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WHO'S GOT THE EARLY EDGE IN THE BIG SIX?
January 11, 2007

SCS.comWith 2006 in our rear-view mirror, conference play kicked into full swing this past week in nearly every conference. The “Big Six” conferences started out with a bang, as four top ten teams fell in the early part of league play, including unbeaten UCLA losing to Oregon (whose undefeated run was stopped by USC just a few days earlier), and Virginia Tech defeating Duke at Cameroon Indoor Stadium. This might be the most unpredictable season in recent memory, with no clear-cut favorite and dozens of teams capable of winning the national championship — or losing in the first round.

While some major conferences are one- or two-team races, every “BCS” league is wide-open for the most part. That’s what makes projecting the NCAA Tournament so difficult to do right now. There are too many teams that could potentially contend for bids come Selection Sunday. As a result, it’s time for me to take a stab at breaking down the big conferences. There are just enough games played already and enough left in the season to make an educated guess as to what is going on in the major conferences. Next week, I will breakdown the mid-major conferences.

ACC

Favorite: North Carolina — They should run away with the title. The Tar Heels are just too talented and deep for any team in this conference. UNC also has the best player in the conference in Tyler Hansbrough.

Sleeper: Georgia Tech — The Yellow Jackets are starting to hit their stride after an up-and-down start because of their youth. They have two of the best freshmen in the country in Javaris Crittendon and Thaddeus Young. The loss of Lewis Clinch for the season could hurt, though.

Bust: Florida State — The Seminoles seem to always have a good non-conference, and then they falter down the stretch to miss the Big Dance. While that might not happen this year, FSU still hasn’t proven it can win on the road, and they still lack a true point guard.

Team to Watch in the Conference Tournament: Boston College — The Eagles had an extremely inconsistent non-conference season characterized by suspensions and injuries, as well as losses to Vermont and Duquesne. However, with the return of Jared Dudley who missed three games, BC will be tough.

Surprise So Far: Clemson — The Tigers are the lone undefeated team left in college basketball, but some people still don’t think they are for real. Don’t count me among them. They may not compete for a league title, but barring a complete collapse, they will finish in the top four or five in the ACC and make the Big Dance.

NCAA Tournament Teams: North Carolina, Duke, Clemson, Maryland, Georgia Tech, Boston College, Florida State

Bubble Teams: Virginia Tech, Virginia

Big East

Favorite: Pittsburgh — Like North Carolina, the Panthers should run away with this league. They have the closest thing to a star in center Aaron Gray, and they also have a variety of weapons that can beat you on a given night. If they can get consistent wing scoring, Pitt will easily win the Big East.

Sleeper: Georgetown — The Hoyas struggled for much of the early part of the season, and also lost Monday night to Villanova. However, they have one of the best big man duos in college basketball, and a couple of improving guards in Jonathan Wallace and Jessie Sapp. Once the guards step up, look out for the Hoyas.

Bust: Villanova — Even though the Wildcats won at Georgetown Monday, I don’t think they have the personnel to be a contender in the conference race. Outside of Curtis Sumpter, they don’t have any consistent scorers, and they struggle on offense as a result. Unless a third scorer steps up to give Sumpter and Mike Nardi help, Nova will struggle.

Team to Watch in the Conference Tournament: Connecticut — The Huskies are very young right now and have been up-and-down because of that. They ran through the early part of the season undefeated due to the easy schedule, but they fell by double-digits on the road to both West Virginia and LSU. Once the freshmen mature, they should be fine.

Surprise So Far: West Virginia — The Mountaineers lost the majority of their team after last season due to graduation, but John Beilein has WVU right back in the mix. They started the Big East season 3-0, including wins over Connecticut and Villanova. Despite a lack of proven players or a star going into the season, their stout defense is still there, and they still have one of the best homecourt advantages in the conference.

NCAA Tournament Teams: Pittsburgh, Georgetown, Notre Dame, Connecticut, West Virginia, Syracuse, Marquette, Villanova

Bubble Teams: Providence, DePaul

Big 12

Favorite: Kansas — The Jayhawks struggled early in the season, especially in a home loss to Oral Roberts. However, they have played very well lately, including dominant performances over Boston College and South Carolina. They have one of the most talented teams in the country, which allows them the ability to beat any team in the country.

Sleeper: Texas Tech — Going into the year, I thought the Red Raiders might struggle because of their inexperience and lack of scorers. However, I might be wrong. They have road wins over Kansas State and Arkansas so far. Tech has a great backcourt in Jarrius Jackson and Martin Zeno, and Bobby Knight has this team playing great defense.

Bust: Missouri — The Tigers looked very good early in the season, dominating Arkansas at home and making them look bad, essentially. However, they are 0-2 away from home, and just blew a huge lead in the second half this past weekend to lose at home to Iowa State. Mike Anderson has this program on the rise, but they won’t make the Dance this year.

Team to Watch in the Conference Tournament: Texas — Like Connecticut, the Longhorns are extremely young but are going to be a team no one wants to play come March. Kevin Durant is not only the best freshman in the country, but he might be the best player in the country. He could "Carmelo Anthony" this team deep into the tourney.

