Breaking Down the Most Exciting Conference Title Races in College Basketball

Joel Reuter@JoelReuterBRFeatured ColumnistFebruary 22, 2018

Breaking Down the Most Exciting Conference Title Races in College Basketball

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    Laurence Kesterson/Associated Press

    March Madness is right around the corner, but first, there's a lot to be decided in various conference title races around the country.

    Michigan State wrapped up a share of the Big Ten title with a win over Illinois on Tuesday night, but there are still a number of compelling battles in some of the nation's biggest conferences.

    Can Kansas make it 14 straight years with at least a share of the title?

    Will the American Athletic Conference come down to the season finale between Cincinnati and Wichita State?

    Ahead, you'll find a full breakdown of the six most exciting conference title races, complete with a look at the current leader and any viable challengers. We even take our best guess at how everything will play out.

American Athletic Conference

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    Houston point guard Rob Gray
    Houston point guard Rob GrayWesley Hitt/Getty Images

    The Leader: Cincinnati

    The Bearcats (23-4, 12-2) rattled off 12 straight conference wins and 16 wins overall before back-to-back losses to Houston and Wichita State last week.

    With that, they slipped from No. 5 to No. 11 in the latest Associated Press poll, and they are still searching for their first win against a ranked team. They lost consecutive games to Xavier and Florida back in December, before falling to Wichita State on Sunday.

    "We're just not in a good place right now," Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin told reporters, while specifically pointing to defensive breakdowns.

    Games against UConn (6-8) and Tulsa (10-5) at home and Tulane (4-11) on the road are next up on the schedule, before another meeting with the Shockers in Wichita to close out the season.


    The Challengers: Wichita State and Houston

    The Shockers (22-5, 12-3) control their own destiny.

    They'll be heavily favored in their next game against SMU (6-9) before a tough road test against UCF (8-7). If they can win those three, a victory at home against Cincinnati to close out the season would clinch the conference title.

    A move away from the Missouri Valley Conference was the right one for Wichita State, and the Shockers showed they belong with a big win at Cincinnati last week. It was the school's first win on the road against an AP Top Five team since 1964, according to Matt Norlander of CBS Sports.

    While Cincinnati and Wichita State are right where they were expected to be, battling for the top spot in the conference, Houston has been a pleasant surprise.

    The Cougars (21-5, 11-3) were picked to finish sixth in the preseason coaches' poll, but thanks to a five-game winning streak, they're now ranked in both national polls for the first time since the vaunted Phi Slama Jama squad during the 1983-84 season.

    Led by star point guard Rob Gray (17.1 PPG, 4.2 APG) and sharpshooter Corey Davis Jr. (13.0 PPG, 46.3% 3PT), the Cougars have the most favorable remaining schedule of the three contenders with games against Memphis (7-7), East Carolina (4-11), SMU (6-9) and UConn (6-8).


    Predicted Winner: Wichita State

    Don't overlook that game on the road against a good UCF team with wins against Alabama and Nebraska on its resume. The Shockers will take care of business, though, and hoist a banner in their first year in the conference.

Big 12 Conference

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    Kansas point guard Devonte' Graham
    Kansas point guard Devonte' GrahamAssociated Press

    The Leader: Kansas

    Can the Jayhawks (22-6, 11-4) make it 14 straight years with at least a share of the conference title?

    They're currently clinging to a half-game lead in the standings, and with three losses at Allen Fieldhouse already this year, this hasn't been the same dominant Kansas team we've seen in years past.

    Still, with senior point guard Devonte' Graham (17.6 PPG, 7.2 APG) and deep threat Svi Mykhailiuk (15.4 PPG, 44.9% 3PT) leading the way, the Jayhawks could be headed for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament if they can take care of business the rest of the way.

    Their biggest test will come Saturday when they head to Lubbock to take on Texas Tech.

    If they can escape there with a win, they close out the season with home games against Texas (6-9) and Oklahoma State (6-9).


    The Challenger: Texas Tech

    The Red Raiders (22-6, 10-5) are in prime position to put a stop to Kansas' run of dominance.

    While it trails the Jayhawks by a game in the conference standings, Texas Tech already has one win against them on its resume—an 85-73 victory at Allen Fieldhouse on Jan. 2.

    Completing the season sweep would give the Red Raiders the tiebreaker and allow them to control their own destiny.

    It's not a cakewalk to close out the year, though. They follow up the Kansas game with West Virginia (9-6) on the road and previously ranked TCU (7-8) at home to close out the regular season.

