Picking the biggest games and teams to beat in conference play

With conference play beginning, we re-examine nine conference races -- the AAC, ACC, Atlantic 10, Big Ten, Big East, Big 12, Pac-12, SEC and Mountain West -- picking teams to beat, sleepers and a big question for each league.
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Over the first two months of the season, teams were hard at work trying to improve their NCAA tournament resumes against non-conference competition. For many teams, the turn of the New Year marks the start of conference play. To mark the occasion we’re hitting the reset button on the nine leagues we previewed in the preseason. Here’s what you should look out for in the coming months.


Team to beat: SMU

The Mustangs lost at Cincinnati last the weekend, but they should be able to beat out the Bearcats and other challengers in this league over the long run. Markus Kennedy is back in the lineup after missing 10 games while ineligible for the first semester, though it’s clear he’s still knocking some rust off. The 6-foot-9 forward’s scoring and rebounding averages are down considerably in his first four games back, and he went 3-for-10 in 19 minutes against Cincinnati. Once Kennedy hits his stride, Larry Brown’s team will feature another formidable inside presence, along with senior center Yanick Moreira, to complement leading scorer and top assist provider Nic Moore.

Game of the conference season: SMU at UConn (Mar. 1)

The Mustangs will face the Huskies in Storrs, Conn., about two weeks after hosting them in Dallas, Texas. While both of those games could go a long way toward deciding the AAC’s regular season champion, the latter machup, scheduled 11 days before the start of the conference tournament, could be a difference maker. UConn (7-5) has failed to live up to expectations so far, but the Huskies, tabbed as the favorite to win the conference in a preseason poll, have major bounceback potential. If it can make strides offensively in the coming weeks, UConn stands as the biggest threat to SMU.

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Sleeper team: Temple

The Owls have won five consecutive games since transfers Jesse Morgan and Devin Coleman became eligible last month, including a rout of then-No. 10 Kansas at the Wells Fargo Center on Dec. 22. Temple is one of the best defensive teams in the conference. Its opponents are shooting only 41.8 percent from two-point range, good for 24th in the country, and the Owls rank 28th in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted defensive efficiency. Temple has already staked its claim as one of the top teams in the AAC with an impressive win over UConn in Hartford, Conn., on New Year’s Eve. The schedule turns more rigorous with upcoming games against SMU and at Cincinnati, but few teams look better at the outset of league play.

One big question: How many AAC teams will make the NCAA tournament?

Last season the AAC sent four teams to the tourney, but one of them, Louisville, now belongs to a different league. How many bids will the league earn this season? Early evidence suggests it will be fewer than four. The AAC didn’t fare as well as it would have liked in nonconference play, which will only make it more difficult for teams to improve their resumes during the conference season because there will be fewer quality wins available. SMU, UConn, Cincinnati and Temple should be able to make cases for at-large bids, but whether other squads will emerge remains to be seen.



Team to beat: Duke

The undefeated Blue Devils opened conference play last weekend after navigating a tough nonconference slate that included a road win over then-No. 2 Wisconsin. Of all the reasons to like Duke, none is more convincing than the fact that it features arguably the best player in the country, Jahlil Okafor. After going for 28 points and eight rebounds against Boston College last Saturday, the 6-11 freshman is averaging 19.5 points and 8.7 rebounds per game while posting one of the top six effective field goal percentages (68.2) in the country. With Okafor and a strong backcourt featuring fellow freshman Tyus Jones, the Blue Devils are the first team that comes to mind when people start throwing around the hypothetical question, “What team can beat Kentucky?”

Game of the conference season: Duke at Virginia (Jan. 31)

Duke’s high-powered offense has yet to meet a defense it couldn’t vanquish. Virginia could change that. The Cavaliers, who employ a pack-line defense designed to prevent dribble penetration, are one of the few teams that may be able to shut down a Blue Devils squad leading the nation in KenPom’s adjusted offensive efficiency. Virginia has limited its opponents to 35.9 percent shooting inside the three-point arc, the third lowest mark in the country, and blocked 15.8 percent of those attempts. It’s worth pointing out that, for all of Virginia’s virtues on the defensive end, the Cavaliers may be playing better offense right now. They’ve scored at least 1.25 points per possession in four of their last six games.

