Phony Conference Leaders
January 18, 2014
By Joe Nelson
With a handful of games for most teams underway in the conference season in college basketball, there are some surprising teams on top of the standings in several leagues. Here is a look at a few teams that appear to have produced hot starts through favorable schedules and are likely due for a fall in the coming weeks.
American Athletic Conference: Cincinnati Bearcats (6-0)
Heading into the weekend, the Bearcats sit a perfect 6-0 in league play in the new AAC. While the conference gets little respect on the football field, this is a powerful league in basketball, though there are big changes ahead in the future for the makeup of the conference. Cincinnati has wins over both SMU and Memphis, but they also barely snuck by Houston and Temple in conference play in the perfect start. At 16-2 with some of the top defensive efficiency numbers in the nation, Cincinnati is certainly a quality NCAA tournament bound team, but there was not a great deal of depth in the non-conference slate, going 1-2 in the three toughest games with the lone win in an ugly 44-43 win over Pittsburgh and that was a desperation situation for the Bearcats off back-to-back losses. Overall, Cincinnati has played a schedule that ranks in the 250's nationally and while it won’t be a surprise to see Cincinnati move as high as 8-0 in league play as the soft slate continues, they will eventually hit some rough patches. Cincinnati plays at Louisville at the end of the month and then will have a tough first week schedule in February. The late season slate is also very difficult with games against Louisville, Connecticut, and Memphis in succession.
Atlantic Coast Conference: Pittsburgh Panthers (4-1)
While Jamie Dixon has done a great job at Pittsburgh with the Panthers producing consistent success, it has been a team that has often underachieved in the NCAA Tournament. Part of the reason may be the over-seeding of the Panthers as year after year, the program builds a great record through an incredibly soft non-conference schedule. This year has been no different with Pittsburgh going 12-1 in a non-conference schedule that ranks in the 280's nationally. Pittsburgh has moved to 4-1 in ACC play, but they have had a very favorable schedule facing four fairly average teams with the toughest of those two games against Maryland and Wake Forest coming at home. Ahead for Pittsburgh in the next two weeks are games with Syracuse, Clemson, playing into revenge with Maryland on the road, and home dates with Duke and Virginia. It seems likely Pittsburgh will have a few losses by mid-February and while this looks like another solid Pittsburgh team they are not likely a true ACC contender.
Big Ten: Michigan Wolverines (4-0)
The Wolverines made it all the way to the national title game last season, but this is a team without the three key players from that run as Tim Hardaway and Trey Burke left for the NBA and Mitch McGary has been injured. Credit John Beilein for keeping things together in a strong start for the team even through some early losses in what was a difficult non-conference schedule. Michigan lost four non-conference games, but they did pick up a couple of solid wins and they have delivered a 4-0 start in Big Ten play to pace the conference along with rival Michigan State on top of the standings. All of the quality wins over Michigan have come by slim margins, however, as non-conference wins over Florida State and Stanford came by two and three points respectably with the win over the Seminoles requiring overtime. Michigan squeaked out a three-point win at Minnesota in the Big Ten opener and survived with a one-point win at Nebraska. This week’s win over Penn State was also a much closer game than the final score indicated. The 4-0 start has not featured any games against the top teams in the conference and Michigan is about to play two huge games in a row facing Iowa and Michigan State in succession. The Wolverines will only play Ohio State once but they will have to face the Badgers, Hawkeyes, and Spartans all again later in the season as well for a difficult overall conference slate.
Southeastern Conference: Texas A&M Aggies (3-1)
Credit the Aggies for the strong start that has included nice wins over Arkansas and Tennessee, but this is the most obvious inclusion on the list of phony conference leaders. Texas A&M is 12-5, but this is a team with losses to Missouri State and North Texas and has played a schedule that ranks in the 330's nationally for the season. The Aggies did not pick up a single quality win of substance in non-conference play and the surprise factor likely played a role in the early SEC upsets in favorable scheduling spots as the slow paced Aggies took up tempo Arkansas and Tennessee out of their rhythm. Ahead on the schedule are several difficult games with four of the next five on the road including trips to Kentucky and Florida, so this is likely a conference lead that will not last for very long and the Aggies are likely a team that will struggle to even stay above .500 by season’s end in SEC play. Credit Billy Kennedy for getting it done so far in league play as the Aggies are nearly halfway to last season’s SEC win count but the road will get much tougher in the coming weeks.
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