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The Halftime Show: Favorites and challengers in conference races

Gary Bell Jr. Gary Bell Jr. and Gonzaga are a near-lock to win the West Coast Conferemce. (William Mancebo/Getty)

Sports Illustrated’s college hoops team is rolling out its midseason package, “The Halftime Show,” looking back at the first semester of hoops — and looking forward to the second. Last week, we wrote about winners and losers from nonconference play, mid-majors to watch, surprising players and disappointing players. Now we'll dive into the conference races.

Big Ten 

Favorite: (4) Wisconsin

One reason to like the Badgers' chances of winning the Big Ten (which Kenpom.com rates as the nation’s toughest conference) is their body of work. Saint John’s, No. 10 Florida, Saint Louis, Virginia, Marquette, No. 20 Iowa and No. 23 Illinois are among the teams Wisconsin has beaten so far, and it should pick up several more nice wins before the regular season is out. What gives the Badgers an edge over top competitors No. 3 Ohio State, Iowa and No. 5 Michigan State, though, is their schedule: The Badgers play the Buckeyes and Spartans only once each, and both games are in Madison.

Top challenger: (5) Michigan State

The Spartans were nearly beaten on their home floor for the second time (they lost to North Carolina on Dec. 4) last Tuesday, but they edged a defensively stout Ohio State team in overtime and beat Minnesota on Saturday to move to 4-0 in conference play. The Buckeyes might be better than the Spartans on the defensive end, but Tom Izzo’s team is more well-rounded. Iowa's win at Ohio State on Sunday made this selection more difficult than I originally thought it'd be.

Big 12

Favorite: (18) Kansas

The Jayhawks suffered four losses in non-conference play, including back-to-back defeats at No. 15 Colorado and No. 10 Florida, but it also beat Duke on a neutral court and had little trouble getting through a tough stretch between Dec. 14 and 30 that included games against New Mexico, Georgetown, Toledo. They Jayhawks opened their Big 12 season with wins over Oklahoma and No. 25 Kansas State. If you're not convinced Kansas is the best team in the Big 12, here's why you will be in March: 1)  Bill Self has guided his team to at least a share of a mind-boggling nine consecutive conference championships; 2) The young Jayhawks (they rank No. 348 in Kenpom’s “experience” metric) should get better in the next two months.

Top challenger: (9) Iowa State

The Cyclones rattled off a program-best 14 consecutive wins before falling at Oklahoma on Saturday. They beat then-No. 7 Michigan, Iowa and Boise State in non-conference play, and opened the conference season by winning at Texas Tech and upending No. 7 Baylor at home. Fred Hoiberg’s team features four players (forwards Melvin Ejim, Georges Niang and Dustin Hogue, and guard DeAndre Kane) who average double-digit points and three (Kane, Ejim, Hogue) who average at least seven rebounds. Even if point guard Kane, who injured his ankle against Oklahoma on Saturday, can't play in Monday night's tilt with Kansas, the Cyclones have an excellent chance to notch another big win at home. Hilton Magic rarely fails.

Big East

Favorite: (8) Villanova

The Wildcats are scoring 1.16 points per possession and allowing just 0.91. They’re shooting 54.1 percent from inside the arc and 35 percent from outside it. This team may not have many “true” post presences, but upperclassmen Darrun Hilliard II, James Bell, JayVaughn Pinkston and freshmen Josh Hart are effective scorers who all stand at least 6-foot-5. The Wildcats struggled in their loss at former Big East rival Syracuse on Dec. 28 but bounced back to roll off consecutive wins over league opponents Butler, Providence, Seton Hall and Saint John's. Not ranking this team in the preseason – it received 14 votes in the Associated Press Poll and 4 in the Coaches’ – was a big mistake.

Top challenger: Creighton

Losing point forward and Creighton Connection initiator Grant Gibbs to a knee injury for 4-6 weeks is a big blow for the Bluejays. But two-time All-American forward Doug McDermott (24.3 ppg, 7.3 rpg) is good enough to keep Creighton in the hunt while Gibbs rehabs. On Sunday, McDermott scored 35 points (two short of his season-high) on 13-of-24 shooting to lead the Bluejays past Xavier.