    The health of leading scorer Keenan Evans (17.6 PPG, 3.0 RPG, 3.3 APG) will be the big X-factor here. The senior star is listed as day-to-day with a toe injury that he suffered in a loss to Baylor last Saturday.

    Technically, West Virginia (20-8, 9-6) and Kansas State (20-8, 9-6) are both still alive in the conference title race as well. A lot would have to break right for them to walk away as champions, though.


    Predicted Winner: Kansas

    The Jayhawks will get revenge for that earlier loss at home by avoiding the same slow start—Texas Tech built a 23-7 lead to open the game—that buried them in their first meeting.

    From there, they avoid a scare against Texas before blowing out Oklahoma State to finish out the season and keep the streak alive.

Big East Conference

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    Xavier shooting guard Trevon Bluiett
    Xavier shooting guard Trevon BluiettJohn Minchillo/Associated Press

    The Leader: Xavier

    While they were picked third in the preseason coaches' poll, the success that Xavier (25-4, 13-3) has enjoyed this season should come as no surprise.

    The Musketeers reached the Elite Eight as a No. 11 seed last year and welcomed back two of their top three leading scorers in Trevon Bluiett (19.2 PPG, 43.4% 3PT) and J.P. Macura (12.7 PPG, 3.0 APG), as well as facilitator Quentin Goodin (8.8 PPG, 5.1 APG).

    However, two of their three conference losses have come to Villanova, the team trying to chase them down in the conference standings.

    The Musketeers will close out the season with games against Providence (8-6) and Depaul (3-12), with that home game against Providence by no means a gimmie.


    The Challenger: Villanova

    After a 9-1 start to the conference slate, Villanova (25-3, 12-3) has lost two of its last five to swing the door wide open in the Big East.

    That said, the Wildcats rebounded from a road loss to Providence last week with a convincing 95-79 victory over Xavier on Saturday.

    "I think we wanted to send ourselves a message, not necessarily about the title race but about playing Villanova basketball," sophomore Dante DiVincenzo told reporters. "We knew we weren't playing Villanova basketball."

    After a disastrous 3-of-20 showing from beyond the arc in that Providence loss, the Wildcats buried 16 of 34 from deep in their win over Xavier and now they'll look to stay hot for the stretch run.

    The remaining schedule includes Creighton (8-7) and Seton Hall (7-7) on the road and a home finale against Georgetown (5-9).


    Predicted Winner: Villanova

    Both teams have tough tests remaining, and how they handle them will determine the conference title.

    We'll say Villanova takes care of business against Creighton and Seton Hall to close out the season on a roll, while Providence plays spoiler and beats Xavier for the second time in 2018.

Pac-12 Conference

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    Arizona forward Deandre Ayton
    Arizona forward Deandre AytonAssociated Press

    The Leader: Arizona

    The Wildcats (21-6, 11-3) have been the clear standouts in a weak year for the Pac-12.

    Led by the dynamic one-two punch of freshman Deandre Ayton (19.7 PPG, 10.9 RPG, 1.9 BPG) and junior Allonzo Trier (19.6 PPG, 43% 3PT), there's no question they can pile up points in a hurry.

    However, their defense has let them down at times.

    "We're a much better offensive team than defense. That's the truth," coach Sean Miller told reporters after a loss to UCLA earlier this month. "I think the gap has never been bigger and it's up to us to continue to work."

    Holding a ranked Arizona State team to 70 points—which is 14.4 below their season average—in a 77-70 victory last week was a positive sign and something they can build on down the stretch.

    Next up on the schedule is road games against Oregon State (5-9) and Oregon (7-7), before welcoming Stanford (8-6) and California (2-12) to the McKale Center to close out the year.


    The Challengers: UCLA and USC

    While the conference title is still within reach, UCLA (19-8, 10-5) and USC (20-9, 11-5) are just trying to punch their ticket to March Madness.

    Both teams are currently among the "First Four Out" according to Joe Lunardi of ESPN.

    If they can both stay in the hunt over the next week with each team still scheduled to play a tough Utah squad, they'll meet in what could be an important regular-season finale on March 3 with USC playing host.

    If Utah (17-9, 9-6) can find a way to win both of those games, it could jump to second in the standings and even challenge for the conference title if the wheels somehow fall off for Arizona.

    Washington (18-9, 8-6) and Stanford (14-13, 8-6) are technically still alive as well, albeit with slim hopes of raising a banner.

    Simply put, it's a cluttered mess behind Arizona in the Pac-12 standings.


