Everything in college basketball changes when conference play begins.
Those in power have done wonders to drum up interest in early-season action, with big name teams being featured in tournaments and showcases for the first few months of the season. But blowout wins over cupcake opponents and sloppy early-season play are littered throughout that part of the schedule.
Conference play brings rivalries, road games with student-sections, and a landslide of upsets. In short, it’s the reason we love college basketball. On top of that, succeeding in one of America’s toughest conferences is the best way to prove yourself before March Madness tips off.
With that in mind, here are the early favorites to win the six biggest conferences in college hoops.
ACC – Duke
The Blue Devils might be the boring and obvious pick, but at this point in the season, they are also the most qualified. Duke’s overtime home loss to Stephen F. Austin was a bad mishap, but it’s their only blemish so far. Aside from that slip-up, Duke has impressed with wins over Michigan State, Kansas, Georgetown and Miami.
The ACC’s other top contender, Louisville, lost at home to Florida State this weekend and only gets to play Duke once this season — a road game at Cameron Indoor. Advantage to the Blue Devils.
Big East – Butler
It’s always somewhat shocking to pencil anyone into a Big East title that is not Villanova, yet Butler’s play so far this season has been eye-popping enough to earn this level of respect. The Bulldogs have just one loss, by one point at 4th-ranked Baylor.
Head coach LaVall Jordan has Butler winning games on the defensive end of the floor. The Bulldogs rank fourth in defensive efficiency, per KenPom, thanks to top-ten performances in 3-point percentage allowed, effective field goal percentage allowed and defensive rebounding rate. Butler fights to get stops and follows them with rebounds.
Offensively, everything churns through senior guard Kamar Baldwin. His 14.7 point per game average doesn’t fully explain how capable he is of taking over a game in crunch time.
Big Ten – Michigan State
A few weeks ago, when Ohio State was 9-0 and ranked in the top three in the AP Poll, this answer would have been different. Back then, Michigan State was just 6-3 and clearly had some issues on the offensive end.
Since December 8, Ohio State has lost three of its last five games, while Michigan State has sparked a six-game winning streak. The Spartans are now two games ahead of the Buckeyes in the loss column in Big Ten play and sit a full 1.5 games ahead of the rest of the conference in the standings.
Make no mistake — the Big Ten is college basketball’s toughest conference and will be an absolute battle all season long. Even so, any team eager to compete for the title will need to go into the Breslin Center in East Lansing and win. With Tom Izzo on the sidelines and Cassius Winston patrolling the court for Sparty, that’s not likely to happen much, if at all, this season.
Big XII – Kansas
Last season was the first time since 2004 that the Jayhawks did not win at least a share of the Big XII Conference crown. In fact, in the 24 years that the Big XII has been on the map, Kansas has failed to finish atop the standings just five times. Add in 11 Big XII Tournament titles, and the Jayhawks’ dominance in league play is even more clear.
This season should be no exception, with Devon Dotson running things in Lawrence. The sophomore point guard has evolved from a facilitator to a legitimate go-to playmaker in his time at Kansas. With a group of talented bigs and some rangy, athletic wings, Dotson has the tools to run Bill Self’s offense to perfection.
SEC – Kentucky
In the preseason, Florida looked like one of the favorites to win the conference and was often floated as a Final Four contender. That may not be the case anymore, with the Gators struggling offensively and now sitting unranked at just 9-4. Florida opened SEC play in a shaky way, needing double overtime to dispatch Alabama at home.
Kentucky, meanwhile, is a team on the rise. After dropping two critical non-conference tilts in Las Vegas — to Utah and Ohio State — the Cats have rebounded nicely with wins over rival Louisville and then Missouri in their SEC opener.
John Calipari’s young team has started to gel. His three-guard lineup that pairs sophomores Immanuel Quickley and Ashton Hagans with freshman Tyrese Maxey has begun to play more smoothly and more effectively. Maxey’s development has been key to Kentucky’s success, peaking with his 27-point outburst versus Louisville.
Pac-12 – Oregon
Although the gap between the Ducks and the rest of the conference isn’t huge and Oregon already lost to Colorado in Boulder, this feels like the most logical choice of any of these teams.
Oregon has the best coach in the conference in Dana Altman, who has won an NCAA Tournament game six of the last seven seasons, with four Sweet Sixteens and a Final Four appearance in that period. The Ducks also have the conference’s best player in junior point guard Payton Pritchard. This season has been his best in Eugene as he’s averaging 18.7 points and 5.9 assists per game. He’s one of the most steady veteran guards in all of college basketball.