The College Basketball Notebook

February 1, 2010 7:24 AM

Conference Title Snapshots

Missed the normal Sunday night posting time due to a family medical emergency that had me in ER most of the night. Everything’s okay and back to normal, so let’s talk some hoops. This weekend marks a breakpoint in the season. It's the offweek for the NFL, so college basketball is slowly starting to assume center stage in the sports world. And February marks the race for conference championships. For a lot of fans, that's something that doesn't mean much, given the primacy of the NCAA Tournament. I disagree. I believe a conference title has great value in of itself, not just for the seed it gets you, and short of making the Final Four is the principal goal every program should have. It means more than going one extra round in the NCAA regionals, it means more than winning your own league tournament, at the risk of being convicted of heresy here in ACC country where I live. So what today's column is going to do is pick up a brief snapshot of where each of the major conferences stand as we head round the turn into February...

This is shaping us as a four-team race right now. Villanova is in the lead and Syracuse hot on their heels. Pitt and West Virginia are lurking at two games back. 'Nova's Scottie Reynolds deserves to be on the short list for National Player of the Year, given how he's often been the sole offensive producer and has lifted his team to the top of what I believe is the toughest and deepest conference. But he's going to have to get help, especially from Antonio Pena down low if they are to hold off the Orangemen. I like Syracuse more than any other team in the nation right now, even with their harrowing escape at DePaul on Saturday. They have the balance, inside and out and I think they will prevail. Pitt and WVA are not consistent enough to play at the level at will take to make up a two-game deficit in the next five weeks.

Georgetown's win over Duke could be the harbinger of a big February run and they are very good, but three games is a lot to make up at this point in the schedule against quality opponents. The Hoyas will have to be almost perfect to steal a league title.

All bets are off in the most exciting conference race in the nation. Maryland lost to Clemson yesterday, meaning everyone has at least two losses. North Carolina was beaten by Virginia, dropping the Tar Heels two games off the pace. UNC has a way of turning things around, so I do have to wonder if the rest of the league won’t regret burying them when they had the chance. But a two-game deficit in a race that involves Maryland, Duke, Virginia, Georgia Tech, Wake Forest and Florida State, Virginia Tech and Clemson is a lot to make up. In a league this chaotic, I’m going to default to the steady and well-coached team and pick Duke. But any game in this league means a contender is in action. It’s where the excitement is in February—which is good, because the ACC likely won’t be the heart of the action in March.

This one's over. Michigan State's three games up on the field. The main story of interest here right now is whether Northwestern, at 14-7, can finally get the school's first-ever NCAA bid. I'm also keeping an eye on Purdue. Their three-game losing streak doomed their title hopes, but they have all the pieces to get everything put together for a big finish.

Kentucky's decisive win over Vanderbilt got them back on track, but don't put this race in the books just yet. It's still tied at the top and the Commodores get Kentucky coming to their place. The Wildcats have the most talent, but with the continued inability of Patrick Patterson to step up down low makes them a more manageable opponent. If Patterson and DeMarcus Cousins work in tandem down low, UK is unstoppable. With only one, they are merely very good. Still the favorite to win this league, but if they are backcourt-oriented, that's something they have in common with a lot of teams and Vandy has A.J. Oglivy in the post. Tennessee is hanging around after their 61-60 win over Florida yesterday, although they lost at home to Vandy earlier in the week. Ole Miss and Mississippi State are a game back, but the West is clearly the weaker division this year.

Big 12
Kansas is threatening to do in basketball what Alabama did in football and that's make yours truly look silly. Granted, that's not the most difficult undertaking, but I called the Tide good, but overrated in the early part of the football season and I said the same about the Jayhawks this year. Kansas isn't unbeatable, but they are playing very consistent basketball in a tough league and moved two games up yesterday. Bill Self's club got a tough overtime in Kansas State, the place where Texas faltered. Meanwhile, the Longhorns lost another one. This one came in OT against Baylor, a team the Jayhawks have beaten. There's a lot of excitement still ahead in this conference, as Kansas and Texas have yet to play, but Self's team has grabbed the inside track. It stands to make the end of the regular season anti-climactic, as most of the other contenders are in very strong position for NCAA bids, meaning Texas A&M could be the only school playing really significant basketball in the opening days of March.

I keep waiting for Cal to get a hold of this thing and they keep missing their chances. The Golden Bears had a chance to put a stranglehold on the rest of the league yesterday at Arizona, but lost 76-72. The Wildcats are now in a tie for first—and because of their non-conference performance, they likely couldn’t get an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament right now. And UCLA—they of the 10-11 overall record are sitting just a game out, along with Arizona State. Make no mistake—this race is Cal’s to lose, but at the halfway point, they are showing themselves more than capable of doing that.

Catch up with you a little later for a preview of games tonight and Tuesday.

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