The Top Tier: The Big Ten, the Big East, the Atlantic Coast Conference, and the Southeastern Conference
If you take a look at the conference RPI rankings, you’ll note that the top conferences divide into a few discernible tiers: The Top Four, the Next Three, and The Rest. I’m going to go about it this way rather than using a traditional “Power Conference” structure. In particular, I think the relative strength of the conferences fluctuates enough on a year-to-year basis that this is more helpful.
Numbers in parentheses are official RPI rankings as of 2.14.06. Teams are listed in order of conference standing where applicable.
The Big Ten
In the Tournament: 6 [Iowa (9), Illinois (13), Ohio State (8), Wisconsin (16), Michigan State (10), Michigan (30)]
Near Misses: 1 [Indiana (37)]
Number of times we hear “They’re a year away!” in reference to Big Ten teams: Many
This is highly dependant on how Indiana closes the season. The top five are all very solid, and I feel pretty good about Michigan’s chances despite some of their recent struggles. Indiana, however, is on a downward spiral. They have off-the-court issues to go with more than enough on-the-court ones. The RPI is currently very borderline, as it’s lower than the number listed above after the games played this week – current projections have them around 44. Unless they make a major turnaround fast, I think they fall short.
As for the teams that will make it in… well, many of them were considered “a year too young” coming into this season, most notably Ohio State. The conference race is wide open because there are a bunch of quality teams but no dominant one. This is a good recipe for strong conference play, but could spell danger when it comes bracket time. I see pretty much all of these teams as extremely vulnerable to a “hot hand” team – there is no Duke-type-team that can take a fearless underdog’s best shot and still have a great chance of coming out with the win. For all that this is probably the strongest conference on average in the nation, I don’t see any of the teams (other than perhaps a MSU repeat of last year) as serious Final Four contenders.
The Big East
In the Tournament: 7 [Villanova (2), Connecticut (4), West Virginia (19), Pittsburgh (6), Georgetown (26), Marquette (35), Seton Hall (34)]
Borderline: 2 [Cincinnati (32), Syracuse (28)]
Contenders who will stay home if they don’t win at least three in MSG: 2 [Louisville (64), Rutgers (77)]
Injustices: If less than eight make it, definitely – dependant on how the last few weeks go, though.
Is a 16 team league worth the bloated size if it means you get 9 of the top 35 RPI teams beating the crap out of each other in competitive, physical games several times a week? Absolutely!
The top teams here all have extremely solid profiles; they also all have extreme tournament potential. Whether a 8-8 or (god forbid) 7-9 Big East team is more worthy than a Pac-10 team several games above .500 will be a key question in front of the committee; I would tend to say yes, at least this year. With the exception of South Florida, there have been few easy games here. Syracuse and Cincinnati are interesting cases, because both have strong RPI ratings, and they have played two of the ten most difficult schedules in the nation; unfortunately, they’ve mostly won the games they were “supposed to win”, and little more. I think either should be in with two more wins, but each needs at least one win at MSG to feel remotely comfortable. Louisville needs to worry itself with making the conference tournament at this point; Rutgers also sees 7-9 in conference play as a goal too far out in the distance.
The Big East is the only conference that could potentially have two #1 seeds this year, and at this point I think UConn and Villanova each deserve the honor. If each wins out, with UConn taking the rematch between the two at Storrs, and reaches at least the semifinals of the league tournament, I think they’ll both pick up the top seeds – particularly in light of Texas’s shellacking today. West Virginia is even more of a threat to go on a run than they were last year; Pitt will try to overcome its recent reputation for coming up soft come tourney time; Georgetown and Marquette have both shown this year that they are capable of beating the very best (with wins over Duke and UConn, respectively). Asking for 1985 all over again might be a bit much, but I would not be surprised in the least two see two of these teams representing in Indianapolis in early April.
In the Tournament: 4 [Duke (1), N.C. State (22), Boston College (33), North Carolina (23)]
Borderline: 1 [Maryland (42)]
Done unless they make some major noise in the conference tournament: [Florida St. (67), Virginia (53), Miami (78)]
Injustices: Only if Maryland gets in, given how badly they’ve played this year.
Teams That Matter: 1 [Duke (1)]
Maryland is treading water, and has been all season. They only have one remotely significant win, at home vs. BC. Many of the teams they’ve taken losses to have been… well, not teams you lose to if you want to get in the tournament. #3 ranking notwithstanding, this is a down year in the ACC (as it is for all of the six “majors” after the top two).
Except, of course, for Duke. They don’t have down years. I do think Shelden Williams is a little bit overrated (not a LOT, mind you, but a little), and I’d gladly take UConn’s frontcourt in a matchup against the Blue Devils. Plus, I think he’s kind of funny looking. On the other hand, I think J.J. Redick IS, quite frankly, all that. I think this team is quite beatable if you get Redick on a down night – he just doesn’t happen to have down nights. I don’t think they’re going to win it all this year, but you also won’t see me betting against them until the Final Four comes along, unless they get a crazy-strong 2-seed in their bracket.
I’m not really sure that N.C. State, BC, or UNC are worth writing about. They’d all be middle of the pack teams in the Big Ten or Big East (wait a minute, BC WAS a middle of the pack team in the Big East just last year!). There is some potential for an upset or two (especially if Craig Smith goes off for a few games in a row), but there’s just as much potential for these teams to get upset. Very blah, overall, IMO.
Also Known As: The Borderline Conference
In the Tournament: 4 [Tennessee (3), LSU (15), Florida (18), Alabama (43)]
On the Borderline: 4 [Kentucky (44), Arkansas (66), Vanderbilt (58), South Carolina (52)]
Done: The Rest. I think. Probably.
Injustices: Who knows, yet?
Mid-majors watching the last few weeks of conference play and the tournament to see if this league gets 4 or 7: All of them with bubble hopes.
Alabama came up with the big win over Tennessee this weekend to put them in my “In” column. Kentucky… hasn’t impressed me enough, yet. One more big win, or not embarrassing themselves in the conference tourney, and they should probably be in. The other three are in serious trouble, even with Arkansas’s win over Florida this weekend. For SC and Vandy, the W-L record just isn’t going to be there, and Arkansas needs at least one more big win for the RPI to be anywhere near there. On the other hand, the top teams in this conference have all shown themselves to be very beatable, and most of these teams have one last shot at one or more of them, so they can still prove themselves.
The team I like the best here come tourney time is actually LSU. Most of Tennessee’s big wins, to get to its current gaudy RPI ranking, have come over teams that I think are a little suspect in one way or another; LSU, on the other hand, has beaten or played competitively with a number of absolutely top notch teams. Sorry, but I just value a win at Texas when they were playing their worst ball of the year less than close losses at UConn and Ohio St. when they were playing fairly well. Depending on the road they draw, I could definitely see writing LSU into the Elite Eight as a semi-sleeper.
Tomorrow afternoonish, it’s The Second Tier: The Big 12, The Missouri Valley Conference, and the Pacific 10 (and I think the MVC is probably the best of the three!)