With the end of non-conference play nearing, this week's edition of Jonathan's Journal takes a look at each of the big six conferences and who is likely to step up in each on the hardwood this season....
[ Updated December 26 ]
CONFERENCE CLASHES COMING SOON
As the end of December nears, the conference schedules are soon to begin. Some conferences, most notably the ACC, have already begun play within their respective leagues. So with that thought in mind, this week we'll take a look at who the top dogs appear to be in each of the major conferences. The preseason projections that were made still stand, but this is an updated and less in-depth look across the country. Working on what we've seen so far, here is what we may see in the months to come....
ACC:   Two teams not originally projected to fare that well have greatly exceeded expectations so far. Georgia Tech is undefeated at
this point, and Florida State has lost just once (on the road against unbeaten
Pittsburgh). As expected, Wake Forest, Duke, and North Carolina are all very solid and should be the top contenders in the league this season. Georgia Tech should join those three; Florida State is still a question mark. Maryland and NC State have struggled some this season, but both should be solid and middle-of-the-pack among conference teams. Virginia is unbeaten, but their only real test came at home against Minnesota. To date, there is a definite group of proven performers (WF, Duke, UNC, GT) and a solid list of teams that are question marks with potential (FSU, UM, NCSU, UVA). Clemson is the only team that looks as if they won't be a threat in 2004. My final four as of today....
> (1) Wake Forest ... (2) Duke ... (3) North Carolina ... (4) Georgia Tech
> SCS.com ACC Preseason Preview/Projection
BIG XII:   Preseason favorite Kansas has lost twice, disappointingly to Nevada last week. Oklahoma has been my surprise team so far. After the losses of Ebi Ere, Quannas White, and Hollis Price, I did not have high expectations for the Sooners this season, but Kelvin
Sampson's team has proven themselves against good competition (Michigan State, Purdue) and is 8-0 right now. The Texas Longhorns lost twice in NYC, once to Arizona in a close game and the other to Duke in a blowout. Minus PG T.J. Ford, it appears the 'Horns will be good but also inconsistent at times, especially in the scoring department. Missouri lost a tough overtime game at Gonzaga the week after winning at struggling Indiana and then dropped another tough one-point decision to Illinois earlier this week. The Tigers may have the most potential in the league. Oklahoma State, Colorado, and Texas Tech have basically done as expected; all three should be NCAA bubble teams. Bobby Knight's team got an extremely impressive win over Iowa, the only team to defeat Louisville thus far, earlier this week. Nebraska, Iowa State, and Kansas State are all doing well but will likely find the going a little tougher in the coming months. If you had to pick one of these three as the dark horse, Iowa State would be the team. They are unbeaten (including a win over Northern Iowa, who beat Iowa) and have six players averaging between 9 and 14 PPG. My final four as of today....
> (1) Oklahoma ... (2) Missouri ... (3) Kansas ... (4) Texas
> SCS.com Big XII Preseason Preview/Projection
BIG EAST:   About half of the Big East has either one or no losses at this point in the season. Connecticut, nearly everyone's preseason favorite, dropped an early-season game to Georgia Tech but has
since played well. The Huskies also got good news earlier in December when freshman Charlie Villanueva was cleared to play by the NCAA. Pittsburgh is unbeaten and earlier this week got their biggest win of the young season,
a victory over Florida State who was also unbeaten at the time. Syracuse, last year's national champ, has lost just once, as have Providence, Boston College, and Rutgers. Georgetown is the only other unbeaten in the league, though the Hoyas have yet to play anyone that compares to the competition they'll face in conference play. Seton Hall, Miami, Villanova, and Notre Dame haven't had the pre-conference results they might have liked, but each is capable of finishing in the top half of the league. St. John's and Virginia Tech appear to be the only teams without much of a chance in this year's Big East. The West division will obviously be the stronger of the two this season. There isn't a team there you can totally rule out as of yet. I still believe that Notre Dame will be a disappointment and that Seton Hall has a chance to surprise some people this season. Pitt and Syracuse are neck and neck at this point. The East's dominant favorite is UConn. There are a couple of other decent teams in the East but none that will be able to stay with the Huskies. My projection for the West will stay the same, but the East shakes up just a little. My final six as of today....
