The biggest questions for the top conferences in college basketball

ByMyron Medcalf ESPN logo
Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Perhaps you've just tuned into college basketball following Monday night's College Football Playoff National Championship. Well, we're here to help you understand what you've missed.

  1. Zion Williamson is gone. We know. We're sad about that too.
  2. We entered the week on a roller coaster with six different No. 1 teams in the first two months of the season and incredible chaos along the way.
  3. The Wooden Award? No unanimous picks. But under-the-radar talents such as Dayton's Obi Toppin and Gonzaga's Filip Petrusev are in the mix.
  4. National title favorite? Ha. We're just trying to get through the week. No team has emerged as a clear-cut favorite.

We're also faced with a series of unknowns in the conference races that have commenced in recent weeks. Here are the most significant questions in each league right now:

Jump to:

ACC | American | A10 | Big 12 | Big Ten

Big East | MW | Pac-12 | SEC


Can any team compete with Duke?

The perennial question seems unnecessary most years, but this is not a typical season for the ACC. My colleague Jeff Borzello included this headline in a piece about the weekend in college basketball: "The ACC is a mess." This came after Virginia had suffered an overtime loss to Syracuse in Charlottesville, the program's second consecutive loss as a favored team. It also came hours after Roy Williams advised North Carolina athletic director Bubba Cunningham to "fire" him following a mismanaged finish in a home loss to Clemson, the first time the Tigers had ever won at North Carolina (0-59 entering the game).

With UNC and Virginia struggling, it seems fair to wonder whether Duke will just skate past the field in a dominant effort. Louisville and Florida State, a pair of top-20 defensive teams that have been effective around the rim on offense (both connecting on more than 50% of their attempts inside the arc), have to travel to Durham in their lone matchups against the Blue Devils this season. That's an advantage for the Blue Devils. Losing Wendell Moore Jr.indefinitely to a hand injury is a big deal. This team, however, has made 56% of its shots inside the arc and 35.3% of its 3-point attempts while holding opponents to 84 points per 100 possessions when Cassius Stanley and Vernon Carey Jr. are on the court together, per Mike Krzyzewski has won the ACC outright only once since the 2003-04 season (2005-06), but this year, the path seems clear for another title run.


How has James Wiseman's departure impacted the league's race?

The top of the American Athletic Conference is interesting, mostly because Memphis star James Wiseman left the program to prepare for the NBA rather than return after his 12-game suspension for violating NCAA rules when Penny Hardaway gave his mother $11,500 for moving expenses prior to his stint as head coach. Memphis is still a solid team. But the Wichita State squad that topped Memphis last week and outlasted UConn in double overtime Sunday could win this conference. Cincinnati (vs. Tulane) and Houston (vs. Tulsa) have already suffered sub-100 losses in league play.

But this could evolve into a fascinating race, especially if Sunday's Wichita State-UConn matchup was an indication of the competition ahead. Although the sample size for Wiseman was small (he played in just three games, including a neutral-site game against Oregon), he had a significant impact on his team's ceiling. The Tigers made more than 61% of their shots inside the arc with Wiseman on the floor. He's a next-level talent. But it's imprudent to suggest that Memphis might have bullied the American, a league filled with disciplined programs and great head coaches, if Wiseman had stayed. Perhaps Memphis, not Wichita State, would have been the team the rest of the conference had to chase. Still, the young Tigers, who have had problems with turnovers but have enjoyed the best interior defense in the country with Precious Achiuwa anchoring the post, would have encountered hurdles. Without a game-changing talent dominating the league, however, a handful of teams could win the title.

Atlantic 10

Who is Dayton's toughest opponent in the Atlantic 10?

An Atlantic 10 team has not won the title with an undefeated record in league play since George Washington (16-0) in the 2005-06 season. Dayton finished with a 6-10 record that season. The Flyers subsequently emerged from the conference's basement over the next decade, securing a slice of the conference title in the 2015-16 season. Assuming Obi Toppin (19.3 PPG, 7.4 RPG, 2.3 APG, 1.3 SPG, 1.3 BPG) isn't affected long term by the ankle injury he suffered in Saturday's 88-60 win over UMass, Dayton will maintain its status as the class of the Atlantic 10.

