Saturday, February 7, 2009

NCAA hoops conference play halftime report

By Rick Morris

ESPN's Andy Katz is right when he proclaims this season quite possibly the most topsy-turvy in recent memory and one that foreshadows a wild March with many upsets. Among other factors, we are seeing the trickle-down effects this year of having very few absolutely dominant players such as Oklahoma's Blake Griffin.

The latest standings can be found here.

^ The Big East, now a couple of years into its expansion as a mega-conference, continues to be the biggest meatgrinder in the sport's history. UConn, Pitt, Villanova and Louisville have survived quite handsomely; Georgetown and Notre Dame, not so much. Marquette has been a bit of a pleasant surprise, as has Syracuse (heartbreaking last-second miracle loss to Cleveland State notwithstanding). West Virginia's going to have to close fairly strong and make a good run in the Big East tournament to get into March Madness, but with their physical style of play, they're going to be the epitome of the team nobody wants to play.

^ The ACC has been very unpredictable, starting with a Tar Heel team that many thought could be the first to run the table in 33 years barely making it into conference play undefeated. North Carolina has still hung around the top, however, as has Duke, Clemson, a skilled young Wake Forest team and a Boston College squad that is capable of beating anyone or losing to anyone on a given night.

^ The aforementioned Sooners are leading the Big 12, thanks to both Griffin brothers, with defending national champions Kansas the closest on their heels. Missouri and year-in, year-out conference power Texas appear to be the only other teams capable of tripping up Oklahoma right now.

^ In the Big 10, Michigan State is no longer unbeatable at home, but still the conference favorite. The circuit has almost been a microcosm of the NCAA itself this year, with a host of teams that have a chance to pull off the upset and take the conference crown in March -- extending down to disappointing ninth-place Wisconsin.

^ Depending on your point of view, the SEC is either awash in mediocrity or a poor man's version of the Big East where everyone is beating each other's brains in. Regardless, Florida and LSU are the only teams at the moment who are a full-blown collapse away from missing the NCAA tournament. Kentucky is a team that could cause a lot of problems for higher-rated teams if they make it to the big tournament in March.

^ The Pac 10 has been an interesting conference, with UCLA the cream of the crop once again, but this time trying to get their offensive game in gear so that they can make yet another return trip to the Final Four. There are several other teams who look to be ready for March, with USC a bit of a disappointment as a bubble team right now.

^ Two of the big boys in the mid-majors are going to square off today when Memphis invades the Pacific Northwest to take on Gonzaga. Other mid-major bullies are faring well as usual, including Xavier, Butler (who is fending off expected rival Cleveland State by a comfortable margin) and Utah State.

Essentially, unless the second half of conference play and the conference tournaments deliver more predictable results, the NCAA selection committee is going to have a heck of a time seeding teams in a manner that reflects their true value. As such, there should be upsets galore from top to bottom. Those filling out office pool brackets (or participating in a fantasy bracket pool along the lines of the game we invented at should pay more attention than ever to individual matchups in each game.

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