ACC 

Favorite: (2) Syracuse

If former Big East member Syracuse wins the ACC’s regular season championship this season, it would mark the first time a team new to a conference finished in first place since newcomer Arkansas won the SEC in 1991-92 after bolting the deceased Southwest Conference. Syracuse has the size, talent and depth to do it. Point guard Tyler Ennis wasn't mentioned in the same breath as some other highly-touted freshmen before the season, but he has been among the nation's best first-year players. His backcourt partner Trevor Cooney is shooting 45.3 percent from deep and posting a 129.6 offensive rating. Senior forward C.J. Fair (17.4 ppg, 5.8), meanwhile, continues to provide consistent double-digit scoring production (only once has Fair not scored at least 13 points this season), and the Orange’s famed 2-3 zone defense remains stingy, allowing just 0.92 points per possession.

Top challenger: (16) Duke

After Duke's loss on Saturday to Clemson, the popular choice for this spot would be Virginia or Pittsburgh. But I'm not going to overreact; I think the Blue Devils will set things straight and finish near the top of the league standings. Duke isn't a great defensive team – it ranks No. 97 in the country in defensive efficiency – but forwards Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood’s ability to score in bunches should keep them in most games. Duke’s offense ranks second in the country at 119.6 points scored per 100 possessions.

Pac-12

Favorite:  (1) Arizona

No team has looked better through the first two months of the season than Arizona. The Wildcats plowed through a tough non-conference schedule and rolled to a 4-0 start in conference play, an impressive stretch that included a four-point win over UCLA on Thursday. Versatile junior guard Nick Johnson and Duquesne transfer point guard T.J. McConnell complement one of the best frontcourts in the nation: freshmen Aaron Gordon and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and sophomores Kaleb Tarczewski and Brandon Ashley. Anything less than a one-seed in the NCAA tournament would be a disappointment for the Wildcats.

Top challenger: (17) Oregon

The Ducks have now lost three straight after falling Sunday night at home to Stanford, but one bad stretch won’t keep them from pushing Arizona for first place in the conference standings. Houston transfer guard Joseph Young is one of the most efficient scorers (134.9 offensive rating, 66.7 true shooting percentage, 21.9 usage rate) in the country.

SEC 

Favorite: (10) Florida

The status of former McDonald’s All-American forward Chris Walker remains uncertain after the Gators stayed unbeaten in SEC play Saturday by winning at Arkansas. Walker was admitted to school and has practiced with the team for roughly four weeks, but the NCAA has yet to clear him. Still, Florida has enough frontcourt depth to compete with the SEC’s best. Few front lines in the country can match the scoring and rebounding that Casey Prather, Will Yeguete, Dorian Finney-Smith and Patric Young provide. Sophomore guard Michael Frazier II has made at least one three in every game this season (and went 4-of-7 from deep against Arkansas), is shooting 47 percent from beyond the arc and ranks in the nation’s top 15 in effective field goal (65.2) and true shooting percentage (68.5).

Top challenger: (14) Kentucky

Kentucky’s win over Louisville on Dec. 28 should provide a huge confidence boost for the Wildcats during the early part of SEC play. Kentucky had little trouble taking care of its first two conference opponents: Mississippi State and Vanderbilt. Julius Randle is an imposing inside presence, Willie Cauley-Stein is an excellent rim protector and the Harrison twins have shown signs of improvement. So have the Wildcats.

American Athletic

Favorite: (12) Louisville

The dismissal of forward Chane Behanan will thin an already suspect frontcourt, but Louisville still has one of the best perimeter groups in the country. The Cardinals are scoring and defending efficiently – they rank No. 26 in points scored per possession and No. 15 in points allowed per possession – and, even without Behanan, are probably the most talented team in this conference. In light of Thursday night's home loss to No. 24 Memphis that dropped Louisville to 2-1 in AAC play, it's worth pointing out that two seasons ago the Cardinals opened their Big East schedule 1-3 and wound up making the Final Four. Rick Pitino’s team, which bounced back on Sunday with a win over SMU, will likely fall short of a third consecutive national semifinal appearance. But in a league with seemingly no great teams, the Cardinals should come out on top.

