We have unofficially made it through the first quarter of the NCAA basketball season. There have been a few surprises both on the court (hello, VMI and Western Kentucky) and off the court (what's up, Andy Kennedy?).
Games like yesterday's Connecticut-Gonzaga and Texas-Michigan State tilts are helping keep us entertained during this holiday season.
While we have a clear (unanimous, in fact) No. 1 team in the North Carolina Tar Heels (11-0), conference rankings are a bit cloudier.
Three top conferences are vying for supremacy, while a fourth lingers not too far behind. After that, the drop-off is severe. Let's take a look at how they stack up to this point. (Note: If you prefer the short and dirty version, click here.)
1. Atlantic Coast
Don't think it wasn't close. So close in fact, that I felt the need to designate the Big Ten as "1a," rather than number two.
Virginia (4-4) and Virginia Tech (8-4) have looked awful, as the Virginia Military Institute has the most impressive win in the state, an early season win over Kentucky. The Hokies are at least improving; the Wahoos are not.
However, Duke's (10-1) blowout of No. 7 Xavier shows that the Blue Devils' lone loss to Michigan was probably more of an anomaly than a sign of "consistent inconsistency,” and the Blue Devils can at least say that they have also beaten the only team they have lost to.
Wake Forest's (10-0) schedule hasn't been particularly challenging, but they have looked thoroughly impressive in dismantling the teams that they have played, with quality wins over Baylor and UTEP. The Demon Deacons are a lock to join UNC and Duke in the media polls' Top 10 today.
Clemson (12-0) has started out the year on fire after crushing Miami (7-3) on the road last night. The Hurricanes themselves have won at Kentucky, and all of their losses are to currently ranked teams.
Maryland (7-2), Boston College (9-2), Georgia Tech (7-2), and N.C. State (7-1) are middle-tier teams that no one wants to face right now. These teams may not survive conference play, but right now they possess quality wins, a lack of bad losses, and strong strength-of-schedule.
Florida State (11-2) led Pittsburgh late in the second half last night, eventually falling to the Panthers, but the Seminoles have already garnered quality wins against Cincinnati, California, and Florida.
1a. Big Ten
The top three conferences are very tight, but someone has to be on top, and in this case, it's the ACC. The bottom of the Big Ten (Indiana and Iowa) is slightly better than the bottom of the ACC (Virginia Tech and Virginia), even considering Iowa's Saturday loss to Drake. However, the top of the ACC is a notch above the Big Ten's four-headed monster of Minnesota (10-0), Michigan State (8-2), Purdue (9-2), and Ohio State (8-0).
The Golden Gophers, Spartans, and Boilermakers looked especially impressive over the weekend, knocking off ranked teams Louisville, Texas, and Davidson, respectively.
The Big Ten earns big points for undefeated Minnesota, and though Illinois (10-1) has not played the most grueling schedule, the Illini's only blemish is a two-point loss to Clemson. Northwestern (7-2), Penn State (10-2), and Wisconsin (9-2) have dropped off a bit after hot starts. Michigan (8-2) is a chameleon that has defeated (and lost to) an impressive Duke team.
Ultimately, the Big Ten gets the "1a" designation for losing the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, for Iowa losing to Drake and Northwestern to Stanford on Saturday, and for its top teams not being quite at the level of UNC/Duke/Wake Forest.
3. Big East
Yes, this conference has eight teams in the Top 25. Marquette (9-2) may drop out today after a poor performance against a Tennessee team that could only beat Belmont by two. The top teams in the conference continue to suffer embarrassing losses.
Pittsburgh (12-0) struggled with Florida State last night, falling behind midway through the second half. The Seminoles were the first significant competition that the Panthers have faced. It is hard to judge this team until they play higher quality competition.
Connecticut (10-0) was lucky to escape a game against perennial doormat Buffalo with a four-point victory and should have lost to Gonzaga on Saturday. It was sloppy play in the final minute of regulation that allowed Connecticut to make it to overtime, where they finally took over the game from a deflated Bulldogs squad.
Syracuse (11-1) lost to a decent team in Cleveland State, but it's not a loss the Orange should have taken at all. Their win on the road over Memphis was impressive, though these are not last year's Tigers.