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Sleeper team: Notre Dame

Believing in the Irish potentially risky. Notre Dame has compiled a gaudy record (15-1) on the strength of a potent offense that leads the nation in effective field goal and two-point shooting percentage, but it will need to tighten the screws defensively to have any shot at keeping pace with Duke, Virginia and other league contenders. Through Monday, the Fighting Irish ranked 67th in effective field goal percentage defense and 162nd in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted defensive efficiency. Notre Dame will be able to shoot its way to plenty of wins -- it hit 10 threes in beating North Carolina in Chapel Hill on Monday night -- but any offensive stagnation could leave it vulnerable. It helps to have one of the best guards in the country, Jerian Grant, running the show.

One big question: What can we expect from North Carolina?

The Tar Heels may not be on the same level as Duke, Virginia, Louisville or even Notre Dame, but where do they stand in the ACC pecking order? It’s hard to say. During the nonconference season, North Carolina beat two teams ranked in the top 25 of Kenpom’s efficiency rankings (Florida and Ohio State) but also lost to top-40 squads Butler and Iowa. While Marcus Paige’s numbers have dipped after a breakout sophomore season, Kennedy Meeks appears to have taken a step forward after getting in better shape over the offseason, and freshman Justin Jackson has made an immediate impact. It will be interesting to see whether Roy Williams’ team pushes for a finish near the top of the league or falls closer to the middle of the pack.

Atlantic 10

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Team to beat: VCU

The Rams have won six consecutive games, including a home win over contender Northern Iowa and a road victory against Cincinnati, after dropping three games to good teams (Villanova, Old Dominion and Virginia) in nonconference play. While VCU appears to have improved offensively since last season, it is worse on the other end of the floor. The Rams rank 35 spots lower in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency than where they finished in 2013-14. VCU, a unanimous pick to win the A-10 in a preseason poll, should be able to make strides against weak competition over the next two months.

Game of the conference season: VCU at George Washington (Feb. 14)

You can be forgiven if you didn’t catch the Colonials’ signature win of the nonconference season -- a six-point victory over then-No. 11 Wichita State in the Diamond Head Classic -- because it happened late on Christmas night. But it would be unwise to overlook GW entering conference play. Guard Kethan Savage, wing Patricio Garino and forward Kevin Larsen form a strong trio, and the Colonials have defended better on a per-possession basis than VCU. The two teams will meet in Richmond, Va., on Jan. 27, but the return matchup in Washington D.C. is a better opportunity for the Colonials to spring the upset.

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Sleeper team: Davidson

Perhaps it was fair to expect Davidson to suffer some growing pains in its first season in the A-10 after leaving the SoCon, but the Wildcats already look like they can challenge GW and others for second place in the league. They wield one of the top offenses in the country, making 39.7 percent of their three-point tries, 55.3 percent of their twos and limiting their turnovers. Davidson hasn’t been nearly as strong defensively, but on most nights it should be able to shoot well enough to keep opponents at bay. The Wildcats face their toughest game of the conference season, at VCU, on Wednesday night.

One big question: How much has the A-10 fallen off since last season?

The A-10 sent six teams to the NCAA tournament in 2014. The league may only get half as many in this season. VCU and George Washington should be able to build convincing cases for at-large bids, but is there anyone else? Two other teams voted in the top five of the preseason poll, UMass and Richmond, underwhelmed in nonconference play. Saint Louis is replacing five starters from last season. Davidson, Dayton or Rhode Island may be able to play themselves into contention, but none of those teams are close to “locks” at this point. In addition, nine of the league’s teams are ranked higher than 70th in RPI.


Big Ten

Team to beat: Wisconsin

The Badgers have lived up to their preseason hype by winning every game on their schedule except one against the “Team to beat” from arguably the top conference in the country (Duke). With the exception of that loss to the Blue Devils and one hilariously ill-conceived postgame celebration, Wisconsin has gone about its business in a manner befitting a Final Four contender. The Badgers are led by two first-round draft prospects in forward Sam Dekker and center Frank Kaminsky, but focusing only on them would be a disservice to Wisconsin’s strong supporting cast, which is highlighted by guards Josh Gasser and Traevon Jackson, as well as forward Nigel Hayes.

Game of the conference season: Wisconsin at Maryland (Feb. 24)

Maryland began this season amid talk that head coach Mark Turgeon could be on the hot seat. The Terrapins have responded in resounding fashion thanks in large part to strong play from freshman point guard Melo Trimble and junior forward Jake Layman. Maybe the most impressive part about Maryland’s hot start (14-1) is that its only loss came to ACC contender Virginia, without one of its best players, Dez Wells. With Wells back in the fold, the Terrapins could be the second best team in the Big Ten. They can strengthen their claim to that status by knocking off the Badgers in College Park, Md., less than two weeks before the end of the regular season.

