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Let the conference games begin

As we head full bore into 2012 and the main portion of the conference season, many questions concerning the college basketball season have been answered. Several new queries have popped up, though.

Here’s what we know –

The Big East is down. Villanova (7-8) is under .500, Pittsburgh has suffered an embarrassing string of defeats, while St. John’s has regressed a bit after a resurgent season in 2010-2011.

Virginia, which has won 11 straight, Seton Hall, a recent winner over UConn, UMass, St. Joseph’s, UNLV, Baylor, Harvard and Iona are all for real. ACC play has yet to begin, but Virginia already has quality wins over the likes of Michigan and George Mason. UNLV has won seven straight, which includes victories against North Carolina and Illinois. Harvard’s loss at Fordham was tough to swallow for them, but wins against Florida State and St. Joseph’s prove the Crimson are here to stay. Iona’s setback against Hofstra shouldn’t be overplayed, while Baylor has a big time front court led by Perry Jones III.

The Atlantic 10 could be the surprise league to get a team into the Final Four. Temple knocked off Duke, while UMass, St. Joseph’s, LaSalle, Dayton and St. Louis are all off to excellent starts. No, the A-10 won’t be getting eight teams in, but we definitely see four teams in. And mind you we haven’t even mentioned Xavier yet. The Musketeers have hit hard times, but it's still early. Temple’s win over Duke, which will undoubtedly push the league’s RPI to new heights, makes it possible for a fifth team to get in.

Kentucky’s Michael Kidd-Gilchrist just might be the best player in the country.

If there was a nice guy of the year award in college basketball, Connecticut’s Andre Drummond would be at the top of the list for offering to pay his way rather than take a scholarship away from a teammate.

If there was a coach of the decade award, Baylor coach Scott Drew would be my choice. He took over a program reeling from the murder of Patrick Dennehy by teammate Carlton Dotson and the firing of coach Dave Bliss, who tried to denigrate the deceased Dennehy. Now that program is ranked No.4 in the country. Hat’s off to Drew.

College basketball is still a hot topic in the New York-Metro Area as Stony Brook, Wagner, LIU, Iona, Manhattan and Seton Hall are all vying for a run to their respective conference titles.

Fordham is improving, while Columbia (10-5) is off to a strong start.

Here’s what we don’t know –

How many teams will the Big East get into the NCAA Tournament? Some have predicted eight teams. That could be right as Syracuse, Georgetown, Cincinnati, Seton Hall, Connecticut, West Virginia, Marquette and Louisville appear to be on their way. Can’t say the same for the likes of Notre Dame, DePaul, St. John’s and Rutgers. Pittsburgh, Providence and Villanova, all 0-3 in league play, appear to be on the way down. We don’t see more than eight getting in. That could be pushing it if Cincinnati or West Virginia falters.

Same question for the PAC-12. The Pacific coast schools haven’t exactly been world beaters the last few years. Colorado was snubbed last year because of a weak non-conference schedule. It could happen again to the Buffaloes (10-4), who played just two major-conference schools –Maryland, Georgia– in its non-league slate. Georgia, who Colorado beat 70-68, is an also-ran in the SEC, while Maryland (10-3), who the Buffs lost to, is decent. Stanford (12-3) looks strong, but also has a shaky non-conference slate, highlighted by a loss at Syracuse and a home win against N.C. State. Look for Cal (12-4), Oregon (11-4) and Arizona (10-5) to try and make a late push. In the end, look for the PAC-12 to get three in.

How good is Wagner? The Seahawks’ win at Pittsburgh is looking less and less special because the Panthers are starting to bottom out. But Danny Hurley’s crew followed that up with wins against Air Force, Santa Clara and FDU. None of those three teams are dominant programs, but Air Force and Santa Clara are solid. And both of those wins were on the west coast. Because of Pitt’s descent, there’s an NCAA at-large bid is probably out of the question. But an NIT big –assuming they don’t win the NEC– is certainly in the cards.

Some people were quick to douse cold water on Iona’s quick rise after their loss to Hofstra. We haven’t jumped off the bang wagon. The Gaels had an eight-game road stretch and came up aces in six of them. Add to that their wins at Maryland, Richmond and a home triumph at St. Joseph’s and you have a squad that could catch the NCAA’s fancy. It’s important that the Gaels run through the MAAC regular season. Anything less than a 15-3 or 16-2 season could deter their at-large hopes.

What’s happened to UCLA? Ben Howland took the west coast by storm after leading the Bruins to three straight Final Fours. Since then it’s been all down hill. The Bruins are 8-7 and have losses to Loyola Marymount and Middle Tennessee State on the books. We can’t imagine Howland is in any trouble yet. But he could be if things don’t turn around in the next two seasons or so.
 

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