March Madness Survival Guide: This Year’s “Best Conference” Race is a Landslide

_MG_7825By Matt Craig | @MrMattCraig

Editor in Chief of Chirp City

Host of the Ball Hogs Podcast

Member of Ball State Sports Link


Everyone swears they were a stud in high school.

BracketThere’s really no way to deny it. High school media coverage rarely extends far enough to fact-check someone’s statistics, see footage of them playing, or talk to anyone who has first-hand accounts.

Whether it was 20 points per game or 20 touchdowns per game, everyone is convinced that not only were they the greatest player in their area, but the team from their area could stomp the team from your area.

I experienced this in a very real way when I came to Indiana for school. I grew up my whole life hearing the “In 49 states it’s just basketball, but this is Indiana” slogan and knew about all of the Indiana natives in the NBA, so my expectations were extremely high when I came here and started going to local high school games.

What I observed however was that high school basketball here, high school basketball there, high school basketball anywhere was just high school basketball. Sure Indiana usually has more fans and spectators and they are generally more enthusiastic, but actual level of play was the exact same as back in Oklahoma. There were good teams and players, there were bad teams and players.

in 49 states
You would not believe how literally this is taken.

It doesn’t matter where you grow up, you’re going to have a local bias. It’s not just for your team, but also for all the teams around you, your competition. Because it’s not a good story if you just beat on chumps.

This extends to the world of college basketball. I’ve noticed that everyone is biased toward the conference that’s predominantly in their part of the country. Where I’m from in Oklahoma, the Big 12 (which only has ten teams because that makes sense) dominates all conversation. Here in Indiana, people will swear on their lives that the Big 10 is the best conference.

This topic has been a relevant and popular one throughout my entire life because people feel like they are defending their area of the country. For a while the Big East was riding high, then the ACC took the crown.

So what’s the best conference this year? You may not be surprised by my choice, and my opinion that it’s not a particularly close race.


ACC-Big 10 Challenge: Big 10 wins 8-6

One of the more unimportant but impressive streaks in modern sport: Big 10 has won seven straight ACC-Big 10 challenges, despite most national experts thinking the ACC has been the strongest conference. Last ACC win was in 2008.

#9 North Carolina 89 – #2 Maryland 81

Well folks we have an early candidate for game of the year. You know that point in a basketball game where there’s a loose ball that turns into a slip and slide? The ball stays live back and forth, and the entire crowd is just excited and anxious, rising to their feet?

Yeah, there were twenty straight minutes of that feeling in the second half. Although replace the turnovers and steals with dunks and three pointers raining from everywhere.

“Yoooooo you just compared me to Steph Curry. That’s cool bro.”

Melo Trimble put on his best Steph Curry impression, especially in the second half. There was one sequence of three possessions where he hit a three, then the next time down he made Nate Britt fall with a crossover and dished a Magic Johnson-esque pass for a dunk, then the next time down he hit an and-1 three pointer. He’s special.

The North Carolina Men’s Volleyball team looked much better with the addition of Marcus Paige. He had missed the first few games of the season with a broken right hand, but I never really figured out why he wasn’t playing because he literally never uses his right hand anyways.

As far as long term outlook, I still much prefer Maryland. North Carolina needs to be effective from three point range in order to be an elite team. Which is fine if you’re the Golden State Warriors, but no one is mistaking Nate Britt or Theo Pinson for Klay Thompson. They shot 9-13 from three in this game (69.2%), which I can almost guarantee you will never happen again this season.

Justin Jackson

Isaiah+Austin+Baylor+Bears+v+Nebraska+Cornhuskers+VfTe1p-RQ_6lHere’s a crazy conspiracy theory I have. Remember Isaiah Austin, that 7 footer who learned that he couldn’t play basketball anymore due to a rare eye condition after a stellar career at Baylor? Somehow when he withdrew from the NBA draft he did a deal with the devil where he sacrificed 6 inches of his height for a good pair of eyes and a second chance at college basketball. He changed his name to Justin Jackson, and is now bringing that sweet jumpshot to Chapel Hill for the Tarheels.