    Predicted Winner: Arizona

    With a two-game cushion in the loss column and a fairly easy slate of remaining games, this one is in the bag.

    The bigger question: Can they improve on their current projection of a No. 4 seed for the tournament?

Southeastern Conference

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    Auburn point guard Bryce Brown
    Auburn point guard Bryce BrownBrynn Anderson/Associated Press

    The Leader: Auburn

    A down year for the Kentucky Wildcats has left an unexpected void atop the SEC.

    While Florida and Alabama have both been solid as expected, it's Auburn (24-4, 12-3) that has ascended to the top of the conference pile.

    Picked to finish ninth in the preseason media poll and going 7-11 to finish 11th a year ago, the Tigers have instead been one of the biggest surprises in the country under coach Bruce Pearl.

    "Our guys are humble and they're hungry, but we are relevant," Pearl told reporters, "and that's one of the things that I wanted to do at Auburn, was have Auburn basketball be relevant again, and get us to the point where Charles Barkley could be on national television and stick his chest out and look down at Shaq and Kenny and tell them his team is going to the NCAA Tournament."

    Already a lock for the tournament, the Tigers will now try to secure their first conference title since 1999.

    With a two-game cushion in the standings, they'll take on Florida (8-7), Arkansas (8-7) and South Carolina (6-9) in their remaining three games.

    It's worth noting that South Carolina handed them one of their three conference losses, with the Gamecocks picking up an 84-75 victory just last week.


    The Challenger: Tennessee

    Tennessee (20-7, 10-5) has been an equally big surprise in the wide-open SEC after it was picked to finish 11th in the media poll.

    With just one senior on the roster and three sophomore starters, it's a young team that has arrived at relevance sooner than expected following a 16-16 season last year that included an 8-10 record in conference play.

    While the roster may be young, coach Rick Barnes is no stranger to success, with three conference titles during his time at Texas and 22 total NCAA tournament appearances on his resume.

    The Volunteers have lost two of their last three, falling on the road to Alabama and Georgia.

    They'll take on Ole Miss (5-10) and Mississippi State (8-7) on the road and Georgia (6-9) at home to close out their schedule, and they'll have to hope Auburn runs into some serious trouble.


    Predicted Winner: Auburn

    It's not an easy road with a pair of teams looking to punch their tournament ticket standing in the way.

    Expect them to lose one of those games—we'll say Florida gets them in Gainesville—but to hold on from there to secure the conference title

West Coast Conference

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    Gonzaga wing Johnathan Williams
    Gonzaga wing Johnathan WilliamsYoung Kwak/Associated Press

    The Leader: Gonzaga

    Different year, same story.

    Gonzaga (25-4, 15-1) has once again been the class of the West Coast Conference.

    And once again, their two matchups against St. Mary's were circled on the schedule before the season even started.

    Despite losing Nigel Williams-Goss, Zach Collins, Przemek Karnowski and Jordan Mathews from last year's national championship runner-up, the Bulldogs are again one of the best teams in the country, checking in at No. 6 in the latest AP poll.

    Senior Johnathan Williams (13.6 PPG, 8.0 RPG) has stepped into a leading role, and the team's well-balanced attack has five players averaging double figures and another (Silas Melson, 9.9 PPG) right on the fringe.

    They're currently sixth in the country in scoring at 85.2 points per game.

    Road games against San Diego (8-8) and BYU (10-6) are all that stands between the Bulldogs and a 17th regular-season title in the past 18 years.


    The Challengers: St. Mary's

    This was supposed to be St. Mary's (25-4, 14-2) year.

    The Gaels were a unanimous selection to win the conference title in the preseason coaches' poll, and while it's been another excellent season, a loss to San Francisco on Feb. 15 threw a wrench in their hopes of unseating the reigning champs.

    That unexpected setback came on the heels of a 78-65 loss to Gonzaga, but St. Mary's got the better of their rivals in their first meeting with a 74-71 victory in Spokane.

    At the very least, the Gaels could have been playing for a share of the title.

    Instead, they now have to hope that San Diego or BYU can help them out, while they take care of business against Pepperdine (1-15) and Santa Clara (8-8) at home.


    Predicted Winner: Gonzaga

    San Diego (69-59) and BYU (68-60) both played the Bulldogs tough at home earlier this month.

    Gonzaga should be plenty motivated by their current March Madness projections, though.

    Lunardi has them as a No. 5 seed despite their record, and making a statement against two of the better teams in an admittedly thin WCC could be the final push they need to improve their stock.


    All stats courtesy of Sports Reference, unless otherwise noted.