One unforeseen casualty of the new 12-team ACC is that the Duke men don't play UNC until their 10th conference game (out of 16). There was a time that this game would mark the middle of the conference season for the entire nation. Not this year.
I decided not to wait. Duke played (and won) its 8th ACC game last night against Boston College. More importantly, many Big Ten and Big East teams have reached their conference midpoint. Why is that important? Allow me to explain.
Polls are especially useless this time of year. Is there really any difference among the 25-30 teams with about a 14-6 record? Hard to say, and even harder to quantify. It's much more meaningful to evaluate teams from a NCAA tournament seeding standpoint. And rather than guess the entire slate of 65, which gets tedious, it's easier to focus on a smaller, elite group of teams that will earn the 16 highest seeds.
What you'll find is interesting. Following the college football model, there are six major conferences: Big East, ACC, Big Ten, SEC, Big 12, and Pac-10. Normally you might find each having two or three teams that are jockeying among the nation's elite. Not so this year. If we list the teams most likely to be 1, 2, 3, or 4 seeds, only the Big Ten and Big East can claim upper conference strength. The other four conferences can each boast only one elite team.
Big 12: Texas
The next best teams in each of those conferences may join the elite, but they are not there yet. Yes, even Florida.
Every year there are elite teams not in the six major conferences. This season presents three: Gonzaga, Memphis, and George Washington. Barring a late season collapse -- in the form of 2 or more conference losses -- all should be seeded 4 or higher. (Northern Iowa's loss to Creighton earlier this week would put both teams around a 5 or 6 seed.)
So that's seven of the teams favored to make the Sweet 16. This leaves nine teams to be split between the Big East and Big Ten. Quite remarkably, that's about right. Here are the best candidates from those conferences.
Big East: Connecticut, Villanova, West Virginia, Pittsburgh, Georgetown
Big Ten: Illinois, Michigan, Ohio State, Michigan State, Iowa, Indiana, Wisconsin
I don't know if I'll provide updates every week before Selection Sunday, but for now, the following seedings make sense (separated by regional, listed 1 to 4).
Oakland: Villanova, Gonzaga, UCLA, George Washington
Minneapolis: Duke, Ilinois, Tennessee, West Virginia
Washington: Connecticut, Texas, Michigan, Ohio State
Atlanta: Memphis, Pittsburgh, Michigan State, Georgetown