Everything in college basketball changes when conference play begins.
Those in power have done wonders to drum up interest in early-season action, with big name teams being featured in tournaments and showcases for the first few months of the season. But blowout wins over cupcake opponents and sloppy early-season play are littered throughout that part of the schedule.
Conference play brings rivalries, road games with student-sections, and a landslide of upsets. In short, it’s the reason we love college basketball. On top of that, succeeding in one of America’s toughest conferences is the best way to prove yourself before March Madness tips off.
With that in mind, here are the early favorites to win the six biggest conferences in college hoops.
ACC – Duke
The Blue Devils might be the boring and obvious pick, but at this point in the season, they are also the most qualified. Duke’s overtime home loss to Stephen F. Austin was a bad mishap, but it’s their only blemish so far. Aside from that slip-up, Duke has impressed with wins over Michigan State, Kansas, Georgetown and Miami.
The ACC’s other top contender, Louisville, lost at home to Florida State this weekend and only gets to play Duke once this season — a road game at Cameron Indoor. Advantage to the Blue Devils.
Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports
Big East – Butler
It’s always somewhat shocking to pencil anyone into a Big East title that is not Villanova, yet Butler’s play so far this season has been eye-popping enough to earn this level of respect. The Bulldogs have just one loss, by one point at 4th-ranked Baylor.
Head coach LaVall Jordan has Butler winning games on the defensive end of the floor. The Bulldogs rank fourth in defensive efficiency, per KenPom, thanks to top-ten performances in 3-point percentage allowed, effective field goal percentage allowed and defensive rebounding rate. Butler fights to get stops and follows them with rebounds.
Offensively, everything churns through senior guard Kamar Baldwin. His 14.7 point per game average doesn’t fully explain how capable he is of taking over a game in crunch time.
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Big Ten – Michigan State
A few weeks ago, when Ohio State was 9-0 and ranked in the top three in the AP Poll, this answer would have been different. Back then, Michigan State was just 6-3 and clearly had some issues on the offensive end.
Since December 8, Ohio State has lost three of its last five games, while Michigan State has sparked a six-game winning streak. The Spartans are now two games ahead of the Buckeyes in the loss column in Big Ten play and sit a full 1.5 games ahead of the rest of the conference in the standings.
Make no mistake — the Big Ten is college basketball’s toughest conference and will be an absolute battle all season long. Even so, any team eager to compete for the title will need to go into the Breslin Center in East Lansing and win. With Tom Izzo on the sidelines and Cassius Winston patrolling the court for Sparty, that’s not likely to happen much, if at all, this season.
Duke was knocked out of the NCAA Tournament on Sunday, losing 68-67 to Michigan State in their Elite Eight clash. While the game was close for nearly the entire second half and thrilling to watch, the Blue Devils made a baffling decision on their final possession.
Duke was down 68-66 with just under six seconds remaining. The Blue Devils were taking the ball out from the baseline after a review showed that Michigan State had knocked the ball out of bounds. I thought for sure the ball was going to Zion Williamson, but instead he drifted away from the passer, while the ball went into RJ Barrett, who was closer to the side where the inbounds pass was.
Barrett drove to the basket and went up in traffic for a shot and got fouled. Just a 66.5 percent free throw shooter, Barrett missed the first attempt. He tried to miss the second attempt, but it actually bounced in. Duke fouled Michigan State on the ensuing inbound and lost when the Spartans dribbled away with the ball.
Duke’s big mistake was not going to its best player, Williamson. He’s the guy who has carried the Blue Devils through their toughest moments and closest games. He delivered late against UCF. He’s the one you want with the ball with the game on the line.
After so many close calls at the end of Duke’s previous games, it’s not really surprising that the Blue Devils’ luck ran out. You can’t have so many games come down to the final play and expect each one to go your way. But you also have to give yourself the best chance to win, and by not going to Zion, Duke didn’t do that.
Four days and two rounds are in the books, and the NCAA Tournament has left us with more questions than jaw-dropping moments.
The second round, especially Sunday, provided more close games, but not much outside the expected. The top seeds have survived to meet next week, making the next games we’ll see some of the best we could have asked for.