West > (1) Syracuse ... (2) Pittsburgh ... (3) Seton Hall
East > (1) Connecticut ... (2) Providence ... (3) Miami
> SCS.com Big East Preseason Preview/Projection
BIG TEN:   It doesn't look as if the Big Ten will be as strong this season as it has been at times before. Michigan State has played one of the nation's toughest schedules thus far, but it doesn't
matter if you can't win the games. Illinois, another preseason favorite, has played a very tough schedule so far and has had some success, losing only twice while picking up six wins.
Purdue and Iowa, both semi-surprises, have had early-season success and could make some noise in the Big Ten. The Boilers knocked off Duke in Alaska but have struggled since, losing at Oklahoma and then being upset at home by SMU. Iowa got a huge win against Louisville early on but have since lost back-to-back contests at Northern Iowa and Texas Tech. Perhaps the most impressive team so far is one that still seems to get overlooked even though they have won the last two Big Ten championships. Wisconsin has lost just once, at Maryland, on the young season and defeated in-state rival Marquette last week. One of my personal favorites is Michigan. The Wolverines' only loss came at Vanderbilt, a team ranked in the top 25, and their resume also includes a home win over NC State. Indiana can fall in the same class as Michigan State. Though the Hoosiers weren't expected to be at the top of the Big Ten this season, IU is sitting at only .500 so far. Minnesota is 6-2 and should be middle-of-the-pack in the conference. True freshman Kris Humphries is leading the team with nearly 24 points per game. Ohio State, Northwestern, and Penn State look as if they'll be at or near the bottom of the league standings this year. Michigan State and Indiana may or may not come around, but I feel that Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan, Iowa, Purdue, and possibly Minnesota will be the major contenders in 2004. My final four as of today....
> (1) Wisconsin ... (2) Illinois ... (3) Purdue ... (4) Michigan
> SCS.com Big Ten Preseason Preview/Projection
PAC 10:   The top two teams in the PAC 10 thus far have been just who I expected to be at the top of the standings this year. The Stanford Cardinal are unbeaten on the season, with impressive wins over then-top ranked Kansas and Gonzaga. Stanford should still be unbeaten when they hit a tough three-game stretch in early January that takes them to Arizona State, to Arizona, and back home against California. The only other team that appears as if they'll challenge Stanford for the title is Arizona. Lute Olson's Wildcats have lost
just once on the young season, a one-point defeat to Florida in late November. Since then, UA has won on the road at both St. Louis and Texas (in NYC) as well as beaten Marquette at home. The two important dates in this league race will be January 10th in Tucson and February 7th in Palo Alto. Once you get past the two dominant teams in the conference, no one appears strong enough to be a serious challenger. Oregon, California, and Arizona State (in that order) appear to make up the second tier of teams in this year's PAC 10. The Ducks have lost twice, a last-second defeat to Alabama and a ten-point loss on the road to Kansas. Even though those were two tough games, it's nothing more difficult than UO will face in conference play. As they've done so far, the Ducks will handle the lesser-quality teams but struggle with the big boys. California has lost four very winnable games to Cal Poly (1 point), UNLV (2), Colorado (18), and St. Joseph's (2). Like I mentioned about Oregon, those games are tough but are nothing more than the PAC 10 will throw at Cal. Arizona State has also lost a couple of winnable road games, at Nebraska and Northwestern. The UCLA Bruins showed they could compete well with a Kentucky team when they dropped a two-point decision. However, a little over a week later, the Bruins dropped a disappointing decision to UCSB. Washington State has potential with star player Marcus Moore, but good opponents will limit his production. Southern Cal, Oregon State, and Washington will likely struggle this season, leaving the PAC 10 with three obvious tiers of teams. The first includes Stanford and Arizona, followed by Oregon, Arizona State, California, and UCLA, and finally Washington State, Southern Cal, Oregon State, and Washington. It should be a great battle between the Cardinal and Wildcats for the top spot; for now, I'll stick with my preseason projection. The scramble for NCAA berths in the middle of the conference will also be very interesting. My final four as of today....
