| ||Saturday, January 1|
|Michigan State and Kentucky didn't back away from anyone. North Carolina played its share of elite teams. Arizona, Stanford and Cincinnati did, too. Only a handful of teams (like Syracuse) bucked the trend and stayed home during the most competitive and balanced non-conference schedule college basketball has seen in the '90s.
But as the calendar turns to a new century, college basketball's second season -- the conference title chase -- brings a new level of intensity. Most conferences begin league play this week, with all but the Pac-10 and Ivy League ending in conference tournaments in early March. Thirty-one conference champions will be crowned over the next seven weeks, with 29 automatic NCAA Tournament berths (the WAC and Mountain West don't have automatic spots in the tourney) to be determined.
Not that we're not dissing 18 leagues, but we feel the following 13 races stand above the rest.
Duke isn't down after starting the season with two straight losses in New York. The Blue Devils do have an inside threat now that Carlos Boozer is healthy.
What we're waiting to find out: Will Wake Forest, Maryland, N.C. State and/or Georgia Tech create distance from the bottom three teams to ensure that more than three teams get bids? A year ago only three went to the NCAA Tournament from the ACC. This season, the promise was for five to six. Wake Forest has proven it can beat high-profile teams (with wins over Wisconsin and at Arkansas) but hasn't been consistent (witness two losses in Hawaii last week).
Maryland has looked vulnerable while beating mid-major competition recently. N.C. State has a Purdue win to hold on to but can't become average in the ACC. A few bad possessions have kept Georgia Tech from beating Michigan, Stanford and Georgia.
Our latest pick: Duke.
Dayton, Xavier and George Washington all have high-profile wins. But all three have also had moments when they've looked like they wouldn't contend for the division crown.
What we're waiting to find out: Just how good are St. Bonaventure, La Salle, Virginia Tech and St. Joseph's, and how bad are squads like Massachusetts and Rhode Island? No team has stood out in this group, save a decent record by the Bonnies and a win over New Mexico in Albuquerque by the Hawks. The mediocre records by the majority of these teams will likely leave the A-10 short of four bids.
Our latest pick: Still Temple.
What we're waiting to find out: Can Tulane really win the National Division? The Green Wave are off to a 10-1 start after beating SMU. Their only loss was at Maryland in the Preseason NIT. South Florida has more talent but can't seem to get on a run. The dangerous team could be Memphis, which has shown it can win a home game against a high-profile team (Miami, Fla.) and be physical enough to push Tennessee.
Our latest pick: Can't beat Cincinnati.
The rest of the Big East (Seton Hall, St. John's, Georgetown, Boston, College, Miami, Providence, Notre Dame and Villanova) has plenty of postseason potential but has been too erratic to predict. Every team in the league except West Virginia and Pittsburgh have had at least one quality win or been close enough to get credit for the effort. They've all proven they can compete at an elite level and have a legitimate shot to knock off one of the top two at home.
What we're waiting to find out: Can Providence become a factor in the race with Karim Shabazz in the middle? His presence has changed the Friars at both ends in three straight wins. They looked awful in losing to Holy Cross and Central Connecticut State, but were dominating in wins over Arkansas, Long Island and Arkansas. Now that Erick Barkley is healthy, can St. John's return to its place in the top three? Only if the Johnnies get better interior defense.
Our latest pick: Sticking with Connecticut.
The Spartans did the same at Wright State but for the most part survived Mateen Cleaves' absence by diversifying their scoring load. Meanwhile, Ohio State and Illinois look more like pretenders than contenders for the title.
What we're waiting to find out: Who will emerge behind Indiana and Michigan State and how many bids can this league get? Ohio State, Illinois, Purdue, Michigan and Wisconsin have all had moments where they could finish as high as third. And Minnesota has looked capable of beating the big boys, although the Gophers are ineligible for the postseason.
But all six are flawed, too, making it highly likely that they'll beat each other up during the conference season.
Our latest pick: Sorry, Indiana, but Michigan State will ultimately prevail.
The Sooners had the best loss: getting crushed at home by Cincinnati. Oklahoma State's only blemish was a loss to LSU in New Orleans. Texas and Kansas have looked more vulnerable away from home.
What we're waiting to find out: Can Baylor and Texas Tech be true factors in the middle of the race or did they simply get fat on weak non-conference schedules? Iowa State's schedule wasn't that outstanding, either, but the Cyclones have enough talent to warrant contender status. Baylor and Tech need to knock off one of the big four at home to legitimize the Big 12's depth.
Our latest pick: Oklahoma State. The Cowboys get Kansas at home.
