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

The best time of the year for college basketball fans is fast approaching. Conference races are heating up across the country, with the most competitive ones becoming clearer as we head into late January.

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

How will these leagues shake out?

Here’s a look at my top conference races this season, broken down by tier. This is no a ranking of not only the best leagues, but also the best races among conferences that have a chance to receive multiple bids to the NCAA Tournament.

Andy Katz’s Top College Basketball Conference Races

Andy Katz's Top College Basketball Conference Races

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

Level 1 Races

acc: This race is wide open, especially after Wake Forest defeated undefeated Clemson on Tuesday night. Clemson has one loss; Miami, Wake Forest, Pitt and Virginia have two losses; NC State, North Carolina, Syracuse and Duke each have three. Predicting a winner is very difficult. Likely contenders remain Miami, Virginia, North Carolina and Duke, but dismissing 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 the end of the season. The good news is that the depth of this conference means eight bids are a real possibility.

Great East: Xavier leads the league through eight games with a 7-1 record. Meanwhile, Providence and Marquette each have two losses, and Creighton is three through eight games. Seton Hall is 5-4, while UConn has now fallen to 4-5. Yes, Xavier is 3.5 games ahead of UConn with a win over the Huskies, but there’s no reason to believe they’re a lock to win the title. The Musketeers had won 11 straight before falling 73-72 to DePaul on Wednesday. They seem to be the favorites, but even so, this should be one of the most entertaining races going into the final weekend.

Pac-12: UCLA is 8-0 heading into a highly 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 to Oregon (following previous losses to Washington State and 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 return to LA, so this competition is far from over.

West Mountain: This should be one of the most balanced races among the major conferences. Boise State, San Diego State, Nevada, New Mexico and possibly Utah State will be in hot pursuit 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 on Friday for a matchup with New Mexico. The good news for the MWC is that it appears to be at least a two-bid league for the NCAA Tournament. Three is not out of the question, but the top two, unless a third team wins the conference tournament, are likely to receive bids.

Atlantic 10: This is trending towards a single-offer conference, and it looks like the A10 will have an open title chase. The top two 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 the run to 2-5 in seven games. VCU, Dayton and Saint Louis all have one loss through Friday, and having them all tied 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 non-conference play for an at-large bid. That’s not to say none of these three teams can earn a bid on their own merits, but it will be tough. VCU already beat Dayton on the road and gets Dayton at home on Feb. 7. The Rams play St. Louis twice on February 3rd and February 28th. The Billikens still have two games against Dayton, too, on Feb. 10 and March. 3.

Level 2 Races

SEC: Alabama is the favorite to win the SEC. The Tide has the goods to win the league by a game or two. Tennessee will most likely be his toughest challenge. Flights host Alabama without return. However, 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’re ready to be legitimate title contenders. This looks and feels like a two-team race with Alabama and Tennessee.

big 12: Kansas State had to go to overtime to cut off Kansas on one final possession. This was the first Big 12 loss for the Jayhawks. And yes, in 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 each have three. All of these schools are still in contention for the title, of course, but the odds still favor Kansas in this top six. And you can reserve NCAA Tournament deals for all, even here at the end of January.

ten grand: Purdue is the overwhelming favorite. Through Friday, the Boilermakers hold a two-game lead over Rutgers and Michigan State. Rutgers beat Purdue and will not 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 lost just one more game. Michigan State has looked good, but losing Malik Hall is a blow to the title race. Michigan has lost three games so far, against Michigan State in East Lansing, Iowa and Maryland. Illinois was trending up, 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 against Purdue. The Boilers should win the league by a game or two.

Level 3 Races

american: Houston will walk away with the title. The Cougars are 6-0, while Tulane, Cincinnati and Temple are all 5-2. Houston also has a two-game lead over Memphis. Could the Tigers still win the league? For sure. But there has been no indication that 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 winning streak at home was snapped Loyola Marymount on Thursday night. The Zags have yet to play Santa Maria twice. So this race will still be competitive between the Zags and the Gaels. But it’s only a two-team race, meaning it’s level 3 compared to previous leagues.

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 and hosts the “March Madness 365” podcast. Katz worked at ESPN for nearly two decades and, before that, in newspapers for nine years.

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