We’re not sure who coined the phrase, but we here at RTC like to talk about conference play as a “family” ordeal, and it’s an apt analogy. For the power league schools who have spent the first half of the college basketball season traveling around to take part in various tournaments and other non-conference games against teams they’re generally going to beat, the new year brings with it better competition and recognition of those old familiar faces. Not only is there an upshot in the talent level of the opposition on a nightly basis as well as a team’s oft-first exposure to a hostile road environment, but familiarity through wars of years past usually means that teams are no longer intimidated by the names on the front of the jersey. Witness how Georgia beat Kentucky, Colorado knocked off Missouri and West Virginia downed Georgetown over the weekend — these teams see each other every year (often multiple times), so they’re familiar with all the beauty marks and warts, angels and skeletons, patterns and pretenses, associated with each. Like we said, it’s akin to sitting down at the dinner table with your own family — there’s only so much BS you can throw before your big brother or mom will stare at you with an eye-roll and call your bluff.
With so much action every weekend the rest of the season, what we’d like to do with this column is briefly examine the major conferences post-mortem (probably Mondays) to see what important or interesting things happened that weekend. This is not meant to supplant our After the Buzzer: Weekend Edition series nor encroach too heavily on our Checking In On… series for each of these leagues, but we feel that it’ll be an interesting way to track each conference race for those of us who might have a favorite league but want to lightly keep tabs on the others each week as well.
Power Conference Rankings
1. Big East.
The nation’s best conference now has ten teams rated in the top 32 of KenPom, eight in the AP Top 25, seven in the Coaches Poll, and six in the RTC poll. Talk has already developed about all of those teams (plus St. John’s as an eleventh) making the NCAA Tournament’s expanded field, and if the Tourney were seeded today, that would be reasonable. But what’s not being said is that one, two or possibly three of these teams will tank and tank hard. We saw it with Georgetown a couple of seasons ago and UConn last year — the brutal scheduling that the Big East requires simply is too much for some teams to handle.
Georgetown is starting to look like one of those teams. The Hoyas are at 1-3 with Saturday’s home loss to WVU with a home date against Pittsburgh looming on Wednesday night. 1-4 is nowhere you want to be in this league, especially with four games still to come against top ten teams Syracuse (twice), UConn and Villanova. When the guards aren’t scoring, the Hoyas sputter. Where’s Greg Monroe when you need him?
Perhaps no team has been more disappointing than Providence in the early going. Keno Davis’ team got off to a nice 11-2 nonconference start with a close loss to BC and a stinker to LaSalle as the only blemishes. Marshon Brooks has played great, upping his scoring average by nearly 10 PPG and doubling his rebounding numbers from a year ago. But after a weekend loss to Rutgers on Saturday, the Friars are now 0-4, effectively a death sentence in this league.
To win this league, you need away wins to supplement a superb home record. The top five teams — Pittsburgh, Syracuse, Villanova, Louisville, Marquette — all have one, but oddly, a pair of mid-pack teams — St. John’s and West Virginia — already have two. It’s worth mentioning to be wary of teams that only win at home — we’re looking at you, Notre Dame (3-2) and Cincinnati (2-1).
2. Big Ten.
Minnesota is the team in this league that the schedulers did no favors for this year. After three road games to Wisconsin, Michigan State and Ohio State, the Gophers are rather predictably 1-3. They were competitive in each game, even missing a game-tying shot at the buzzer against OSU, but close only gets you so far. Now they’ve learned that Trevor Mbakwe has gotten himself into hot water again and could potentially miss games just in time for a home game (and must-win) against 4-0 Purdue.
- Northwestern saved itself from a sure-fire road to nowhere by beating Indiana on Sunday to stave off an 0-4 league start. Having done themselves few favors in the non-conference slate (Georgia Tech is their best win), you’d have to figure that a 10-8 conference record would be good enough, a 9-9 record would be borderline, and an 8-10 record would be suspect. To get to 10-8 requires a 9-5 finish, a doable prospect considering that the schedule lightens up from here on out — the Wildcats are going to have to win some road games over bottom-half teams, though, starting tomorrow night at Iowa.
- Penn State and Michigan this year appear to be the two teams that will cause numerous headaches for the elites as they claw over each other to try to win the Big Ten and earn a high seed in the NCAA Tournament. Both teams proved capable last weekend with PSU defeating Michigan State and Michigan taking Kansas to overtime, so it behooves the Buckeyes, Illini and Boilermakers of the world to take these teams seriously, home or away.
- Careful with Purdue. Matt Painter is an exceptional coach and his team has handled the loss of Robbie Hummel (again) very well on the way to a 15-1 (4-0) start. But the Big Ten schedule lays out nicely for the Boilers through the first seven games; if they can beat Minnesota without Mbakwe tomorrow night, they’ll have a great shot at going 7-0 prior to a late January trip to Columbus. Then February is brutal.