Top challenger: Cincinnati

This was one of the toughest picks on the board. Memphis would have been my choice before last Saturday, when the Tigers were drubbed at home by the Bearcats in a 16-point loss. But Memphis' win at Louisville on Thursday was arguably the biggest of coach Josh Pastner's tenure. Still, Cincinnati gets the nod because of its defense, which ranks No. 4 in the country in points allowed per possession. Mick Cronin’s team doesn’t need to score a ton of points to win games.

Atlantic 10

Favorite: (19) UMass

The Minutemen lost just once while navigating a challenging non-conference schedule that included games against LSU, New Mexico, Clemson, BYU and Florida State. Senior point guard Chaz Williams is a gifted scorer and savvy distributor, and forward Cady LaLanne (13.3 ppg, 9.0 rpg) has provided the interior presence the Minutemen need. UMass plays at a breakneck pace, averaging 71.9 possessions per game but will need to cut down on turnovers (their 19.7 TO percentage ranks No. 247 in the country). If Williams can continue to play at a high level, this team has a good chance to finish first in what’s shaping up to be a competitive league race. UMass looks poised for its first NCAA Tournament berth since 1998.

Top challenger: Saint Louis

The Billikens’ two losses this season have come by a combined 11 points against undefeated teams (Wisconsin, No. 6 Wichita State) ranked in the top 6 of the AP Poll. This is a physical team that flat-out guards: It ranks No. 3 in the country in defensive efficiency, and its opponents are shooting just 26.2 percent from beyond the arc.

West Coast

Favorite: (22) Gonzaga

Is there a conference race easier to predict than the WCC’s? Gonzaga might have stubbed its toe a couple of times (to Dayton and No. 25 Kansas State) in non-conference play, but the rest of the WCC is so weak that the Zags could well run away with the conference title even though they’re not as talented as they were last season. Gonzaga has run into some injury trouble in recent weeks, but it was nonetheless able to open conference play with a 4-1 record. When at full strength, the Zags’ backcourt, which features preseason All-WCC guards Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr., is one of the nation’s best. If big men Przemek Karnowski and Sam Dower can provide consistent frontcourt scoring, Gonzaga shouldn’t have any problem beating out its top conference competitors.

Top challenger: Saint Mary’s

Dating back to the 2003-04 season, the Gaels have never finished worse than third in the WCC. They lost just two league games last season -- both against Gonzaga. Randy Bennett’s team already lost its first meeting with the Zags this season, and even if it beats the Zags at home on March 1, the Gaels have proven themselves vulnerable against lesser competition. Even so, after rolling San Francisco on Saturday, this team looks capable of earning the No. 2 spot in the league standings.

Mountain West

Favorite: (13) San Diego State

The Aztecs’ win at Kansas last Sunday might be the most significant in program history. Few expected Steve Fisher’s team -- ranked No. 13 in the AP Poll, No. 21 in Kenpom’s team ratings and no. 9 in SI's latest power rankings -- to be in this position, as the Aztecs lost key contributors Jamaal Franklin and Chase Tapley this offseason. San Diego State, whose only loss so far this season came against top-ranked Arizona, also beat Creighton, Marquette and Washington before opening Mountain West play with wins over Colorado State, Boise State and Air Force. No Aztecs team since 2005-06 has ranked outside the nation’s top 50 in defensive efficiency. Where does this season’s group rank? Tenth. Guards Xavier Thames and Winston Shepard have carried the bulk of the scoring load, while Tulane transfer Josh Davis has rebounded at top-85 rates on both ends.

Top challenger: New Mexico

The only “bad” loss on New Mexico’s resume came at home against a New Mexico State team ranked No. 56 in Kenpom’s team ratings, just six spots below the Lobos. Senior forward Cameron Bairstow has more than doubled his scoring average (9.7 ppg to 20.0) and upped his rebounding (5.9 rpg to 7.3), assists (0.9 apg to 1.9) and blocks (0.6 bpg to 1.3) from last season. The Lobos are extremely tough to beat at The Pit; they went unbeaten there in league play last season.

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