50% from the floor right now. We knew that A.J. Ogilvy was a player, but guards Jeffery Taylor and Jermaine Beal have stepped their games up to another level this season, particularly Beal who has shown his big game ability on several occasions, most recently his 25-point explosion in last night’s win over Tennessee. Throw in freshman scoring threat John Jenkins, and this is a team that can create headaches for opposing teams. Mississippi State has the perfect recipe for success, a stud defender in the middle who can score as well in Jarvis Varnado and a trio of guards who handle the bulk of the scoring with Ravern Johnson, Dee Bost and Barry Stewart. Other than their season opening loss to Rider, the Bulldogs haven’t lost a game by more than five points and have a pretty favorable schedule the rest of the way. Ole Miss lost their contest with Mississippi State a few weeks ago, but the duo of Chris Warren and Terrico White are good enough to carry them past their in-state rivals.
Pretenders: Tennessee, Florida
The Vols and Gators are both good teams with talented players, but they aren’t catching Kentucky or Vandy. I wrote a week ago that Tennessee was eventually going to come down from the motivational high they experience after dealing with the loss of Tyler Smith and with back-to-back losses I think they’ve reached that point. Florida has won four in a row, but lost their first two games to who? Kentucky and Vanderbilt, the two teams the Gators are chasing right now, that should be proof enough.