February is when the conference races get serious. No wonder the first weekend of the month had a lot of stories to tell.
1. The Big Ten wave
The league may flood over Selection Sunday like a high tide — do we hear 10 bids in the NCAA Tournament field? 11? 12? — but for now, Michigan State and Illinois share the lead, with six teams within 1 1/2 games of the top. Six. The high temperature of the competition was on display Sunday when Iowa beat Illinois 72-65 despite getting outscored 29-0 in bench points. This says a lot: Ohio State was once ranked No.3 in the nation, Michigan No. 4. They’re now tied for 11th place in the Big Ten standings.
2. There's mayhem in the Big East
The league’s three ranked teams — Seton Hall, Villanova and Butler — all had home games Saturday against unranked opponents, with the chance to keep the fires burning. Oops. All three lost. Xavier pounded Seton Hall with a 51-22 rebounding dominance, Creighton’s hot shooting snapped Villanova’s 16-game home conference winning streak, and Providence’s defense hurried Butler into 1-for-14 in 3-pointers.
Seton Hall enters February with a one-game lead over Villanova and two over Creighton, and still must play both twice. Here’s a hint about Big East balance: DePaul is last with a 1-8 conference record, but beat Butler, took Villanova into overtime and led Seton Hall late in the second half in both their meetings.
3. Louisville is the ACC road warrior
The Cardinals’ 77-57 win at North Carolina State —never mind their 10 turnovers and 10 fouls in the first 10:22 — has Louisville at 6-0 in the road in ACC, including the trip to Duke. That makes a resume glow. The Cardinals are 1 1/2 games up in the standings on the Blue Devils and Florida State.
Meanwhile, Cole Anthony’s 26-point return could not save North Carolina against Boston College. The 71-70 defeat left the Tar Heels with one of the season’s most inexplicable stats — six losses in their last eight games at the Smith Center. Welcome to 13th place in the ACC. The road ahead is not gentle, either. They must still travel to Louisville, and Duke, and Florida State.
4. LSU is under the SEC radar
Now that the football celebrations are over and Joe Burrow is getting ready for the NFL draft, anyone notice that the Tigers have won 10 basketball games in a row? Or that they’re 8-0 in the SEC, and 24-2 in regular season conference play the past two years, the only defeats by one point to Arkansas and in overtime to Florida? That shiny record is about to get a road test. Five of their next seven games are away from Baton Rouge, including at Auburn next Saturday.
The first SEC question is always – where’s Kentucky? The Wildcats are two games back, tied with Auburn, the team that just beat them for the fourth time in their past seven meetings.
5. Baylor’s special season continues
The Bears are not only No. 1 in the polls, but atop the Big 12 by one game over Kansas. Historic glory awaits if they can stay there, since their last league season title was 1950. They’ve already beaten the Jayhawks in Lawrence and will try to do it again in Waco. If it comes down to the final game of the regular season, that won’t be easy for Baylor — at West Virginia. Bob Huggins has the Mountaineers back to playing gritty defense, and is not afraid to try different looks. He used 11 players in the first three minutes in Saturday’s 66-57 win at Kansas State.
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6. There's a crowd at the top in the Pac-12
Oregon still leads the conference after the Stanford loss, but the Ducks have three league defeats. So do four other teams. Eight teams are within two games of the lead. It might end up a cavalry charge.
7. San Diego State’s quest in the Mountain West
Forget the conference race. The 23-0 Aztecs have a 4 ½-game lead, and with only six league games left, might clinch by Valentine’s Day. The issue is, can they can run the table with that zero on the right side of the hyphen of their record? There’s not an opponent left on the schedule who, as of Sunday, was in the top 90 of the NCAA’s NET rankings.
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8. Gonzaga is in charge of the West Coast
The Zags’ league dominance is a given; witness the three-game gap already over the rest of the membership. But not every night has been a pleasure cruise. They struggled at home against Pepperdine, and Saturday had to rally from 12 points back to win at San Francisco, 83-79. They still have trips to Saint Mary’s and BYU. A season league title seems in the bag, a perfect conference record, maybe not so much yet.
