Super Bowl LIV is in the books with Kansas City staging an epic comeback to prevent the 49ers from claiming their 6th Super Bowl title. The focus of the sporting world now shifts to the college basketball and the race towards March Madness. This season has been a bit different in college hoops. There are no elite teams and having the distinction of being the #1 team in the nation has been the most dangerous place to be. With just around a month left in the regular season until conference tournament time, here is a look at how the current state of the college basketball landscape.
For those interested in bracketology and NCAA Tournament projections, I will be updating my Bracketology Page here at Steel City Blitz a few times per week.
Major Conference Rundown
This is a bit of a down year for the ACC. There is an elite tier of 3 teams (Louisville, Duke, Florida State) but after that there are no guarantees for NCAA Tournament bids. Virginia has the inside track for the 4th bye in the conference tournament but is still hovering around the NCAA Tournament bubble. Syracuse, Pitt, Virginia Tech, and NC State all have work to do.
Baylor and Kansas have been two of the top teams in the country all season and are both on the 1-seed line in most bracket projections. West Virginia has put together a very solid campaign and is in the mix for a top 4 seed as well. The middle of the pack is a bit of a mess right now with Oklahoma and Texas Tech having the best resumes from a tournament standpoint. Texas and TCU still have some work to do and need to stack good wins down the stretch to garner consideration.
The Big East is the deepest conference in the nation this year with all 10 teams currently ranked in the Top 80 of the NET Rankings. Seton Hall leads Villanova by a game at the top of the standings. Creighton Butler, and Marquette have also built very solid Tournament resumes. Xavier, Georgetown, and DePaul are hovering around the bubble while Providence and St John’s have some work to do to improve their resumes.
Winning on the road in the Big Ten this season has been nearly impossible outside of facing Nebraska and Northwestern. This conference is loaded with quality teams that have just been cannibalizing each other. Michigan State and Illinois are curretnly atop the league with Maryland just a half-game back. Rutgers, Iowa, and Penn State are all within a game of Maryland. Wisconsin, Purdue, and Minnesota are all good teams that may just have too many losses on their resume at this point to become serious contenders. Ohio State, Michigan, and Indiana are also in contention for at-large bids. No one in the conference has a winning record on the road this season while the only teams with more than 2 home losses are Michigan, Nebraska, and Northwestern.
Last year was a down year for the conference, but it has bounced back in a big way. Five teams are currently within a game of conference-leader Oregon and all five have good chances of hearing their name called on Selection Sunday. Colorado and USC are just a half-game back while Arizona and Stanford are just one game behind. Keep an eye on Arizona State in the middle of the pack, who has a competitive resume on the bubble right now. If the Sun Devils can add a few more quality wins they could also be in contention for a bid in March.
Following up on the success of their football team, LSU has run out to an unbeaten record in SEC play and has a two-game lead on Auburn and Kentucky. All three of those teams should feel good about their NCAA Tournament hopes and have a chance to be in the top 5 seeds. Arkansas is currently in the middle of the pack and should be able to make the Tournament if they can avoid bad losses the rest of the way. After an 0-3 start to conference play, Mississippi State has won 5 straight SEC games to climb into 4th place. The Bulldogs, along with Florida, are currently (barely) on the right side of the bubble. South Carolina, Alabama, and Tennessee all have resumes with massive question marks but could stay in the conversation if they can pick up some quality wins.
Mid-Major Conference Rundown
After a surprising month of January, Tulsa sits atop the standings with a half-game lead over Cincinnati and Houston. The AAC will certainly be a multi-bid league this year with all three of those teams, plus Wichita St, Memphis and possibly SMU in contention for at-large bids to the Big Dance. All six of those teams are currently within 2 games of the top spot which should make for a heck of a race for the four byes in the conference tournament.
Dayton has been one of the best teams in the nation this year, running off a 20-2 overall record. The Flyers are unbeaten in A-10 play and leading a quality pack of teams. Rhode Island currently sits in second place with five more teams (VCU, St. Louis, Duquesne, Richmond, and St. Bonaventure) all just 3 games back. The top four teams in the A-10 get byes to the quarterfinals. In addition to Dayton – Rhode Island, VCU, and Richmond all are in consideration for the NCAA Tournament field.