But which teams could disrupt Dayton's title hopes? Marcus Weathers (14.7 PPG, 8.0 RPG) leads a Duquesne squad that's undefeated in conference play, will face Rhode Island on the road and hosts Dayton before the end of the month. We'll know more about the Dukes from those matchups. If Marcus Evans (5-for-21 from behind the 3-point line over the past five games) can get back into a rhythm and VCU can maintain its top-30 defensive mark, the Rams can compete for the title too. And with Jaren English back in the mix after he missed two games due to a concussion he suffered in practice, a St. Bonaventure team that has a win over Rutgers and one loss since Nov. 23 could be an interesting challenge. All of these teams, however, seem a step or two behind Anthony Grant's program.

Big 12

Can Baylor sustain this success?

The Bears are thriving on defense. Arizona, Butler and Kansas were held under 90 points per 100 possessions in their losses to Baylor. But Baylor's sloppy offensive performances have been concerning. The Bears have connected on just 41.3% of their shots inside the arc in league play. They have had the defensive strength to overcome those lulls, but how long will that last? Baylor is currently 20th in adjusted offensive efficiency, but that number could change as the Bears push through the Big 12 slate. That said, Baylor is certainly built to win the Big 12 title and compete for a national championship. Why? Its depth. In Saturday's double-digit win at Kansas, Tristan Clark played just six minutes, scoring two points. When he suffered a season-ending knee injury at this same juncture last season, he was the team's leading scorer.

It's an advantage to bring a player with that skill set off the bench. Coach Scott Drew beat Kansas, one of America's best teams, without relying on his reserves, but he's also confident enough to go seven or eight deep when necessary without significant drop-off. They have also completed their toughest road tests with wins at Kansas and Texas Tech. They'll travel to Morgantown in their final Big 12 game of the season, but they'll take the confidence of their current success with them. Baylor is real and this is no fluke. The Bears can carry this momentum to a Big 12 title, despite the shaky offensive efforts we've witnessed so far.

Big Ten

How will the imbalanced schedule affect the final standings?

When Michigan State beat rival Michigan 87-69 on Jan. 5 to extend its winning streak to seven games, it seemed as if things might soon make sense in the Big Ten. On Sunday, however, Purdue beat Michigan State by 29 points in West Lafayette a week after the Boilermakers had failed to score 40 points in a road loss to Illinois and, per the norm, nothing made sense. Again.

The Big Ten could end the season with a number of NCAA tournament teams sporting .500 records in league play. Teams not named Nebraska or Northwestern entered the weekend with just 10 home losses combined, but Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota and Indiana had all failed to win a road game. Whether the Big Ten's chaos is a sign of its depth or proof of a lackluster talent pool, it's obvious we won't know much about the final pecking order for weeks.

Right now, however, we can consult the schedule (the league is in its second year of a 20-game slate) to get a sense of the teams that might have more favorable paths to the crown. The teams with lone matchups against the best of the Big Ten in their home venues have advantages over their peers. Michigan State knows the pitfalls of the road well after its lopsided loss to the Boilermakers. It won't get much easier for the Spartans, but they'll face a struggling Ohio State team only once this season -- at home on March 8. Maryland, which lost at Iowa on Friday, must still face Michigan State, Ohio State, Minnesota and Rutgers on the road. Between now and Feb. 2, an Illinois squad that entered the week second in the standings must see Purdue, Michigan and Iowa. If you think we're confused about the Big Ten now, just wait until the road losses continue and the crowd at the top of the standings grows.

Big East

Butler or the field?

The Big East might boast the most intriguing race in the country. Butler's rapid ascent to the top of the national rankings and its current "team to beat" status in the conference has been the most surprising development for a team coached by LaVall Jordan, the clear front-runner for national coach of the year honors right now. Still, nothing is certain in this competitive league. Yes, Kamar Baldwin and Sean McDermott have combined to average more than 26 points per game. But there were seven Big East teams (Butler is No. 2) in the top 60 spots of the NET rankings on Monday morning. There are only 10 teams in the league. Butler's résumé is anchored by wins over Purdue, Creighton, Minnesota and Florida, a run that has positioned the Bulldogs to fight for a top-tier seed come March.

However, always read the fine print in the Big East: Current standings have no bearing on what could unfold in the coming weeks. Just ask Seton Hall, a team that hasn't lost since Dec. 14. Myles Powell, who missed multiple games due to a concussion, has played in four of those contests. Seton Hall made 58.6% of its shots inside the arc with Powell on the floor in those games. Villanova, with wins over Kansas and Creighton, is growing into an offensive beast, currently ranked ninth on in adjusted offensive efficiency. But the fun doesn't end there. Providence, Creighton and Marquette are all waiting to ruin someone's title hopes -- or perhaps put together a run. Butler has the hype and the Bulldogs deserve it. But the Big East picture is far from being settled.

