<
>

Weekend Homework: Conference races clearing up

Saturday's Big Ten game between Purdue and Maryland should clear up the conference title picture. Getty Images

Can Xavier (or anyone else) stop Villanova in the Big East? Will Iowa cruise to the Big Ten title? Is North Carolina still the favorite in the ACC? Virginia? What about Louisville? Or Miami? And could Kansas really -- for the first time in a decade -- end a regular season without at least a share of the Big 12's regular-season crown?

The first weekend of February might not be rife with potential classics (though, for a Super Bowl weekend, it's not half-bad), but it comes chock full of games sure to impact a wide swath of regular-season conference title races. It's also the perfect time to check in on where these races stand, and see if we can't figure them out, as we barrel down the back half of this memorably unpredictable season.

Particularly convenient? The best conference in the country is also the only major league with a true round-robin format (which, as its marketing materials insist, produces "one true champion"), and Saturday marks the exact halfway point of the best title chase in college basketball. But first, the ...

Big Ten

Status report: So, Indiana took things up a notch, huh? The Hoosiers' destruction of Michigan in Ann Arbor on Tuesday night -- an 80-67 win that wasn't even that close, and which featured a basically perfect 28-0 stretch by IU -- should quiet most of the lingering schedule-strength doubts about their 9-1 start to conference play. Indiana should be regarded as a contender alongside Michigan State, Maryland, and favorite Iowa the rest of the way (and IU's schedule, which is about to get brutal, will test that hypothesis).

Which is why Iowa is the favorite, coincidentally. The Hawkeyes have already played (and beaten) most of the worst of what this league has to throw at them. Holding on would still be an accomplishment because it would mean outlasting the No. 4 team in the country (Maryland), a Michigan State team with a healthy Denzel Valentine, Purdue's size and defense, and an Indiana team that just tore the wings off the Wolverines like a sadistic child. That's quite a field.

Game of the weekend: No. 18 Purdue Boilermakers at No. 4 Maryland Terrapins, Saturday, 4 p.m. ET, ESPN
Keep an eye on: No. 10 Michigan State at Michigan, No. 22 Indiana at Penn State, No. 5 Iowa at Illinois


Big 12

Status report: Oklahoma is the favorite, not because it's the best team in the country -- though it is that -- but because the worst of the Sooners schedule is already behind them, and they're sitting pretty at 7-2. No surprise there. What is surprising, however, is the team sitting snugly aside them in a tie at the top of the league: West Virginia. A few days after playing one of its worst games of the season at Florida (final score: 88-71), WVU rebounded with an almost unthinkable road win at Iowa State that knocked the Cyclones back to 5-4. It also positioned the Mountaineers in first with a return trip from ISU, and a trip to Kansas still to come. First up? Saturday's home date with Baylor.

Oh, and speaking of the Jayhawks: There's a real chance -- a numerical likelihood, even -- that Kansas won't win the conference title. Bill Self's team is still looking for its second road win in conference play at TCU on Saturday. It's also still playing catch-up with Oklahoma and West Virginia, and a surprising Texas team that is 6-1 in its last seven games. Great games every couple of days, the nation's best team, insurgents afoot and a historic streak on the line -- man, the Big 12 is awesome.

Game of the weekend: No. 15 Baylor Bears at No. 14 West Virginia Mountaineers, Saturday, 8 p.m. ET, ESPN2
Keep an eye on: No. 13 Iowa State at Oklahoma State, No. 7 Kansas at TCU, No. 1 Oklahoma at Kansas State, Texas Tech at Texas


ACC

Status report: In some ways, the ACC race is shaping up much the way most expected before the season began: North Carolina very much appears to be the league's best team, but Virginia is hot on their heels, in their play if not in the standings. (Three road losses set the Cavaliers back, but last weekend's demolition of Louisville on the road was a fairly convincing statement.) Notre Dame is in the second-tier picture. So is Miami. The key differences between October and now? Louisville and Duke. The high-turnover Blue Devils were supposed to be the insurgent threat to UNC's supremacy; Louisville was supposed to be a decent but flawed fringe top-25 team. Those roles have essentially been reversed. Oh, also: Clemson (which beat Louisville, Syracuse away, Duke, Miami and Pittsburgh). That wasn't supposed to happen in October, either.