Once again, the Missouri Valley Conference has the potential to make some teams sweat on Selection Sunday. Northern Iowa leads the conference race by a game and has a legitimate chance for at-large bid consideration if they don’t earn the league’s automatic bid. Loyola Chicago and Southern Illinois are both just a game behind. “Arch Madness” has produced some wild results before, so don’t be surprised if the MVC Tournament is one of the best again this year.
The only remaining undefeated team in the nation is San Diego State. The Aztecs are 23-0 overall and 12-0 in conference play. They have a 4.5-game lead over Colorado St and Boise St. The only other team that could garner at-large consideration is Utah St, but the Aggies would likely need a win over San Diego State on their resume to have a chance. San Diego State has a legitimate shot to see their name on the top seed line in March if they run the table.
Buckle up for this race. Furman and East Tennessee St are currently tied atop the league with UNC-Greensboro and Wofford just a game back. East Tennessee St just completed a regular season sweep of Greensboro. The Buccaneers have a very solid Tournament resume with a road win at LSU. ETSU will have a compelling case for an at-large bid if they do not win the SoCon tournament.
Gonzaga is once again running away with the West Coast Conference regular season title. The Zags are a perfect 9-0 in WCC play and 23-1 overall and in the running for a #1 seed in March. The usual cast of teams – St. Mary’s and BYU are both 3 games behind Gonzaga. Both St. Mary’s and BYU do have resumes capable of garnering at-large consideration as long as they don’t suffer any bad defeats the rest of the way. Fourth place San Francisco nearly knocked off Gonzaga last weekend but came up just short.
Small Conference Rundown
Perennial powerhouse Vermont has a 1-game lead in the conference standings over Hartford and Stony Brook. The America East tournament games are hosted by the higher seed, so the top seed does have a distinct advantage. The other race is at the bottom, as only 8 of the 9 teams get into the tournament. The bottom five teams in the conference are within a game of each other.
Liberty looked like the team to beat entering conference play with a 14-1 record. However, the Flames have dropped road games to North Florida and Stetson. North Florida is currently tied with Liberty for the top spot in the conference while Stetson sits just a game back. The conference tournament games are played at the higher-seeded team’s gym, so winning the regular season title carries some weight.
The will once again be a one-bid league. Eastern Washington and Montana are currently tied atop the conference. Eastern Washington is one of the highest-scoring teams in the nation, averaging over 82 points per game. Montana is the two-time defending Big Sky Tournament champions.
Winthrop has a two-game lead over Radford in the conference standings. Winthrop has a four-game lead over third place Hampton. This has typically been a conference rife with upsets in the postseason, so the regular season title may not mean as much. Despite the tournament being played at the gym of the higher-seeded team, the top seed has earned the Big South’s automatic bid just once in the last seven years.
The league with the most NCAA Tournament parity is the Big West. Over the last 11 years, only UC Irvine and UC Santa Barbara have won the tournament more than once (twice each). In total, 9 different teams have represented the conference in the NCAA Tournament in that timespan. The only one of the 9 current teams to not make the Big Dance in the last 11 seasons is UC Riverside, who currently sits third in the conference standings behind defending champions UC Irvine and Hawaii.
One of the tightest conference races this season is in the CAA. There is currently a 3-way tie for first between William & Mary, Charleston, and Hofstra. William & Mary is one of the three founding members of the NCAA who have still never made an NCAA Tournament. Fourth-place Towson is just one game back.
North Texas looked like it was poised to run away with the regular season title before losing last weekend to last place Rice. Now, the Mean Green are tied with Louisiana Tech (who is on a 4-game winning streak) atop Conference USA. This is a league where getting a first round bye matters, as the last 9 tournament champions have had a first round bye (one of the top 4 seeds). There is a tight race for the last two byes between Western Kentucky, Charlotte, FIU, and FAU with Old Dominion and UAB just a game behind the second bye spot.
