Much has been made of the meaningless "conference comparison" between the current behemoths of college basketball—the Big East and the Atlantic Coast Conference.
The discussion is fun for fans of the sport (when it stays civil), but it means nothing to the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee who ranks and seeds teams regardless of conference affiliation.
The "Big Six" conferences (the ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big XII, Pac-10, and SEC) dominate most of the top-25 rankings, most of the television time, and a majority of college basketball discussions that don't include the words "mid-major" or "bubble."
In the spirit of Bracket Buster week, I present a top 25 that looks at teams outside the Big Six. Capsules are included for the top 10.
1. Memphis Tigers (22-3, 10-0 Conference USA)
Memphis' last loss was to Syracuse almost two months ago, and they have continued their unbelievable conference winning streak—thoroughly dominating Tulsa and Southern Mississippi to run the streak to 52 consecutive in Conference USA. The seniors on this team have won an astounding 126 games.
2. Gonzaga Bulldogs (19-5, 10-0 West Coast Conference)
The drop-off from No. 1 to No. 2 is significant, considering that Memphis dominated the Bulldogs on the road, 68-50. The drop-off from No. 2 to the rest of the field is fairly significant as well. If Patrick Mills of the St. Mary's Gaels doesn't break his wrist, Gonzaga is not even the best team in the WCC.
3. Davidson Wildcats (22-4, 15-1 Southern Conference)
Davidson, like many of the mid-majors of late, slipped in a surprising 77-75 loss to the Charleston Cougars, who have dropped to No. 3 in the SoCon South (and overall) standings with two losses to the Citadel Bulldogs. Charleston was a surprising loss for Davidson, but not an awful one. Charleston defeated likely NCAA tournament team South Carolina earlier in the season.
The more pressing matter is Stephen Curry's ankle sprain, which is currently listed as day-to-day. Expect Curry to be fully healed by the time the conference tournament rolls around, though he may be out for a much-anticipated clash with a ranked Butler squad. Davidson should be able to handle the rest of their SoCon opponents, even without Curry.
4. Dayton Flyers (23-3, 9-2 Atlantic 10)
I have enjoyed the wrath of mostly anonymous Dayton fans ever since writing a critical article of both their schedule and their close wins over poor teams and three losses to mediocre (or worse) teams—most recently at Charlotte, after early-season losses to Creighton and Massachusetts.
However, Butler's loss to a terrible Loyola (Chicago) team causes them to slip behind Dayton in the current poll. Until the Flyers actually lose the close games they have pulled out (including a one-point win over 3-19 Fordham), this is the appropriate spot for them.
5. Xavier Musketeers (21-4, 9-2 Atlantic 10)
Xavier's upside and potential may be higher than Dayton's, but their loss to the Flyers necessitates falling a spot below them. The Musketeers have now lost two of three, dropping a game at Duquesne, a team that Dayton defeated handily on the road.
6. Butler Bulldogs (22-3, 13-2 Horizon League)
Two weeks ago, they were easily the class of the mid-majors, earning a top-15 ranking as they cruised through the Horizon League schedule. The loss to Wisconsin-Green Bay can be forgiven; the Bulldogs were on the road and the Phoenix are a quality team at No. 2 in the Horizon.
Today's loss to Loyola (Chicago) is a far different scenario. The Ramblers are a sub-.500 team that was coming off of six straight losses, including a 71-47 shellacking at Valparaiso just two days before the tilt with Butler.
7. Utah State (24-2, 12-1 Western Athletic Conference)
There's no shame in the loss at Boise State, easily the No. 2 team in the WAC. It did snap the Aggies' 19-game winning streak and will also likely make for a short stay in the polls for USU. They are still likely to earn an at-large berth even without a conference championship if they get back to their winning ways.
A showdown with St. Mary's of the WCC looms—a team that looks a bit lost without Patrick Mills. The Gaels can't be taken lightly, however, as they gave Gonzaga all they could handle in last week's matchup. The only challenging conference game remaining is at the underrated Nevada Wolfpack on Feb. 28.
8. Siena Saints (20-6, 14-1 Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference)
Though Siena hasn't been able to pull out victories against most of the quality teams they have faced, they have ripped through the MAAC and reestablished themselves as the team to beat in the conference, with a two-game lead over Niagara.
