In this issue of Jonathan’s Journal, I’ll take a look at each of the big six conferences, the ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big XII, PAC 10, and the SEC. In these final three weeks of the regular season, everyone is fighting for the NCAA Tournament. Some teams are fighting for a better seed while others are just fighting to get in the Tourney. Other than the tournament itself, this is the most exciting part of the college basketball season. So here’s a look at the big six conferences. Take a look at where your team stands, in my opinion, and then send me an email to let me know what you think.
Nearing the end of the ACC regular season schedule, it’s a two-team race to become the ACC champion. Duke and Maryland, each with one conference loss, are battling it out to win the crown and the sure-to-come #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. A big game between these two teams still remains at Maryland. That game should decide who wins the 2002 ACC championship. Wake Forest and NC State are a couple of games behind the leaders each. Both of have had solid and impressive seasons, especially the Wolfpack, but neither are likely to win the ACC’s regular season crown. Virginia, expected to be a big-time conference contender in the preseason, has struggled in conference play and is hoping to slide in the NCAA Tournament and try to make a run. They have the talent but have yet to live up to their potential. Florida State, Georgia Tech, Clemson, and North Carolina make up the bottom part of the standings. All four of these teams have underachieved, and UNC, barring a miraculous ACC Tournament run, will be left out of the NCAA’s for the first time in what seems like a thousand years.
Even if Duke loses to Maryland on the Terps homecourt, they’re still likely to earn a #1 seed when Selection Sunday rolls around. Maryland, on the other hand, may have trouble getting that #1 seed if they do lost on their homecourt to the Blue Devils. Teams like Oklahoma and Cincinnati are waiting to grab that #1 seed if a team like Maryland were to stumble in the final weeks of the season. Wake Forest and NC State also look to be headed to the NCAA Tournament, taking a seed in the neighborhood of #5-10, depending on the finish each has to their season. Virginia has struggled this conference season and should get into the Tournament, although nothing can be guaranteed for the Cavs just yet. With Duke and Maryland fighting for number one and several other teams on their way to the NCAA’s, the ACC is once again one of the best conferences in the country.
Both divisions in the Big East are up for grabs as the end of the Big East’s regular season heads toward the final few weeks. Connecticut has a slight lead over Miami in the Eastern Division. Both teams have a couple tough games left, and the race should go right down to the final week of the season. Over in the Western division, Pittsburgh has a lead over Notre Dame and Syracuse, both of which still have a chance at catching Pitt and claiming a Western Division title. Syracuse, however, has not been playing well lately. That’s the opposite of Pittsburgh, though, who has played well all season and is still looking for a little respect. Virginia Tech, Seton Hall, and West Virginia have each had disappointing seasons in ‘01-'02 and make up the bottom parts of their respective divisions.
With 20 or more wins each, the Miami Hurricanes as well as Pittsburgh are sure to be playing when March Madness rolls around. Connecticut, leading the East division, as well as Notre Dame and Syracuse, 2nd and 3rd in the West respectively, also look like they’ll be heading to the NCAA’s barring a late-season collapse. Past those five teams, the race for one and possibly two more NCAA slots is heated heading towards March. Boston College, Georgetown, St. John’s, Providence, Villanova, and Rutgers are all trying to squeeze in that final spot or two. If you’re looking at the conference records, as the NCAA committee often does, St. John’s and Georgetown (both 6-5) and Boston College and Rutgers (5-5) appear to have an edge over the other two teams. This race for the final NCAA positions will only make the Big East Tournament that much more exciting in 2002.
After Ohio State started conference play on fire, they have slowed down a little, letting the Indiana Hoosiers catch up and take a lead in the conference standings. Ohio State is now in second place followed, surprisingly, by Minnesota. Illinois, Wisconsin, and Michigan State follow the top teams. Each of the previous three mentioned would probably like to be in a better position than they are in right now. Illinois has struggled in conference games, while Michigan State is trying to make a late run and jump up in the standings. Behind MSU are Michigan, Northwestern, Iowa, Purdue, and Penn State. Iowa is the most surprising team, having started the first half of the season fabulously but losing three more than they’ve won in Big Ten play. The race for the Big Ten regular season title should come down to the last week, with Indiana, Ohio State, and Minnesota still having a shot at this point in the season.