The top teams in the nation have stepped into the Sweet Sixteen. Sunday’s action can help us sort out what to expect in the second week. Here are eight takeaways from the second slate of second-round games:
1. Duke’s flaws exposed in narrow win
Anyone thinking Duke would strut to the Final Four untouched was proven wrong on the first weekend of tournament play, as UCF came within millimeters of upsetting the Blue Devils on Sunday. In the game’s final minute, Zion Williamson converted a tough basket, RJ Barrett took the lead with a putback and UCF’s two attempts to win the game both danced on the rim before falling back to Earth.
For UCF, it was a brutal missed opportunity. Senior center and giant human being Tacko Fall picked up his fifth foul on Williamson’s crucial late bucket. He was then not there to grab a game-sealing rebound nor help put back a game-winning bucket on the final possession.
For Duke, on the other hand, the game showcased the Blue Devils’ flaws. UCF focused its defensive efforts on Williamson, who still willed his way to 32 points. RJ Barrett, meanwhile, shot 6 for 15 from the field, struggling to find shots he could convert. Duke’s supporting cast was non-existent. Coach K used only seven players on the day, with just three points coming off the bench. UCF allowed Fall to essentially play a one-man zone defense, allowing poor shooters such as Tre Jones and Justin Goldwire any shot they wanted. Jones hit just one of eight deep balls.
Any future opponent saw a potential blueprint. Sell out to stop Williamson, with an eye on Barrett and Cam Reddish, but dare the other Blue Devils to score. If they don’t, Duke is very beatable.
2. The bracket sticks with mostly chalk
After two rounds of tournament play, we have not seen many surprises. Cinderella barely showed up for this year’s Big Dance.
The Sweet Sixteen includes 15 schools from power conferences, with top-seeded Gonzaga being the only “mid-major” moving on. That number counts Houston, out of the American Athletic Conference, as a power conference team, which is debatable. And yet, a school that has 5 Final Fours, a 3-seed this year and 44,000 students on campus isn’t quite the Cinderella darling we expect every March either.
All four of the Nos. 1, 2, and 3 seeds advanced this weekend and two of the No. 4 seeds joined them. The only double-digit seed to advance is Pac-12 Tournament champion Oregon.
This March marks the only time other than 2009 that all of the top twelve teams advanced to the Sweet Sixteen since the tournament expanded to its current format in 1985.
3. Tennessee almost let Iowa steal one
The first game of the day ended up being a great one, despite Tennessee jumping out to a 25-point first half lead. The Vols began to turn the ball over and went cold shooting the ball. Iowa took advantage, coming all the way back to force overtime.
The game will be best remembered for a late coaching decision by Rick Barnes. Admiral Schofield, who was hot early, dumping in 17 first-half points, got into foul trouble late in the game. Barnes was deathly cautious with Schofield’s late-game playing time. The Vols kept their leading scorer on the bench through most of crunch time, including their final offensive possessions, in a tie game with a chance to end the game in regulation.
Schofield then began overtime on the bench, staying there for the entire five minute extra period. Postgame, Barnes defended the decision by pinning it on Schofield. According to Barnes, Schofield urged him to stick with the lineup that was on the floor stretching the lead. There’s something to be said for a coach who listens to his players, and in this case, it worked. On the other hand, Barnes is paid millions of dollars to coach the Volunteers. If that means making a choice that one of his players doesn’t agree with, so be it.
Against Purdue in the next round or another contender down the road in this tournament, this kind of head-scratching decision could send the Vols back to Knoxville.
4. Top of the ACC shows its might
All five of the top teams in the ACC have advanced to the Sweet 16, the most of any conference. That was expected of the three teams from the conference that were awarded top seeds. North Carolina and Virginia both coasted relatively unharmed through the first weekend. Both trailed at the half in the first round before coasting through their next 60 strong minutes of basketball.
Duke faced the toughest test of any ACC club, barely sneaking past UCF. Even though the Blue Devils were one last-second bucket away from heading home early, they are still the favorites to cut down the nets at season’s end.
