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Rick Nixon | | February 6, 2014

Notes: Breaking down conference races

St. John's

Forty days from Selection Monday (March 17), conference races are now less than a month out from being decided with conference tournaments to follow. Time is ticking on teams looking to inflate their tournament resumes while schools position themselves for automatic qualification, at-large selection or possibly playing their way out of consideration. 

Here is a closer look at the 17 conferences that make up the East and West regions. We will focus on conferences in the Mideast and Midwest regions next week.

East Region
America East
Seeking a second consecutive ticket to the Big Dance in 2014, Albany is again the team to beat in the America East. Winners of 11 consecutive games, the Great Danes (20‐3 overall and 10‐0 in conference play) are on a roll. A non-conference win against Marist is on their resume. Come conference tournament time, Albany will need to keep close watch on New Hampshire and Stony Brook.

American Athletic
is one of two undefeated teams in the country, along with Notre Dame, but have not been able to shake Louisville from the co-leader spot in the American Athletic Conference. The Huskies (24‐0, 11‐0), are No. 1 in the latest Associated Press Top 25 poll and lead the nation in eight different statistical categories. Wins against Stanford, Maryland, Penn State and Duke have helped to make the Huskies the top dog in the land, but not backing down easily is Louisville, which is now 23-1 and 11-0.  The Cardinals boast non‐conference wins against LSU and Oklahoma, with the only loss suffered at Kentucky. Two of the top national games in the next month will involve these two heavyweights, with Louisville playing at Connecticut on Sunday, while Connecticut will travel to Louisville on March 3. Connecticut’s bench strength took a hit last week when forward Morgan Tuck underwent season-ending microfracture surgery on her right knee, leaving the program with just eight scholarship players among 11 roster spots.

Atlantic 10
Nine games into the Atlantic 10 Conference season and little has been decided. To say the race is wide open is an understatement with as many as seven teams in the hunt for the regular-season title. Dayton (14-5, 7-1) has moved into the conference lead and is being chased closely by Duquesne (16‐7, 8‐2), St. Bonaventure (18-6, 7-2), Fordham (18-5, 7-3), George Washington (16-7, 7-3), Saint Joseph’s (17-6, 6-4) and LaSalle (11-11, 6-4). The final games of the regular season and conference tournament promise to be entertaining.

Atlantic Coast
No team had a better last week than Notre Dame, with three Atlantic Coast victories, including statement road wins at Maryland and Duke behind the strong play of guard Kayla McBride. Improving to 21‐0 and 8‐0, the Fighting Irish are the No. 2 team in the latest AP poll behind Connecticut and have the second-best RPI behind Stanford. Showing no signs of letting up, Notre Dame has several more tough tests to take against Florida State (Thursday), at home versus Duke (Feb. 23) and North Carolina (Feb. 27). The list of potential challengers behind Notre Dame is deep with five of the challengers among the top 14 in the latest AP poll. Duke (21‐2, 8‐1), NC State, (19‐3, 6‐2), Maryland (17‐4, 5‐3), North Carolina (17‐5, 5‐3) and Syracuse (16‐6, 5‐4) are all treading water in the conference race while looking to build upon their quality wins.

Big East
With old conference rivals Connecticut, Notre Dame and Louisville now leading other conferences, St. John’s (17‐5, 10‐1) is enjoying life on top of the new Big East Conference. The Red Storm have won nine consecutive games and have moved to the top of the standings by going 4‐0 against the other top teams in the league. Wins on St. John’s resume include Texas A&M, Creighton and DePaul. Giving chase are DePaul (18‐5, 9‐2), which has won seven in a row, Creighton (14‐9, 8‐3), Villanova (17‐5, 7‐4) and Marquette (15‐6, 6‐4).

Big South
Winthrop is in the lead with five other teams within one game of the top spot. The Eagles (16-6, 10-3) have cost themselves a chance to secure an even larger lead with conference losses to Gardner‐Webb, Liberty and Campbell. Winners of five in a row, High Point (13‐8, 9‐3) is second, lurking a half-game out. Key game could be the next to last game of the regular season on Feb. 27 when High Point travels to Winthrop. Winthrop won the first meeting between the two schools, 79-72.

Colonial Athletic
James Madison (17‐4, 7‐0) has opened conference play with seven consecutive wins and lead by two games on Drexel (10-10, 5-2). Receiving votes in the latest AP poll, the Dukes have won their Colonial games by an average of 26.9 points and boast a plus-18.0 scoring margin. Senior guard Kirby Burkholder leads the team with an average of 18.1 points per game. James Madison’s resume features wins against UCLA, St. John’s and Virginia.

Ivy League
Five teams are in the hunt for the automatic bid from the Ivy League by virtue of the regular-season title, as the Ivy does not play a conference tournament. Harvard (13-5, 3-1), Cornell (11-7, 3-1) and Yale (9-9, 3-1) are currently tied on top, followed closely by Penn (12-5, 2-1) and Princeton (11‐6, 2‐1). Harvard’s win at Princeton was negated by a loss at Penn. Undefeated at home this season, Harvard will play six of the final eight games at Levietes Pavilion in Boston.  

