The one thing you need to know about every big conference

We're less than three weeks from Selection Sunday. And we've resolved nothing.

The preliminary grouping of No. 1 seeds (Gonzaga, Kansas, Villanova, Baylor) revealed by the selection committee on Feb. 11? Well, the folks in Waco, Texas, aren't exactly too confident they'll stick. The S.S. Duke Doomsday that sailed toward an iceberg a few weeks ago? It's a Caribbean cruise ship now. And Lonzo Ball isn't Steph Curry, no matter what his father says, but he could lead UCLA to the national title a year after the Bruins missed the NCAA tournament.

Here's what else you need to know about every conference with the end of league play approaching. What's the most important thing happening in every league?


Duke and North Carolina setting up pivotal rematch

The Duke-North Carolina series generates its own hype. Doesn't need any promotion. When the two powerhouses compete in one of the greatest sports rivalries each year, you watch. On March 4, you'll turn on the TV again to see another epic season finale between the two schools.

But four weeks ago, the North Carolina-Duke battle lacked the proper pregame energy because Duke seemed destined for a tailspin.

Now, however, Duke is riding a seven-game winning streak and sitting a game behind first-place North Carolina (11-3) while tied with Louisville (10-4).

With just four games remaining in conference play, pride in the rivalry is secondary to the immediate implications of this upcoming matchup. North Carolina has moved into a top seed slot -- after Baylor's stumbles -- in Joe Lunardi's latest Bracketology. But the Tar Heels can't get comfortable. Duke won the first matchup and, with the ACC tournament approaching, could get two additional shots at the Tar Heels -- and two more wins. The Blue Devils could win the ACC title and move into a top seed if this push continues -- although you can't forget about Louisville's legit intentions to disrupt those plans.

Yeah, North Carolina vs. Duke is always must-see TV. On March 4, however, the entire college basketball world should watch the action in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

It might change everything.

Big Ten

Young coaches directing major turnarounds

Last year, fourth-year coach Richard Pitino won eight games in Minneapolis, a forgettable record in a city that's easy to overlook on the national sports landscape. Plus, the 34-year-old's team added multiple negative headlines -- three players missed the final games of 2015-16 after tweeting a sex tape -- to an already dour season.

Well, he's definitely not his father, folks around the city would repeat. And after a promising start this season, the Gophers lost five consecutive games in league play. And ... here we go again, right? Nope. Pitino has led the Gophers to five wins in a row, and now they look like an NCAA tournament team a season after a disastrous campaign in 2015-16.

And that would stand as the best storyline in most leagues. But Northwestern won't allow it. The Wildcats have never been to the NCAA tournament. Yes, you know that. Here's what you might not know: The NCAA tournament began in 1939, the year World War II began, not when Magic and Bird played for the title in 1979.

Under the 42-year-old Chris Collins, Northwestern has secured the No. 42 slot in ESPN's BPI, despite losing three of its past five games. The Feb. 12 win at Wisconsin felt like a history-clinching victory for Collins and his program.

Minnesota and Northwestern, both 20-7, could finish in the top five of the Big Ten standings. A remarkable turn for both coaches and the programs they lead.

Barring a complete collapse, both should earn invitations to the NCAA tournament.


Kentucky's shaky interior defense is troubling

Before this season, John Calipari's squads all shared a defensive trait, even as he tinkered with his offensive schemes to fit his personnel. Kentucky teams protect the rim. That's what they do.

That's what they usually do.

But this season's Kentucky squad has allowed its opponents to make 48.6 percent of their shots inside the arc. The team's SEC opponents have made 50.1 percent of their shots inside the arc this season, 11th in the league. The 38-1 Kentucky squad in 2014-15 allowed only a 39.1 percent success rate inside the arc. The Anthony Davis-led national title team in 2011-12? Only 39.6 percent.

On Saturday, Georgia made 62.5 percent of its 2-pointers against Kentucky even though big man Yante Maten played just two minutes due to injury. J.J. Frazier (9-for-15 inside the arc), a shifty 5-10 guard, attacked Kentucky on straight-line drives throughout the game and nearly led Georgia to a win. According to hoop-math.com, Kentucky's opponents have connected on 61.6 percent of their attempts at the rim, making the Wildcats 235th nationally in rim protection.

They're tied for first place with Florida, the same Florida that whipped them by 22 points in their first matchup, at 12-2 in the SEC, days before Saturday's rematch in Lexington, Kentucky.

In that game, and during the NCAA tournament, Kentucky's problems with interior defense could cost Calipari's talented team the SEC crown and limit its time in the postseason.

Big 12

Frank Mason III's magical ride

Folks will continue to doubt the value of Kansas' conference title streak, which began two years before the iPhone debuted in 2007. The Jayhawks will just keep winning the crowns until the masses acknowledge this as the greatest feat in modern college basketball history.

Superior teams lose in the NCAA tournament every year. But this streak of 13 consecutive Big 12 titles -- which will match UCLA's record from the 1960s and 1970s once it's official -- comes against familiar coaches, schemes, arenas and players. Yet, Kansas continues to come out on top.

But the streak would have ended in 2016-17 without Frank Mason III's breathtaking feats. On Saturday, he led the Jayhawks to a victory on the road against a top-five Baylor squad. Those are the gutsy games teams must win to reach the final stage in April.

