Predicting conference champions before the season starts, while admirable and worthy of praise, is a daunting task. Whether it be incoming freshman, outgoing seniors, or transfers gained and lost, nearly every single team in college basketball is different from what it was in March. Now that we are well into the non-conference portion of the season, I feel confident (mostly) in picking conference champions.
AAC – Memphis Tigers
The AAC figures to be a two-horse race that pits youth against experience. The Memphis Tigers bring in the top freshman class in the entire country. The Houston Cougars have upperclassman as six of their top eight scorers. In this case, I’m going to side with the young Tigers. Memphis may have a good bit of turnover, but not quite what Houston has had to deal with. The Cougars lost three of their top four scorers, including first-round pick Quentin Grimes.
Memphis also has a lot more coming in to replace what they lost, as noted by the best freshman class in the nation. Emoni Bates and Jalen Duren highlight the class, coming in as the fourth and fifth-ranked recruits, respectively. Those two lead the way for a team that boasts good depth, with nine different players averaging double-digit minutes per game. That depth lends itself well to the defense they play.
The Tigers’ defense is all gas and no breaks from start to finish. They are great at making teams uncomfortable for the entire 30-second shot clock. They average just under 10 steals and blocks per game, putting them at the top of the country in blocks per game. Teams look like a complete mess on offense against the Tigers, shooting just 37 percent from the field. Unfortunately, Memphis looks almost just as bad when they’re on offense.
While they score just fine, they turn the ball over at an alarmingly high rate. They lead the country in turnovers per game, with a number just shy of 20. That should be a red flag, and it is to a point. However, I think a lot of those struggles come from the youth that they put on the court. I think they figure it out a bit more as the season moves forward, and I think Memphis stands atop the AAC at the end of the season.
ACC – Duke Blue Devils
Coach K’s final ride looks like it should end with at least an ACC Championship. Duke is off to a good start to their season, with their only loss being on the road against Ohio State (a game they led by double digits midway through the second half). They took down Kentucky and Gonzaga, handing the Bulldogs their first regular-season loss in over a year and a half. Aside from those two games, they have beaten the rest of their five opponents by an average of 27 points. They have a lot to look forward to the rest of the season.
Freshman Paolo Banchero appears to be every bit as good as he was hyped up to be, averaging just shy of 18 points and 7 rebounds. His classmate, Trevor Keels, has turned heads so far and appears to be a top-tier third option. Wendell Moore Jr was one of the bigger question marks for this Duke team, as he had been a bit disappointing compared to his hype coming out of high school. He has turned a corner this season, putting up nearly 18 points, over six rebounds, and just shy of six assists per game.
Besides those three stars, they have three other players averaging seven or more points per game. They also have three players bringing down more than six rebounds a game. They have star power and depth, which is a great combination for success. As long as the young stars don’t slip up, this team has a chance to make a deep run in March.
Big East – Villanova Wildcats
Sometimes predicting conference champions is pretty straightforward. The Big East this year is one of those times. This was the easiest conference for me to choose a winner, and I think you would be hard-pressed to find someone who didn’t feel the same way. It would take something major for Villanova to not win the Big East. In fact, I think the Wildcats will win the conference by more than a couple of games.
Nova brings back four of their top five scorers from a team that was in line for a deep tournament run before Collin Gillespie tore his ACL in the Big East tournament. They currently have four players scoring more than 12 points per game, with two more adding nine and seven. They are as veteran-led of a team as you will find, with freshmen accounting for just 16.1 minutes per game.
All six of their top scorers are upperclassmen, which leads to a lot of confidence late in games. What also leads to a lot of confidence is the fact that they shoot 42 percent from deep as a team, which is good for sixth in the country. While they are loaded with talent, the question will be whether or not they have a star to close games. The reason I like the Wildcats so much is that I don’t think they’ll be in a ton of close games to necessarily need a star closer. Villanova should have little trouble winning the Big East.
Big 10 – Purdue Boilermakers
If you’re a fan of college basketball, which I assume you are since you’re reading this, you’ve seen what Purdue has done so far this season. With wins over North Carolina, Florida State, and soon-to-be Big East champion Villanova, the Boilermakers have started as hot as any team in the country. I was pretty high on Purdue going into the season, but I now have them as a serious title contender after the first month of the season.