Louisville (7-2) was outclassed by Minnesota from tip-off to the final whistle after suffering an earlier loss to Western Kentucky.
Notre Dame (8-2) couldn't handle Ohio State, and Villanova (10-1) has zero wins over ranked teams, losing to Texas along the way.
The bottom of the Big East is woeful, including DePaul (6-4), Rutgers (8-3), and South Florida (4-6). Consider key losses and close calls at the top with a poorly finished basement, and this conference has lost the right to be ranked over the Big Ten and the ACC. Don't be surprised if they move up, however, in the coming weeks. This is far from the final word.
4. Big XII
There is a significant gap between the top three conferences and the Big XII, and there may be just as large a gap between the Big XII and those below them.
Oklahoma (11-0) will likely start the season 17-0 thanks to an extremely weak out-of-conference schedule. We may not know just how far Blake Griffin can carry this team until the Sooners face Texas and Baylor in January.
Texas (9-2), on the other hand, has played an extraordinary schedule and as a result has wins over UCLA and Villanova, but losses to Notre Dame and Michigan State. If their perimeter shooting improves, they can certainly challenge Oklahoma for the conference title and a good seed in March.
Baylor (9-1), Texas A&M (10-1), and Missouri (9-1) have looked mostly impressive, with their only losses coming to Wake Forest, Tulsa, and Xavier, respectively.
Missouri's fairly weak out-of-conference schedule will not help them come March if they get beat up by Oklahoma, Texas, and Baylor. The game against undefeated Illinois on Dec. 23, almost always a thoroughly enjoyable hard-fought slugfest, takes on extra importance for the Tigers.
Much of the rest of the conference, including Kansas (8-2), Nebraska (7-2), Texas Tech (8-3), and Oklahoma State (8-3), has been hit or miss, with some very bad losses mixed in with virtually no significant wins.
This is clearly a down year for the Pac-10, but no one thought it would be quite this bad. At least they're not the SEC.
UCLA (8-2) has looked thoroughly unimpressive in losses to Michigan and Texas, and has not beaten a ranked team yet. They maintain their position in the polls on athletic talent and expectations alone.
USC (7-3) lost their early-season ranking after losses to Seton Hall and Missouri, but a one-point loss to Oklahoma shows the Trojans' hopes for March are far from over.
Arizona State (9-1) won a crucial contest against BYU (by one point) last night to ensure that they remain in the March Madness conversation.
Arizona (7-3), on the other hand, took it on the chin from UNLV after shocking Gonzaga. An early one-point loss to Texas A&M may very well cost the Wildcats a spot in the NCAA tournament if they don't earn several quality wins against Arizona State, USC, and UCLA.
A young Stanford (7-0) team and an inconsistent California (8-2) squad may be heard from before the season is over, but it would help if they played more teams with an RPI in the top 100; the Cardinal did manage a victory over Northwestern this weekend.
6. Atlantic Ten
I'm ranking the Atlantic Ten over the SEC, and with good reason. There are two good, but not great, teams (Xavier and Dayton). The SEC has the same in Tennessee and Florida.
Many of the teams in the Atlantic Ten have impressive victories over ranked opponents, very close losses to ranked opponents, and some bad losses. In the A-10, the No. 3 to No. 14 teams are all very similar in this way. The SEC? Outside of the Vols and Gators, they have virtually no quality wins and a schedule of weaklings.
Looking beyond Dayton (10-1) and Xavier (9-1), several teams in the Atlantic 10 have notched key wins over major conference opponents.
Temple (5-4) has defeated Penn State and Tennessee, and lost to Clemson by just four.
Massachusetts (4-6) stunned Kansas and trounced CAA contender Hofstra, whose only other loss was to Clemson.
Saint Louis (6-4) edged Boston College and just beat a decent Liberty team for their fourth straight victory after a terrible start to the season.
Charlotte (4-6) beat Mississippi State and lost by just one to Clemson early in the season.
Richmond (5-5), LaSalle (5-5), and St. Joseph’s (4-5) all have lost very close games to ranked teams. The Atlantic Ten does not have many teams that will be a factor in March, but they are simply more dangerous than the SEC, based on their current record, and they have defeated the SEC in several head-to-head matchups. Therefore, they get the nod.
