Conference play is underway! That means it’s a good time to reevaluate where Sports Illustrated was right (and where SI was wrong) in the preseason. With two months to go until March, here’s who should be the favorite in each men’s power league… and why that pick is different (or the same) as it was when SI released its 1–358 rankings in November.
Yep, I drank too much Memphis Kool-Aid this offseason. I thought the talent would be too overwhelming for teams to handle, but chemistry issues have hampered the team and Emoni Bates hasn’t played like the AAC Player of the Year candidate I expected. And while Houston just lost star guard Marcus Sasser for the season with a toe injury, I still trust the Cougars more than any other team in the league.
The two things you can always count on with Kelvin Sampson’s Houston teams are defense and rebounding. Even without Sasser and Tramon Mark (who is also out for the season), the Cougars have by far the highest floor in the conference because of how aggressive they are on the offensive glass and how difficult they make it to score on them on the other end. Point guard Jamal Shead has a huge responsibility to lead the backcourt and play mistake-free ball, but even with the Sasser injury I don’t feel good about betting on anyone else in the AAC.
I feel FAR more confident in this pick than I did in the preseason. Duke had the most talent in the league on paper, but the Blue Devils’ consistent struggles over the years to win the ACC regular-season title with younger rosters gave me reason for pause. But after seeing the rest of the ACC play, Duke is by far the favorite in the ACC.
Wendell Moore Jr.’s emergence in the backcourt has been the biggest reason the Blue Devils have been better than expected. The junior, who disappointed in his first two seasons in Durham, should be in the All-American mix in 2021–22. He’s one of just three players in the nation averaging at least 17 points, five rebounds and five assists per game, and he has served as a reliable second scorer for the Blue Devils next to Paolo Banchero.
And while Duke has impressed, the rest of the ACC hasn’t. North Carolina has been maddeningly inconsistent, particularly on the defensive end. Virginia and Florida State have less talent than we’re accustomed to. Louisville hasn’t had the bounce-back year some in Cardinal country had been hoping for. It’s Duke, then everyone else in the ACC right now.
Texas is starting to figure things out, but it still doesn’t look like the overwhelmingly talented team it did on paper in the preseason. Point guard Marcus Carr has been disappointing after transferring in from Minnesota, though he is coming off his best game as a Longhorn as Texas took care of a depleted WVU team. This still feels like a team that can make the second weekend of the NCAA tournament, but the Longhorns are no longer the favorite in the Big 12.
Meanwhile, Baylor won a national championship in 2021 and somehow looks more athletic than it was last season. The Bears don’t have the NBA-caliber guards they did a year ago, but freshmen Kendall Brown and Jeremy Sochan have been tremendous in Baylor’s no-middle defense and menaces in transition. Meanwhile, Scott Drew has gotten steady play from Arizona transfer James Akinjo and sophomore LJ Cryer in the backcourt. The Bears are a deserving No. 1 right now … not just in the Big 12, but nationally.
This pick is virtually the exact opposite of my Duke pick: I’m far less confident in this one than I was in the preseason. Some of the concerns I had about the Wildcats before the season began (namely their lack of a go-to scorer or dynamic shot creator) have manifested themselves in Villanova’s biggest games, and the team’s lack of depth was an issue in losses to Purdue and UCLA.
Meanwhile, multiple Big East teams have exceeded expectations. We knew Seton Hall would be good on defense, but the Pirates’ offense has been good enough to make this a top-20 team. Adama Sanogo made the jump UConn fans were hoping for, which gives the Huskies a real chance. Xavier might have the most raw talent in the league. And then there’s Providence, which doesn’t have overwhelming talent but just keeps finding ways to win and arguably has the best résumé in the sport.
Still, I’ll stick with Villanova. It already has important head-to-head wins over Xavier and Seton Hall, and Jay Wright is still on the sidelines for the Wildcats. This team is very beatable when the threes aren’t dropping, but Villanova is too experienced and skilled to bet against in this crowded Big East race.
Memphis is the obvious choice for the most disappointing team in the sport, but Michigan isn’t far behind. The Wolverines, fresh off an Elite Eight berth in 2020–21, have struggled mightily to date and aren’t even an NCAA tournament lock at this point. I underrated just how valuable Michigan having three high-level ball handlers and shooters in the backcourt was last season, and this bigger, less-skilled Wolverines team has had major woes on the offensive end.
Meanwhile, Purdue has been even more lethal on offense than expected in the preseason. Zach Edey has made significant strides and become perhaps the best one-on-one scorer in college basketball, and Jaden Ivey gives Purdue a level of dynamism that it hasn’t had … ever? Everyone has bought into their roles, Trevion Williams is one of the most unique weapons in the sport and Matt Painter is one of the best when it comes to schematics. Even with the Boilers’ surprising home loss to Wisconsin Monday night, dropping them to 1–2 in Big Ten play, Purdue should be the favorite.
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If it doesn’t feel like you’ve heard much about UCLA lately, it’s because you haven’t! The Bruins haven’t played since Dec. 11 and have suited up just three times since getting blown out by Gonzaga before Thanksgiving. Because of this, it feels like we know the least about the Bruins among the potential elite teams, despite their high roster continuity. With a healthy Cody Riley, UCLA has a real chance to reach its ceiling and cement itself as a national title contender coming out of its COVID-19 pause.
But right now, the best team in the Pac-12 is Arizona. It’s hard not to love this Wildcat team in Year 1 under Tommy Lloyd. The Cats are extremely athletic, have multiple future NBA players and have proven their worth against good competition so far. Arizona’s win over Illinois in Champaign was one of the more impressive wins for any team so far this season, and showcased the reasons why this team is a national title contender. Christian Koloko dominated the rim, Bennedict Mathurin exploded for 30 points and PG Kerr Kriisa made clutch shot after clutch shot. The upside in this group is sky high, and that’s why it’s my bet to take the Pac-12 crown.
Of all the major conferences, the SEC seems the most wide-open right now. There’s a legitimate case for at least four teams and maybe a fifth as the champion: Kentucky, Alabama, Tennessee, Auburn and potentially LSU.
Right now, Auburn feels like the most complete team. Jabari Smith is perhaps the most unguardable player in the sport because of his ability to simply elevate over defenders and hit jumpers. Walker Kessler has become a force at the rim. Plus, the backcourt duo of Wendell Green Jr. and K.D. Johnson has exceeded expectations to date.
That doesn’t mean I’m out on Kentucky. The Wildcats looked severely flawed in a road loss at Notre Dame in December but have bounced back in spectacular fashion since. Oscar Tshiebwe is an unstoppable force around the rim, and Kellan Grady continues to torch the nets from deep. When freshman PG TyTy Washington plays up to his potential, UK can be as good as anyone.
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