But the depth may be the best of any mid-major conference. Akron, Ohio, Bowling Green, Miami (Ohio), Northern Illinois, Toledo and Eastern Michigan all are capable of upsetting the top three teams and winning the conference tournament.
What we're waiting to find out: Marshall has been a bear at home but what happens when the Thundering Herd go on the road in the MAC? Even if Marshall loses a few games, will the MAC be rewarded for its impressive non-conference records with multiple bids or will it be reduced to waiting for a gift on Selection Sunday? The league leaders can't afford to lose to the weak teams like Western or Central Michigan.
Our latest pick: Ball State.
What we've learned: The MVC has failed to produce a dominant team. Maybe that's good for a competitive race in January and February, but muddled records -- outside of Creighton's inflated 9-2 -- will hurt the league from earning multiple bids.
Bradley has been the biggest disappointment, going winless in Hawaii and losing eight of 12 games. After a win at TCU, Southwest Missouri State has emerged as a threat again, regardless of who the coach is.
What we're waiting to find out: Can Indiana State beat one of the top 10 teams in the country (Indiana) and make it matter? The Sycamores can't afford for their résumé to be sprinkled with losses to lower-level MVC teams. Drake, Southern Illinois and Northern Iowa have had stretches where they've looked like conference title contenders. But none have been consistent enough to warrant favorite status.
Our latest pick: Southwest Missouri State.
Brigham Young has the personnel to beat the Utes when they come to Provo but the depth is lacking. UNLV desperately needs Lou Kelly to get eligible to give the Rebels another reliable scorer. Colorado State could be a threat to clean up at home after beating UCLA in Hawaii.
What we're waiting to find out: New Mexico's erratic play shouldn't be taken too lightly. The Lobos are still dangerous at home and could upset the race with a well-placed upset at The Pit. Wyoming lost its best player in Ugo Udezue, but beating the Cowboys in Laramie is never easy. But will they shoot down the postseason plans of rival Colorado State?
Our latest pick: Utah, without a doubt.
UCLA needs to get Jerome Moiso and Dan Gadzuric on the floor at the same time, but even that may not be enough to catch the top two.
What we're waiting to find out: Which Oregon team is for real -- the Ducks who beat Wake Forest and Gonzaga or the team that lost to Cal State-Northridge? And what about Cal? The Bears have a win over Gonzaga but also lost at Colorado. The same questions can be raised at Arizona State, Oregon State and USC. Oregon needs to distance itself from the pack to be a true contender for a NCAA bid.
Our latest pick: Stanford. Adding Madsen pushes the Cardinal ahead.
What we're waiting to find out: Can Mississippi, Vanderbilt and Arkansas be considered contenders? The Rebels have a legit all-SEC forward in Rahim Lockhart. Vanderbilt has an even better scorer in Dan Langhi. But the Razorbacks may have picked up the most pop with the addition of Joe Johnson last week. At the very least, all three are potential spoilers for the title, and with a little luck could contend for the division titles.
Our latest pick: Florida. The Gators are growing older and wiser with every game.
What we've learned: Tulsa is the most complete team in the conference. The Golden Hurricane defend as well as anyone, can score inside and out and rebound well. They finally made it into the Associated Press Top 25 before the New Year and should stay for most of the season.
Hawaii is a contender after winning the Rainbow Classic (thanks to wins over Bradley, Colorado and Oregon). SMU's guard-oriented lineup is talented enough to put the Mustangs in the postseason. UTEP's Jason Rabedeaux might be doing the best job of any first-year head coach. Fresno State and TCU have been riddled with injuries, but both loom as potential title threats when healthy.
What we're waiting to find out: How much will weak schedules, injuries and a poor power-rating hurt Fresno State and TCU from earning NCAA bids, even if they get on a roll? Both teams have more potential pro talent than any other WAC squads, but that doesn't mean much if neither can get enough wins to warrant a bid.
The WAC doesn't have an automatic berth, making the non-conference season -- and quality wins over Tulsa -- more meaningful than any other season.
Our latest pick: Tulsa. It should have been during the preseason.
The Dons have defended as well as any team in the West Coast and now have a shot-blocking presence with Kenyon Jones. Gonzaga can't rely on its perimeter shooting (see: losing Casey Calvary to injury in the Cal game). Pepperdine needs to make up for missing out on wins over UCLA and Pacific with victories over San Francisco and Gonzaga.
What we're waiting to find out: San Diego always is a tough get for WCC teams on the road. Will the Torreros pull off the upset again? Saint Mary's still has Brad Millard in the middle, making the Gaels a threat every time out. And what about Santa Clara? When Brian Jones and Nathan Fast are healthy, the Broncos should be a contender.
Our latest pick: Gonzaga. The Bulldogs will be fine once they get home.