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BREAKING DOWN BIG LEAGUE PLAY
January 4, 2006

SCS.comConference play in the "Big Six" conferences started up this past week with a bang, as the Pac-10 teams each played a pair of games. California picked up a road sweep of UCLA and USC, while Arizona went to the state of Washington and pulled off two victories, including an excellent win over the Huskies. The rest of the conferences will begin this week.

Last time, I looked at some of the mid-major conferences and broke down how they have done thus far this season. This week, I am going to look at the major conferences and analyze how the scheduling breaks down for each of the league title contenders. In addition, I will discuss how the matchups between the top teams will turn out in the final nine weeks of the season.

ACC (4 potential contenders for title)

Top 5 Matchups That Will Shape the Conference Race

NC State at Boston College (Jan. 10), Boston College at NC State (Feb. 25)
Maryland at Duke (Jan. 11), Duke at Maryland (Feb. 11)
NC State at Duke (Jan. 18)
Duke at Boston College (Feb. 1)
Maryland at NC State (Feb. 5)
** Maryland defeated Boston College on December 11, 73-71.

This is likely to be a one-team (Duke) race for the league title with up to three main contenders (Boston College, North Carolina State, Maryland ) for number two. However, don't pencil the Blue Devils in the ACC Champion slot just yet. They only play Boston College once, and that is at BC. In addition, the Eagles don't have to play Maryland the rest of the season, while the Blue Devils play the Terrapins twice. North Carolina State has to play all three of the other top four teams, including road games at Duke and BC. If Boston College can take care of business on their home court and defeat North Carolina State and Duke, they will have a big advantage in the ACC standings.

Predicted Outlook at the Top:

1. Duke
2. Boston College
3. North Carolina State
4. Maryland

BIG EAST (5 potential contenders for title)

Top 5 Matchups That Will Shape the Conference Race

Villanova at Louisville (Jan. 5), Louisville at Villanova (Jan. 30)
Connecticut at Louisville (Jan. 21), Louisville at Connecticut (March 4)
Cincinnati at Louisville (Jan. 25), Louisville at Cincinnati (Feb. 6)
Connecticut at Villanova (Feb. 13), Villanova at Connecticut (Feb. 26)
Pittsburgh at West Virginia (Feb. 27)

As expected, the league championship is going to be a two-team race between Connecticut and Villanova and a muddle of up to six or seven teams fighting for third place and beyond. Based on that, the differences in scheduling could be what separates the two teams at the end of the season. For one, the Huskies get to play Cincinnati at home, while the Wildcats have to go on the road to face the Bearcats. Similarly, 'Nova has to play at Rutgers (never an easy place to win), while UConn doesn't face the Scarlet Knights. On the other hand, Connecticut has an away game against West Virginia, while Villanova get a home test from them. UConn has to play Pittsburgh, yet 'Nova doesn't. More than likely, even with all those factors added to the equation, it is going to come down to the two head-to-head matchups these two teams have. The fight for third place and the available NCAA bids will likely be more exciting to watch down the stretch.

Predicted Outlook at the Top:

1. Connecticut
2. Villanova
3. Louisville
4. Cincinnati
5. West Virginia

BIG TEN (6 potential contenders for title)

Top 5 Matchups that will Shape the Conference Race

Michigan State at Illinois (Jan. 5), Illinois at Michigan State (March 4)
Iowa at Wisconsin (Jan. 5), Wisconsin at Iowa (March 4)
Ohio State at Indiana (Jan. 7)
Indiana at Michigan State (Jan. 11), Michigan State at Indiana (Feb. 26)
Illinois at Indiana (Jan. 17), Indiana at Illinois (Feb. 19)

The Big Ten may be the most competitive league in the country, with several teams capable of being league champions, and eight teams with legit shots at NCAA Tournament bids. Illinois, Indiana, and Michigan State are the three main teams mentioned in the discussion for the Big Ten champion, but Iowa, Wisconsin, and Ohio State are likely to be in the mix as well. Michigan and Minnesota will fight for bids. The season starts and ends with the most anticipated matchup: Illinois-Michigan State. Even though the season may come down to that game, the unbalanced schedule will play a major role in the race. Michigan State plays the expected top six teams (the aforementioned teams, minus Minnesota) in the NCAA mix two times each, while Illinois only plays Wisconsin and Ohio State once. In addition, Iowa doesn't have to go Wisconsin and Ohio State; Indiana plays all the major teams twice except Ohio State; and Wisconsin and Ohio State miss out on playing at Illinois. The unbalanced scheduling could affect the stretch run in a big way.