Mountain West

How have injuries and off-court drama changed the race?

San Diego State has quietly amassed a 17-0 record. And that includes wins over Iowa, Creighton and BYU. Malachi Flynn (16.3 PPG, 42.9% from beyond the arc) is one of four SDSU players who've made more than 38% of their 3-point attempts. Their opponents have made just 27.2% of their shots from beyond the arc. Brian Dutcher's squad has a chance to reach the Mountain West tournament with an unblemished record in league play, especially with the turbulence that has affected the league.

Utah State's Neemias Queta suffered a second knee injury this season at the start of Mountain West play. The Aggies lost to UNLV without him and their next two contests after he returned. He finally looked healthy in a double-digit win over Nevada on Saturday. New Mexico's Paul Weir announced Sunday that troubled standout Carlton Bragg Jr., who is averaging 12.6 points and 10.3 rebounds, had been "removed" from the team after he was charged with driving under the influence, weeks after he was reportedly suspended following allegations of sexual misconduct. Standout JJ Caldwell has also been suspended. With those two programs enduring their own challenges, it's hard to imagine much of a fight for the Mountain West crown. San Diego State is the obvious favorite.


Could the Pac-12 race feature the biggest upset in the country?

Last week, Oregon and Arizona played an overtime thriller that might qualify as the game of the year in college basketball thus far. More important, it represented the talent at the top of the league and proof that the Pac-12 could send more than three teams to the NCAA tournament. Four Pac-12 teams entered the week with top-30 spots in the NET rankings. Stanford actually leads the pack in those rankings at No. 13. While Payton Pritchard and the Ducks have the highest ceiling in the league, they're definitely not invincible, as a recent road loss to Colorado showed. Arizona is coming off losses to Oregon and Oregon State.

Jerod Haase's crew at Stanford is off to a 3-0 start in league play. Losses to Butler and Kansas, possible top seeds in the NCAA tournament, are the only blemishes on its résumé. Stanford will encounter the meat of its Pac-12 slate when it faces Oregon, Colorado, Washington and Arizona next month. But the metrics all point to Stanford playing respectable basketball at this point in the season. Oscar Da Silva (16.5 PPG) and Tyrell Terry (15.3 PPG, 41.6% from beyond the arc) comprise one of America's top duos. The Cardinal have earned an "excellent" ranking on offense and defense via Synergy Sports data. They have made 38.5% of their 3-pointers and held opposing Pac-12 teams to just 82 points per 100 possessions, the top mark in the league. Colorado, Arizona and even Washington (if it shakes this slump) could possibly challenge Oregon in the Pac-12 race. But Stanford is the most intriguing team in the league, a program capable of pulling off the biggest upset in the country.


Can Florida bounce back to compete for an SEC title?

The SEC will never shake its "football conference" tag if the college football powers of this league continue to end their seasons vying for national titles. But it has averaged more than six NCAA tournament berths over the past three seasons. It's a resurgence that has made the SEC one of the country's most imposing basketball conferences. This year, the SEC has been humbled, though. Yes, Auburn has been fueled by last season's Final Four run and entered the week as one of two undefeated teams in the country. Nick Richards (13.0 PPG, 7.7 RPG, 2.3 BPG) is growing and Kentucky has won four in a row. LSU is a good offensive team that also surrendered 83 points to Rhode Island and 79 points to Bowling Green. But where is Florida?

That's the ongoing mystery for a Gators team that many had picked as a preseason contender, both in the SEC and on the national landscape. On Sunday, Florida suffered a 91-75 loss to a Missouri team that had failed to top 60 points in a December loss to Charleston Southern. It would seem as if now might be an appropriate time to jump off the bandwagon for a Florida team that seemed capable of winning the SEC with a decorated recruiting class and Virginia Tech grad transfer Kerry Blackshear Jr. When he's on the floor, the Gators are one of the top defensive teams in the country (0.9 PPP allowed), but the addition hasn't changed Florida's mediocre offense. There are signs, despite Saturday's loss, that Florida is on the rise. The Gators have made nearly 39% of their 3-pointers at the start of SEC play. There are also reasons to be concerned. Their three SEC opponents have made nearly 43% of their shots from beyond the arc.

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