There are only 68 days between now and Selection Sunday, but who’s counting?
There are still hundreds of games yet to be played between some of the best teams in each league. For some conferences in Division I, the New Year signals the start (or restart) of conference play.
While regular season conference play is not a direct indication of making the NCAA Tournament, it is quite an important part of the resume for each team and helps determines seeding for the conference tournament. And TRACR can evaluate how teams will fare in conference play.
TRACR (Team Rating Adjusted for Conference and Roster) is a net efficiency metric that evaluates how well a team performs based on who they play. It rewards those who beat good teams and punishes those who lose to bad ones.
Here are some highlights from recent games, how it affects any shot of winning a conference title and what the favorites’ projected chances are of clinching at least a share of the crown.
Wisconsin Keeps Things Interesting
The Big Ten preseason projections suggested a top-heavy conference that would be dominated by Purdue, Illinois, Michigan and Ohio State. Illinois (No. 3 in TRACR) seems to be on that track. Michigan (37th) is all over the place this season. Ohio State (13th) is solid but can be inconsistent, especially with its guard play (although Malaki Branham may be a solution).
And while Purdue (10th) is a dynamic team, it has started 1-2 in conference play. One of those losses was on a crazy buzzer by Rutgers. The other was on Monday against Wisconsin at Mackey Arena.
The question for Wisconsin (28th) coming into this season was where it could find scoring, and the Badgers found that and more with Jonathan Davis. Davis, who had 37 points and 14 rebounds in the road win over Purdue, is making his way in Player of the Year discussions. He is averaging 22.3 points and is one of the most athletic players in school history.
Wisconsin has two losses on the season (one without Davis) and many close wins, but the win over Purdue suggests that it’s any team’s race for the Big Ten title. Michigan State (15th) is also playing great and could also make a run for the regular season title. There are no easy wins in this conference.
Arizona Heavy Favorites in the Pac-12
Tommy Lloyd is cooking up something special in Tucson. The Pac-12 seemed to be a race between UCLA (16th) and USC (26th), but now Arizona (No. 5) is a heavy favorite to win it.
According to TRACR, the Wildcats have an 80.8% chance of clinching at least a share of the Pac-12 title. That’s the third-highest chance of winning at least a share of a conference title among all Division I teams.
Keep in mind that part of the reason why Arizona is so heavily favored is because of so many postponements in December due to COVID-19 protocols. The Wildcats were supposed to play UCLA and USC on the road, but those games were postponed. As of now, Arizona will only have to face the Bruins and Trojans at home. If those games are rescheduled, this may be a whole different conversation.
Still, Arizona should be seen as the top team in the conference right now. The Wildcats are already 2-0 in conference play and have a relatively light schedule for the rest of the month. They might be getting better, too – Bennedict Mathurin has averaged 23.3 points over his last seven games.
Toss Up in the SEC
It’s too close to call a team for any conference, but this is especially the case for the SEC. The conference is stacked, having three teams in TRACR’s top 10 and seven in the top 30.
Auburn (No. 8) is the current favorite to win at least a share of the regular season title. The Tigers are 1-0 so far and only have to play Kentucky (No. 4) and Tennessee (No. 6) once each. The Volunteers and Wildcats, meanwhile, will play twice. Plus, with Jabari Smith’s dynamic play, Auburn should feel like a favorite.
It would not be out of the question for another team out of the SEC to make a run. Alabama (21st) has already shown it can win big games, beating Houston (No. 1), Gonzaga (No. 2) and Tennessee. LSU (14th) is still a top-15 team in the country, according to TRACR.
If the Tigers were in almost any other league, they would start the conversation. A win over Kentucky on Tuesday night or a win over Tennessee on Saturday could change things.
Upcoming Games to Watch
No. 4 Kentucky (16th in AP) at No. 14 LSU (21st), Tuesday, Jan. 4
TRACR Favorite: Kentucky (56.2%)
Projected Score: Kentucky 76, LSU 74
No. 36 Texas Tech (25th) at No. 42 Iowa State (11th), Wednesday, Jan. 5
TRACR Favorite: Iowa State (59.3%)
Projected Score: Iowa State 76, Texas Tech 73
No. 15 Michigan State (10th) at No. 37 Michigan, Saturday, Jan. 8
TRACR Favorite: Michigan (55.4%)
Projected Score: Michigan 86, Michigan State 83
No. 35 UConn at No. 33 Seton Hall (24th), Saturday, Jan. 8
TRACR Favorite: Seton Hall (56.2%)
Projected Score: Seton Hall 80, UConn 76
No. 7 Tennessee (18th) at No. 15 LSU (21st), Saturday, Jan. 8
TRACR Favorite: LSU (51.9%)
Projected Score: LSU 68, Tennessee 67
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Graphic design by Matt Sisneros.