As college basketball gears up for the stretch run of the regular season, several highly competitive conference races will take center stage. Here’s a look at the top-five most important and interesting conference races across the country:
1)The Big 12: Kansas has won at least a share of the regular season conference championship each of the past seven seasons. But the strong play of Baylor and Missouri has put the chances of another Jayhawks’ title in peril. Frank Haith, a strong contender for national coach of the year honors, led the Tigers to a win over Kansas on Saturday night. And Kansas has no time to relax; it travels to Waco, Texas, to play Baylor on Wednesday. What makes this race even more fascinating is that all three teams are in contention for No. 1 seeds in the NCAA tournament.
2)The ACC: Make no mistake, the league’s depth is highly suspect and the conference is ranked as the nation’s sixth-strongest league, behind the Mountain West Conference. But here’s the interesting part: Folks like to hand the conference crown to North Carolina or Duke before the season starts. The same sentiment was prevalent this preseason. And look who has come to crash that party: Florida State. The Seminoles’ style of play is not always easy on the eyes. And during non-league play, they lost to two Ivy League teams — no shame in the Harvard loss, though — and looked like they’d struggle to sneak into the NCAAs. All they have done since is beat Duke at Cameron and torch North Carolina by 33 points. Their remaining schedule is favorable.
3)The Big Ten: Let’s face it, this is the nation’s strongest league from top to bottom and, barring a dramatic shakeup, has become a two-horse race featuring Ohio State and Michigan State. Ohio State’s victory at Wisconsin on Saturday showed the Buckeyes to be the favorites, but they still host Michigan State on Feb. 11. And here’s the thing about the Big Ten: There are really no nights off. You are looking at at least eight of the league’s 12 teams making the NCAA tournament. Even Iowa and Nebraska, teams that will not earn at-large bids, have been particularly competitive on occasion. The winner of this regular season race will have earned it.
4)The Atlantic 10: Laugh if you want, but this is the nation’s seventh-best league — stronger than the Pac-12 — and for good reason. Four teams could reach the NCAAs, although three of them may receive double-digit seeds. As of Monday, six teams are within one game in the loss column of first place in the standings. Temple is probably the league’s best team, but the Owls can ill-afford a slip-up given the scrum at the top of the standings. Regardless of who emerges with the regular season crown, a highly competitive league tournament should ensue in Atlantic City in March, and it could yield a surprise winner.
5)Colonial Athletic Association: The CAA has been stronger in the past. This is a one-bid league this season. The conference tournament in Richmond will be a fight for that one berth. And the regular season league race to determine seeding in the conference tournament sets up to be fiercely competitive. Two of the three teams at the top, VCU and George Mason, still will play each other twice in the regular season. And don’t forget about Drexel, which is in a three-way tie for first place, or Old Dominion, which is one game back. Why does the one NCAA berth even matter? Oh, I don’t know, maybe because the league has had a Final Four team twice in the past six years. That’s all.
More on Washington Post Sports
Maryland coverage at Terrapins Insider
Virginia coverage at Cavaliers Journal
Virginia Tech coverage at Hokies Journal