Conference Play Begins!

- Ky McKeon

Power 6 conference play begins this week, meaning we will finally get a glimpse of how good teams really are. Non-conference schedules can often be softer than a chinchilla not stepping over to take a charge (which is super soft you guys), so pinpointing a team’s true ability can be difficult in the early going. Conference play also factors majorly into the NCAA Tourney bid conversation as teams from, say the ACC, can vault themselves into the national spotlight with 8 or 9 strong wins in their league. Stakes are high and emotion is real. Let’s dive into the biggest (read: “Ky’s biggest”) questions heading into the conference season.


Biggest Questions:

1. How many teams will the ACC send to the Big Dance? Over/under 10?

Answer: Over! The ACC is crazy good this season, and with a relative lack of “powerhouse” mid-majors this season in conferences such as the Mountain West and Missouri Valley, the Power 6 conferences like the ACC could be due for a high number of bids. The ACC has never received more than 7 bids, but this is only the 4th season with 15 teams in the league. Gun to my head – the ACC gets 11 teams in this year (Duke, UNC, Virginia, Louisville, Clemson, Notre Dame, Florida St., Miami, Virginia Tech, Syracuse, Pitt).

2. Who is the dark horse to emerge from the middle of the pack?

Answer: Virginia Tech. The Hokies were picked 10th in the ACC preseason poll but figure to be a dangerous team during conference play. VT is 10-1 thus far with wins at Michigan, versus Nebraska on a neutral, and versus Ole Miss at home. Aside from that, the Hokies really haven’t been tested, but I love their senior leader Zach LeDay and sophomore point guard Justin Robinson. Their up tempo play and tenacious defense combined with Buzz Williams’s X’s and O’s should make them a tough out in league play.

3. Which of the big dogs will finish #1?

Answer: Duke is the obvious answer here, but UNC and Louisville certainly have a case. It’s very hard to pick against the Evil Empire with Grayson “Trip” Allen, Luke Kennard, and the uber-talented freshmen Jayson Tatum, Frank Jackson, and Harry Giles.

Big 12

Biggest Questions:

1. Is Texas the worst team in the Big 12?

Answer: Sigh. Per KenPom, Texas ranks as the worst Big 12 squad at the moment, and recent futility against tough competition doesn’t give much to reason to think otherwise. However, there is hope for the Longhorns, and I think this team can still finish ahead of TCU, Kansas State, and Oklahoma. Competition has made the previously mentioned squads look better than Texas in the early going, but here are the non-con strength of schedules rankings:

Texas: 144
Oklahoma: 155
TCU: 259
Kansas State: 345

Short answer: No. But that loss against Kent State may have me singing a different tune…

2. Are TCU and Kansas State for real?

Answer: I’m hesitant on both teams. TCU currently sits at 11-1 (#37 per KenPom) and K State is also 11-1 (#31), but neither team has played much competition (as shown above). K State’s BEST win is a semi-away match against Colorado State. TCU’s best win is a neutral court victory versus Washington. There are pieces I like from both teams, but I think the upper half of the Big 12 is too tough for either one of them to make the Big Dance or finish higher than 7th.  

3. Is this the year that Kansas finally loses their regular season championship belt?

Answer: I want to say yes, but – actually, screw it, YES! The Baylor Bears are for real folks and will cause matchup issues for Kansas inside now that Azubuike is done for the year. The Bears have defeated Louisville, Xavier, and Oregon this season, so beating KU is definitely an achievable task. The Big 12 is brutally tough this year with teams like West Virginia, Iowa State, and Oklahoma State all capable of throwing a knockout punch. I think Baylor wins the regular season by one game but KU takes the Conference Tourney crown and the 1-seed in the NCAA Tourney.

Big East

Biggest Questions:

1. Will Villanova repeat as National Champions?

Answer: If the Cats were to repeat, they’d be the 8th team in D1 history to do so (Oklahoma A&M, San Francisco, Kentucky, Cincinnati, UCLA, Duke, Florida). Nova is a legit top five team this season, but repeating as National Champs is going to be a steep hill to climb. Several schools have strong cases to be the Tourney favorite this season, so I’ll side with the overwhelming probability on this one and say “No”.

2. Does this conference deserve more respect?

Answer: ABSOLUTELY. The Big East is the Rodney Dangerfield of college basketball conferences – they’re great at what they do and they don’t get no respect. The current version of the Big East (formed in 2014), has finished 5th, 2nd, and 3rd in conference rankings per KenPom, and currently sits at 3rd this year. Villanova has been one of the best basketball teams in the nation over the past decade, Xavier is a Championship contender, and Butler and Creighton are two of the most underrated squads in the country this season. Give ‘em some respect!

