In what may be the most top-heavy crop of college basketball teams in recent memory, there are a few things we know heading into conference play: UNC and Memphis could both plausibly run the table, the ACC is down, the Pac-10 is legit, and the SEC is downright weak. I offer you this conference breakdown as we head into the most intense 6 weeks of the 07-08 college basketball slate:
A conference that often times sends six or seven teams dancing come March is simply not one of the nation’s elite conferences this year. North Carolina, after coasting through a pretty cupcake non-conference schedule and surviving in overtime at Clemson last week, is a team that could legitimately run the table.
Yes Roy Williams’ unit is stocked with NBA talent, but the ACC boasts 1, maybe 2, other formidable teams this season. The Dukies will be a test for North Carolina, as always, but Coach K’s bunch looks like an Elite 8 team (with upside) at best. Boston College is rebuilding after several years at the top of the conference, while NCST and WF are emerging teams with little big-game experience. You are looking at UNC, Duke, and one of NCST, Wake, or Clemson in the dance. Three teams in the Field of 65? The ACC is most definitely down.
This isn’t usually a conference that would merit an individual breakdown, but I have to briefly mention that Dayton and Xavier are teams capable of getting in the dance and causing some commotion, Dayton especially. The Flyers have already beaten Louisville, Pittsburgh, and Rhode Island.
Speaking of the Rhodies, they are an outsider at this point but could sneak in as an 8 or 9 seed with strong conference play. Three teams from the A-10 is not something to sniff at. Also, beware of the resurgence going on at UMass. The Minutemen gave Vandy all they could handle on the road last week and could surprise people as the season wears on.
As usual, the Big-12 has several teams capable of rocking Final 4 status. That said, this is a top-heavy conference with some seriously inept teams towards the bottom of the barrel. Kansas is another team that has yet to be beaten and is looking like one of the deepest teams in the nation. Bill Self still makes me sweat come Madness time, but there is no doubting the malleable nature of KU’s style. They have proven they can run and gun, or slow it down and pound you to death.
Texas is surging sans Durant, while A&M is feeling just fine without Mr. Gillepsie. The top teams in this conference must be accounted for come March, but I see 3, maybe 4, teams coming out of the Big-12. OU could be that 4th team with a 12-3 record, a quality loss to Memphis, and quality wins over WVU and Gonzaga already under their belt.
This is one of the most formidable, deep conferences in all the land. Seven Big East teams have already landed in the Top 25 polls thus far, and while injuries have derailed the preseason hopes of both Pitt and Louisville, this is still a conference that could send as many as 7 teams dancing.
Georgetown is doing a nice job replicating their efforts of a year ago. Notre Dame has surprised many, with the return of maligned guard Kyle McAlarney clearly making a difference to Mike Brey’s unit. Marquette continues another respectable campaign, Bob Huggins has West Virginia playing well, and Villanova is a sleeper team worth keeping an eye on. Pitt showed it’s potency with an impressive OT win over Duke, but has since lost starters Mike Cook and Lavance Fields to injury. Still, at 13-2, if the Panthers can stay afloat until they get healthy, they are a dangerous team.
Rick Pitino’s Cardinals are starting to get some healthy bodies back, with David Padgett and Juan Palacios getting up to speed after missing early action. Louisville has a ton of upside and should get better as the year carries on. And then on the bubble you have Jim Calhoun’s young but maturing UConn Huskies. The Big East is back.
I am convinced that Tom Izzo has yet another squad in East Lansing that is capable of a Final 4 run. Raymar Morgan has emerged as one of the best players in the country, while Drew Neitzel and Kalin Lucas provide tons of energy and ball-hawking abilities at the guard position.
Indiana is also on the rise, with Eric Gordon complimenting the bruising D.J. White nicely. As long as Kelvin Sampson stays off the phone, the Hoosiers should be a scary team come March.
After those two heavyweights though, the conference is pretty watered down. Wisconsin is a tournament team, but after that I don’t see any heavy hitters. Illinois is down (and may be for a while), and Ohio St. simply doesn’t possess the game-changers it had the last few years. Tubby’s Golden Gophers are actually a team that could surprise some people come March. That said, I see MSU, IU, and Wisconsin dancing, with potentially Minnesota or Ohio St. sneaking in as a higher seed.
Memphis’ depth and athleticism are unparalleled across the board. And with a joke conference schedule, this Tigers team most definitely has the potential and schedule to run the table into the dance. The question is: once they get there, will Memphis be able to adapt their run-and-gun style into a more slow-it-down approach, or will a team like UCLA be able to slow them down and limit their possessions, like they did two years ago? It will be interesting to see. Memphis certainly has the bodies to match up with any team in the country, and should be the #1 ranked squad in the nation at this point.
Houston and UAB are other March Madness hopefuls, but I won’t waste my words or your time breaking down this lackluster pack of squads any further.
Hands down, the best conference in the country, simply because UCLA and WSU are both serious national title contenders. UCLA is a team that is only going to get better as the season progresses and they gel as a unit under Ben Howland. Washington St. is the most underrated team in the country and has multiple weapons that can hurt you. Stanford and Brook Lopez must be reckoned with as well, while Oregon and Arizona have suffered some hiccups but should rebound for the field of 65.
And don’t forget about surprise squad Arizona St. With an impressive 3-0 conference record, the Sun Devils are starting to embrace coach Herb Sendek. Sendek had notable success at NCST and has ASU playing tough-nosed basketball. There simply isn’t an easy win in this conference, with OJ Mayo and Taj Gibson’s Trojans bringing up the rear at 9-6. I see at least 5, maybe 6, tournament teams here.
Man, has this conference fallen off the wagon or what? Florida represented the SEC very well over the last few years, but this is simply not a powerful conference in 07-08. Tennessee is a scary offensive team that warrants respect, but beyond that, you really have to stretch to find another Sweet 16 caliber team.
Arkansas and ‘Ole Miss are quality squads off to nice starts, Florida is still 14-2 despite losing a plethora of studs from their back-to-back title runs, and Vanderbilt looks quite formidable at 16-0. But don’t be fooled; of those 16 Vandy wins, the most credible one came against….UMass? Wake Forest? Simply put, the Commodores hasn't had a genuine test yet. I see Tennessee, Vandy, and two mediocre teams coming out of the SEC this year. No team other than those first two will challenge late in March.
The Other Notables
Butler, Saint Mary’s, and Gonzaga lead the list of small-conference schools that are worth scouting come March.
Butler has been there before, while Saint Mary’s is riding high behind the lead of freshman point guard Patrick Mills. Mills, an Aussie of aboriginal descent, leads the team in points and assists and is the type of ball-handler who could wreak havoc in the Dance (think Eric Maynor and VCU last year).
Also beware Drake, off to a 13-1 start with their only loss coming to Saint Mary’s in a squeaker. If I had to pick 1 small-conference squad that could be this years George Mason or Southern Illinois, I would take Mills’ Gaels.
Injuries will undoubtedly play a huge role in determining which teams accelerate into the Dance, and which teams have to pull the emergency brake come March.
My Final 4 Picks as of 1-11-08: North Carolina, Memphis, UCLA, Michigan St.