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Sleeper team: Michigan State

It may seem strange to think of the Spartans as a “sleeper,” but they qualify after taking four losses in nonconference play, including a seven-point stunner at home to Texas Southern. To explain what ails the Spartans, some have pointed to the fact that Tom Izzo “missed” on some high-profile recruits. While Michigan State would certainly be in better shape with, say, Kentucky’s Tyler Ulis running the point, let’s focus on what the Spartans can control now. Senior forward Branden Dawson has not come close to matching the level of performance that earned him the Most Valuable Player award at the Big Ten tournament. More consistency from the senior would help stabilize Izzo’s team.

One big question: Will Wisconsin separate itself from the rest of the league?

The Badgers have offered little reason to question their place atop the league’s totem pole. They recorded several impressive wins in the nonconference (Georgetown, Oklahoma) and opened conference play with convincing victories over Penn State and Northwestern, respectively. They don't have any games against currently ranked teams until facing Maryland on Feb. 24. The Badgers will be tested during league play, but the question is whether they can run away with the regular season title. Michigan won the conference by three games last year, and no team came within four games of the Spartans in 2009. Can Wisconsin match or exceed those margins?

Big East

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Team to beat: Villanova

Recency bias may lead you to question whether Villanova deserves this title. The Wildcats lost on Saturday to Seton Hall, which was missing one of its top players in freshman shooting guard Isaiah Whitehead. Still, it would be silly to bet against a Villanova team with a balanced offensive attack and stout defense. The Wildcats have five players averaging at least 10 points per game, and they rank in the top 12 of KenPom’s offensive and defensive efficiency. One of the most encouraging developments for the Wildcats so far has been the play of Daniel Ochefu, a 6-foot-11 forward who has scored more efficiently while increasing his usage and is snatching a higher percentage of available rebounds on both ends of the floor.

Game of the conference season: Villanova at Georgetown (Jan. 19)

An old school Big East tilt with major upset potential. Villanova already dropped a close game in conference play, while Georgetown was blown out at Xavier on New Year’s Eve. The hierarchy of the Big East after Villanova is difficult to pin down, but the Hoyas have the potential to develop into the league’s second best team. Regardless of whether that proves true, pulling out a win in this game would do wonders for Georgetown's NCAA tournament prospects. It pushed Wisconsin and Kansas in nonconference meetings, but its only notable wins so far have come against Florida and Indiana.

Sleeper team: Butler

Last week, Butler officially removed the interim label from coach Chris Holtmann. Under the former Garder-Webb coach, who officially replaced Brandon Miller, the Bulldogs have gone 11-4 with wins over Georgetown, North Carolina and St. John’s. Butler appears better suited to handle the Big East than it was last season, its first in the conference after leaving the A-10. Consider that the Bulldogs are ranked nearly 100 spots higher in KenPom’s offensive efficiency and nearly 50 spots higher on defense. Still, while Butler has recorded a number of impressive wins, where it falls among the Big East’s other second-tier teams behind league favorite Villanova is up for debate.

One big question: Will there be too much attrition in league play?

Villanova will probably be in the running for a top-two seed in the NCAA tournament. What will happen to the rest of the league on Selection Sunday is an open question. The Big East could get as many as seven at-large bids, but that number could trend lower if teams don’t separate themselves from their league counterparts. A high probability of upsets makes for compelling basketball on a weekly basis, but that comes at the detriment of teams with realistic chances of making the field of 68. Early returns suggest it will be difficult for any team, even Villanova, to win on the road in this league -- through Monday, Big East teams were 1-9 away from home in conference play.


Big 12

Team to beat: Kansas

Prior to Monday night, Texas probably would have been the Big 12’s “Team to beat.” That changed when the Longhorns were blown out on their home floor by Oklahoma. The team to beat this season is the same one the rest of the league has been looking up to over the last decade. Kansas has won at least a share of the conference title every season since 2005 and looks poised to extend the streak this season. A recent 25-point loss to Temple was cause for pause, but the Jayhawks rebounded to blowout Kent State and a UNLV team that knocked off Arizona. Bill Self’s team has come a long way since “I was hoping that was Vodka.”

