As Christmas nears thoughts turn to conference play in college basketball. Yesterday we looked at one team in each conference that has the potential to disappoint given the high expectations on them. It only makes sense, then, that we look at the other side. Here is one team from each major conference, and some others that are interesting, that is a long shot to win it all but which has the potential to surprise and make things interesting:
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A-10: St. Joseph's. The A-10 isn't quite as strong as it has been in some recent years, but it still is quite top heavy and reasonably deep. The Hawks have had a brutal nonconference schedule, and they have the scars to prove it. They lost four straight, but all were tough - against Ole Miss and N.C. State on neutral courts in tournament action, against Temple and then at the juggernaut that is Villanova. Beating Temple would have been nice, but none of those losses were horrible. What I like, though, is how they responded to those losses. Instead of getting frustrated and giving up, they won a tough one at Drexel, and then they played a really great game to win at Princeton by 8 at 8.5-point underdog. They are resilient, and they have been tested in those games.
AAC: Temple. Like St. Joe's, Temple has been tested by a very tough schedule. They got thumped by Villanova and lost to Georgetown when they really shouldn't have, but they also have very impressive wins as solid underdogs against Florida State and West Virginia. Those two wins came on consecutive days in tournament play, too, so they have shown that when they get hot they are really dangerous. They will be a factor in the conference.
ACC: Virginia Tech. The ACC is ridiculously deep right now. Twelve teams have just one or two losses, with the Hokies as one of seven at one loss. Virginia Tech stands out as the weak link from that group of seven, but they can't be entirely discounted. They haven't played a super tough schedule, but in their Big Ten-ACC game at Michigan they showed incredible resilience. They had all but lost the game, but they kept fighting and found a way to win. If they can show that same strength in conference play they could at least make things interesting.
Big 12: TCU. Baylor is unbeaten, and the Horned Frogs are one of five teams in the 10-team Big 12 with just one loss, so the conference is off to a strong start. What I like about this team is how they responded against Washington. Through a strange quirk of scheduling they played them twice in a row - once in a tournament and then in a scheduled game. The Huskies have a super-frosh but aren't a great team, yet they are no pushover. TCU won the first game handily and then came back and were even more dominant in the second game. It's hard to beat a team twice in a row like that, so TCU obviously has some toughness and some creativity with ability to adjust. That could be helpful.
Big East: Georgetown. The Hoyas have had a pretty disastrous nonconference season, and the calls for the firing of the head coach have been loud. They lost four of their first six and were absolutely destroyed by Wisconsin and Oklahoma State in tournament play. They have won four in a row since, but they haven't played anyone. Those issues could continue, but there is also a chance that they can get their act together and play up to their potential. If they do that then they will be a force in the conference.
Big Ten: Michigan. When the Wolverines play well they are tough. They looked spectacular in winning their tournament. When they are off, though, they can't shoot and they look terrible - they were badly beaten by SMU and were no match for UCLA. If they get things rolling and play to their best then they can hang with anyone in the conference. If they play poorly, though, then they can lose to anyone. Tough team to call, but the upside is there.
Pac-12: Cal. Led by Charlie Moore and Ivan Rabb, the top-end talent is certainly here for this squad. It's a deep conference this year, both of their losses have been somewhat concerning, and they haven't played much of a schedule, but they certainly have the talent to hang with the best of the league - except perhaps UCLA - and that gives them a chance to be a factor.
SEC: Tennessee. This team is only 5-4, so they are easy to overlook. You have to look at how they have lost, though, to see that they have some things going for them. As 13.5-point underdogs to Wisconsin in Maui they hung around and lost by only eight. The next day they were again 13.5-point underdogs, this time to Oregon, and they lost by four in overtime. Later they were 19.5-point dogs at North Carolina, and they lost by just two. All three of those teams are better than all but one team in the SEC, so the Vols definitely have the potential to be a conference factor - though everyone is playing for second as usual in the conference.
WCC: No one. Gonzaga has won 14 of the last 18 conference titles. St. Mary's has won two. Those two teams own this conference, and there is no reason to believe that that will change this year. I could try to make an argument for a team - BYU most likely - but it would be hollow because I just don't see it happening. I really like this Gonzaga team as always, and the Gaels are strong. It would be a shock, as always, if one of those two teams didn't come out on top.
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