Some non-conference wins look more impressive now, including wins over MAC leader Buffalo and WAC contender Boise State. The Saints are a two-point loss at Rider (the MAAC's No. 3 team) from being undefeated in conference play. Half of Siena's losses came between Nov. 27 and Nov. 30, 2008 by a total of 17 points. Another two are to highly-ranked teams Pittsburgh and Kansas.
9. Utah Utes (18-7, 9-2 Mountain West Conference)
This is awfully low for a Mountain West team, as it may be the strongest of the non-Big Six conferences, with four teams (Utah, UNLV, San Diego State and BYU) having reasonable shots at an NCAA Tournament berth. However, the top teams have beat each other up in Texas-Oklahoma-Texas Tech football fashion, with a few non-conference losses sprinkled in.
Utah is on a six-game tear that includes wins at home over BYU and San Diego State. Their last two losses? They are to UNLV and San Diego St. Early-season losses to Southwest Baptist (ouch) and at Idaho State are long forgotten. Wins over Gonzaga and LSU (by a stunning 30 points) are not.
10. San Diego State Aztecs (18-6, 8-3 Mountain West Conference)
So, no surprise here, because the Aztecs' two most recent losses are to Utah and BYU. See above about the MWC shooting each other in the feet. With just one (somewhat) bad loss at Wyoming, San Diego State is solidly on the NCAA bubble. The Aztecs' stretch run includes critical home games against BYU and UNLV. In true MWC spirit, expect a split.
11. UNLV Runnin Rebels (19-6, 7-4 Mountain West Conference)
12. Brigham Young Cougars (19-5, 7-3 Mountain West Conference)
13. St. Mary's Gaels (20-5, 7-4 West Coast Conference)
The Gaels are collapsing without Patrick Mills, but put up one hell of a fight against Gonzaga this week.
14. Creighton Bluejays (21-6, 11-4 Missouri Valley Conference)
The Bluejays are quickly becoming the class of the MVC, winning seven of their last eight. They also have a win against Dayton on their resume.
15. Boise State Broncos (17-7, 7-4, Western Athletic Conference)
The Broncos scored a huge win over Utah State this week to shoot up these rankings.
16. Houston Cougars (16-7, 7-3 Conference USA)
It would have helped if Aubrey Coleman hadn't been suspended in the Cougars' loss to conference rival UTEP.
17. UAB Blazers (17-8, 7-3 Conference USA)
18. Niagara Purple Eagles (21-6, 12-3 Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference)
19. Tulsa Golden Hurricane (17-9, 7-4 Conference USA)
20. Virginia Commonwealth (18-8, 11-4 Colonial Athletic Association)
Eric Maynor keeps this team in the top 20 all by himself.
21. Illinois State Redbirds (20-5, 9-5 Missouri Valley Conference)
The opening-season winning streak is long forgotten. With five conference losses, the Redbirds will need a conference tourney win to make the Big Dance this year, something this team is completely capable of.
22. Western Kentucky Hilltoppers (17-8, 11-3 Sun Belt)
Big wins (e.g., Louisville) and bad losses (e.g., at Denver) make this team very difficult to figure out.
23. Buffalo Bulls (17-6, 9-2 Mid-American Conference)
Their weekend loss to Ball State hurts their standing here.
24. Vermont Catamounts (20-7, 11-3 American East)
They've won 11 of 12 but two losses to Binghamton are a stain on their record.
25. Binghamton Bearcats (17-8, 10-3 American East)
Just Missed the Cut: VMI (Big South), George Mason (CAA), Northeastern (CAA), Northern Iowa (MVC), Arkansas-Little Rock (Sun Belt), North Dakota State (Summit)
Others Considered: New Mexico (MWC), Wisconsin-Green Bay (Horizon), Portland (WCC), Troy (Sun Belt), Weber State (Big Sky), Charleston (Southern), Hofstra (CAA), UTEP (CUSA), Robert Morris (Northeast), UT-Martin (Ohio Valley), East Tennessee State (Atlantic Sun), Portland State (Big Sky), Temple (A-10), Central Florida (CUSA), Duquesne (A-10), American (Patriot)
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