First Take: State of the Conferences, Part 2
We step outside the BCS today…
They may not get as many games on ESPN as the BCS conference teams do, but that doesn’t make these conference races any less interesting to college basketball observers. In today’s installment of the “State of the Conferences” we take a look at some of the better races shaping up outside of the Big Six. While only the Atlantic-10 and Mountain West Conferences seem like locks to earn multiple bids to the NCAA Tournament right now, upsets in postseason play can quickly change the landscape of the Big Dance as we well know.
Hopefully these breakdowns will suffice in place of a weekend primer for this week, but there will be a slew of games worth watching over the next 48 hours, so make sure to stop in front of the TV at some point. Enjoy the hoops!
Contenders: Xavier, Temple, Charlotte, Rhode Island
Arguably the best conference race right now, the A-10 is loaded at the top and is almost guaranteed to earn multiple bids to the Big Dance. Up until 48 hours ago it looked like the conference was Temple’s to lose, before surprising Charlotte beat them handily and suddenly stirred up the standings. The Owls are still a heavy favorite thanks to their #15 national ranking and already impressive resume that includes wins over Villanova, Virginia Tech, Siena, Seton Hall and A-10 powers Rhode Island and Xavier. The Minutemen are right there though, currently standing in first with a 6-1 conference record, despite going just 8-5 in their non-conference schedule. Keep in mind, this team took a little while to completely gel with a new head coach, but none of their losses (Marquette, Baylor, Kansas State, Butler, Wake Forest) can be considered “bad” and the duo of Jordan Crawford and Jason Love give them the ability to do damage inside and outside. Rhode Island, like Temple, jumped out of the gate pretty fast, rolling through their non-conference slate, suffering just one loss by two points. The three headed attack of Keith Cothran, Delroy James and Lamonte Ulmer has caused all kinds of problems for opposing teams which has resulted in wins over Oklahoma State and at Boston College. Then there are the 49ers who owe much of their success to Boston College transfer Shamari Spears who is leading the team in scoring at nearly 17 ppg. Prior to their win over Temple they were probably more pretender than contender but the beauty of conference races is they can change just that quickly, and suddenly Charlotte is in it to win it, tied for second place and just a half game back.
The Spiders looked so strong just one month ago, posting wins against Florida, Mississippi State and Missouri, but two A-10 losses, including one to Saint Louis leave me thinking they won’t have enough to catch the four teams in front of them. Kevin Anderson has been a revelation, seeing his numbers improve across the board for the second straight season, but it won’t be enough. With games still left to be played against the four contenders, unless Richmond can run the table, they won’t be enjoying a number one seed in conference tournament play.
Colonial Athletic Association
Contenders: Old Dominion, George Mason, Northeastern
If the Atlantic-10 is the best conference race right now, the CAA is 1A. What makes this such an interesting schedule to follow is that of the three teams sitting on top of the conference right now, Old Dominion is the only one that can potentially count on earning an at-large bid thanks to how well they performed in their non-conference slate. The Monarchs have been on a tear, winning 11 of their last 12, that lone loss coming to George Mason but by the convincing score of 71-55. Gerald Lee is the engine that drives this team, but with an offense so balanced (five players score between seven and 14 ppg), ODU doesn’t have to worry about one particular player being off on any given night. The rest of their schedule has plenty if potential hiccups ahead, with another meeting with Mason, one with Northeastern and a pair of games against VCU. The Patriots may be the favorite right now given that no team in the CAA has been playing better basketball the last two weeks. Junior guard Cam Long has been on a tear, eclipsing the 18-point mark in his last four games and leading the charge. Mason does need to be careful though, four of their remaining seven games are on the road. Northeastern is the team that maybe fewer expected to be in the mix this season, but the Huskies have proven they belong, reeling off eight straight conference wins after losing their opener to Drexel. Guards Matt Janning and Chaisson Allen have been consistent, reliable scorers while big man Nkem Ojougboh has done a solid job anchoring the frontcourt and protecting the basket. The three team race has the potential to go down to the final day of the regular season with Northeastern finishing up on the road at George Mason.
