January 20, 2010
As we head towards the crux of the conference season, there are a handful of squads in major conferences that are positioning themselves nicely for a ticket to the year-end dance. The four teams I have focused on can be argued were out of the tournament picture by the 1st of December but have now, surprisingly to some, put themselves in a long line at the door of the dance, hoping the velvet rope doesn’t cut them off before they can get inside.
The first team does its battles every night in the ACC and to this point are the lone undefeated team in the conference. No its not the Tar Heels, Blue Devils, Clemson or an upstart Georgia Tech team. No its the Virginia Cavaliers who stand atop the ACC at 3-0. Tony Bennett’s team is 12-4 overall and has an RPI of 100 but also has victories over UAB (36 RPI), Georgia Tech, and potentially separating wins over NC State and Miami (FL). Not many people expect the Cavs to maintain their position, but for a team picked to finish at the bottom of the conference, they have certainly caught the eye of those on the selection committee as a team who now needs to be under consideration for an at-large bid. With two games remaining with Maryland, and games at Clemson and North Carolina and a home date with Duke, all of whom have top a 55 ranking, Virginia will have their chances to improve their case for a bid even more.
The next two teams are couple of Big Ten who are very comprable and will have plenty of time to separate itself from the middle of the pack in the Big Ten. Illinois now stands at 12-7 (4-2 in the Big Ten). The Illini have wins at Clemson and over a Vanderbilt team that was ranked 24 at the time. Having missed out on a chance to take out Purdue at home last night, Bruce Weber’s team has 12 games remaining and half of them are against teams currently ranked in the top 25. They still have home-and-homes with Ohio State and Wisconsin as well as a return bout with Purdue in West Lafayette and a tussle with Michigan State at home. Even with all those high profile games remaining on the schedule for Illinois, the two most important may be games at Michigan and vs. Minnesota, two teams the Illini are trying to separate itself from.
If you stood Illinois in front of a mirror the reflection you might see would be that of the Michigan Wolverines. Big Blue is 10-7 (3-2 in Big Ten) and has wins over Connecticut and Ohio State (without Evan Turner). Much like Illinois John Beilein’s squad will have plenty of chances to move up in the line to get into the dance. Six of their remaing 13 games are against ranked opponents. The Wolverines have home-and-homes with Wisconsin, Michigan State and Minnesota as well as tough road games with an Ohio State featuring Turner and Purdue as well as a crucial battle with Illinois. Unlike Illinois, Michigan is still looking for that Marquee road win to catch people’s eye. With only one road win on the season (at Penn State) it may be what happens away from Crisler Arena that determines the fate of Michigan come March.
The final team to look at was a pre-season top 25 team but pre-Christmas losses to Cincinnati, Illinois and Western Kentucky knocked them from the polls. But now the Vanderbilt Commodores have found their groove at 14-3 (3-0 in the SEC East) and winners of seven straight including a differentiating victory over South Carolina. Vandy also has victories over Florida and Missouri. The ‘Dores have set themselves up nicely but now the beast of their SEC schedule kicks in with home-and-homes with fellow division leaders Kentucky and Tennessee. They also travel to Oxford to face Mississippi and welcome SEC West leader Mississippi State to Nashville. They finish up in early March with the Gators in Gainesville and South Carolina both seeking revenge. With an RPI of 22 Vanderbilt looks to be in pretty good shape, but making hay against the Mississippi schools and/or Kentucky and the Vols would all but assure the Commodores entrance into the dance.
With six weeks or so remaining until the start of conference tournaments, this is when we usually hear about mid-marjor teams making pushes for at-large bids. While that still may be the case, there are at least a handful of power conference teams that have entered the conversation with stronger cases than some might have thought just four weeks ago. This year, especially for the BCS conferences parity may not equal mediocrity and that is a good thing for college basketball.