#3 Michigan State 71 – #24 Louisville 67

I mean this in the nicest way possible, but Louisville plays basketball like a prison gang. I realize this is awkward since there’s a chance they may actually become a prison gang if the NCAA decides to slam the school for the allegations that came up this summer, but that’s the best way to describe it.

To say the cliche “they play tough” doesn’t go nearly far enough. Neither does “junkyard dogs” although that’s a little closer. Louisville plays like a rat who’s been trapped in a corner and hasn’t eaten in five days.

Actual team photo for any member of the Louisville backcourt.

Have you ever play pickup basketball with one of those kids that hustles so much that it makes you really uncomfortable? Imagine that, except the kid is 6 foot 6, 235 pounds and fast as lightning.

In the first half, this up-in-your-face style really rattled Michigan State. Just as I mentioned in last week’s column, Michigan went from under-rated to over-rated so quickly they weren’t really ready to act like it. They came out trying to look cool, trying to act like the #3 team in the country.

That’s the wrong attitude against Louisville. They are strapped up and ready for war, and have so much energy I wouldn’t be surprised to learn their was a little “Columbian Bam Bam” in their pregame Gatorade (it’s a graduate assistant’s job, Pitino has no knowledge).

The downside to Louisville’s “cornered rat” style? It’s so aggressive it’s frequently reckless. The Cardinals make tons of mental mistakes: they turn the ball over frequently, take head-scratching shots, and miss easy defensive assignments. This makes them extremely dangerous come tournament time. Boom or bust, the worst position for a Survivalist to predict.

Michigan State doesn’t have the talent to be a top-five team in the country, they just don’t. But talk about a team that maximizes their ability! Tom Izzo is a magician. Again, I’m worried about them peaking too early, and I don’t like them as a front runner instead of an underdog.

denzel valentine2.jpeg
“Like OMG you’ll never believe what he texted me the other day. Uhhhh what a slut!”

But Valentine and Forbes really impressed me. They were high school teammates, and play with a strong chemistry that’s rarely seen in college basketball in 2015. Now that Forbes has somehow morphed himself into Travis Trice 2.0, The Spartans have enough leadership that I don’t see them as upset prone. Just think they need to get knocked down a few notches.

#7 Duke 94 – Indiana 74

Not a ton here that I haven’t already said. Indiana’s defense is atrocious, and got absolutely mutilated by Duke. Tom Crean is looking more and more like Chip Kelley, one of those geniuses that has gotten to where he is by convincing everyone else that he’s a genius.

Brandon Ingram “broke out” in this game, but if Duke is looking for him to be their alpha this season, they’re going to be disappointed. Do you really want your 6’9 uber-athlete settling for being a spot up three point shooter?

But Ingram might be most effective this year as just that, since he’s too weak to bang with bigs down low. We live in a world where he’ll reach his potential long after he’s left Duke and has about $50 million in his pocket. Sigh.

This game does give us a chance to get to….



Tom Crean as “Dwight Schrute” from “The Office!”Aside from the dashing good looks and unfortunate hair part right smack-dab in the middle of their head, Crean and Schrute also share facial expressions that are really hard to describe with words. Plus, if you learned that Tom Crean was running a beat farm in his off-seasons, would you really be that surprised?

And yet, the “Best Conference in the 2015-2016 College Basketball Season” title is not the ACC or the Big 10….wow I need a better name for the award.

#1 Kentucky 77 – UCLA 87

All television networks know that heroes drive ratings. Last year college basketball ratings were staggeringly high due to the Kentucky super-team and the carnage they left in their wake throughout the season. I even wrote about it here (shameless plug). So after scrambling around looking for a suitable candidate for #1, the AP voting committee thought they could rely on the ol’ cash cow, Kentucky, to take the mantle.

Problem is, Kentucky has issues of their own to worry about. I outlined this more in detail last week, but their front court is really weak and can’t be relied upon.

Did I really just ask why recruits would want to go to UCLA? That was the stupidest question I’ve ever asked on MMSG.

Why would anyone want to go to UCLA? Oh yeah, well other than the amazing weather, beautiful women, legacy of John Wooden and the most championships of any D1 school, proximity to hollywood and beaches, ect ect. But from a purely basketball standpoint, why would you want to go to a school where the coach has a son on the team who is going to do frankly whatever the hell he wants?