Pretenders: William & Mary, Drexel, VCU
Poor William & Mary. The Tribe was putting together the finest season in program history, building an at-large worth resume that included wins over Maryland and Wake Forest, the first time in CAA history a team had beaten two ACC schools in the same season. But after losing three straight conference games, David Schneider and Co. are not only out of the regular season race, but will likely need to win the conference tournament to be dancing in March. Drexel certainly raised some eyebrows with its 13-point win at Northeastern on Wednesday, but at the end of the day, the Dragons have been far too inconsistent to challenge for CAA supremacy. Then there is the ultimate enigma: VCU. The Rams have more talent than any team in the conference, including a future pro in big man Larry Sanders, yet they stand at 6-4 and tied for fifth place. Northeastern swept the season series from them and at this point, they are just too far back to have any legitimate shot at winning the regular season. Don’t count them out for a postseason run though.
Contenders: UAB, UTEP, Memphis, Tulsa
UAB is having one of the best seasons in school history, having lost one game in the last two months (to Virginia) and having jumped out to a 6-0 start in the conference. Guard Elijah Millsap is a big time talent and with a pretty convincing win over Tulsa this week, the Blazers look like they have what it takes to unseat Memphis from the top of the standings for the first time in a while. With that said, their next two games see them hosting UTEP and traveling to Memphis for a pair of tough games. Tulsa has been impressive as well behind the duo of guard Ben Uzoh and 7-footer Jerome Jordan. The Golden Hurricane may be a dark horse at this point, but I’m still impressed by their 21-point win over Oklahoma State back in December. Memphis of course is in the mix and has more talent that any of the other contenders with Elliot Williams blossoming into a star and Wesley Witherspoon perhaps proving the better pro prospect. It seems now that their conference winning streak is over, people are forgetting about the Tigers, but they still have to be the odds on favorite to win the regular season at this point. UTEP is another dark horse candidate, but any team that can put a scoring machine like Randy Culpepper on the floor with a former McDonald’s All-American big man like Derrick Caracter, that’s a team to be weary of.
The Thundering Herd started 4-0 and looked strong, particularly with the play of freshman Hassan Whiteside, but losing three in a row (one to out of conference West Virginia) has left the team on the outside looking in. This team is still one year away, with three of their top four scorers either freshman or sophomores. There is almost no scenario where the four teams in front of them all lose enough games for Marshall to get back in the race. If Whiteside is smart and stays in school for another year before testing the draft waters though, watch out for Marshall next season.
Contenders: BYU, New Mexico
It’s a two horse race in this one out west. The Cougars have been making all kinds of headlines ascending to #10 in the national polls this week (although their loss to the Lobos will drop them a few pegs) behind the play of star guard Jimmer Fredette. While the case for this team being overrated can easily be made, the fact remains that outside of New Mexico, I don’t see any other team in the MWC capable of beating BYU, save for maybe their February 6th trip to UNLV. The Lobos have been a model of balance with four players averaging between 11 and 15 points, led by swingman Darington Hobson who has emerged as a double-double threat on a nightly basis. Their resume includes wins over Cal, Texas A&M, Texas Tech and of course BYU and will be enough to get them into the NCAA Tournament barring a major collapse, but this team is thinking conference championship right now.
Sorry Rebels, there just isn’t enough help behind Tre’Von Willis to make a serious run at BYU and New Mexico, even though you’re only a half game out of first place. Swingman Chace Stanback has been playing well as of late, but there is just too much of a history of inconsistency this season for me to believe that he can be counted on as a reliable second option on offense. Back-to-back games against the two MWC contenders in early February will pretty much make or break UNLV’s chances.
Pretenders: Everyone Else
This happens every year and every year the result is the same; Gonzaga is left standing alone at the top. I know Saint Mary’s is only a game back, I know there is always the potential for a slip up, but it won’t happen, at least not to the point where the Bulldogs lose their grip on another regular season conference championship.