As February winds down, teams get ready to compete in their respective conference tournaments. These tournaments are where everyone gets their first taste of upsets, especially in the Power Five conferences. With so much talent spread across each of the five — ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, SEC, and the Pac-12 — it’s tough picking a winner.
This year’s ACC conference has already had a wild year. Louisville instituted a postseason ban on themselves, Duke managed to fall out of the AP poll for a couple weeks, and the Syracuse Orange have had a great season compared to what some thought they’d have.
UNC and Virginia are always in talks as conference champions and have remained the two constants for the ACC as they’ve stayed in the AP poll all season. The two have a game against each other on Feb. 27 and it could very well indicate who the conference champ will be.
I have my money set on the Tar Heels. They’re long overdue for a championship; not winning the ACC tournament since 2007-08. Their offense is incredibly potent and they average close to 84 points per contest. Marcus Paige & Joel Berry make an excellent backcourt while Brice Johnson has continued to be a beast inside.
Big 12: Kansas
Hands down, the Big 12 conference is the most competitive in America. With six teams in the top 25 and three in the top ten, there are multiple candidates to choose from.
Oklahoma and Kansas are clearly the best two teams in the conference, but Iowa State, West Virginia, and Baylor all have a chance at an upset. Kansas struggled in the middle of January, losing to Oklahoma State, Iowa State, and West Virginia so an upset wouldn’t be surprising.
However, the Jayhawks play outstanding defense when it counts and have an offense that can put up a lot of points. Both Frank Mason and Devonte’ Graham played great individual defense on the nation’s best scorer, Buddy Hield, and both guys are able to go out and get 15-20 points. Along with Mason and Graham, you have Wayne Selden and Perry Ellis, who’re also capable of getting 20 while locking up on defense.
Big Ten: Iowa
Similar to the Big 12, the Big Ten has a bunch of good teams, but Iowa and Maryland are the top dogs. Michigan State looked poised to make a run for a conference title and while it’s still possible, it seems unlikely with how much they’ve struggled in conference play.
The Hawkeyes have beaten the Spartans twice, Purdue twice, and are 11-2 in conference play. Both losses came to Maryland and Indiana, respectively, and by a total of 13 points. They’re loaded with upperclassmen and are led by Jarrod Uthoff and Peter Jok.
In conference play, both men are around 20 points per game (Uthoff 19.4, Jok 17.9). When Iowa gets contributions from players outside of those two, they’re tough to beat and a factor in their two conference losses was a lack of bench production — 11 bench points against Maryland, zero against Indiana.
Ben Simmons has taken the SEC by storm and for the first time in a long time, Kentucky hasn’t been the topic of conversation in college basketball. While Simmons is having a remarkable year that’s worthy of the Wooden Award, Coach Calipari has, yet again, assembled a team that can make a run in March.
UK’s been erratic at times this year and highly touted recruits Isaiah Briscoe and Skal Labissiere have failed to live up to expectation. As expected, however, the team has adopted Calipari’s defensive philosophy. They have the best Net Rating per 100 in the SEC, and their DRtg stands at 88.93.
The sophomore-freshman combination of Tyler Ulis and Jamal Murray has worked out great for the Wildcats. Murray ranks fourth in the conference in scoring at 18.8 PPG while Ulis sits at sixth with 16.7 and leads in assists per game, dishing out almost seven dimes per contest.
With the Pac-12 being the most up-in-the-air conference, it’s likely the conference where we’ll see an upset. Although Cal has the potential to win the conference, they haven’t entered the top 25 since 11/23. Regardless of them being left off the poll, the Bears have a lot of firepower and will give Oregon, Arizona, and the rest of the Pac-12 a run for their money.
Speaking of the Cats and the Ducks, the Bears of beaten both of them this season; along with Utah, Colorado, and Oregon State — all of whom are ranked top 50 in RPI. Freshmen sensations Ivan Rabb and Jaylen Brown have been spectacular for Cal while upperclassmen Jordan Mathews and Tyrone Wallace provide great leadership on and off the court.
If there’s one thing that worries me about the Golden Bears, it’s that they can’t win away from home and all tournaments take place on neutral sites. Still, they play four of their last six games away from home and if they win a couple of those, it’ll make them more confident about being away from Hass Pavilion.
*Photo Credit: Derick Hingle / USA TODAY Sports*