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Mike Lopresti | NCAA.com | March 4, 2019

7 teams on the cusp of conference titles no one saw coming

Power 36: Last push towards Selection Sunday

Well, you can send those predictions through the paper shredder.

The conference races are down to their final days — if they’re not settled already — and one thing is clear. A lot of preseason forecasts were looking the wrong direction.

LSU, for instance. The Tigers were picked to finish sixth in the SEC, way back in the line, while Kentucky and Tennessee squabbled for the hardware up front. Instead, LSU goes into the final week tied for the lead, put there by a rather wondrous 8-0 conference road record.

Texas Tech was picked seventh in the Big 12, where — of, course — Kansas was supposed to rule. The Jayhawks win it every year, as regular a sight in March as the vernal equinox. The Red Raiders last won it in . . . well, they never have. Not once. But they’re tied for the lead with Kansas State going into the final week.

WHO'S GONNA TAKE IT? We're tracking the Big 12 race here | Every conference tournament schedule

VCU was a seventh-place prediction in the Atlantic 10, off in the distance behind frontrunner Saint Louis. But the Rams, winners of 10 in a row, have clinched at least a share of the title, and it’s Saint Louis in seventh place.

Utah State was picked ninth in the Mountain West, where Nevada was thought to be alone at the top. It was that way for a while. But the Aggies just beat Nevada to move into a half-game conference lead.

Drake was supposed to finish ninth in the Missouri Valley Conference, with only two returning letter winners, and 10 newcomers. Forget it. The Bulldogs’ first league title in 11 years — a share of it, anyway — is already in the bag.

Sam Houston State was picked for sixth in the Southland, basically a non-contender. Yeah, right. The Bearkats just clinched the season title outright, and at 15-1 are three games ahead of second place.

The Big Ten was thought to be largely a Great Lakes State issue, settled between Michigan and Michigan State. Certainly not a Purdue team that started the season 6-5, and supposedly had only one player of impact. But look who just maneuvered through the debris of Michigan and Michigan State upsets to get into the lead down the home stretch? Yep, the Boilermakers.

You could tell Saturday things had grown a tad bizarre in the Big Ten when Purdue’s home crowd loudly cheered the announcement that . . . Indiana had won. Indiana? That’s because it was Michigan State the Hoosiers had beaten.

UPSET: 3 takeaways from Indiana's win over No. 6 Michigan State

So kindly disregard a lot of what was predicted last October. Things have changed over the winter.

LSU, the team that went 2-7 on the conference road in 2018, is unbeaten out there this season. The last time they did that was 1981, and they ended up in the Final Four. They’ve scoffed at a lot of history. They won in the last second at Rupp Arena, where they had been 5-45. They won Saturday at Alabama’s Coleman Coliseum, where they had been 8-41. They’ve won three road games in overtime -- and another at home. Not hard to see magic at work in all that.

“Our guys kind of enjoy that us against the world, when it’s just 30 of us versus 10 or 12,000 of the other folks,” coach Will Wade said. “We don’t get real flustered. We have a poise about us you need to have on the road.”

He also mentioned better rebounding, which helps avoid those crowd roar-inducing long runs by the home team that can get a visitor mashed.

“You don’t want to go on the road as a jump shooting team,” he said. “Last year when we went on the road, if our shots went in, we could hang in there. And if not, it was going to be over, and over very quickly. And it was probably going to be pretty ugly.”

Nothing ugly about this: LSU has the league title in sight, with one last trip to Florida and a home game with Vanderbilt.

“At this point you want to be playing for something. I don’t think it’s pressure, I think it’s opportunity,” Wade said. “We were predicted sixth, I don’t think anybody thought we’d be in this situation. We’ve got nothing but opportunity in front of us.

"I said this last year, but it’s true. Pressure is a privilege. We could be playing for nothing right now.”

By this time of the conference season, that’s what Texas Tech and everyone else in the Big 12 are often doing when it comes to league titles. Kansas has been in control since this year’s college freshmen were thinking about going to kindergarten. But there are cracks in the Jayhawks' dynasty, and the Red Raiders have crashed through with a seven-game winning streak and a defense that has allowed 70 points only three times all season. As of the weekend, Texas Tech was second in the nation in scoring and field goal percentage defense.

This might describe Texas Tech’s relentless nature: The Red Raiders have led by double digits at halftime in eight of their last nine games. Including by 25 — 25! — against Kansas.

“We always feel like we are the underdogs and have a chip on our shoulder,” coach Chris Beard said. “That’s just us.”

Andy Katz catches up with Texas Tech's Tariq Owens and Jarrett Culver

Havoc has returned at VCU. The program once renowned for its pressure defense ways under Shaka Smart has resumed normal operations under Mike Rhoades, forcing opponents into more than 16 turnovers a game and allowing only 27.7 shooting from the 3-point line, third-best in the nation. “This time of year, you’ve got to find a way to win,” Rhoades said. One way VCU is doing it is with depth. The Rams have outscored opponents this season in bench points, 616-386.

Drake needed name tags when the season began with all the new faces. That included the coach. Darian DeVries had paid his dues as an assistant for two decades at Creighton, and arrived at Drake with one returning starter in the program – Nick McGlynn. No matter. McGlynn has had a league player-of-the-year type of season, and the 23-8 record gives DeVries the second most victories of any new coach in the country.

The only guy ahead of him is Craig Smith, with his 24-6 record at Utah State. “I just can’t put it into words right now how huge of a win this was for our program,” Smith said after beating Nevada.

How do you go from ninth place prediction to knocking down the conference heavyweight? Consider where the Aggies ranked nationally as of last weekend in several categories: Fifth in rebound margin, ninth in field goal defense, 11th in assists per game, 20th in scoring margin. The Aggie straw who stirs the drink, junior guard Sam Merrill, has played 241 out of 245 minutes the past six games.

MOUNTAIN WEST SURPRISE: Utah State upsets No. 12 Nevada to slide into first place

Want a nice, round number to explain Sam Houston State’s rise? Sure, 300. That’s how many 3-pointers the Delaney twins — Cameron and Josh— have combined to take. By the way, they’ve made 119 of them. Hence, the Splash Brothers.

Then there’s Purdue. The Boilermakers were expected to rise or fall with Carsen Edwards, but there was always the question what would happen the nights he didn't have his A game. The questions grew louder when Purdue struggled early in the season, looking very much like a one-man band.

Not anymore. Edwards went 4-for-19 against Michigan State. The Boilermakers won. He was 4-for-24 at Indiana and 3-for-16 at Nebraska. That’s 7-for-40, which is not exactly going to get a guy named conference player of the week. Purdue won both games, anyway. The Boilermakers have managed to cover up most nightly flaws, and it helps they get to play half their league games in Mackey Arena. They’ve won 38 of their last 39 home games.

So there they are, the Surprising Seven. A lot of title contention no one saw coming from that bunch. Probably a lot of conference coach of the year awards too.

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