Before the NCAA Tournament starts, the talk is all about which conferences are the best. Who deserves the most teams and which conference is the powerhouse? Now that we’re a fully in the action, we have a better idea of these top conferences. For example, should we fault Iowa for playing in the Big Ten or applaud Boise State for doing well in the Mountain West? After watching the first few rounds of games, a lot of people would agree that Iowa probably should have been the one getting that spot in the last four in. No matter, here’s a more in depth look to how each conference has performed so far.
ATLANTIC COAST CONFERENCE (5-2)
The ACC and its four tournament teams entered the Big Dance bruised and beaten from what most considered a down year. As a perennial powerhouse conference, having just four teams qualify for the Big Dance is more of an indictment than an accomplishment. NC State entered the 2012-2013 season with huge expectations, anchored by elite-level talent along its frontline. For the Wolfpack, their postseason mimicked its lackluster regular season as upperclassmen including Lorenzo Brown, Richard Howell and C.J. Leslie were not enough to overpower Temple’s Khalif Wyatt. NC State allowed Wyatt to perform a Herculian effort to the tune of 31 points, ensuring a disappointing second-round exit. After a rough start to the season, North Carolina head coach Roy Williams decided it was time to ride a smaller, more athletic lineup the rest of the season. The Tar Heels dispatched of a scrappy, yet viable Villanova team before meeting Kansas in the third round. Kansas big man Jeff Withey took advantage of the lack of size and sent UNC packing with 16 points, 16 rebounds and five blocks. At the opposite end of the spectrum, Miami and Duke did what was expected of them and took care of business. The Blue Devils handled Albany before beating Doug McDermott and Creighton by 16 points. The Canes faced a tougher road to the Sweet 16. Illinois and its dynamic guards of Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson gave them all they could handle offensively and were able to stymie Shane Larkin’s playmaking abilities. However, the Canes are a veteran group and Larkin proved that no moment is too big. Down one point, Larkin drilled a three-point shot leaning to his right with just one minute to go. The ACC still has a great shot to land two teams in the Final Four.
BIG 12 CONFERENCE (3-4)
Ouch. A losing record for the Big 12 after the first weekend is certainly not what most had anticipated. No. 4 seed Kansas State and five-seed Oklahoma State were sent home after just one day of tournament play. The Wildcats never took advantage of their size against a hungrier La Salle team, while OK State ran into a buzz saw that is the Oregon Ducks. Iowa State had the most legitimate shot of being the Big 12’s wildcard squad. They beat down a Notre Dame team by 18 points, led by a barrage of nine three-pointers from five different players. The Cyclones dynamic lineup of shooters caused all sorts of problems for Ohio State, as the favorites to come out of the West region needed a desperation three-pointer from Aaron Craft to narrowly escape. Kansas still presents the Big 12 with its best opportunity at a national title. Withey, along with Travis Releford, have paced the Jayhawks through two games.
BIG EAST CONFERENCE (6-5)
The Big East racked up eight teams with tourney bids on Selection Sunday, proving yet again that they are the deepest conference in the nation. However, the Big East brand is not carrying the same weight as it did in year’s past. Out of eight teams, just three remain alive in the field of sixteen. Pittsburgh, Notre Dame and Georgetown put together abysmal performances. Pitt had its worst offense showing all year, while the Hoyas were not prepared for the high-flyers of Florida Gulf Coast. Marquette, a team that many believed was over-seeded, needed a couple of breaks to reach this stage of the race. Fatal mistakes by both Davidson and Butler allowed Vander Blue to play hero, tallying 45 points in his first two games. The Golden Eagles have won both their opening games by a combined three points. Syracuse has had the easiest path to the Sweet Sixteen, using their suffocating zone defense to beat Montana by 47 points in their opening game. Louisville, however, remains the pace-setter. The backcourt of Russ Smith and Peyton Siva are absolutely hounding opposing tandems, creating a combined 44 turnovers between their first two opponents. The Cards also showcased their physicality against a top rebounding team in Colorado State by keeping big man Colton Iverson out of the paint. In order to witness upsets and the subsequent moments that come along with these improbable outcomes, you must have powerhouse contenders. The Big East has served as the nation’s mecca of college basketball, and it is sad to know that this will be its final act.
