Some Major Conferences In Flux As Season Winds Down
With just a few games before conference tournaments, teams in the Pac-10, Big Ten and ACC look bolster their NCAA Tournament seeds with a regular season title. In each of these three major conferences, there aren't one or two teams fighting for the top spot, but multiple teams battling 'til the end. NBA-Draft.com looks at the challenges facing the teams in these three major conferences.
The Pac-10 has been chaotic all season long, but never more so than now in the season's closing weeks. Two teams, Cal and Washington, looked to be run-away favorites in the preseason, with each squad sporting a Top-25 ranking, but have since fallen into the muddled pack. Six teams are vying for the top spot: Cal, Arizona State, USC, UCLA, Washington and Arizona are all within two games of each other after the weekend's games. The Golden Bears of Cal look to be in the best shape as they not only have a one game lead in the Pac-10, but also have one of the easier league schedules remaining as they play three of the conference's worst four, but their two toughest games against Arizona and Arizona State are at home in Berkeley. UCLA seem to have the toughest path ahead of them- five of their final seven are on the road, including four games against the conference contenders.
If no one can stop Cal in remaining games or surprise them in the Pac-10 Tournament, the Pac-10 could be looking like a one-big league for the Big Dance. Each of the six conference contenders has at least four Pac-10 losses, but each has been relatively inconsistent throughout the season, beating good teams and then falling to the nation's cellar dwellers. Oregon, who is in last place in the conference and just 12-12 overall, is the Pac-10's lone team with a winning record against AP Top-25 teams.
Unlike the Pac-10's battles, the Big Ten has been consistently good all season long and its top teams are all Tournament-worthy but are simply fighting for the league title. Currently, five teams sit within one game of each other; Michigan State and Ohio State lead the way, following by Purdue (½ game back), Illinois and Wisconsin (1 game). Last week, Michigan State seemed like a runaway in the Big Ten, they stood at 9-0 in the conference, while four others were 6-3. That was until last year's conference player of the year, Kalin Lucas went down with an injury and Michigan State lost three in a row. Middle-of-the-pack Illinois went on its first five-game winning streak featuring an enormous upset of #13 Wisconsin on the road; this was Wisconsin's first loss to an unranked conference opponent under coach Bo Ryan (51-1). Ohio State remaining schedule is the easiest of the group with three of four games at home where the Buckeyes are a perfect 15-0 on the season. Michigan State must face two of the Big Ten's bottom three, but still has to travel to West Lafayette to play Purdue. The Fighting Illini's remaining games could push them out of conference contention- traveling to Purdue, Ohio State and Michigan and then taking on Minnesota and Wisconsin at home. They face every team in the Big Ten without a losing record with the exception of Michigan State.
The ACC is having a bit of a down-year, having only two nationally ranked teams in Duke and Georgia Tech, while the latter is surely to drop after losing their last two games. Despite Duke's top-10 ranking, the conference is far from theirs. They have three road games remaining, and take on a tough 20-win Virginia Tech team and Conference-USA contender in Tulsa. With six and in some cases, seven games remaining in ACC play, the top four teams can still battle it out with the Blue Devils. Wake Forest is only one game back, but have several road games remaining where the Demon Deacons have struggled throughout the season. That could open the door for Virginia Tech and Maryland, both of which must still make trips to Durham to play Duke. Nothing in the ACC is set yet.
February is more than half over, which means March Madness is right around the corner. Teams streaking or struggling are worth keeping an eye on.