The other two ACC teams advancing have been among the most impressive in the tournament. Florida State held off a tough challenge from Vermont and routed a Murray State team that was clicking late in the season. Virginia Tech looked strong in two wins this weekend, with Justin Robinson back healthy in the lineup providing senior leadership and a scoring pop. These two 4 seeds will now have a crack at Gonzaga and Duke to earn a bid to the Elite Eight.
5. Texas Tech reminds the world how good it can be
Buffalo earned a lot of praise as a team that could defend at an elite level. In the Bulls’ second-round game, they saw what elite defense really looks like. Chris Beard has his Texas Tech team playing as well on the defensive end of the floor as any team in college basketball.
On Sunday, Buffalo’s high-speed offensive attack was absolutely smothered by the Red Raiders. The Bulls managed to record just three more made field goals than turnovers. Every trip down the floor was a slog against the activity of Tech’s defense. At one point, the Red Raiders went on a 27-3 run, leaving Buffalo with no answers.
6. Oregon is on a marvelous March run
The Ducks are pulling off something rarely seen in college basketball. When Bol Bol went down with an injury, many lost hope for this Oregon team. Even later in the season, things looked dire. On Feb. 23, Oregon lost to UCLA, for the second time this season, to fall to 15-12 on the year.
Since then, the Ducks haven’t lost. Oregon has now won 10 straight games and looks like a completely new team. Perhaps it took time to figure things out after Bol’s injury. Maybe a team full of transfers and young players needed time to mesh.
Whatever has changed, it has turned the Ducks into an entirely different team. Nothing about the Ducks that beat Wisconsin and UC Irvine looked like the Oregon team that struggled in Pac-12 play or lost to Texas Southern at home early in the season. Dana Altman has a talented team, with high-level recruits on the roster, and he is among the sharpest offensive coaches in America. These Ducks are not your usual 12 seed.
After Grayson Allen did the unthinkable — stretching his leg out Wednesday night against Elon and purposefully tripping a player for the third time in his career — Mike Krzyzewski made it abundantly clear that no amount of public pressure or outcry would dictate how he punished his player.
“I handle things the way I handle them,” the Duke coach said. “And I think I’ve handled this correctly, and I will continue to handle it correctly, and I don’t need to satisfy what other people think I should do.”
He went on to say that he is both a teacher and a coach and that he knows Allen better than anyone.
Fair point. Mike Krzyzewski doesn’t have to suspend Grayson Allen because reporters think he should or because the Twitterverse has lit the torches and gathered together with the virtual pitchforks. He needs to suspend him because taking proper action is what Mike Krzyzewski is supposed to be about, because his internal methods haven’t worked and, very simply, because Grayson Allen has earned it.
A year ago, Krzyzewski had no problem making time for a decorum lesson in the handshake line with a player who wasn’t his own, when he told Oregon’s Dillon Brooks his showboating was beneath him after an NCAA tournament game.
How then can Krzyzewski allow a player wearing a Duke uniform to get away with what he has permitted Allen to do again (and again)? If there truly is an honor to wearing a school’s name on one’s chest, surely it isn’t asking too much for the player to behave honorably.
To say otherwise flies directly in the face of who Krzyzewski is, or at least who we have come to believe he is. He is a West Point graduate whose very pores ooze righteousness. He is not a charlatan or a huckster who won 1,000 games but a coach whose reputation is as impressive as his coaching record. Krzyzewski has long been about dignity and class, building a program that is beyond reproach and leading the United States back from its own international hoops morass to the gold-medal stand.
He is college basketball’s voice, if not its moral authority, the yoda master people seek when they need insight on the state of the game, the one opinion in a coaching Tower of Babel that actually carries some weight.
We forecast what we can and happily cede the rest to the players and the drama they improvise on the court. Sports Illustrated’s College Basketball Projection System, now in its third year, simulates the season 10,000 times and ranks teams 1–351 according to their average efficiency. Last year in the preseason, we identified North Carolina as a weak No. 1 in a historically wide-open field—and five months later, the Tar Heels led Villanova with 15 minutes left in the national title game. What transpired after that, culminating in Kris Jenkins’s buzzer-beating three, was the greatest finish in the history of the sport. You don’t get Jenkins’s dagger without the exhilarating crapshoot that is the single-elimination NCAA tournament, and you don’t get the nation’s most accurate preseason projections—as ours have been for the past two years—without running 10,000 simulations.