BIG TEN CONFERENCE (10-3)
The Big Ten was finally able to knock off the Big East and ACC for the nation’s best basketball conference this year. Oftentimes, when a top conference’s best teams beat up on each other throughout conference play, it can become detrimental to them in March. That is not the case for this season’s Big Ten as only one team did not manage to make it out of its opening round game. With the exception of Wisconsin, every Big Ten team notched a tournament win while four of them ended up in the Sweet 16. Michigan State, led by Adreian Payne and Derrick Nix, has utilized its size and the recent resurgence of Nix to stay alive. Keith Appling’s ailing shoulder could be the tipping point against Duke. Ohio State needed a late stretch of Iowa State mistakes in order to advance. The Buckeyes will need scoring from guys other than Thomas and Craft going forward. Michigan will be looking to ride the momentum from its drubbing of VCU in the Round of 32. With Mitch McGary finally showing signs of consistency, the Wolverines will give Kansas its toughest test of the tournament. Indiana presents the Big Ten with its best odds to reach the Final Four in Atlanta. Their win against Temple was anything but impressive. However, it showed that they can win a game in which the opposing team tries to slow it down and muck it up. Rounding out the bottom, Illinois and Minnesota were able to make some noise by beating Colorado and UCLA, respectively. They simply did not have the talent needed to make it further. There is a possibility for an all Big Ten Final Four. With the way the top teams are playing, that thought has crept into the minds of many.
PAC-12 CONFERENCE (5-3)
Under-seeded and out to prove the selection committee wrong, the Pac-12 conference came ready to play. As Pac-12 champions and the recipient of a lowly 12-seed, the Oregon Ducks watched as Arizona and UCLA both received six-seeds. The Ducks are far and away the Pac-12’s hottest team as they sit at the Sweet 16 table with only one other conference member in Arizona. Oregon has received outstanding paint play from Arsalan Kazemi. He has grabbed 33 rebounds in two tournament games, including 13 offensive rebounds. These second chances allowed the hot hands of Damyean Dotson and Carlos Emory to continue their streaky shooting. The Ducks certainly have the roster to give Louisville some headaches, but the biggest question marks surrounds whether or not Oregon’s freshman guards can withstand the relentlessness of Smith and Siva. The Pac-12’s second Sweet 16 team, Arizona, has not been tested thus far. They easily handled both Belmont and Harvard by a combined 40-point margin. The Cats have the size and athleticism in Solomon Hill, Nick Johnson, and Kaleb Tarczewski to compete with anyone. Guard Mark Lyons is the player that will either make or break their title hopes. Through two tourney games, he has gotten great looks at the rim and has averaged 25 points per contest.
SOUTHEASTERN CONFERENCE (3-2)
The SEC slipped this season, and the selection committee confirmed that by granting them only three tourney bids. While Mizzou fell to Colorado State in its opening game, both Florida and Ole Miss played very well. As SEC tourney champions, Ole Miss found themselves in line for a 12-seed on Selection Sunday. Using that as motivation, the Rebels were able to knock off No. 5 seed Wisconsin, and did it by out-rebounding an otherwise bigger Badgers team. Behind Marshall Henderson’s 21 points, they were just one bucket away from a Sweet 16 berth before La Salle’s Tyrone Garland knocked down a floater in the waning seconds. Florida is the only team alive in the Big Dance to rank in the Top 10 in both offense and defense. The Gators have played out the season as one of the nation’s most statistically dominant teams the country has seen in years. Head coach Billy Donovan has filled out a roster full of players that complement an inside-outside game. With its next toughest opponent in the region already ousted, the Gators will play for an Elite Eight bid against their little brothers in Florida Gulf Coast.
