College Basketball: What We've Learned From The Major Conferences So Far

With the college basketball season passing the halfway point, we now have a good sample size on each team as well as a view into how things are shaping up in each conference. Here, we look at what we’ve learned about each conference so far.

The ACC Is Super Deep

This isn’t news, as the ACC was expected to be the deepest conference in the country entering the season. What is news is the fact that its depth may end up being more of a detriment than a benefit. Double-digit NCAA Tournament berths was a very real possibility to start the year, and ESPN’s Joe Lunardi is projecting 10 bids in his latest Bracketology. But I would argue that only six of those teams are locks (Notre Dame, North Carolina, Duke, Louisville, Virginia, Florida State) and as teams continue to beat up on each other on a nightly basis, teams on the fringe could be forced out. The strength of the league should help teams that find themselves sitting on the bubble come Selection Sunday, but getting to that position won’t be a walk in the park.

The Big East Is One Of The Best Conferences In The Country

Being home to the National Champions is sure to boost the profile of a conference. But the Big East is far from a one team show. Creighton has put together a stellar season and despite the loss of Maurice Watson Jr., remains formidable. Butler has one of the best resumes in the country, with wins over Northwestern, Arizona, Utah, Cincinnati, Indiana, Villanova and Xavier. The conference is home to three of the top seven teams in RPI. While the Big East is particularly strong at the top, six NCAA Tournament bids are not out of the question. Marquette, Seton Hall and Providence are teams to watch in terms of a fifth or sixth bid for the Big East.

Questions Abound In The Big 10

When it comes to the Big 10 in 2016-17, no one really knows what is going on. Hot starts by Minnesota and Nebraska, combined with the struggles of Ohio State, Illinois, Michigan, and Indiana, had the standings looking upside down. Maryland has outperformed expectations and currently sit atop the conference. Injuries and inexperience led to early losses for Michigan State, causing them to disappear from the radar. But the Spartans seem to be hitting their stride, and have become an X factor. Wisconsin and Purdue look like favorites on paper but have failed to distance themselves from the pack. Coming down the stretch, all eyes will be on the Big 10 to see if order is restored or if the chaos continues.

Threats To Kansas’ Run At History Have Emerged In The Big 12

Entering the season, it appeared that the Jayhawks’ run to their 13th consecutive Big 12 title would be relatively unimpeded. Over the course of the season, however, two teams have emerged looking to crash the party.

Baylor is off to one of the most surprising and impressive starts in college basketball. The Bears sit at 17-1, with wins over Oregon, Michigan State, Louisville and Xavier. They are one of the best defensive teams in the country, surrendering just 60.8 points per game. The quartet of Johnathan Motley, Manu Lecomte, Al Freeman and Jo Lual-Acuil Jr. has been excellent for the Bears and they are a team no one wants to play right now. They will get two shots at the Jayhawks, first traveling to Lawrence on February 1 followed by a home date on February 18.

West Virginia is the only team to beat Baylor and the Mountaineers are off to a 15-3 start. This team is tough on both sides of the ball. They score 89.1 points per game, good for fifth best in the country. Defensively, they surrender just 62.4 points per game, tying them for 18th best.  West Virginia’s press defense is no fun to play against and can cause turnovers to pile up at an alarming rate. The Mountaineers also have two games against Kansas awaiting them, first on January 24 at home, then on February 13 at Kansas.

With the emergence of Baylor and West Virginia, Kansas’ run through the Big 12 no longer looks like a victory lap.

The Pac-12 Has Been Better Than Expected

The top of the conference was expected to be very good, and the trio of Oregon, UCLA and Arizona have not disappointed. Those programs are a combined 50-5 and 15-1 in conference play. The freshmen duo of Lonzo Ball and T.J. Leaf has powered the Bruins into the top five. Oregon has recovered from two early losses to win 14 in a row (including handing UCLA its lone loss) and looks every bit the Final Four contender the Ducks were expected to be. Meanwhile, Arizona has remained steady despite a tumultuous offseason. These three teams were expected to be very good, but it could be argued that they are exceeding expectations.

While Oregon, UCLA and Arizona have carried the flag for the Pac-12, the middle of the pack has done its job to bolster the conference. USC is off to an impressive 16-3 start and has been in and out of the Top 25. Cal (13-5) and Utah (12-5) have also been solid and find themselves in the mix near the top of the conference standings. Six NCAA Tournament bids is not out of the question for the Pac-12.

More Bids, More Noise From The SEC?

While Kentucky remains at the head of the class in the SEC, a few programs have emerged who look like they could join Kentucky in making some postseason noise for the conference. The SEC could also be in line for more than the three to four bids it was expected to receive at the beginning of the season.

Florida has started 14-4 while South Carolina is 15-3. Each has played its way into the Top 25. South Carolina has been particularly impressive defensively, allowing just 59.8 points per game. Sindarius Thornwell has been a monster for the Gamecocks, putting up 18 points, 7.1 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 2.5 steals per game. All three of South Carolina’s losses came while Thornwell was serving a suspension. With the play of Florida and South Carolina, Kentucky may not be the only SEC team expected to get past the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament.

Meanwhile, Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi State and Auburn are all lurking in the middle of the SEC pack with respectable records. It is unlikely all four find their way into the Big Dance. But should some combination of them manage to do so, the SEC would have to view the season as a success.

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