As the college basketball season moves into conference play, I always look forward to the NCAA Tournament and the different teams that can achieve the ultimate goal of playing for a national championship. Teams earn automatic tournament bids by winning their conference, in which there are 32 across Division 1. I picked eight significant conferences and ranked their top teams by chance to win. I used the track records of each team, judging non-conference and conference records and injuries that could affect their performance against good opponents.
Going in alphabetical order, we will start with the weakest of the five power conferences, the ACC. Over this century, the ACC has cemented itself as one of the best conferences in the country. However, recruits have started to focus more on the NBA, and some of the best college coaches are leaving these historic programs. #7 Duke still holds the top position in the conference, though they are not as dominant as before. Since it is Mike Krzyzewski’s final season, Duke’s motivation level should be high during the postseason. Wins over Gonzaga and Kentucky should help them clinch a top-four seed even if they have a disappointing record. Usually, a storied program—North Carolina or Virginia—has a great chance at upsetting Duke and winning the tournament, but that is not the case this season. Miami, a team with only five NCAA Tournament appearances since 2008, holds a top spot in the ACC. In the past sixteen games, the Hurricanes have only lost four games—including two Florida State by one point—and they put themselves on the map with an upset win over Duke. This surprise team in the ACC has a chance to go undefeated the rest of the season and possibly win the conference tournament. I had a tough time choosing the third team in this conference. North Carolina has a history of making impressive postseason runs, while Virginia’s defense could help them go on a streak. However, the Florida State Seminoles have proven that their best team can beat anybody. A two-game losing streak to terrible Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech teams does not help their résumé, but a win over Duke shows they are legit. I think the eighth-place team in the ACC is better than they have shown, and I think they could find a way to overtake some teams at the top of the conference.Embed from Getty Images
Coincidentally, the next conference in alphabetical order may be the strongest in the country. Baylor, the second-best team in the conference, should win the regular season and postseason titles. Though they lost to sneaky Alabama, the Bears only have four losses on the season, with two of those to top-ranked teams. Also, they have defeated two ranked teams in #6 Villanova and then #8 Iowa State. The defending national champion has not sat back and should have a great chance at winning back-to-back championships. Next, and the biggest challenger to Baylor, comes the Kansas Jayhawks. Three impressive wins over Michigan State, Texas Tech, and Iowa State almost cancel out their disappointing loss to Kentucky. However, a game like that cannot appear during the postseason. Ochai Agbaji, arguably the best player on Kansas, had a disappointing game, only scoring thirteen points in a season where he is averaging over twenty per game. I will not take it away from Kentucky and their star big Oscar Tshiebwe, who will be a problem for every team they play. The biggest problem Kansas has is finding a consistent big man they can rely on for rebounds, and one can consistently score in double figures. With the third-best chances, and I went back and forth on this one, sits the Texas Tech Red Raiders. I chose Texas Tech partly because of the wins on their résumé and the quality losses they possess. Wins over Tennessee, Kansas, Baylor, and Iowa State combine for an impressive track record against Quad One teams. Also, losses to Gonzaga, Iowa State (by four points), and Kansas (by two points in double overtime) is nothing to be embarrassed about. With five players averaging double digits in scoring, including Oral Roberts transfer Kevin Obanor, Texas Tech is the best challenger to Kansas and Baylor in the Big 12.