> (1) Stanford ... (2) Arizona ... (3) Oregon ... (4) Arizona State
> SCS.com PAC 10 Preseason Preview/Projection
SEC:   Some have said that the SEC is down this year, and that may be the case. But the competition for the division titles, tournament seeds, and NCAA berths will be just as exciting as ever. In the SEC East, Florida and Kentucky were projected by most to be the top two teams. Those two teams have done well thus far, but so have two more teams from the Eastern Division. Vanderbilt is currently unbeaten and just earned a top 25 ranking in the lastest polls. The Commodores have beaten Indiana and Michigan already this season.
The Dores' matchup at UK on January 10th is a game to look forward to. The other team doing well so far in the East is the South Carolina Gamecocks. USC has lost just once this season, a tight road game at Temple. Along the way, the Gamecocks have won at Southwest MO State, a traditional power in the Missouri Valley Conference, at in-state rival Clemson, and at home against NC State, a heavy contender in the ACC this season. Also during the last six weeks or so, the preseason favorites have been cruising along. Kentucky has yet to lose while racking up wins over UCLA, Michigan State, and Indiana (all on the road). The 'Cats have a monstrous home game this weekend against in-state rival Louisville. Florida's bigggest win to date was against Arizona. That was one win that propelled the Gators to a #1 ranking. However, that didn't last long as UF lost back-to-back games against Maryland and at Louisville in the same week. The Gators open up SEC play at South Carolina on January 7th. Tennessee's only loss came at Nebraska, and Georgia's two defeats came against Gonzaga and Winthrop. Though they have played pretty well so far, I expect these two teams to fall off fairly quickly once SEC play begins. My final four as of today....
> (1) Kentucky ... (2) Florida ... (3) Vanderbilt ... (4) South Carolina
Two teams seem to have jumped out early in the SEC West. Both LSU and Mississippi State are unbeaten to date. Neither team has played a particularly strong non-conference schedule, but neither has slipped up either. The Tigers' most impressive victory came at home against Utah. The Bulldogs won at Western Kentucky early in the season to snap a multi-year home winning streak for WKU and also knocked off Xavier at home. Those two teams would probably be placed on the first tier of the SEC West with the next tier consisting of Alabama, Auburn, and Arkansas. The Tide's two losses are understandable: at Pittsburgh and at Providence. Alabama probably holds this group's most impressive win of the season as well, a last-second victory over Oregon in Las Vegas. Before SEC play begans, UA will also host Wisconsin and play at Xavier, so 'Bama will have definitely been tested prior to conference play. Last year's runner-up in the West, the Auburn Tigers, have lost back-to-back games at UNLV and against Georgia State. Auburn has yet to play anyone considered a tough opponent yet and will not see one until their first SEC contest of the season, at Vanderbilt, on January 7th. Arkansas is a young team that has lost three times this season. The Hogs won their first four before dropping decisions at Illinois, vs Oklahoma State, and vs Western Carolina within a span of about two weeks. Mississippi is the lone West team that appears as if they will struggle mightily in '03-'04. The Rebels have lost to Florida State, Memphis, and Arkansas State. That's not too bad until you consider that UM also beat SE Louisiana by only four points, Evansville by three, LA-Monroe by two, and Jacksonville State by eight. My final four as of today....
> SCS.com SEC Preseason Preview/Projection
> (1) Mississippi State ... (2) LSU ... (3) Alabama ... (4) Arkansas
> SCS.com SEC Preseason Preview/Projection