3. Which of Creighton, Butler, and Xavier has the best shot at taking down Villanova?

Answer: I think it’s Butler. I’ve been super high on the Dogs all offseason and into the early going thus far. Defense has been the major difference between this year’s squad and last year’s Round of 32 team. Wins against Arizona and Indiana on neutral courts prove that this squad is for real and a dangerous contender to take home the conference title.

Big Ten

Biggest Questions:

1. Is this the year Northwestern makes their first NCAA Tournament?

Answer: Yes. 100% yes. I’ve watched three full games of this team (two in person) – they are absolutely a tournament squad. Their interchangeable parts on the defensive end make them a tough matchup for any opposing offense, and the emergence of former role players Scottie Lindsey and Sanjay Lumpkin have given them just enough “oompf” to get over the proverbial hill. Wins over Texas, Wake, and Dayton in the non-con and no bad losses have the Cats on the inside track to the Big Dance. Also – they just dismantled Penn State on the road for their first Big Ten victory of the year. Good start.

2. Is it time to panic in East Lansing?

Answer: No. Look, this team just doesn’t have the makeup of a National Title contender, but Sparty can still be a Tournament team. Tom Izzo hasn’t missed a Dance in over a decade and has a tendency to develop his squads to new heights as the season progresses. The return of a fully healthy Miles Bridges together with the emergence of freshmen Nick Ward and Cassius Winston should have this team sitting a little over .500 in Big Ten play by season’s end. They’ll earn a 7-seed and knock off the 2-seed on their way to yet another Sweet Sixteen appearance. It is known.

3. What should we think of Maryland?

Answer: The Terps are an anomaly, sitting at 13-1 on the young season while ranking 54th in the country per KenPom. Three one-point victories and an OT win over Richmond have the masses skeptical over whether this is truly a Big Ten contender (or even an NCAA Tournament contender). Maryland has a leader at the point guard spot in Melo Trimble, but the balance of their roster is filled with youth and questionable vets. This team has the ability to be good (see total destruction of Illinois in game one of Big Ten play), but they are far too shaky to be considered a top five Big Ten squad.

Pac 12

Biggest Questions:

1. Will UCLA run away with the league?

Answer: Yes. The Bruins have looked like the best Pac 12 team by far in the early season with wins at Kentucky and versus Texas A&M, Michigan, and Ohio State. UCLA is deep, especially at the guard position, plays one of the fastest tempos in the country, and shoots the shit out of the ball. They have perhaps the best offense in the country and look poised to take the Pac 12 by storm. Oregon hasn’t looked like the contender many thought they would be thus far, and Arizona has been plagued by injuries and whatever the hell is keeping Allonzo Trier out. This conference is the Bruins’ to lose. PS: Game of the year candidate just happened between UCLA & Oregon.

2. How long will USC stay undefeated?

Answer: They’ll lose in the second game of the conference season at Oregon. USC has been impressive this year, especially considering Bennie Boatwright has missed 8 games. Once the Trojans get him back in January, this will be an incredibly dangerous team. A third place finish in the league wouldn’t be Earth shattering.

3. Is this the worst Power 6 conference?

Answer: Surprisingly, it appears to be. As the previewer of the Pac 12 this season, I was high on the conference’s Tourney prospects, but early results show this to be one of the weakest power conferences in the country. The main problem is the four team dumpster fire at the bottom of the conference. Washington, Washington State, Arizona State, and Oregon State have been absolutely dreadful this season. Stanford and Utah simply don’t look good enough to make the Tourney. California and Colorado have underwhelmed thus far out of conference. This could be a 4-bid league this season, down from 7 bids in 2015-16.


Biggest Questions:

1. Kentucky is going to smoke everyone, right?

Answer: Haha, yes. Yes they will. Florida and Texas A&M have shots at home with the way their teams match up, but short of a catastrophe, the Cats should roll to a 18-0, 17-1, or 16-2 SEC record.

2. Is 5 Tourney bids possible?

Answer: Yes, and I think it’ll happen. Kentucky, Florida, Texas A&M, South Carolina, and Arkansas all look like Tourney squads thus far, and Georgia isn’t awful. Combine that with a down Pac 12 and a softer mid-major group, and 5 bids to the Dance seems very achievable. The SEC has received 5 bids twice since 2010.

3. Does Mizzou finish last?

Answer: Yes they do, and hopefully that will force the school to fire Kim Anderson. There are beatable teams in the SEC such as Mississippi State, Tennessee, LSU, Auburn, and Ole Miss, but the Tigers are far and away the least talented squad in the conference. Kim Anderson also may be the worst coach not named Johnny Jones in the league.