Game of the weekend: No. 2 North Carolina Tar Heels at Notre Dame Fighting Irish, Saturday, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN
Keep an eye on: No. 9 Virginia at Pittsburgh, Clemson at Virginia Tech, No. 17 Miami at Georgia Tech


Big East

Status report: Providence should send Kentucky a card. Maybe a nice bouquet. On Tuesday, the Wildcats' dispiriting come-from-ahead loss at Tennessee immediately called into question the notion that a young UK team had turned the proverbial corner; it also completely overshadowed Providence's unforgivable loss at DePaul. Home-court advantage doesn't typically apply to DePaul's arena, save maybe the sudden depression opponents are overcome with upon their arrival, and the Friars' slip-up in Rosemont bumped them three games behind first-place Villanova and two behind second-place Xavier.

Jay Wright surely winced, too. The Wildcats were already seeking to avenge their only league loss; now they'll face an even hungrier, more focused Kris Dunn at Dunkin' Donuts Center. Villanova is this league's best team, but Xavier is making that statement an extremely subjective one -- and the 20-2 Musketeers still have a potentially decisive home game against Villanova three weeks away.

Game of the weekend: No. 3 Villanova Wildcats at No. 11 Providence Friars, Saturday, 2:30 p.m. ET
Keep an eye on: Marquette at No. 6 Xavier, Georgetown at Seton Hall


Pac-12

Status report: After a January of total and utter chaos -- Washington tied for first! USC rising! Arizona down! UCLA being UCLA! -- Oregon seems to have emerged as the Pac-12's best team and only clearly delineated title favorite. Then again, all it would take is a loss or two for the rest of the league to pull the ever-improving Ducks back into the mire. There are 10 bubble teams here, any of them capable of beating the other on any given night. If Utah -- which (despite a close loss to Oregon State) is looking much more like the contender most expected in the offseason -- can upend the Ducks in Eugene on Sunday, the Pac-12 could be plunged back once more into disarray. Good times.

Game of the weekend: Utah Utes at No. 16 Oregon Ducks, Sunday, 4 p.m. ET, ESPN2
Keep an eye on: No. 23 Arizona at Washington, Colorado at Oregon State


SEC

Status report: It's tempting to bury Kentucky. John Calipari's team had just appeared to turn the key corner of its season on Saturday, in a tough road overtime loss at Kansas. Even as the Jayhawks' triangle-and-two confused it into just enough bad possessions to fuel KU's escape, Kentucky had looked smarter and tougher and more cohesive than at any time all season. It was a huge step forward. And, of course, the Wildcats followed it up with ... a road loss at Tennessee? Huh?

As much as that result could cause an impartial observer to throw his hands in the air and give up, it's worth noting that this is how Calipari teams (the ones that aren't on a 40-0 mission, anyway) tend to do things. They stumble and progress, haltingly and slowly, until around this time of year. Then, suddenly, things click. That point seemed to come Saturday. Instead, we wait. And the longer that process continues, the more and more Texas A&M -- which is already a better and more balanced team than UK is anyway, despite a road loss to Vanderbilt -- looks likely to run away from the rest of the SEC with the title. Even more convincing? LSU -- yes, that LSU, the much-maligned, extremely bubbly LSU with the nation's best freshman -- is still the closest team to catching A&M in the league standings. So, yeah. A&M's probably safe.

Game of the weekend: No. 25 South Carolina Gamecocks at No. 8 Texas A&M Aggies, Saturday, 4 p.m. ET, ESPNU
Keep an eye on: Florida at No. 20 Kentucky, Mississippi State at LSU, Tennessee at Arkansas