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The Early Lead
Posted at 01:59 PM ET, 01/13/2012

Is the Big Ten the best basketball conference? Is UCLA the nation’s biggest disappointment?


Anthony Davis of Kentucky dunks during a 69-62 win over Louisville on Dec. 31. (Andy Lyons - GETTY IMAGES)
As the college basketball season nears its midpoint, here are seven important NCAA tournament-related questions that we will examine in more depth in the coming weeks:

1)How bad is the ACC?

If you want depth, you’re looking at the wrong conference. North Carolina and Duke are poised to earn high seeds in the NCAA tournament. The jury remains out, for some, on Virginia, but you can pencil the Cavaliers into the field barring a collapse. After that, then who? If there are a couple more teams that make it — Florida State and/or N.C. State — they may be worrying about staying out of the play-in games in Dayton.

2)What is the nation’s best conference?

The Big East has been nothing short of dominant the past couple years. You need no further evidence than a look at what a team with a 9-9 league record did last season — you know, ride Kemba Walker to the national title. But the Big East is not quite as strong this season. The nation’s strongest conference is the Big Ten, which as of now has a legitimate chance to send nine of its 12 teams to the NCAA tournament. Yes, maybe even you, Northwestern.

3)Who is best of the West?

Does it really matter is not an acceptable answer. Forget the Pac-12, which is ranked as the ninth-strongest league and may be worse than it was last year. Gonzaga, St. Mary’s and San Diego State - even in what was expected to be a rebuilding year - are all capable outfits. But Nevada-Las Vegas is the class of the West. And with a victory against North Carolina under its belt, Coach Dave Rice’s team will have a realistic shot at a top-four seed in the NCAAs.

4)Which teams are the biggest disappointments?

There are plenty of them, starting with UCLA, which was the preseason favorite to win the Pac-12. That was before losing to Loyola Marymount and virtually every decent opponent the Bruins faced. Next go to Pittsburgh, which has lost five straight, including the inexplicable home loss to Wagner. And, finally, take a look at Xavier, which became a top 10 team — and for good reason — before going into free fall following the brawl with Cincinnati.


Seton Hall's Herb Pope, left, attempts to strip the ball from DePaul's Worrel Clahar. Seton Hall defeated DePaul, 94-73, on Jan. 10. (Bill Kostroun - AP)
5)Which teams are the biggest surprises?

Baylor is undefeated and a great story, but Baylor has a ton of talent starting with future NBA lottery pick Perry Jones III. The job Tom Crean has done at Indiana has been outstanding because he is now winning big with many of the same players who struggled the past two seasons. The victories over Kentucky and Ohio State will be golden come Selection Sunday. And surely Big East play can change things, but Seton Hall appears to be legitimate with four top 50 victories already. Coach Kevin Willard has done an excellent job getting the talent out of Herb Pope, a player who had been dogged by off-court issues since he was a heralded high school player.

6)What seed does Murray State deserve?

If the unbeaten Racers continue to run through their Ohio Valley Conference schedule, this will be one of the more interesting decisions by the NCAA tournament selection committee. They will not play anyone of note in conference play. Their best victories came against Southern Mississippi, Dayton and Memphis, all teams the Racers will be rooting for the rest of the way. If Murray State could beat a quality opponent — perhaps Long Beach State? — in the BracketBusters event, that would provide a boost. But don’t be surprised if Murray State does not earn a tournament seed better than a six or seven.

7)How much do NCAA tournament seeds matter?

Not as much as they used to, that’s for sure. We’re less than a year removed from Virginia Commonwealth, a team some folks didn’t think deserved to make the field, reaching the Final Four from one of the play-in games in Dayton, and Butler reaching the national title game as a No. 8 seed. While it is still early this season, there appears to be tremendous parity outside of the top handful of teams (Syracuse, Kentucky and North Carolina) and it should surprise no one to see a team rise from the middle of the standings of a power league to make a run to the Final Four.

By  |  01:59 PM ET, 01/13/2012

 
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