Game of the conference season: Kansas at Oklahoma (Mar. 7)

After praising Kansas in the previous section, it’s important to note that the Jayhawks still need to improve on several fronts to outlast their challengers. Shooting guard Wayne Selden has not made the “sophomore leap” some expected of him, freshmen Cliff Alexander and Kelly Oubre haven’t matched the production of many of their five-star-rated classmates and Perry Ellis is still adjusting to a more prominent offensive role. Kansas figures to be in the hunt for the conference title come March, and this game could tip the scales in either team’s favor. Monday night’s outcome in Austin, Texas, suggests the Sooners have what it takes to push Kansas on its home floor (Jan. 19), too.

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Sleeper team: Baylor

Though the Bears opened league play with a double-digit loss at Oklahoma on Saturday, that result doesn’t look so bad after Monday night. Baylor probably would have received more national attention by now had it not lost to Illinois in the Las Vegas Invitational on Thanksgiving weekend, but starting point guard Kenny Chery sat out that game with a foot injury. He helped the Bears to four consecutive wins after returning to the lineup on Dec. 9 against Texas A&M. Meanwhile, redshirt freshman Johnathan Motley has provided shot-blocking boost and leads the team in fouls drawn per 40 minutes, per KenPom, while junior forward Rico Gathers is pulling down 20.3 percent of his team’s misses during his floor time, the second-highest mark in the country.

One big question: Will Kansas’ league title streak come to an end this year?

This question has been posed at several points over the last decade, and Kansas has responded the same way every time. But maybe this season will be different. The Jayhawks will likely have several contenders for the top spot, including Texas and Oklahoma. Baylor, Iowa State and possibly West Virginia are all currently ranked and could also push Kansas. 


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Team to beat: Arizona

The Wildcats have validated their status as the clear-cut favorite to win this league by going 12-1 in the nonconference portion of their schedule and opening league play with a 24-point dismantling of in-state rival Arizona State. Arizona should be able to secure a No. 1 or No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament, but it’s unclear whether it can defend as effectively as it did last season. One of the biggest issues for the Wildcats so far, such as they exist, has been free throw shooting. Arizona is doing a good job getting to the line but connecting on only 65.9 percent of those attempts, which ranks 251st in the country.

Game of the conference season: Arizona at Utah (Feb. 28)

All the “What’s going on with UCLA?” talk has overshadowed how well Utah is playing. The Utes’ 32-point beatdown of the Bruins last weekend marked their fifth consecutive win, one of which came by 13 points over the UNLV team Arizona lost to last month. The average margin of those five victories was 23.8 points. With forward Jordan Loveridge back in the lineup after missing seven games due to a knee injury, Utah appears to be a legitimate challenger to the Wildcats. It faces Arizona in Tucson on Jan. 17 before squaring off in Salt Lake City near the end of the regular season.

Sleeper team: Stanford

The Cardinal have won two straight without the services of heralded freshman Reid Travis, who is out indefinitely due to a stress fracture. With a manageable upcoming schedule, Stanford should be able to keep winning without him. Whenever Travis returns -- he is expected to miss at least a month -- Stanford’s chances of notching a second consecutive NCAA tournament bid will depend, in part, on whether it can maintain the sub-0.90 points per possession defense it has played the last two games.

One big question: Is this league a one- or two-horse race?

Arizona and Utah appear to be in a class of their own. The Wildcats and Utes both scored notable wins in nonconference play (San Diego State and Gonzaga for Arizona, Wichita State and BYU for Utah), both feature multiple NBA talents (Stanley Johnson and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson for the Wildcats, Delon Wright and Jakob Poetl for the Utes) and both rank among the top 12 in KenPom’s team efficiency ratings. Can any other teams challenge them over the course of conference play? Stanford is one option, and perhaps Washington, Colorado or Oregon can make a run at the top two. At this point, though, it seems unlikely.



Team to beat: Kentucky

Kentucky has been so dominant that, in lieu of discussing legitimate weaknesses, people are debating the merits of the Wildcats’ lineups. In the end, that probably won’t matter, because Kentucky can beat most teams in the country regardless of who starts and who comes off the bench. This may seem like hyperbole, but it’s difficult to come up with other ways to describe what Kentucky has done over the first 13 games of the season. There are two warts worth pointing out: The Wildcats are shooting 32.1 percent from three-point range and 66.2 percent from the free-throw line, good for 222nd and 240th in the country, respectively.

