Evaluating Conference Title Contenders After Tennessee & Virginia Win Big

For many teams across the country, conference play is only one game old, but several results from Saturday can be valuable data points as we handicap various regular season conference championship races.

Top-10 teams Tennessee, Virginia and Michigan State each added an impressive victory, albeit behind different combinations of the opponent and margin of victory. Meanwhile, Kansas, Kentucky and Cincinnati each suffered a loss in the opening weekend of conference play.

Here’s a look at several conference championship races and how results from Saturday affirmed preexisting beliefs about top contenders or made us re-examine which teams can potentially win a conference title.

American Athletic Conference

East Carolina defeats Cincinnati 73-71

Cincinnati was picked to finish second in the American Athletic Conference preseason coaches poll behind only UCF, and the Bearcats received just seven fewer votes than the Knights. Sure, Cincinnati lost its top two scorers – and three of its top four – from last season’s team that swept the AAC regular season and tournament titles, but the Bearcats returned the rest of their rotation and had a breakout candidate in junior Jarron Cumberland.

There’s a lot of basketball left to be played, but Cincinnati’s loss at East Carolina is a major black mark on the Bearcats’ resume and it raises a red flag about their regular season championship hopes. The Pirates were just 7-6 before beating Cincinnati and their best win prior to Saturday was against Appalachian State, who is 5-10 after Saturday with three of its wins coming against non-Division I opponents.

A loss like that is made possible by the dismal shooting performance Cincinnati had from three (3-of-19, 15.8%) and the free throw line (8-of-18, 44.4%).

East Carolina is ranked No. 259 in the NET as of Saturday morning and No. 280 in kenpom.com as of Saturday night. It’s not just that most NCAA Tournament teams won’t have a loss to a team as bad as East Carolina, but most major conference teams won’t even have such an opportunity for one in conference play.

Here are the worst teams in other major conferences, according to kenpom.com:

  • Big 12: No. 88 Oklahoma State
  • Big Ten: No. 115 Rutgers
  • Big East: No. 117 DePaul
  • SEC: No. 127 South Carolina
  • ACC: No. 154 Wake Forest
  • Pac-12: No. 208 California

 

Cincinnati is still the highest-ranked AAC team in kenpom.com at No. 30 – one spot ahead of Houston and four ahead of UCF – and the site projects the Bearcats will go a respectable 12-6 in conference play, but their loss on Saturday is one that could potentially cost them a regular season title in a close conference race and potentially a seed line in the tournament.

ACC

No. 4 Virginia defeats No. 9 Florida State 65-52

It’s very likely the combination of Virginia’s historic loss as a No. 1 seed in last season’s NCAA Tournament combined with Duke’s amazing freshman class has meant that the Cavaliers haven’t gotten the proper recognition in the first two months of the season.

They were one of four remaining undefeated teams nationally entering Saturday, while ranking in the top 10 in offensive efficiency and top five in defensive efficiency. Virginia’s veteran backcourt duo of Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy has lethal three-point accuracy and forward De’Andre Hunter is a potential NBA lottery pick.

With a 65-52 win over No. 9 Florida State in its ACC opener, Virginia picked up arguably its best win of the season and the Cavaliers held the Seminoles to their season-low in points and just 0.83 points per possession. Don’t be surprised if the ACC regular season championship runs through Charlottesville.

Big 12

Iowa State defeats No. 5 Kansas 77-60

Kansas has won at least a share of the last 14 Big 12 regular season titles and we don’t foresee that changing anytime soon for the preseason No. 1 team. But maybe the Big 12 race will be closer than expected for a Jayhawks team loaded with talented returnees, transfers and highly regarded freshmen.

Kansas has now lost both of its road games this season and playing in the Big 12, which has seven teams in the top 50 on kenpom.com and all 10 in the top 90, means literally every road game is against a respectable opponent. The Jayhawks’ latest loss came by 17 points in Ames as Iowa State made 13-of-25 (52.0%) threes compared to Kansas’ 6-of-20 (30.0%) performance.

Jayhawks center Udoka Azubuike didn’t play for precautionary reasons after suffering a recent wrist injury, leading scorer Dedric Lawson only scored 13 points on 11 shots and second-leading scorer Lagerald Vick had just six points on eight shots as Kansas was held to a remarkably low 0.83 points per possession, per kenpom.com.

Iowa State was favored by about 2.5 points in most Las Vegas sports books, so it was only an upset according to the AP Poll, not oddsmakers. Kansas proved last season that it can lose its second Big 12 game of the season and still win the conference, as the Jayhawks did after losing at home to Texas Tech on January 2.

Big Ten

No. 8 Michigan State defeats No. 14 Ohio State 86-77

As we covered earlier on Saturday, Michigan State deserves to be in the thick of the Big Ten title discussion, even after Michigan carried an undefeated record into conference play.

The Spartans scored 50 points in the second half in Columbus to outscore the Buckeyes by 16 points after halftime as Michigan State picked up a valuable road win while playing without junior guard Joshua Langford.

SEC

No. 3 Tennessee defeats Georgia 96-50 & Alabama beats No. 13 Kentucky 77-75

On Saturday, we learned that defending SEC co-champion Tennessee is the conference’s most explosive offensive team and that Kentucky may not have turned a corner despite back-to-back wins over North Carolina and Louisville.

Despite committing 17 turnovers, Alabama held off Kentucky in Tuscaloosa as Tyler Herro’s potential game-winning three was off the mark. The Wildcats once again struggled from behind the arc, shooting just 5-of-18 from three-point range, while Alabama forward Tevin Mack made six threes by himself. The Crimson Tide were plus-eight on the boards and Kentucky got just 11 points and five rebounds off the bench.

Later in the afternoon, Tennessee nearly hit the century mark and almost doubled up Georgia. Sure, Georgia (8-5) is still a work in progress in Year 1 of the Tom Crean era in Athens, but the Volunteers picked up their biggest win in SEC play in more than 50 years. Led by Jordan Bowden’s 20 points off the bench, Tennessee had five players score in double figures, shot better than 60 percent inside the arc, assisted on 25 of its 34 made field goals, out-rebounded Georgia by 15 and committed just nine turnovers.

It was a larger margin of victory – by one point – than Tennessee’s season-opening win over Division II Lenoir Rhyne. If the Volunteers are going to treat the bottom of the conference like low-major or non-DI opponents, then it could be a long year for the rest of the SEC.