Leading the way for Purdue is perhaps the best inside-out duo in all of college basketball. Jaden Ivey and Zach Edey have been dominant, to say the least. They are combining for 32 points and 13 rebounds a game. Edey is shooting a ridiculous 74 percent from the field. Ivey is scorching teams from deep, shooting 43 percent from behind the arc. However, the offense doesn’t stop there.
They have four other players scoring nine points or more per game, and their offensive ranks are otherworldly. They rank first in the country in offensive rating, second in points per game, third in field goal percentage, and fifth in three-point percentage. They’re so loaded that they are bringing an NBA prospect off the bench, as Trevion Williams is putting up 12 points and seven rebounds in under 19 minutes per game.
This team can attack you from so many different directions, including four different players shooting above 40 percent from deep on more than three attempts per game each. The Boilermakers have a legit shot at cutting down at least one net come March.
Big 12 – Kansas Jayhawks
After the way the season has started, it looks like the Big 12 will probably have the most intriguing race at the top of the standings. The Big 10 had that honor to start the season, but Michigan and Illinois have had rougher starts than expected. Meanwhile, the Big 12 has three teams in the top eight of the rankings, with another undefeated team in the top 25. When predicting conference champions, the Big 12 used to be “insert Kansas, move on”. While it’s not that easy anymore, I’m siding with the team that has dominated this conference for nearly two decades.
The Jayhawks bring back all but one of their top six scorers from a season ago. They replace that one with a two-time first-team Pac 12 player in Remy Martin. While he has been a little slow to get going, Ochai Agbaji has not. Agbaji is scorching the net so far, putting up 22 points per game on 55/42/76 shooting percentages. He and Remy, along with Christian Braun, can all score in bunches.
They can also run a plethora of players at opponents, with nine different players getting double-digit minutes per game. Three of those guys are point guards, and they have a fourth playing just under 10 minutes. Having multiple guys that can handle the ball and run an offense is a huge advantage for any team.
Their biggest question is the players opposite their guards. David McCormack has shown flashes of being one of the best big men in the Big 12. He has also shown flashes of looking like a lost puppy on the court. Mitch Lightfoot is an energy guy who will make winning plays, but he’s not a reliable scorer by any means. Freshman Zach Clemence has only played five minutes a game, but he has been impressive, nonetheless. He is shooting 50 percent from deep and has major floor stretching ability. If they can figure out how to Frankenstein their way to a good inside presence, this team will be scary.
Pac 12 – UCLA Bruins
The magical run in last season’s tournament has launched the UCLA Bruins into a world that they haven’t been in for a handful of years, the world of contenders. While the tournament run in March may have been their ceiling, they are no doubt one of the top teams heading into this season. The Bruins bring back five of their top six scorers, headlined by preseason All-American Johnny Juzang.
UCLA has a three-headed attack with Juzang, Jaime Jaquez, and Tyger Campbell. The trio combines for 43 points, 13 rebounds, and eight assists per game. Jules Bernard adds in another 14 points, giving them four double-digit scorers. They are also veteran-laden, as all five of their leading scorers are upperclassmen.
That has led to the Bruins being top 25 in the country in points per game and offensive rating, along with shooting just shy of 40% from behind the arc. Was the Final Four run an outlier or an omen? I think a little bit of both. I’m not sure they have quite that upside, but the second weekend of the tournament is far from unattainable.
SEC – Kentucky Wildcats
Sometimes predicting conference champions is difficult. The SEC this year is one of those times. This was by far the toughest conference to pick a winner from. I went back and forth between three different teams before finally, and somewhat reluctantly, landing on the Wildcats. The final determination ended up being the versatility that Kentucky can bring to the table.
They have four players scoring in double figures, with two more pitching in more than seven points a game. They are led by a trio of a young star, dominant big man, and veteran leader. TyTy Washington looks like the latest Kentucky one and done star, averaging just shy of 15 points and five rebounds. Washington, along with West Virginia transfer Oscar Tshiebwe, make up one of the best inside out duos in the country.
Tshiebwe is a monster down low, putting up a ridiculous 14 points and 16 rebounds a game. He has 16 or more rebounds in five games so far and is shooting 63% from the field. Add in junior Keion Brooks to steady the ship when needed, and this should be a major bounce back season for John Calipari and the Wildcats. Their only potential stumbling point is their three-point shooting, which is just 33% so far. If they can improve on that, watch out.