College basketball tiers: ACC, Big East highlight top conference races

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The best time of year for college basketball fans is quickly approaching. Conference races are heating up across the country, and the most competitive ones are becoming more clear as we reach late January.

The ACC has five teams sitting 6-2 or better in conference play as of Friday morning. Meanwhile, Xavier sits atop the Big East, while both Marquette and Providence are off to exceptional starts in conference play, as well.

How will these leagues shake out?

Here is a look at my top conference races this season, broken down into tiers. This is not a ranking of the best leagues, but rather the best races among the conferences that have a chance to receive multiple NCAA Tournament bids. 

Andy Katz’s hottest college basketball conference races

Fox Sports’ Andy Katz talks about the most competitive college basketball conference races left in the season, including the ACC and the PAC 12.

Tier 1 races 

ACC: This race is wide open, especially after Wake Forest knocked off previously unbeaten Clemson Tuesday night. Clemson has one loss; Miami, Wake Forest, Pitt and Virginia all have two losses; NC State, North Carolina, Syracuse and Duke each have three. Predicting a winner is extremely difficult. The likely contenders are still Miami, Virginia, North Carolina and Duke, but to dismiss Clemson, Wake, Pitt and NC State would be a mistake. Expect the ACC champion to have a minimum of three losses, but more likely at least five by season’s end. The good news is that the depth in this conference means eight bids is a real possibility. 

Big East: Xavier sits atop the league through eight games with a 7-1 mark. Meanwhile, Providence and Marquette each have two losses, and Creighton has three through eight games. Seton Hall sits at 5-4, while UConn has now dropped to 4-5. Yes, Xavier is 3.5 games ahead of UConn with a win over the Huskies, but there is no reason to believe they are a lock to take the title. The Musketeers had won 11 in a row before falling 73-72 to DePaul on Wednesday. They appear to be the favorite, but still, this should be one of the most entertaining races down to the final weekend.  

Pac-12: UCLA sits at 8-0 heading into a much-anticipated matchup against Arizona this weekend. Arizona State is 6-2 with its two losses coming against the Bruins and Wildcats. And suddenly, USC is back in the chase with only three losses. Arizona also has three losses after falling at Oregon (following previous defeats versus Washington State and at Utah). Still, the Wildcats are arguably the most talented team in the league, outside of UCLA. So, to assume Arizona wouldn’t be in the title chase would be a mistake. This race could have some separation this weekend with the LA schools in the desert. But the Arizona schools will have to head back to LA, so this competition is far from over.  

Mountain West: This should be one of the most balanced races among the top conferences. Boise State, San Diego State, Nevada, New Mexico, and possibly Utah State, will all be in the thick of the chase over the next six weeks. San Diego State was the favorite but lost at home to the Lobos. Boise State lost at home to Nevada but heads to the Pit for a showdown with New Mexico on Friday. The good news for the MWC is that this appears to be at least a two-bid league for the NCAA Tournament. Three isn’t out of the question, but the top two, barring a third team winning the conference tournament, are likely bound to get bids.  

Atlantic 10: This is trending toward a one-bid conference, and it looks like the A10 is going to have a wide-open chase for the title. The two best teams have been VCU and Dayton. Saint Louis is finally playing to its potential. And it would be wrong to dismiss Richmond and St. Bonaventure as potential candidates. Davidson dropped out of the race at 2-5 through seven games. VCU, Dayton and Saint Louis all have one loss through Friday, and having them all tie for first, or at least two of the three, wouldn’t be a surprise. The problem is that none of them did well enough in nonconference play for an at-large bid. That’s not to say any of those three teams can’t get a bid on their own merit, but it’s going to be difficult. VCU already beat Dayton on the road and gets Dayton at home on Feb. 7. The Rams play Saint Louis twice on Feb. 3 and Feb. 28. The Billikens still have two games against Dayton, as well, on Feb. 10 and March 3.  

Tier 2 races 

SEC: Alabama is the favorite to win the SEC. The Tide have the goods to win the league by a game or two. Tennessee is most likely to be their toughest challenge. The Vols host Alabama without a return. Yet, Alabama has already proven to be a strong team on the road and on neutral courts. Texas A&M and Auburn are playing well, but I’m not sure if they are ready to be legit title contenders. This feels and looks like a two-team race with Alabama and Tennessee.  

Big 12: Kansas State had to go to overtime to nip Kansas on a final possession. That was the first Big 12 loss for the Jayhawks. And yes, through six games, Kansas, Kansas State and Iowa State all have one loss. But Kansas had already beaten Iowa State with a game to come in Ames. Kansas State will have to go back to Lawrence. The favorite is still Kansas. Texas has two losses through Friday, while TCU and Baylor have three. All of these schools are still in play for the title, of course, but the odds still favor Kansas among these top six. And you can book NCAA Tournament bids for all of them — even here in late January. 

Big Ten: Purdue is the overwhelming favorite. Through Friday, the Boilermakers hold a two-game lead on Rutgers and Michigan State. Rutgers did win at Purdue and don’t play the Boilermakers again this season. Still, the odds are against Rutgers running the table the rest of the season, while it wouldn’t be a shock if Purdue only lost one more game. Michigan State has looked good, but losing Malik Hall is a hit for a title run. Michigan has lost three games thus far, against Michigan State in East Lansing, at Iowa, and at Maryland. Illinois was trending upward, but the Illini fell to Indiana on Thursday. Meanwhile, Ohio State has been reeling, while injuries have hampered Indiana and Wisconsin. Iowa is the sleeper, but the Hawkeyes don’t match up well with Purdue. The Boilers should win the league by a game or two.

Tier 3 races 

American: Houston is going to run away with the title. The Cougars sit at 6-0, while Tulane, Cincinnati and Temple are all 5-2. Houston also holds a two-game lead over Memphis. Could the Tigers still win the league? Sure. But there’s been no indication they can topple Houston. Expect the Cougars to win the league by at least two, if not three or four games.  

WCC: Gonzaga’s 75-game home win streak was snapped by Loyola Marymount on Thursday night. The Zags still have to play Saint Mary’s twice. So, this race will still be competitive between the Zags and the Gaels. But it’s just a two-team race, meaning it’s Tier 3 in comparison to the leagues above. 

Andy Katz is a longtime college basketball writer, analyst and host. He can be seen on the Big Ten Network, as well as March Madness and NCAA.com, and he hosts the podcast “March Madness 365.” Katz worked at ESPN for nearly two decades and, prior to that, in newspapers for nine years.

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