By Riley Saxon
Taking Stock of the Conference Title Races
Current Top 5: Miami, Duke, UNC, Florida St, Notre Dame
Dark Horse: Virginia
Moving Forward: Most people expected the non-Duke schools in the league to be down, but Miami has shocked everyone and has a half game lead, plus the tie breaker, over Duke. Whether Miami can sustain their play through the conference remains to be seen, but Duke and the rest of the ACC want as many strong ACC teams as possible.
Big Conference Games in January: UNC at Miami (Jan 18); Duke at Florida State (Jan 18)
Current Top 5: Houston, SMU, Tulane, Cincinnati, Temple
Dark Horse: Memphis
Moving Forward: Memphis was supposed to be on top, and with their injuries Houston was supposed to drop, but that hasn’t happened yet. Memphis is sitting at .500 in the league, but has shown flashes of brilliance. As of now, the league title runs through Houston, but Memphis, SMU and Cincinnati should have a say before the end of the season.
Big Conference Games in January: Cincinnati at Temple (Jan 25); Temple at SMU (Jan 29)
Current Top 5: Kansas, TCU, Texas Tech, Baylor, Texas
Dark Horse: Oklahoma
Moving Forward: The Big 12 continues to beat up on each other, with Baylor losing two games in a row for the first time since February of 2019. Near the end of 2021, Texas’ Beard made headlines by saying the Big 12 Championship goes through Lawrence, and he’s been right so far. TCU plays only one of the top 5 schools in January (Texas) and then avoids the others until mid-February, so they could remain in the thick of things until then. The other schools mostly avoid each other as well in January, so the Big 12 fireworks will have to wait… but they will be electric.
Big Conference Games in January: Texas Tech at Kansas (Jan 24); Texas at TCU (Jan 25)
Current Top 4: Villanova, Providence, Xavier, Marquette
Dark Horse: UConn
Moving Forward: Villanova has continued their dominance of the league, but overall the league has a lot of quality. Seton Hall, ranked in the Top 25, is sitting in 9th in the league. Marquette started conference play 0-3, but had won 4 in a row as the young squad maturing with each game. UConn was the favorite to challenge Nova the most, but they sit at .500 in league play.
Big Conference Games in January: Marquette at Villanova (Jan 19); Xavier at Marquette (Jan 23); Providence at Xavier (Jan 26)
Current Top 5: Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan St, Ohio St, Rutgers
Dark Horses: Purdue, Michigan
Moving Forward: Purdue and Michigan were the highest ranked teams coming into the season, but both have had missteps during conference play. Matt Painter and Juwan Howard will figure it out though. In the meantime, they’ll have to catch Illinois, the lone undefeated team in conference play, as well as Wisconsin, Michigan State and Ohio State, who are rolling.
Big Conference Games in January: Purdue at Illinois (Jan 17); Michigan State at Wisconsin (Jan 21); Michigan State at Illinois (Jan 25)
Current Top 5: Arizona, UCLA, Oregon, USC, Colorado
Dark Horse: None
Moving Forward: Oregon officially threw their hat into the ring for the title with their sweep of the LA schools. The entire PAC 12 has seemingly been impacted by Covid in one way or the other, so the race should only get more exciting, and more clear, as time goes on. Games are being rescheduled every week, throwing a wrinkle for teams as they are often going to be forced to play 3 games in one week. That should take a toll on teams, especially as the season wears on. Plus, the PAC 12 is the PAC 12, anything can happen… although it’s highly unlikely any school not already in the top 5 will seriously challenge for a first round bye in the conference tournament, let alone the top spot.
Big Conference Games in January: Arizona at Stanford (Jan 20); Arizona at UCLA (Jan 25); Stanford at USC (Jan 27)
Current Top 4: Auburn, Texas A&M, Kentucky, Mississippi St
Dark Horse: Alabama
Moving Forward: The SEC should be the most exciting conference race this season, as the top 4 does not include Arkansas, Alabama, Tennessee or LSU – all of whom will have a say in the title. Alabama remains the best bet of those outside four, as their shots have not been falling and their defense should only improve moving forward. Kentucky has really turned it on as of late, however, and Auburn has legitimate claims to be #1 when the AP poll is released. It’s going to be an exciting finish.
Big Conference Games in January: Kentucky at Texas A&M (Jan 19); Kentucky at Auburn (Jan 22)
Current Top 4: Gonzaga, BYU, San Diego, San Francisco
Dark Horse: St. Mary’s
Moving Forward: The non conference performance of several teams gave a slimmer of hope that someone in the league could give Gonzaga a run for their money, but Gonzaga’s dominance on Thursday (a 110-84 romp over BYU) reminded everyone else in the league that they are fighting for second place. To further reiterate this: Gonzaga is 137-8 against the WCC since February 23, 2014 (including conference tournament games). They are 16-4 against BYU, 17-4 against St. Mary’s… and 104-0 against everyone else. The last team not named BYU or St. Mary’s to beat Gonzaga in WCC play was when San Diego won the Race to 69™️ on February 22, 2014 (69-66).
Big Conference Games in January: San Diego at BYU (Jan20) St. Mary’s at San Francisco (Jan 27);
The Bruin Bias
I will say this about the Oregon game: the Bruins played terribly, and Oregon shot incredibly well in the second half and overtime… and the Bruins still got a great look to tie the game and only lost by 3. Short term it was an awful night, but it does bode well long term. I fully expect that game to be the worst game the Bruins play during the conference slate.
At the end of the year, this week will be less remembered for the Oregon loss and more about the breakouts of Jaylen Clark and Peyton Watson. Watson had a breakout game against Oregon, and continued it against the Beavers. Cronin spent the post game radio interview essentially talking about how Watson’s playing time will only increase. Clark saved the Bruins in regulation against the Ducks, and got his first start against Oregon State. At this point, it’s impossible to keep both guys off the floor for long, as their defensive intensity has spurred the Bruins for long stretches. Cronin will nail down the rotation by the end of February, but Bruin fans should remain patient as he tinkers with all the moving parts.
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Riley Saxon can be reached at: