Much has been made about the depth of the Big 12, which could realistically get seven or even eight of its 10 teams into March Madness by Selection Sunday. The Big 12 certainly deserves its recognition. It dominated the Big 12/SEC Challenge and is far and away the best conference by pretty much any measure.
Let's take a moment to appreciate the Big East, however. The country's third-best conference, according to KenPom, is having its strongest season since 2014-15. While some of the names have changed from the Big East of old, the new Big East is finding its way with a deep stable of teams that's making for a fun season.
No. 21 UConn rose as high as No. 2 in the AP Top 25 after racing to a 14-0 start, but it lost six of eight between Dec. 31 and Jan. 30 and now sit sixth in the conference. And the Huskies rank seventh nationally in the NET! The current flavors of the month are No. 23 Creighton, winners of six straight, and No. 10 Marquette, winners of five straight. No. 13 Xavier looked like the conference's best team during December and part of January, but the pack behind the Musketeers in the Big East standings is loaded. Oh and don't forget about No. 20 Providence, a tough-as-they come bunch, and a quietly rising Seton Hall, which has won seven of eight.
We're a month away from the major conference tournaments, and there are plenty of fun battles upcoming for conference regular-season supremacy. The Big East's might just be the best.
This week's top games
No. 5 Texas at No. 9 Kansas (Monday, 9 p.m. on ESPN) -- The race for a regular-season conference title is just as good in the Big 12 as it is in the Big East,if not better, and there's a massive one Monday at Allen Fieldhouse. The Jayhawks have lost four of their last five Big 12 clashes, but they're just two games back of the Longhorns in the conference standings. More good news for the reigning national champs? Kansas is 17-2 at home against Texas since Big 12 play began.
Bill Self's team is searching for reliable offense outside Jalen Wilson. Much of that responsibility has fallen on star freshman Gradey Dick, whose efficiency has been closely tied to wins and losses.
|Gradey Dick (2022-23)
3-point FG pct
That last row is an issue. After Dick (55 threes) and Wilson (54), guard Kevin McCullar has the most 3-pointers made with 21. Texas, though, is liable to give up good looks from deep. Among Big 12 teams, only Texas Tech allows more 3-pointers and a higher 3-point percentage this season.
The Longhorns are excellent almost everywhere else, though. Rodney Terry's bunch ranks second among Big 12 teams with 377 points in transition and 1.16 points per possession in transition, per Synergy Sports. One thing to keep an eye on: Texas has quietly started posting up more. The Longhorns are excellent at it, too, ranking top 10 nationally in points per post-up possession. They have scored double-digit points off post-ups three times in their last eight games. They did that just once in their first 15 games of the season.
No. 10 Marquette at No. 21 UConn (Tuesday, 6:30 p.m. on FS1) -- While Shaka Smart made a name for himself with his "Havoc" defense at VCU, it's his offense -- which ranks fourth in efficiency -- that has his Golden Eagles as one of the nation's best teams. They are especially good on spot-ups (90th percentile) and cuts (96th percentile). That second category stands out; the Golden Eagles are in constant motion, with guards who attack the paint and bigs who can put you on a poster. Donovan Clingan found that out the hard way thanks to Oso Ighodaro in the first matchup.
UConn has struggled to defend cutters this season, ranking in the 30th percentile nationally in that area. However, the Huskies will certainly have an advantage offensively on post-ups, in which they rank in the 94th percentile. Marquette, meanwhile, is in the 22nd percentile nationally defending post-ups.
UConn should dominate inside. The Huskies had 16 points off put-backs and eight points off post-ups in the first meeting. Whether it's enough to counter a versatile, well-rounded Marquette attack is TBD.
Arkansas at Kentucky (Tuesday, 9 p.m. on ESPN) -- The SEC had two top-10 teams in the : No. 4 Kentucky and No. 10 Arkansas. Now both are on the bubble, making this a huge game. The Razorbacks lost four straight in mid-January but have been better since, winning four of five with the lone loss coming by three at No. 14 Baylor. Kentucky also has improved of late, having won six of seven. Reigning National Player of the Year Oscar Tshiebwe is the headliner, but the freshmen battle featuring Arkansas' Anthony Black and Jordan Walsh vs. Kentucky's Cason Wallace will be terrific, too.
No. 11 Iowa State at West Virginia (Wednesday, 7 p.m. on ESPN2) -- WVU Coliseum has been a house of horrors for top-ranked teams recently. Since 2014-15, the Mountaineers have 14 home wins over top-15 teams (only Oklahoma and Kansas have more), and Bob Huggins' team already has two such wins this season (vs. TCU and Auburn, which were ranked No. 14 and No. 15, respectively, at the time).
Both of these teams boast outstanding experience, with seniors accounting for six of the top seven leaders in minutes. West Virginia tops in the Big 12 in free throw rate, and Iowa State allows free throws at the highest rate in Big 12 play. On the other side, the Cyclones have the best 3-point percentage in conference play, but the Mountaineers are the Big 12's second-best 3-point defense. Is there another upset brewing in Morgantown?
No. 25 San Diego State at Utah State (Wednesday, 10 p.m. on CBS Sports Network) -- Another great late-night, midweek Mountain West battle on CBS Sports Network? Sign me up. San Diego State is up one game on Utah State, Nevada and Boise State in the conference standings. The Aggies will look to avenge a loss to the Aztecs from Jan. 25. This game features the two most efficient offenses in the conference. Utah State's leads the nation with a 41.8% 3-point percentage, and the Aztecs are one of just four teams in D-I with eight different players averaging at least seven points.
No. 21 UConn at No. 23 Creighton (Saturday, 2 p.m. on FOX) -- There's no rest for the weary for UConn. The Huskies did manage to beat the Bluejays by nine at home in early January, but road tests have been a bigger issue. UConn has lost trips to Xavier, Providence, Marquette and Seton Hall, four of the five teams ahead of the Huskies in the Big East standings.
The fifth, of course, is Creighton, which has the conference's best defense in efficiency, effective field goal percentage, rebounding percentage, free throw rate, 2-point percentage and block rate. Greg McDermott's team is good just about everywhere on that end. Offensively, Ryan Kalkbrenner is averaging 16 points per game after being held to just nine in the first meeting against the Huskies. His battle with Adama Sanogo and Donovan Clingan will be fun.
Clemson at North Carolina (Saturday, 2 p.m. on ESPN2) -- You probably never thought that, with one month left in the regular season, the team leading the ACC would be on the bubble and that team would be ... Clemson. Yet, here we are. The Tigers are 1-59 all-time at North Carolina, but they won in their last trip to Chapel Hill, back in 2020.
Duke at No. 8 Virginia (4 p.m. on ESPN) -- It's a huge week for Duke with trips to No. 19 Miami Monday and Virginia over the weekend. The Blue Devils might just be heating up at the right time, though, with three straight wins. This will be an interesting battle of styles: Duke often plays multiple bigs at the same time and has the tallest average height in KenPom's minutes-weighted metric. Virginia, meanwhile, has downsized recently to maximize shooting. Nearly 40% of the Cavaliers' shots in ACC play have been from beyond the arc, compared to 35% from Duke. The Blue Devils have the conference's best offensive rebounding percentage, however. Virginia's spacing could give Duke trouble, so the Cavaliers must take advantage.
Three NBA prospects to watch
- Terquavion Smith is a big reason why No. 22 NC State is quietly the hottest team in the ACC, having won four straight and eight of nine. The conference's leading scorer at 18.5 PPG has hit double figures in all but one game this season, and he had 32 points last week against Florida State. Smith faces Virginia on Tuesday and Boston College on Saturday. He's 19th in the prospect rankings.
- Derek Lively II is starting to come into his own, and his four-point, 14-rebound, eight-block outing against North Carolina was the latest sign of progress. The eight blocks were most ever by a Blue Devil against the Tar Heels, and he has 20 blocks over his last five games. Lively is 22nd in the prospect rankings.
- Emoni Bates' path from former top recruit to Memphis to Eastern Michigan has been a strange one, but he seems to be finding his footing in Ypsilanti. He had a 43-point explosion in late January against Toledo and dropped 35 Friday at Ball State. He has four games of 30+ points this season. The Eagles visit Buffalo on Tuesday and host Toledo on Saturday. Bates is 50th in the prospect rankings.