This project starts from the ground up, assessing every roster, player by player. For offense, the system projects efficiency and shot volume by considering past performance, recruiting rankings and advanced AAU stats, development curves for similar Division I players over the past 14 seasons, the quality of a player’s teammates and his coach’s ability to develop and maximize talent. Those stats are weighted based on the team’s rotation—including scouting intel on who’s expected to play—then used to produce each team’s offensive efficiency projection. (The simulations account for variance in individual performances as well as injury scenarios.) Team defensive efficiency projections are based on players’ projected rebound, steal and block percentages, height (taller frontcourts make for stingier D), experience (veterans have fewer lapses) and coaches’ defensive résumés. For a deeper look at how our model works, read this explainer, and for all of our analytics-driven preview content, click here.
This is how our system ranks all 351 teams heading into 2016–17:
Proj. Off. Eff.
Proj. Def. Eff.
Proj. Pyth. Win%
Proj. Conf. Rank
Proj. NCAAs seed
1st in ACC
1st in B12
1st in SEC
1st in P12
1st in BE
While our projections saw no dominant teams in the 2015–16 preseason, this year they view Duke as a juggernaut, ranking first in offensive efficiency by a wide margin and 11th in defense. We went back and examined every preseason No. 1 from the past decade—using beginning-of-season rosters to project performance—to see how these Blue Devils stacked up, and starting with the ‘07–08 preseason, only one team had a stronger projection. That was ‘08–09 North Carolina, which came into that season with a veteran, national player of the year candidate in power forward Tyler Hansbrough; a supporting cast of efficient sidekicks in guards Ty Lawson, Wayne Ellington and Danny Green; and two elite freshmen big men in Ed Davis and Tyler Zeller.
Last year Duke had an incredibly talented group of young freshmen including current NBA players Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow, and Tyus Jones. These core three, were the stars of Duke’s title winning team. However, most people failed to remember the “forgotten fourth” freshman, that is until last year’s title game.
In the final contest against Wisconsin, Duke were down by nine points in the second half and looked to be on death’s door. Grayson Allen responded by scoring six straight points to cut the lead to three. Allen had spent most of the season to that point on the bench, stuck behind senior guard Quinn Cook and sophomore guard Matt Jones. He barely received any playing time. Yet in the title game when it mattered most, Allen came through with 16 points to help push Duke to a title. Coach K had nothing but praise for the youngster after the game, saying, ”We were kind of dead in the water. We were nine points down and Grayson just put us on his back.”
Tuesday night in Chicago, college basketball observers gained a lot of information on two of the superpowers in the sport. The big question is if Tuesday’s revelations will still hold true in the middle of March… and perhaps early April.
In the first heavyweight contest of the season, Kentucky showed that it is clearly better than Duke.
The Wildcats were faster, more athletic, and smoother. If not for Duke getting some putbacks and dominating on the offensive boards at times, it would have been run completely out of the United Center.
It was impossible to tell that Kentucky lost seven players from the 2014-2015 team. The game was not nearly as close as the seven-point margin indicated. Kentucky does not have the depth it owned did last season, but it is possible that no other team in NCAA history could match that level of depth, either.
Say this much: the 2015-2016 version has reloaded.
It is clear that Kentucky likes to get out and run. The Wildcats are at their best when they’re able to create a one-on-one game and beat opponents off the dribble. The backcourt trio of Tyler Ulis, Isaiah Briscoe, and Jamal Murray will be difficult to defend all season long. Against Duke, the three guards scored 18, 16, and 12 points, respectively. Moreover, each player played solid defense against the Blue Devils. Ulis is a proven commodity on that end of the floor, but the other two seem to fit as well.
It is true that if the officials or the replay booth had correctly ruled that the Miami player’s knee was down before one of the eight laterals leading to the Hurricanes’ touchdown, the game would have ended. There would have been no additional play, courtesy of an untimed down.
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