Right now, he's on pace to become the first Big 12 player to average 20.0 PPG and 5.0 APG, per ESPN Stats & Information. Think about the great players who have come through that league. And Mason could be the first.

This is a special stretch for a senior who could win the Wooden Award. Yes, the Jayhawks are always good and they've owned the Big 12 for more than a decade.

Mason, however, is the most significant contributor within the streak era since former No. 1 pick Andrew Wiggins three years ago.


Lonzo Ball's father putting bigger (and unnecessary) spotlight on his son

Over the weekend, LaVar Ball, the father of UCLA star Lonzo Ball, told the Pac-12 Network: "I have the utmost confidence in what my boy is doing. He's better than Steph Curry to me. Put Steph Curry on UCLA's team right now and put my boy on Golden State and watch what happens."

Now, this is crazy. We can all agree with that.

The bigger issue, however, is that he's magnifying the microscope on his eldest son.

Lonzo Ball is a special talent who executes with a cool, West Coast vibe. He hits big shots in big moments. And he has demonstrated his potential during UCLA's five-game winning streak. The Bruins might not catch Arizona (14-1) or Oregon (13-2) in the Pac-12 race, but they're flirting with a top-three seed. Every game matters between now and Selection Sunday for the dazzling Bruins.

But LaVar Ball's comments won't help his son's mission.

Before all of this, he was just an exceptional freshman with the potential to earn the top slot in this summer's NBA draft. His father's comments could amplify the expectations, though.

Ball is an elite, young NBA prospect with or without a trip to the Final Four. But he also deserves a chance to develop sans unfair comparisons.

LaVar Ball built Lonzo Ball and his two younger brothers into Division I talents. He has the right to praise them and promote them. Perhaps he should save the Steph Curry talk for the future, though.


SMU's redemption

SMU's dark 2015-16 included a postseason ban for a 25-win squad because of an academic scandal. This before coach Larry Brown resigned in July.

Tim Jankovich's current team, however, is on a 10-game winning streak. The Mustangs are a balanced squad (top-20 in both adjusted defensive and offensive efficiency on KenPom.com). And Semi Ojeleye (18.3 PPG, 6.7 RPG, 41.5 percent from the 3-point line) is a star.

Last season was a mess for a team that deserved an at-large berth. But SMU (14-1 in the American, first place) could win a league title and make a run in the NCAA tournament, while putting last season's drama behind it.

West Coast Conference

Can Gonzaga afford a loss?

The Feb. 11 pre-Selection Sunday show was really just that. A show. For Gonzaga, however, the NCAA tournament selection committee made a statement. The Bulldogs were the fourth overall No. 1 seed. And that's not good.

Yes, the undefeated squad should earn a top seed if it maintains its unblemished record. But the selection committee essentially said that's the only way Gonzaga will keep it.

The only top-50 squad in the West Coast Conference not named Gonzaga is Saint Mary's (14th in the BPI). Gonzaga's final games against San Diego (No. 261) and BYU (No. 75) will do nothing for the Bulldogs' résumé but present pitfalls for their push to achieve a top seed.

They can't lose one of those games and expect to retain their slot in the eyes of the selection committee. The Bulldogs might have just one opportunity to suffer a loss and possibly keep their top seed. A loss to Saint Mary's in their third matchup of the year during the WCC tournament after beating the Gaels in both regular-season matchups might not destroy their shot at a top seed, but it could. And that doesn't seem fair.

This Gonzaga team that beat Iowa State, Florida, Tennessee, Arizona and Saint Mary's (twice) -- five teams that could make the NCAA tournament -- should not lose a top slot and a likely Salt Lake City-San Jose-Phoenix path with one loss.

Big East

Marquette marching toward an at-large berth

On Saturday, Steve Wojciechowski's Marquette team crushed Xavier by 22 points in a must-win game for its NCAA tournament aspirations. The Golden Eagles are 7-7 in the strong Big East. Their next four games (St. John's, Providence, Xavier, Creighton) could solidify or ruin their at-large chances.

But this is a gutsy squad with wins over Creighton, Villanova and Xavier. So Wojciechowski's team could earn a trip to the NCAA tournament just two years after winning 13 games in his debut campaign.

Atlantic 10

VCU quietly evolving into a postseason threat

Will Wade's squad is picking up late momentum. The Rams have won eight in a row, and they're tied atop the A-10 standings with Dayton right now. VCU and Dayton will face off again on March 1 in a game that could decide the league title.

The Rams have held their A-10 opponents to a 45.2 percent clip inside the arc, the top mark in the conference. If they can solve their turnover problems, they could make the opening weekend interesting.

Missouri Valley Conference

You should pay attention to Wichita State

Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker are both gone. And their departures removed the national spotlight from Gregg Marshall's program.

But the Shockers are still playing angry. They have smashed the Missouri Valley Conference during their 10-game winning streak. They beat Southern Illinois by 42 points last month. They beat Illinois State, tied at 15-1 atop the MVC, by 41 points two weeks ago.

They're protecting the rim (41.7 percent clip allowed inside the arc), and Markis McDuffie leads three players averaging double figures.

Don't sleep on the Shockers.