Surprise So Far: Oklahoma State — The Cowboys didn’t reach the NCAA Tournament last season, but will fight for a top-four seed this year. Mario Boggan and JamesOn Curry form an excellent inside-outside combo, and OSU plays great defense. They only have one loss, a two-point defeat at Tennessee.

NCAA Tournament Teams: Kansas, Texas A&M, Oklahoma State, Texas, Texas Tech

Bubble Teams: Kansas State, Missouri, Nebraska

Big Ten

Favorite: Wisconsin — You can tell me Ohio State all you want, but I see the Badgers winning the Big Ten. They have one of the best players in the country in Alando Tucker and a deep rotation that gives them the ability to play in a variety of ways. Look for this team to fight for a #1 seed throughout the season — and possibly get it.

Sleeper: Indiana — The Hoosiers don’t have a very impressive record (10-4), but the losses were to Butler, Duke, Kentucky, and Ohio State by a combined twenty points. D.J. White is a potentially dominant big man, and Indiana has a very deep perimeter group. Plus, Kelvin Sampson has instilled toughness and defense into the Hoosiers.

Bust: Michigan State — The Spartans had a very solid start to the season, going 13-2 heading into conference play. However, MSU dropped their first two Big Ten games, and they have not looked very impressive in either contest. They have a severe lack of scorers besides Drew Neitzel, and injuries have hurt them. Next year could be their year, though.

Team to Watch in the Conference Tournament: Michigan — Sure, this Wolverines team has the typical Tommy Amaker stigma of faltering in the conference season and missing the NCAA Tournament. However, they have tons of talent and the ability to beat quality teams, as evidenced by their win over Illinois last week. If they are consistent, look out.

Surprise So Far: Purdue — The Boilermakers surpassed last year’s win total by December 22nd, and while they have slowed down in Big Ten play, this team is tough. Carl Landry is one of the best players in the conference, and Purdue has quality wins over DePaul, Virginia, and Missouri.

NCAA Tournament Teams: Wisconsin, Ohio State, Indiana, Michigan, Illinois

Bubble Teams: Purdue, Michigan State

Pac-10

Favorite: UCLA — The Bruins had the #1 spot in the rankings until their two-point road loss at Oregon this past weekend. Still, UCLA has one of the best teams in the country. Darren Collison and Arron Afflalo are an excellent backcourt, and Josh Shipp is a big-time scorer. Throw in Ben Howland’s defense, and UCLA is a Final Four threat.

Sleeper: USC — Some people think that the Trojans’ time to shine will be next year, when they welcome O.J. Mayo into the fold. However, they are playing excellent this season, including wins over Oregon, Washington, and Wichita State. Nick Young and Taj Gibson are one of the best forward combos in the conference.

Bust: Washington — The Huskies have a gaudy record due to their weak non-conference schedule and their plethora of home wins. However, they are 0-3 on the road, losing by an average of over 16 points per game in those outings. UW is also 1-3 in the Pac-10, not a good start to what seemed like a promising season.

Team to Watch in the Conference Tournament: Oregon — The Ducks came into the season with the same sort of talent they have had the past few years, but this time around they are turning that talent into victories. Oregon is loaded on the perimeter, and is playing like Villanova did last season. They can beat any team they play, shown by their win over UCLA.

Surprise So Far: Washington State — Who would’ve thought that the Cougars would be in the thick of the Pac-10 race midway through January? WSU is playing some of the best basketball on the West Coast, with wins over USC (on the road), Arizona, and Gonzaga. Derrick Low and Kyle Weaver are a very underrated backcourt.

NCAA Tournament Teams: UCLA, Arizona, Washington State, USC, Oregon, Washington

Bubble Teams: California, Stanford

SEC

Favorite: Florida — The defending National Champions have been somewhat up-and-down this season, but they are still on their way to an SEC title. They are simply too talented and consistent to lose the conference championship. Their inside-outside balance might be the best in the country, and they could be looking at another Final Four appearance.

Sleeper: Georgia — Although the Bulldogs are only 7-5 and have lost four in a row, this is still a decent team. They have a great perimeter group, led by Mike Mercer and a big-time post player in Takais Brown. UGA dominated Gonzaga back in December, and they have the ability to beat anyone when their guards are hitting their shots. They could be a spoiler late in the season.

Bust: South Carolina — The two-time defending NIT Champions started out 10-2 with a win over USC, and looked like a surprise team. However, they simply aren’t that good and could be on the downswing after their 16-point loss at home to Kansas. With a tough opening SEC schedule, they could be 0-6 before winning a conference game.

Team to Watch in the Conference Tournament: Arkansas — The Razorbacks were expected to struggle somewhat after the losses of Ronnie Brewer and Jonathan Modica, but they have not missed a beat. They own wins over West Virginia, Southern Illinois, and a 27-point domination of Alabama this past weekend. They are very athletic, and have good depth both inside and outside.

Surprise So Far: Tennessee — The Volunteers were not expected to be this good so soon after the loss of two starters and the breaking in of several freshmen. However, Bruce Pearl has this team ready to go. Chris Lofton is outstanding, and the Vols have victories over Memphis, Oklahoma State, and Texas in an epic overtime thriller.

NCAA Tournament Teams: Florida, Tennessee, Kentucky, Alabama, Arkansas, LSU

Bubble Teams: None

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