Big East basketball. A tough, physical conference with some of the most underrated teams and players in the country. This season may have a similar finish to last season, with Georgetown coming out of the water to win the Big East tournament and make the NCAA Tournament. This season, I have the Providence Friars, my favorite team, with the number one chance to clinch an automatic bid. I started watching them regularly this season, and they are easily the most underrated team in the country. Nate Watson and Ed Croswell dominate inside, while Jared Bynum and Al Durham can create off the dribble. Most haters call them “lucky” because they beat the best teams without their best players and do not defeat bad teams by lengthy margins. Wins over #21 Xavier and #22 Marquette show this team may be Ed Cooley’s best. The Villanova Wildcats, the usual dominator of the Big East, have a weaker team than typical years but have still put themselves in a good position for success. Long-time stars Collin Gillespie and Jermaine Samuels have made Villanova better than they would be. A challenging non-conference schedule with UCLA, Purdue, Tennessee, and Baylor gave the Wildcats four losses moving into Big East play. They have managed an 11-3 record and have yet to play Providence. That game should be fun and show which team holds the upper hand. A tough Marquette Golden Eagles team starring first-year head coach Shaka Smart has been a surprise thus far. After starting 0-3 in the Big East, they rattled off seven straight wins before falling to Providence in a close game. They have managed five top twenty-five wins and an impressive résumé considering their struggles to start the year.Embed from Getty Images
Next up on the stage comes the Big Ten, a conference similar to the Big East. This conference contains five top-twenty teams, a mark unheard of in many other conferences. I had a hard time picking between these five teams, but Purdue has the number one chance to win the tournament. After a surprising early-round exit in the NCAA Tournament, Purdue’s stars have returned on a collision course. Jaden Ivey, Zach Edey, Trevion Williams, and Sasha Stefanovic have combined for almost sixty points per game. Despite another monstrous non-conference schedule, they have managed only one loss to a ranked team. Two upset losses to Rutgers and Indiana dropped their stock a bit, but that happens when you are the team to beat. Next, I chose the Michigan State Spartans as the team with the second-highest chances to clinch an automatic bid. They have bounced back hard from last year’s First Four loss to UCLA. The Spartans probably should have made the tournament outright, but that was up to the selection committee. Sitting at 17-6 with four losses to top-25 teams, including two top-five teams, and two wins over #22 UCONN and #8 Wisconsin, Michigan State has looked better than some years. A transfer from Marquette two years ago, Joey Hauser has picked up his production, averaging almost ten points per game in twenty-two minutes. With Tom Izzo as the coach, it was practically a no-brainer to put them at number two. Easily the most challenging spot to pick was number three. Wisconsin, Illinois, and Ohio State all have great talent and the ability to win. I went with the Illinois Fighting Illini, a veteran team with tournament experience. It was a difficult start for the Illini, losing two non-conference games to unranked opponents. However, they have been on a roll since then, winning eleven out of twelve before dropping a couple of games to Purdue and unranked Maryland. However, two ranked wins over Michigan State and Wisconsin placed them right atop the Big Ten standings. Without Ayo Dosunmu, Andre Curbelo and Kofi Cockburn have stepped up to lead Illinois this season.
The Mountain West conference has never been known for its basketball, but this season may change that. This surprise conference has many teams running for the NCAA Tournament, including once-undefeated Colorado State. Spoiler alert: they do appear on this list, but the Boise State Broncos sit first after a 9-1 start to conference play. Since losing two straight games and dropping to 3-4 in November, the Broncos have rattled off fifteen victories in their last sixteen games to hold one of the best records in the country at 18-5. Though their football team usually amasses popularity, they could be the first in program history to win an NCAA Tournament game. Second, and a team I probably would have placed first before conference play began, is the Colorado State Rams. After starting 11-0 with wins over Mississippi State, Creighton, and St. Mary’s, the Rams have lost three games to Mountain West opponents. I am not dropping them too far because the undefeated streak was not a fluke, but they do not deserve the number one spot with their conference record. The third and final team in the Mountain West is the San Diego State Aztecs. Another team known for its football, they are fourth in the conference at 5-3. Of their five losses, two are to ranked opponents—USC and Michigan—and a blowout win over Colorado State may be their most impressive win of the season. Even without an automatic bid, Joe Lunardi of ESPN has them in the tournament. Still, they will have to be impressive down the stretch to maintain that tournament possibility.Embed from Getty Images
The biggest surprise this year has been the PAC-12 conference without any debate. Outside of UCLA, who made the Final Four last year, nobody in this conference was supposed to make any noise around the country. UCLA has continued their top-five run, with a 17-4 record and the second spot in the PAC-12. Johnny Juzang and Cody Riley, their two stars in the 2021 NCAA Tournament, have continued their rise to stardom, leading the Bruins to a 9-3 conference record. The Bruins have been perfect against top twenty-five opponents, outside of losses to #1 Gonzaga and #4 Arizona, and should set themselves up for a one-seed in the tournament. The Arizona Wildcats may be the most surprising team in the country and one reason why the PAC-12 has garnered a strong outlook this season. After a frustrating loss to UCLA, they bounced back on February 3 to defeat the Bruins by ten. Luckily, after a victory over USC, the Wildcats do not have to play another top twenty-five team in the regular season. At fifth in the PAC-12, the Trojans have not found a way to beat Stanford, losing to them by close margins both times. Their other loss came against the fourth PAC-12 team that Joe Lunardi has in the tournament, the Oregon Ducks. The only problem with their résumé is they do not have a ranked win. They have three upcoming games against Arizona and UCLA and three big chances to grab signature wins.