Metro Atlantic Athletic
Outside of Connecticut and Notre Dame, Iona (19‐2/12‐0) is one of the nation’s hottest teams and have posted 17 consecutive victories. Possessing a potent inside‐outside attack, the Gaels defeated conference rival Marist (17-5, 11-1) on the road, 73‐71 in the first meeting. The conference championship could be decided on March 2 in the final game of the regular season when Marist plays at Iona.

Robert Morris
(12‐9, 8‐2) had won seven consecutive games before a Monday loss to Wagner tightened the conference race. Sacred Heart (10-11, 7-3) and Saint Francis (Pa.) (9-12, 7-3) lurk closely behind. Sacred Heart defeated Robert Morris 71-57 in the first meeting this season between the two schools with the game played at Sacred Heart. Key upcoming game is the rematch between the two schools on Monday.

Patriot League
The conference race is up for grabs between traditional rivals Navy and Army. Navy (18‐4, 10-1) had won 10 in a row, including a win against Army (16-5, 8-2), before a Saturday loss to Lafayette. One of the nation’s top 3-point shooting teams, Navy will play host to Army on Saturday in an important matchup that will go a long way in deciding the Patriot regular-season title.

West Region
Big Sky

North Dakota (14-6, 9-2) and Montana (13-6, 7-3) have risen to the top of tightly contested race for the Big Sky regular-season championship. One game separates the two by virtue of North Dakota’s 62-57 home win against the Grizzlies on Jan. 16. The two teams meet again on Feb. 15 in Missoula, Mont. North Dakota was recently energized by the return of sophomore forward Mia Loyd to the starting lineup after three games to provide 22 points, six rebounds, a steal and an assist in the win against Portland State this past weekend.

Big West
Winners of five in a row, including two conference overtime wins against Hawaii and Long Beach State, have propelled Cal Poly (13-8, 7-1) to the top spot in the Big West standings. Cal State Northridge (10-12, 6-2), Long Beach State (12-9, 4-3), Hawaii (10-9, 4-3) and UC Davis (9-11, 4-3) are all within striking distance. Looming for Cal Poly are three consecutive road games at Hawaii (Saturday), Cal State Northridge (Feb. 13) and Long Beach State (Feb. 15).

Mountain West
Winners of 13 of the past 14 games, Colorado State (17-4, 9-1) has jumped out to a two-game advantage in the Mountain West on Fresno State (13-8, 7-3) and Boise State (12-9, 7-3). An impressive 7-1 on the road this season, Colorado State’s nine conference victories are the most in two years, with the current six-game winning streak being the longest in Mountain West action for the Rams since 2000-01.

The Pac-12 is as deep as it has been in quite some time, with eight schools boasting 12 wins or more. Touting the nations’s No. 1 RPI, Stanford (21-1, 10-0) is again in the conference lead. The Cardinal suffered their lone defeat on Nov. 11 against Connecticut. Arizona State (20-3, 9-2) has had a big season, while Southern California (14-9, 7-4), California (14-7, 6-4), Washington State (12-10, 6-4), Oregon State (13-9, 5-5), Washington (12-9, 5-5) and UCLA (11-12, 5-6) will all be looking to build their championship resumes during the last month.

West Coast
The West Coast is loaded with impressive resumes, with four teams above the 17-win mark. Winners of 10 in a row, Gonzaga (20-3, 10-1) has a two-game lead on St. Mary’s (Calif.) (18-4, 8-3). San Diego (18-4, 7-4) and BYU (17-5, 7-4) are also in the conversation. Gonzaga’s Feb. 27 home game with St. Mary’s could go a long way in deciding the regular-season champion.

Western Athletic
Idaho (15-7, 8-0) is seeking a second consecutive NCAA tournament bid and leads the Western Athletic Conference by two games against Cal State Bakersfield (12-8, 6-2). Undefeated in 2014, the Vandals have reeled off eight consecutive victories.
Team depth
IUPUI is one of four teams this season that can boast having every player on the roster score in double figures at least once this season. The Jaguars, who trail South Dakota State by one game in the Summit League standings, have had all 12 players on the roster score in double figures. The other three teams with all roster players hitting double figures are Florida Atlantic and George Washington (11 players each) and Florida (nine players). The combined record of the four teams is 60-27.

Scoring title up for grabs
Jerica Coley of FIU and Odyssey Sims of Baylor are currently in one of the best scoring title races in recent memory. Sims, averaging 30.0 points per game, has a slim advantage on Coley (29.8). Huge all season, Sims has been even better in Big 12 Conference play, averaging 31.0 points per game. In FIU’s most recent game on Wednesday, Coley was held well below her average with 20 points, but was still able to lead the Panthers to a 53-40 win at UTSA. The win was the 700th career victory for head coach Cindy Russo.

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