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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Monday, June 24, 2024

Men's College Basketball | This season, the beasts reside in the East

We're still three weeks away from March, but one thing is clear: The ACC and the Big East are the elite conferences in men's college basketball.

The only question that remains is which one is the best. Both have impressive resumes, starting with three teams each in the top 10 of the Coaches' Poll. The Big East boasts the current No. 1 team in the nation in the UConn Huskies, who are led by the nation's best defensive player in center Hasheem Thabeet. UConn has only one loss and has been demolishing its opponents as of late. The conference also features the No. 4 Pittsburgh Panthers, a team that at 22-2 is still only fourth in the Big East, along with the No. 7 Louisville Cardinals.

The Tobacco Road trio of the Duke Blue Devils, North Carolina Tar Heels and Wake Forest Demon Deacons, all of which have at one point held the No. 1 ranking this year, leads the ACC. The Tar Heels were the preseason top choice, and at one point, they were thought to be unbeatable. With last year's Naismith and Wooden Award-winner Tyler Hansbrough leading the way, UNC won its first 13 games by at least 15 points before being upset at home by the Boston College Eagles en route to losing two of three games. The Tar Heels, who lead Div. I in rebounding and are second in scoring, are currently No. 3 in the polls behind UConn and the Oklahoma Sooners.

The other team to beat UNC was Wake, the No. 8 team in the country despite falling in three of its last six games. The Demon Deacons are led by sophomore Jeff Teague, averaging 20.9 points a game, and start one other sophomore and a freshman alongside the second-best scorer in the ACC. Wake is young, but this team has already shown in beating UNC, Duke and the 11th-ranked Clemson Tigers that it is for real.

Duke, meanwhile, is fifth, although it was destroyed by Clemson and barely squeaked by the Miami Hurricanes with a three-point victory last week. The Blue Devils are trying to return to the Sweet Sixteen, which they had reached nine straight years before losing in the first and second rounds, respectively, in the last two years.

But even with four of the top 11 teams in the nation in the ACC, the Big East is still a better conference from top to bottom. Besides UConn, the other top teams are legitimate threats to represent the conference in the Final Four. Pitt's forward tandem of senior Sam Young and sophomore DeJuan Blair, the leading rebounder in the conference, is combining for almost 34 points a game to form one of the top frontcourt pairs in the country. Louisville also has the look of a championship team despite losing to UConn last Monday. Rick Pitino's Cardinals are balanced and are one of the best defensive teams in the NCAA, allowing just 60 points a game.

The No. 12 and No. 13 teams, the Marquette Golden Eagles and the Villanova Wildcats respectively, are also from the Big East. These two teams are playing as well as anyone in the country and give the Big East depth that no other conference can match. Before losing by one point to the South Florida Bulls on Friday, Marquette was the last undefeated team in conference play, mainly thanks to senior guard Jerel McNeal and his 20 points per game. Villanova has won five straight, including a win over Pitt and victories over a number of potential NCAA Tournament bubble teams.

The Big East's biggest problem, in fact, might be that it has too many good teams. Granted, the preseason No. 9 Notre Dame Fighting Irish have been a major disappointment, losing seven straight to sit at just 12-10, but the conference has some other quality teams. The Georgetown Hoyas, a team that many felt could be a national championship contender, has stumbled to a 4-7 record in Big East play and is now on the bubble. Yet another team that is struggling in conference play is the Syracuse Orange. The 22nd-ranked Orange are 6-5 in the conference, with all of those losses coming in the last seven games. Still, Syracuse could be dangerous come tourney time with sophomore point guard Jonny Flynn leading the way. These are the types of teams that could beat anyone in the nation and could make a run deep into March if they get hot at the right time.

Simply put, the middling teams in the Big East are superior to those in the ACC. Bubble teams like the West Virginia Mountaineers and Cincinnati Bearcats are better than inconsistent squads like the Virginia Tech Hokies and Maryland Terrapins, even if they are less qualified to be in the tournament. The Florida State Seminoles, the fourth-best team in the ACC and No. 25 in the nation, are the type of team that would be a prime upset candidate come March.

One of these two conferences will have two No. 1 teams representing it, and right now, it looks like Pittsburgh and UConn could both earn top seeds in the tournament. The ACC may have more tournament-worthy teams at the moment, but the teams from the Big East will be the ones lasting longer when March rolls around.

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