Predicted Outlook at the Top:

1. Michigan State
2. Illinois
3. Indiana
4. Wisconsin
5. Ohio State
6. Iowa

BIG XII (3 potential contenders for title)

Top Five Matchups That Will Shape the Conference Race

Texas at Iowa State (Jan. 9)
Texas at Oklahoma (Jan. 28), Oklahoma at Texas (March 5)
Kansas State at Colorado (Jan. 28)
Kansas at Oklahoma State (Feb. 13)
Iowa State at Oklahoma (Feb. 18)

In what has been a disappointing season so far, the Big XII has not really had a team other than Texas show that they are ready to make a run at the league title. Oklahoma has struggled mightily against inferior teams and has looked overmatched against the quality opponents. Iowa State has had bad losses at home to teams like Iona and Fresno State. However, one of those two teams should make a run at Texas. In addition to the lack of teams at the top, a huge, nondescript jumble of teams is going to have to separate themselves from the pack to look attractive to the Selection Committee. In terms of scheduling, Iowa State has the best breaks of the favorites. They only play Texas and Oklahoma once each, while those teams have to play each other twice. Although the Cyclones have the edge in that category, it is not likely that they will keep the race close. The Big XII is Texas's to lose.

Predicted Outlook at the Top:

1. Texas
2. Oklahoma
3. Iowa State

PAC-10 (3 potential contenders for title)

Top Five Matchups That Will Shape the Conference Race

Arizona at Washington (UA won, 96-95), Washington at Arizona (March 4)
California at UCLA (Cal won, 68-61), UCLA at California (March 2)
UCLA at Arizona (Jan. 5), Arizona at UCLA (Feb. 4)
Washington at USC (Jan. 12)
Washington at UCLA (Jan. 14), UCLA at Washington (Feb. 11)

In what is likely to be the major conference with the least NCAA Tournament bids, the Pac-10 has two legitimate title contenders (Arizona and Washington), with another that could win it if they stay healthy (UCLA). California could be a spoiler at the top, but other than that, only USC looks like they could conceivably get an NCAA bid. Since the Pac-10 teams play each other twice each, the scheduling will not make a difference in that aspect. However, during the final six games of the season, Arizona gets Oregon State at home; goes on the road to face California and Stanford; and finishes with Arizona State, Washington State, and Washington, all at home. Washington, on the other hand, goes on the road to play the Oregon schools; gets Stanford and California at home; and then heads to Arizona to play the Sun Devils and the Wildcats. Down the stretch, Arizona will have the edge with the number of home games they have to finish the season. In addition, keep in mind that Arizona already has a one-game edge.

Predicted Outlook at the Top:

1. Washington
2. Arizona
3. UCLA

SEC (4 potential contenders for title)

Top Five Matchups That Will Shape the Conference Race

Vanderbilt at Kentucky (Jan. 10), Kentucky at Vanderbilt (Feb. 11)
LSU at Arkansas (Jan. 11), Arkansas at LSU (Feb. 8)
Florida at Tennessee (Jan. 21), Tennessee at Florida (Feb. 22)
Kentucky at Florida (Feb. 4), Florida at Kentucky (March 5)
Kentucky at LSU (Feb. 25)

The SEC has no clear-cut favorite at this point. Florida may be undefeated, but it is no guarantee that the Gators will go into the SEC and win it all. Kentucky is always the favorite based on past history, while LSU and Arkansas only have the mid-major version of the SEC (also know as the SEC West) to go up against. That could be a key in the overall SEC title race. The SEC East has six quality teams, meaning that they could beat up on each other throughout the season. However, the SEC West doesn't pose much trouble for the favorites. The SEC, like the Pac-10, has balanced scheduling, with each team playing their division teams twice and each team from the other division once.

Predicted Outlook at the Top:

EAST

1. Kentucky
2. Florida

WEST

1. LSU
2. Arkansas

 > Talk about it in The College Corner...

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