Indiana, Ohio State, and Illinois, who all have 16 or more wins, are already in the Tournament and are competing for good seeds. I don’t think the champion of the Big Ten will get better than a three seed, and a four seed wouldn’t be surprising. The conference has not been at its best in 2002. Minnesota has a great conference record but is lacking the non-conference victories. However, the committee seems to favor a good conference record over the defeats of the usually-less competitive non-conference opponents. Wisconsin, Michigan State, and Iowa still have a chance to make a run at the Tourney, but I don’t expect more than one of those teams to be playing in the Big Dance when March rolls around.
Still not having a conference loss and just off the defeat of Texas on the road, the Kansas Jayhawks appear to have the 2002 Big XII regular season conference title in hand. Oklahoma, with 2 less losses than any other Big XII team, look to have second place under control although the remaining games will be a challenge for the Sooners. Teams like Texas, Missouri, Texas Tech, and Oklahoma State will all battle for the 3rd through 6th spots in the conference. The difference in those spots will make a big difference in seeding for the Big XII Tournament. Colorado, Nebraska, and Baylor will compete for NIT selections while Kansas State, Texas A&M, and Iowa State will not be playing in postseason action.
The Kansas Jayhawks are one of a few teams in America with a legitimate shot at a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Barring a total collapse, they should get that opportunity in March Madness. Behind them, Oklahoma is also hoping to gain a #1 seed, though that will depend on the actions of some other teams in other conferences. Texas, Missouri, Texas Tech, and Oklahoma State, although not having as successful seasons as OU and KU, are all most likely heading to March Madness, giving the Big XII six representatives in the postseason tournament. Although it hasn’t been the nation’s most balanced conference this season, the competition in the Big XII matches nearly every other conference in America. The Big XII will have a chance to gain even more respect as a basketball conference if their teams are successful in March.
The Arizona Wildcats have a slight, one game edge over the Oregon Ducks heading into the final few weeks of conference regular season play. Arizona, however, does have several tough games still on the schedule, including a road game at Southern Cal this weekend. California, Southern Cal, Stanford, and UCLA all stand at 8-4 and one-half game behind Oregon. Obviously, there is still plenty to be decided in the final few weeks of the regular season as each team tries to position itself for the PAC 10 Tournament and beyond. Arizona State has had a decent season, sitting just below the .500 mark. Every other team, however, can be considered a disappointment. Oregon State and both Washington schools, the Huskies and Cougars, bring up the final three slots of the standings. So far, Oregon has been one of the most surprising teams in the country and still have a great shot at the conference title.
Arizona and Oregon, who have established themselves as the conference’s best two teams in 2002, have assured themselves of a Tournament bid and are now trying to grab a high seed for March Madness. California, UCLA, and Southern Cal should get in and only need a few more wins each. Stanford, who has not had as good of a year as normal, also needs a few more wins due to the fact that they have only 15 wins now. The Sun Devils of Arizona State have played well but will likely need to win the conference tournament to make it to the NCAA’s. However, they should finish the season with a winning record, go to the NIT, and be prepared for a big season in 2003.
In the Eastern Division, Florida has taken control thanks to a road victory over Georgia, who stands in second place now. Kentucky follows Georgia and must play the Bulldogs on the road in Athens this weekend. Tennessee, at the .500 mark, is just ahead of Vanderbilt and South Carolina. Florida should move on to win the East and be prepared for big-time SEC and NCAA Tournament runs. Over in the West, Alabama has things under control. With only four losses, the Tide will likely win the West and take a shot at the SEC Tourney title. Following the Tide is Mississippi and Mississippi State, both of whom have had impressive wins but have also lost a game or two they should not have lost. Arkansas, who has struggled this season, sits in third place followed by LSU and Auburn. Although it appears the first place position in each division has been captured, there are still teams positioning themselves for seeds in the SEC Tournament in early March.
The two division champions-to-be are both battling for seeds in the #2-3 range while Georgia is also assured of a birth in 2002 March Madness. Following them, Kentucky, Mississippi, and Mississippi State should all enter the Tournament barring a terrible late-season collapse. Those three teams could collect seeds anywhere from the #5 to the #9 or possibly even higher. The final regular season games and any runs the teams can make in the SEC Tournament will greatly affect their positioning on Selection Sunday. Auburn and LSU will not make the NCAA Tournament without winning the SEC Tournament. However, four teams other than the six mentioned above still have a shot at making the tournament. Vanderbilt, South Carolina, Arkansas, and Tennessee, all with less than 15 wins have a minor shot at making this year’s tourney. A solid finish to the season as well as a big SEC Tournament run, where they’ll have a chance to pick up quality wins, will be key as to which, if any, of these teams get March Madness bids. As many as two or as few as none of these teams could get a bid. This is one reason the SEC is one of the best all-around conferences, if not the best, conference in America!