Predicting The Other Power Six Conferences
Today, we roll on with the bird’s eye view of college basketball before diving back into the standard “all ‘Cuse, all the time” format. There’s never a shortage of intrigue outside of the Big East, and while opponents in the five BCS conferences apart from the Big East admittedly comprise a small percentage of Syracuse’s opponents, it’s worthwhile to look around the country and take a stab at how things will pan out.
ACC: Towards the beginning of last week’s Orange Tip-Off podcast, I said that Syracuse has as good a chance as any team to make a deep tournament run. Unfortunately, while the Big Dance can be unpredictable, I have to backpedal a little bit, because UNC is absolutely stacked with veteran talent as well as newcomers, and anything less than a national title will be viewed as a disappointment by impartial observers, let alone the rabid Tar Heel fanbase. Duke will challenge North Carolina in the conference, but “challenging” and “threatening” are different things. That doesn’t mean Duke won’t be a very good team as usual, but they’ll be a step down from the last few seasons. Florida State will continue to build after losing Chris Singleton and is a good bet to finish third, but I’m more interested in seeing who rises from the middle among Virginia, Maryland and N.C. State (which could end up being an impressive road win for the Orange if they go into Raleigh and emerge victorious). Still, this is North Carolina’s conference to lose, and I expect them to steamroll the ACC. Prediction – North Carolina
Big Ten: The Big Ten is similar to the ACC in that there’s a very clear favorite followed by a handful of additional surefire bets to make the Tournament, a few more competitive squads and a couple bottom-feeders. Jared Sullinger, who is the best player in college basketball by a significant margin, is back for the Buckeyes thanks to the NBA lockout, and Aaron Craft and William Buford round out OSU’s core. As for the rest of the conference, I’m a little higher on Wisconsin than most – Badger basketball isn’t always fun to watch, but they milk the most out of every possession – and while Michigan’s time will come soon, they aren’t ready to make a deep run just yet. Elsewhere in the conference, Purdue finally has Robbie Hummel healthy, and Michigan State could be in for a down year (fortunately for them, a .500+ season in conference play constitutes such a term), and I can see Bloomington getting impatient with Tom Crean if the Hoosiers disappoint, but that’s about the extent of the most relevant storylines in the Big Ten. Prediction – Ohio State
Big 12: This league is going to be down from last season. Many are predicting Kansas to take the Big 12 for the eighth straight season even though the Jayhawks are a very flawed team. Until he proves he shouldn’t, Bill Self will get the benefit of the doubt from national writers, and in that regard, my outlook isn’t much different because he’s made a mockery of the Big 12 practically since he landed there in 2003. However, Kansas, Baylor, Texas A&M and Texas all have major holes that will keep them from being discussed as Final Four contenders until they quiet the critics. Kansas is incredibly thin after Thomas Robinson and Tyshawn Taylor, and things could fall apart quickly if they catch a bad break; Baylor has an absurd collection of talent, but cohesion and coaching hasn’t been a strong suit of Scott Drew’s teams; Texas A&M is a step down, and with the Aggies going through a coaching transition, it’s hard to expect much more than a fourth-place finish, and the Longhorns are very inexperienced. The conference is screaming for someone to grab it and run, but who has the talent and experience to do so? Prediction – Kansas
Pac-12: The Pac-12 is another conference that is wide open, and you can make a case for at least four teams to win the league with Cal, UCLA, Washington and Arizona fighting it out for supremacy. The basis of Cal’s appeal is in its retained core of Jorge Gutierrez, Allen Crabbe and Harper Kamp. In SoCal, UCLA would be a clear favorite had Malcolm Lee and Tyler Honeycutt not stupidly declared early for the NBA Draft and stayed in, but the Bruins will be steady enough to contend for the crown without them (though that’s more of an indictment of the conference than an appraisal of UCLA’s talent level). The Huskies are a popular sleeper/dark horse pick with a deep stable of scoring threats led by Terrence Ross, and an interesting freshman class is worth keeping tabs on. In Tucson, the Wildcats are a farther behind after losing Derrick Williams and Momo Jones. While they shouldn’t be written off, they will be very young and thus tough to gauge. All told, the Pac-12 is still recovering from the talent drain that took hold a few seasons ago, so it may still be a little while before this conference is worthy of close attention on a national scale again. Prediction – Cal
SEC: Anyone looking to take the SEC is going to have to go through Kentucky. Calipari did his Calipari thing, reeling in another jaw-dropping recruiting class. The main challenge with a team like UK is keeping everyone happy (or making them fall in line if they aren’t), because top-flight freshmen are so used to being placated. If chemistry becomes an issue, Florida may be next in line. The Gators look strong, though Billy Donovan will have to figure out a way to manage a surplus of shoot-first players while developing a monster in the making down low in Patric Young. Vanderbilt has a loaded roster coming back from last season, but the Commodores will have to deal with heightened expectations after losing a chunk of close games in the SEC. Alabama will sneak up on a few people, but this is a distinct three-team race. Prediction – Kentucky