7. Conference USA
You thought the SEC was coming next after all that blather above, right? Unfortunately, I can’t even rank them in the seventh slot. The emergence of UTEP, UAB’s quality wins, the presence of a ranked Memphis (6-3) team, and strong starts by East Carolina and Houston (against admittedly weak competition) place Conference USA at No. 7 for now.
UAB (7-3) is down to six scholarship players after several players were ruled academically ineligible for the second semester. This is a devastating blow for a team that I believe could have contended with Memphis for the conference title. Now, they will have to be near-perfect just to be discussed in March. The Blazers have quality wins over Ohio Valley favorite Jacksonville State (a blowout) and Arizona.
UTEP (6-4) may now be the most significant threat to Memphis due to UAB’s academic problems. The Miners are the only team to beat St. Mary’s this year and crushed both Texas Tech and New Mexico State in their last two games, avenging their worst loss of the season (90-78 at New Mexico St.).
East Carolina (8-2) and Houston (7-1) are not as good as their record indicates, but will be a threat against decent teams when they play well. The Pirates played N.C. State very close from wire to wire in a recent game against an ACC foe and will test the waters next against Wake Forest. Beyond that, there are not really any teams to fear much from in Conference USA.
This is perhaps the worst year the SEC has seen in at least two decades. Past years indicate that 2008-09 is likely to be an anomaly for the SEC, not a trend, but they are simply awful at this point. It was not that many years ago that the SEC was arguably the best conference in college basketball, believe it or not.
Some fans had begun touting LSU (8-1) in the SEC West, but they fell to the first even mediocre opponent they played, a 72-61 loss to Texas A&M on Saturday. The entire SEC West is filled with bad losses and weak schedules. Right now, none of them would make the NCAA tournament, except by winning the SEC tournament.
Arkansas’ (8-1) best win is probably a nine-point victory over Austin Peay. Or maybe the two-point win over South Alabama. This is seriously the best their schedule has to offer so far. It does not bode well for the Razorbacks, as they will face both Oklahoma and Texas at home in the coming weeks.
At least they scheduled some ranked teams, however, which is more than I can say for most of the rest of the SEC.
The SEC East is in better shape, though Tennessee (8-2) is clearly not the top-10 team that many had projected them to be in the preseason. They have notched two impressive wins over Big East foes Marquette and Georgetown, but lost to Temple by 16 and were lucky to escape with a 79-77 victory over Belmont on Saturday.
Florida (8-2) has lost both games to the only decent teams they’ve played (Syracuse and Florida State), and they have a weak non-conference schedule remaining. If they are not exemplary in conference play, they will find it very difficult to even make the field in March. The SEC could literally send one or two teams—that is how far they’ve fallen.
South Carolina (8-1) has one of the best point guards in the country in Devan Downey, but his presence hasn’t translated to much success on the floor in the last two years. The Gamecocks have already lost to College of Charleston, and like the rest of the SEC East, they have no quality wins to speak of.
9. Mountain West
Look out SEC, because the Mountain West could pass you before long.
BYU’s (10-1) only loss is a one-pointer to a ranked Arizona State team, and UNLV (10-2) has quality wins over UTEP, Nevada, and Arizona. The Runnin’ Rebels have lost only to California and Cincinnati, not terrible losses.
San Diego State (8-3), Air Force (7-2), and Utah (6-4) can be dangerous to above-average teams when they’re on. Wyoming (9-1) is not nearly as good as their record indicates.
10. West Coast
Honestly, No. 7 through No. 10 are all pretty close, and the order could get shuffled in the next couple of weeks. The primary reason the WCC ranks below the others is just how bad the third through eighth teams are.
It’s pretty much all downhill after Gonzaga (8-2) and St. Mary’s (9-1). Both are likely candidates to dance in March, but San Diego is a major disappointment. Pepperdine (1-11) and Loyola Marymount (0-12) may be two of the worst teams in the country right now.
St. Mary’s disappointing loss to UTEP (their only loss of the season) is looking better as UTEP starts to notch quality wins. Gonzaga will certainly be a force all year long.
We’ll take another look at the conference rankings after the holidays. I encourage you to leave your feedback (for better or for worse), and let me know how you think these conferences should be ranked!