ATLANTIC 10 CONFERENCE (6-4)
Let’s be honest, who had La Salle down as the last Atlantic 10 team standing as Sweet 16 bids were being punched last weekend? Both Saint Louis and VCU were trendy picks to reach Atlanta, but surely not La Salle. The conference played well during the tournament’s opening weekend, but it still leaves you wanting more from its top teams. Before its loss to Indiana, Temple was able to get past NC State, a team that possesses considerably more talent. Butler was one Andrew Smith heave away from yet another Sweet 16 bid. Shaka Smart and his VCU Rams put together a pair of Jekyll and Hyde performances, drubbing Akron before getting demolished by Trey Burke and the Michigan Wolverines. Michigan is a great example of a team that can overcome VCU’s strengths. With Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. at the controls, VCU’s havoc defense saw the writings on the wall. Saint Louis is definitely the conference’s biggest disappointment. Sitting at the top of the conference standings, the Billikens were poised for a run before falling short to Oregon. Surprisingly, it is now up to La Salle to carry the torch.
MISSOURI VALLEY CONFERENCE (3-1)
The Wichita State Shockers are fully aware of the opportunity they have created for themselves. Who anticipated this Shockers team to be the favorite in a Sweet 16 game? Head coach Gregg Marshall and his Shockers team may have been forced to the back burner as Florida Gulf Coast runs away with the nation’s top storyline. The Shockers, however, have enjoyed its sleeper role. Few expected the Wichita State to get past Pittsburgh and their future pro in Steven Adams and playmaker Tray Woodall. An even more unlikely upset came over top-seeded Gonzaga. Big man Carl Hall set the tone with his physical play against Pitt while Malcolm Armstead and Cleanthony Early used the three-ball as the main catalyst for the improbable win over the Zags. Creighton, the conference’s top team for much of the season, fought off a Cincinnati team behind Doug McDermott’s 27 points before bowing out to Duke. Wichita State will have to get past La Salle and either Arizona or Ohio State to join other mid-major schools like George Mason and Butler that have reached the Final Four mountain top.
MOUNTAIN WEST CONFERENCE (2-5)
The MWC sent the third-most schools (five) to the Big Dance this season. By the end of the first round, only two teams remained. New Mexico suffered an inexplicable loss to Harvard, surrendering eight three-pointers and 52 percent shooting from the Crimson. UNLV dropped its opening round game to California, a squad that has beaten all the top teams in the Pac-12. Luckily for the conference, two of its teams managed to save the conference pride from taking a spill off the cliff. Colorado State and San Diego State both had convincing wins as the Rams took care of Missouri while the Aztecs rolled over Oklahoma. The Rams dropped their next game to No. 1 overall seed Louisville, and the Aztecs ran into the darling of Florida Gulf Coast. If you’re keeping count, that makes three very disappointing losses to zero impressive wins. In a year that had most analysts gawking about the rugged Mountain West, its top teams turned out to be paper tigers.
WEST COAST CONFERENCE (1-2)
The 2012-2013 season finally saw Gonzaga take the full shift from perennial Cinderella to perennial contender. The Zags, behind future pro Kelly Olynyk, received its first ever No. 1 seed. Head coach Mark Few and the Zags quickly learned that it is much different to enter the tourney as the hunted as opposed to the hunter. Some could sense that they were in trouble as they barely defeated Southern and its smaller, more athletic roster. Hitting on half of its three-point attempts, Wichita State’s long-range barrage forced the Zags to start pressing and would eventually lead to their demise. The West Coast Conference’s second berth, Saint Mary’s, were never expected to make too much noise. They dispatched of a lesser team in Middle Tennessee State and fell just short of completing the upset against Memphis. Australian National Team star Matthew Dellavedova saw his collegiate career come to an end as his last-second attempt sailed over the rim.
ATLANTIC SUN CONFERENCE (2-0)
Florida Gulf Coast has provided college basketball fans with a breath of fresh air and is the sole reason for the Atlantic Sun to be worth a mention. Head coach Andy Enfield allows his squad of high-flyers to play freely. Exhausting each option during an offensive set is not a top priority for his team. Led by point guard Brent Comer, the Eagles do not embody the trend of slow-it-down, grind-it-out games. Instead, all five players can run the floor and make plays. Enfield has an assassin in Sherwood Brown, a player that will never shy away from the big shot. Each year, a team from an obscure conference will put together a run in the tournament. Analysts alike turn to each other as if to ask just how this team made it here. Did FGCU come out of nowhere? Maybe, but an early November win against Miami may have set the stage for FGCU’s Cinderella run to the Sweet 16.