Wright State and Northern Kentucky have won the last three Horizon League Tournaments (including meeting in the last two title games). Wright State topped Northern Kentucky in 2018 and NKU returned the favor last season. The two teams are currently atop the Horizon League once again and seem poised for a third straight showdown.
Early in the season, dreams of a “Two Bid Ivy” were prevalent on Twitter. While none of the Ivy League squads have stacked up enough of a resume to garner at-large bid consideration, this is still a good group to watch. Harvard and Princeton are both on 6-game winning streaks and tied atop the conference standings. Only four teams make the Ivy League Tournament which means one out of the next group (Harvard, Penn, Brown) who are currently tied will not make the postseason.
The MAAC isn’t much to write home about this season as only three teams are currently above .500 overall. Monmouth has a half-game lead on St. Peter’s. Quinnipiac, Rider, and Siena are all within a game of St. Peter’s for second place.
At the start of conference play, Akron had a great computer rating and looked potentially capable of staying in the at-large conversation. However, the Zips dropped 3 games and have fallen 2 games behind Bowling Green. Kent State, Central Michigan, and Northern Illinois are all right in the thick of the hunt this season as well. The MAC will be a one-bid league once again.
The MEAC is arguably one of the worst conferences in the nation this year. No teams curretnly have a winning record and the only team that is .500 overall is fourth-place Morgan St. North Carolina A&T has a half-game lead on Norfolk St at the top of the conference with 3-time defending tournament champion NC Central lurking in third.
Merrimack moved up from Division II to Division I this season and is currently leading the NEC. However, because of the NCAA’s rules about transitioning teams, Merrimack is not eligible for the postseason until 2024 (including the NEC Tournament). This means that second-place Robert Morris would currently be in line for the top seed in the NEC Tournament.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but Murray State is leading the Ohio Valley. The Racers aren’t nearly the same team this year as they were last year when they boasted sensational guard Ja Morant who was an NBA lottery pick. However, Murray St is off to a 10-0 start in conference play, tied with Austin Peay atop the league. Those two teams have a two-game lead on Eastern Kentucky and are three up on Belmont.
Perennial powerhouse Bucknell is having a bit of a down year which has opened the door for other contenders. Defending tournament champions Colgate have a 1-game lead on Boston U atop the Patriot League standings. The middle of the pack is hard to sort out right now with Navy, Army, Lafayette and American all just two games behind Colgate.
The upset of the year in college basketball was Stephen F Austin going into Cameron Indoor Stadium and pulling off an overtime upset of Duke. The Lumberjacks have continued their strong run of play and have a two-game lead over Sam Houston St and Nicholls St. Even with the win over Duke, it is doubtful that SFA would be able to garner an at-large bid if they fail to win the Southland tournament.
Like the MEAC, there is just one team (fourth place Alcorn St) that does not currently have a losing record overall. Texas Southern holds a 1-game lead over defending champions Prairie View A&M. Both Texas Southern and third-place Southern are on 6-game winning streaks.
The last eight Summit League tournaments have been won by either North Dakota State or South Dakota State. South Dakota St has a slight edge (5 to 3) in that span, including going 2-1 in head-to-head conference championship games. Therefore, it should be no surprise that these two teams are currently atop the league standings. South Dakota State has a half-game lead over North Dakota State, but it would be no surprise to see one of these two teams representing the league in the Big Dance once again.
Little Rock has been the team to beat in the Sun Belt this season, running out to a 2.5-game lead on Georgia State. The Trojans are riding a 6-game winning streak that has carried them to the top of the standings. However, they have yet to play Georgia St and the only meeting between the two squads will come in early March in the final regular season game. Georgia St has won 3 of the last 5 Sun Belt Tournaments (including the last two).
New Mexico State has been the dominant force in the WAC for the last decade, winning 8 of the last 10 conference tournaments. The Aggies currently have a 2-game lead in the WAC over Cal Baptist. However, because Cal Baptist is transitioning into Division I they are ineligible for postseason play, which means New Mexico State effectively has a 4-game lead over the rest of the pack. The Aggies have won 11 in a row but don’t have any quality wins that would make them an at-large bid candidate.