College basketball: Five competitive conference races down the stretch
It seems like just yesterday that the 2016-17 college basketball season got underway with Indiana beating Kansas in an overtime classic, but believe it or not we’re more than two-thirds of the way done with the regular season.
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As of Friday morning, 14 teams are unbeaten in conference play:
|Conference USA||Middle Tennessee|
|Missouri Valley||Illinois State|
|Sun Belt||Georgia Southern|
|Western||New Mexico State|
This by no means says that those conferences are locked up, but it’s clear who the frontrunners are. But in many other conferences, it’s anybody’s guess who will come out on top with major head-to-head matchups looming.
Now that the Ivy League is on board starting this year, every conference has a tournament to decide its automatic bid. Still, for the purposes of NCAA tournament seeding, conference tournament byes and good ol’ pride, it’s always in a team’s best interest to finish atop the standings.
Here are five of the most intriguing one-on-one races over the final weeks of the regular season.
Cincinnati vs. SMU
Cincinnati has been a very good under-the-radar squad this year, moving up to 18-2 overall with a win over archrival Xavier on Thursday. While that win over a Big East team didn’t help the Bearcats’ conference standings, it didn’t need to when the team controls its own destiny at 7-0 in AAC play.
Mick Cronin’s team has been somewhat of a giant killer in the conference, handing Tulsa its only two losses, and, the biggest win to date, beating SMU by two points a couple of weeks ago.
The Mustangs made Cincinnati really earn the win on its home floor, erasing a 15-point deficit to have a shot at taking the lead with seven seconds left, but a Sterling Brown 3-pointer was off the mark.
Now SMU can look forward to getting a chance for revenge on Feb. 12 on its home floor. The Mustangs will have to survive a trip to Tulsa next Saturday to make that game really count, but if they go in with one loss it should be a great atmosphere in Dallas.
Baylor vs. Kansas
Arguably the two best teams to share a conference, the Bears and Jayhawks are yet to meet for either of their two regular-season matchups.
Both teams currently stand at 7-1 in conference play, with West Virginia’s furious full-court pressing tripping up the pair. Kansas will get the first crack at hosting the matchup when Baylor visits Allen Fieldhouse on Wednesday.
The No. 5 Bears were the toast of the basketball world through their first 13 games, winning 10 of them by double figures in a perfect start that included wins over Oregon, Louisville and Xavier. But things have looked much shakier from there, with their last six wins coming by an average of just 6.3 points, and of course the 89-68 thrashing at West Virginia.
Meanwhile, Kansas, which is in the middle of a daunting three-game stretch that started with a loss at the Mountaineers before traveling to Kentucky on Saturday and then the showdown with Baylor, has been its usual steady self. The Jayhawks have been unbeatable at home but vulnerable on the road, with both TCU and Iowa State giving them scares. That makes the fact that Game 1 of the head-to-head series will be played in Lawrence, Kansas, on Wednesday a big factor.
Bill Self has led Kansas to 12 straight conference titles, and the team is in good shape to keep it going. But Baylor will certainly have its chances to dethrone the Jayhawks.
Butler vs. Villanova
A few days ago, it seemed like Villanova would take the lead and never look back. The current No. 1 team has looked every bit like the defending national champion, rarely showing any signs of vulnerability.
The Wildcats started 19-1 overall and 7-1 in Big East play, with that only loss coming at Butler on Jan. 4. While it was a nice win for Butler, it seemed like a conference-play-opening loss at St. John’s might put the Bulldogs in a hole they couldn’t climb out of, especially win the win over Villanova was followed two games later by a second loss at Creighton.
But Villanova was stunned at Marquette on Tuesday, leaving the door wide open for the Bulldogs. Butler has a relatively soft schedule over the next month, leaving the Feb. 22 trip to Villanova circled bright red on everyone’s calendars. Should both teams take care of business before then and in their final two games afterwards, that could be a winner-take-all matchup for the regular-season title.
Illinois State vs. Wichita State
We had to give one mid-major conference some love. The Redbirds and Shockers have lapped the field this year, standing at 9-0 and 8-1, respectively, while the rest of the conference is a combined 28-44.
As one might predict, Wichita State’s one loss came in a trip to Normal, Illinois. The Redbirds ended the first half on a 15-3 run and didn’t look back, topping the Shockers 76-62. Now the rematch looms on the horizon, with the Shockers anxiously waiting for Feb. 4.
Should the Redbirds top Markis McDuffie and company on the road, they should run away to their first regular-season title since 1991. But if Wichita State holds down its home court, it could be nightly upset watch in the Missouri Valley Conference, with chippy teams like Northern Iowa, Loyola (Ill.) and Missouri State looking to mess things up for one of the teams gridlocked at the top.
Arizona vs. Oregon
Only the Ivy League and Pac-12 feature two unbeaten teams (though the former only has a few conference games under its belt). It should be a great race down the stretch between Arizona and Oregon, two teams that sit at 8-0 in conference play and 19-2 overall.
Make no mistake about it, the Pac-12 is much more than just those two. UCLA was once ranked as high as No. 2, though back-to-back losses have really set the Bruins back in the standings, while Southern California began the year 14-0 and just took down UCLA on Wednesday. But with the rest of the conference well off the pace now, it should just be the Wildcats or Ducks competing for the regular-season crown.
Much to the delight of Oregon fans and dismay of college basketball fans who want to see more than one edition of this matchup, the Ducks will host the only meeting between the two on Feb. 4. And it should be a tremendous matchup, with Arizona, arguably the most well-balanced team in the nation, especially after Allonzo Trier’s return, but Oregon is no slouch itself. Each team features five double-digit scorers and is shooting 48 percent as a team.
Don’t be surprised to see a rematch in the Pac-12 championship, but for now the contest in Eugene, Oregon, is one of the biggest games remaining on the regular-season schedule.
A few more:
Stony Brook vs. Vermont
Vermont hasn't been topped in conference play yet, starting off with a 7-0 record, but it still has two meetings with 6-1 Stony Brook on the schedule, including one at Vermont on Saturday.
Green Bay vs. Valparaiso
Valpo, the preseason favorite, has not disappointed to this point, carrying a 6-1 record in conference play. That's one ahead in the loss column of 6-2 Green Bay, courtesy of a 80-56 thrashing on Jan. 16. They will square off again in Wisconsin on Feb. 4 in a must-win for the Phoenix.
Monmouth vs. St Peter's
St. Peter's sits one game back in the loss column thanks in large part to a win at home over Monmouth on Jan. 2. The Peacocks will likely have to do it again at Monmouth next week to have a chance to pull it off.
Fairleigh Dickinson vs. Mount St. Mary's
The two teams didn't have a good time in non-conference play, with Farleigh Dickinson going 2-9 and Mount St. Mary's putting up a 2-11 mark, but they have turned it around with matching 8-1 record in conference season. Mount St. Mary's took the first head-to-head meeting 77-70 on Jan. 12, but the two will meet again on Feb. 18.