9. Tulsa in the American? Yep, Tulsa
The Golden Hurricane were picked to finish 10th in the conference. They now have first place to themselves — a half-game ahead of Houston and Cincinnati — after an extraordinary stretch. They held conference co-favorite Houston to one point the last 5:30 to win 63-61, blew away the other co-favorite — No. 20 ranked Memphis — by 40 points, and Saturday stunned No. 23 Wichita State 54-51 on Elijah Joiner’s 3-pointer as time expired. That one had 10 lead changes the second half. Why was Joiner weeping afterward? His father was in the stands, watching him play for the first time. The Tulsa story just gets better and better. The last season the Golden Hurricane beat two ranked opponents at home was 1968-69.
10. Dayton’s surge in the Atlantic 10
Suddenly, the only team close to the Flyers in the standings is Rhode Island, a game behind. They have two meetings in February. Another hurdle for Dayton will be the trip to VCU. For now, the Flyers have been purring along in the Associated Press top-25 for nine consecutive weeks, and the last time that happened was 1956.
11. The new kids on the block in the Northeast
Merrimack’s first season as a Division I program began with a 20-point thrashing by Maine. Two nights later, the Warriors beat the Big Ten’s Northwestern. They haven’t slowed down much since, and their 70-59 win over Long Island Saturday not only gave them a one-game lead in the Northeast, but 15 victories overall. The record for reclassifying first-year programs is 16, by California Baptist. Odd thing, Merrimack is not eligible yet for league postseason play, so the Northeast conference tournament might be played without the regular- season champion.
12. The top and the bottom of the Missouri Valley Conference
Northern Iowa’s 19-3 record includes wins over Colorado and South Carolina and a close call with West Virginia, so the Panthers certainly fit as MVC leaders. But Loyola Chicago and Southern Illinois are in their rearview mirror, one game behind. Meanwhile, a remarkable and stunning change of fortune is way down the standings in last place. There sits Evansville, its coach fired, its conference record 0-10, its overall mark 9-14. That upset of Kentucky in Lexington was only just under three two months ago, not 10 years like it seems.
13. Hofstra on the move in the Colonial
It was a big week for the Pride with two 23-point wins on the road, including at league leader William & Mary. That has Hofstra in a three-way tie for the top, and owner of a nation-leading nine true road victories. The folks in the general vicinity of Pauley Pavilion don’t need reminding that the first of the nine was at UCLA, and by 10 points.
14. Look who’s rolling in the Southland
Speaking of postscripts to big upsets, Stephen F. Austin has opened a two-game conference lead. The 19-3 overall record includes, in case anyone has forgotten, a certain magical late November night at Duke. It’s the only overtime game the Lumberjacks have played all season. But that’s not why anyone remembers it.
15. North Texas and Louisiana Tech in part one of the Conference USA race
The C-USA has its own way of doing things, in stages, sorta like the Tour de France. First, the regularly scheduled 14-game league schedule ends on Feb. 15. Then, teams will be grouped into pods by the standings for more games. Bonus Play, they call it. Anyway, North Texas and Louisiana Tech are co-leaders and probable future pod cohabitants.
16. Ja Morant has taken his pyrotechnics to the NBA, but Murray State has kept winning, and is 10-0 in the Ohio Valley. Same record for Austin Peay, so it should be fun when they meet twice in February.
17. Eleven wins in a row have New Mexico State two up in the WAC, standard operating procedure for a program that has been to seven NCAA Tournaments the past eight years.
18. Just like seven consecutive victories have Vermont ahead and looking for a three-peat in the America East.
19. Life-on-the-edge Bowling Green has taken charge of the East Division in the MAC with eight consecutive victories — by a combined 32 points.
20. Furman took Auburn to overtime. East Tennessee State handled LSU by 11. So it’s probably no shocker they share the Southern Conference lead.
21. North Florida is the most prolific 3-point team in the nation, making 12.3 a game. Liberty is eighth nationally in 3-point defense. They make a nice couple sharing first in the Atlantic Sun.
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22. Winthrop has won 12 in a row to take command in the Big South.
23. Wright State leads Northern Kentucky in the Horizon by a game. If that keeps up — and Dayton keeps winning down the road — the Ohio city could have two season conference champions.
24. Once Texas Southern was done with its usual non-conference life of hard knocks, the 3-10 Tigers could regroup and move to the head of the SWAC.
25. Just as formerly 3-11 North Carolina A&T has done in the MEAC. But then, November is for challenging yourself out of conference. February is for staking a claim on your league.