The SEC has built a potent batch of teams in a football conference now well-known in basketball. Two top-five teams and some intense competition—Tennessee, LSU, Arkansas, among others—give them a massively underrated schedule. Starting at #1 with the #1 team in the country, the Auburn Tigers. Recently rewarded with a lifetime contract, Bruce Pearl has shown that his Final Four run was not a fluke. Though some close wins may hinder their ability to hold onto that number one spot, Bruce Pearl has a chance to lead his squad to another Final Four appearance. The Kentucky Wildcats have managed a massive bounce-back season following a disappointing one that included a losing record and second-round SEC Tournament loss. Sitting 9-2 in the SEC and #5 in the country, they have returned to form and should challenge for a #1 seed. Three of their losses have come to ranked opponents, including Duke and Auburn, and only one other ranked opponent awaits in the regular season. I would not put it past John Calipari to lead his team to another SEC Championship and possibly an NCAA Championship. For the third spot, I decided to go with an underdog candidate. Many teams have an opportunity to finish high in the SEC standings, but the Alabama Crimson Tide could surprise many people down the stretch. Nate Oats’ squad was supposed to be Auburn’s most prominent challenger, but it has not worked out that way this season. Most of their problems lie on the defensive end, with Alabama ranking 316 out of 350 Division I basketball teams. Also, the Tide has the third-highest strength of schedule according to TeamRankings. They rank 6-6 in Quadrant One games, the top quarter of Division One teams, and if they can channel their play from the wins over Gonzaga and Houston, they could be an upset Final Four pick.Embed from Getty Images
We will look at the strongest mid-major conference this season to end this article. The West Coast Conference has a possibility of four bids into the NCAA Tournament. Gonzaga is number one in the conference and could be number one in the country. Like many other top-ten teams, they scheduled a demanding non-conference schedule which included Texas, Duke, Alabama, UCLA, and Texas Tech. Their three stars, Chet Holmgren, Andrew Nembhard, and Drew Timme, have stepped up in the spotlight to lead Gonzaga to one of their best seasons ever. However, they do have competition in the background of their conference. With the similarities in their records and résumés, head-to-head helped me choose the Saint Mary’s Gaels over San Francisco for the number two spot. Usually, they maintain a top twenty-five ranking throughout the season, but they have waited until this week to roll through their opponents. Three non-conference losses to Wisconsin, San Diego State, and Colorado State will not impress the selection committee; however, their solid WCC record puts them in an excellent position for a top-eight seed. With a loss to Saint Mary’s, the San Francisco Dons fall to third on the list in the WCC ranks. They started undefeated through the first ten games but hopped on the struggle bus after losing to Grand Canyon, going 9-5 since that mark. Two-point losses to both BYU and Saint Mary’s show they are competitive but need to get over the hump and win close games to compete for a WCC title.
As always, the NCAA Tournament is unpredictable, and any team could come out and go on a run. The same goes for these conference tournaments; an example came last year when eighth-seeded Georgetown won the Big East Tournament and clinched an automatic bid into the tournament. The coming month will be entertaining, and, hopefully, the 2022 NCAA Tournament will live up to expectations like always.