Game of the conference season: Kentucky at South Carolina (Jan. 24)

As recently as a couple of weeks ago, the Wildcats’ visit to Florida on Feb. 7 probably would have filled this section. The Gators may develop into something resembling the top-10 team AP poll voters deemed them to be in the preseason. However, it seems prudent to side with the squad playing better right now than to wager on possibility that Florida may “flip the switch” at some point. South Carolina beat then-No. 9 Iowa State on a neutral court last weekend to extend its winning streak to seven. The Gamecocks are a work in progress offensively, but if they can combine their stingy defense with a hot shooting night, Kentucky could get tested.

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Sleeper team: Arkansas

The Razorbacks have been remarkably tough at home under Mike Anderson. To clinch their first NCAA tournament berth since 2008, however, they’ll need to improve on the 5-25 mark they’ve posted in true road games in the previous three seasons. Arkansas showed promise in a six-point win at SMU in November but then dropped a game at Clemson less than three weeks later. In an SEC with one dominant team and a lot of filler, there are plenty of potential road wins to go around. Arkansas needs to take advantage, starting with a trip to Georgia on Tuesday. Assuming the Razorbacks can hold serve at home, a slight uptick in performance away from Bud Walton Arena should get them in the conversation for an at-large bid.

One big question: Can Kentucky beat the Sixers?

Kidding (but the answer is no). The question everyone has been asking since Kentucky’s 32-point win over Kansas at the Champions Classic in November is whether it can go undefeated. The Wildcats survived the game billed as their biggest obstacle to perfection, a road matchup with Louisville on Dec. 27, in relatively comfortable fashion. John Calipari’s team won’t face an opponent nearly as strong as the Cardinals during SEC play. If Kentucky loses, it won’t happen because the Wildcats are less talented than their opponent. It will happen because Kentucky 1) wasn’t focused, 2) got rattled in front of a hostile crowd, 3) shot poorly, 4) fell prey to a lights-out shooting -- or some combination of those things.

Mountain West

Team to beat: San Diego State

San Diego State is going to win a lot of ugly, low-scoring games, because its offense is, in one word, awful. Through 15 games, the Aztecs rank outside the nation’s top 240 in three-point shooting percentage, two-point shooting percentage, effective field goal percentage and free-throw percentage. They’ve had 11.6 percent of their two-point field goal attempts blocked, good for 260th in the country, and they rank in Division I’s lowest group in halfcourt scoring on a per-possession basis, according to scouting data from Synergy Sports. More often than not, San Diego State has been able to bail itself out with lights-out defense. Will that be enough to win a league that doesn’t appear to have improved from last season, when it sent only two teams to the NCAAs? 

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Game of the conference season: San Diego State at Colorado State (Jan. 24)

The Rams look best suited to compete with San Diego State for the conference championship, even if Saturday’s double-digit loss at New Mexico suggests otherwise. But Colorado State deserves the benefit of the doubt because The Pit is one of the toughest to get a win at in this conference, and the Rams had not lost before then. While Larry Eustachy’s team has work to do on the defensive end, it’s scoring at a top-50 clip, earning plenty of trips to the free throw line and limiting turnovers. That formula could present major issues for the Aztecs. 

Sleeper team: Wyoming

UNLV turned heads when it handed then-No. 3 Arizona its first loss a couple of days before Christmas, but the Rebels have since dropped games to Kansas and Wyoming. The Cowboys, meanwhile, have won five straight, and their only two losses this season came on the road to SMU and Cal, respectively. Think of Wyoming as Colorado State-lite: The two teams have registered similarly poor defensive marks, but the Rams’ offense is a little better than the Cowboys’. Make an effort to watch Wyoming whenever possible this season because senior Larry Nance Jr. is good for at least one highlight dunk per game. If he doesn’t come through, sophomore Jason McManamenwill not let you down.

One big question: Will this league get more tournament bids (2) than it did last season?

The MWC did not perform well enough in the nonconference season to put itself in a good position to earn a large number of NCAA tournament bids. In his first bracket projection this week, SI.com’s Michael Beller projected three teams from the league to make the field: San Diego State, Wyoming and Colorado State. The Aztecs have recorded wins over Utah, BYU and Pittsburgh; while Wyoming has beaten Colorado, and Colorado State has knocked off the Buffaloes and Texas-El Paso. Of those three teams, Wyoming has the least compelling case for at-large inclusion. For the Cowboys, or someone else, to get across the cutline, it will need to avoid losses to bottom-tier teams like Fresno StateNevada and San Jose State.