The culture of the team is pitiful and the players seem to all just be playing for themselves. That being said, they continue to sign a lot of high caliber prospects every year and keep a nice stockpile of raw talent (not just talking about the cheerleading squad) on their roster.

In this game, UCLA played out of their minds and there was no way they were going to lose. Please tell me you saw this highlight, it fully demonstrates the out of body experience the UCLA players went through during this game:

“Did I make it??” does a pretty good job of summarizing the UCLA offense scheme. They were one of my upset locks last year before almost assuredly dropping out of the Tournament field before sneaking into the NCAA Tournament over much more qualified teams before making it to the Sweet Sixteen and making me look like an idiot. Needless to say they are one of my least favorite teams in college basketball.

I don’t think anyone would say the SEC or the Pac-12 deserve consideration for the “Best Conference in the 2015-2016 College Basketball Season” title (Dang I REALLY need a new name for it).

#19 Arizona 68 – #13 Gonzaga 63

I have been very vocal in my fight against the Ballislife disease, a term I coined to describe the change in emphasis and playing styles of youth basketball players in America, and the methods of evaluation by colleges and the NBA.

“Potential” after all, is just French for “currently sucks.”

But Arizona seems to be infected badly with Ballislife disease. Polluted, contaminated, some may even say gluttonous of AAU-style players. But they have grown to control the entire west coast recruitment game, grabbing all the best recruits from the left coast and assembling some kind of hooligan-all-star-squad.

Gabe York is kinda the living embodiment of everything that’s wrong with basketball right now, but nbd.

I personally dueled with Alonzo Trier dozens of times during his time living in Oklahoma, and the dude never met a shot he didn’t love. By this logic Gabe York has about seven wives and six mistresses, and Ryan Anderson is a real life version of the “Delivery Man.”

Their issue is that with the recent injury to Kaleb Tarczewski, their tallest player is 6-8 and is a slim 6-8 at that. This was a horrible matchup for them going against the Gonzaga bigs, and for three-fourths of the game Gonzaga showed why.


Gonzaga was without Przemek “The Mountain” Karnowski in this one, but still had more than enough firepower to win this game. Wiltjer had 33 and Sabonis had 18, but the rest of the team combined for just 12 points.

nigel williams goos.jpeg
The key to a Gonzaga national championship sits on the bench.

Unfortunately, their best guard sits on their bench. Nigel Williams-Goss, the transfer from Washington has to sit out this year. He’s a stud and if he was playing on this team they may have been the best player in the country.

As it stands however, the Zags’ entire season rides on the shoulders of Josh Perkins, their best perimeter scoring threat. He showed flashes of ability in this game and if he continues to improve I think Gonzaga could return to the elite 8 or further.

For what it’s worth, Gonzaga’s home court, “The Kennel” (great nickname by the way) is right now #2 in my “most shooter-friendly gyms in college basketball” power rankings behind Lloyd Noble Center where Oklahoma plays. For all my “shooters” out there, you know what I mean by “shooter-friendly gyms.”

Pac-12 and WCC? No chance there of claiming the belt for “worst titled title in the world.”

#7 Oklahoma 78 – #9 Villanova 55

DINGDINGDING! We have a winner! The Big 12 is the best conference in college basketball this year. You can call it regional bias if you’d like, but that just proves you didn’t read my columns last year and are therefore by extension not a true Survivalist and by extension I hate you.

Last year all of the Big 12 teams were pretty good, but not good enough to be scary to anyone outside the conference. They had the most fun conference schedule slate in recent years, and yet they all fizzled out in the tournament (as repeatedly predicted by yours truly).

This year, they have three of the best teams in college basketball. I’m talking about REAL HONEST-TO-GOODNESS TEAMS, not collections of players on “the bus stop” as Roy Williams likes to call it.

Kansas is the best team in the country by my eyes, and Iowa State hasn’t lost a step since Fred “Womanly Eyes” Hoiberg left (sorry Chicago fans).

NCAA Basketball: Oklahoma State at Oklahoma
Incredible photo by USA TODAY Sports. Shows the Splash Brothers of college basketball, who have OU staring down a deep tournament run.

But this Oklahoma team, wow has anyone had a better resume so far? A solid win over Memphis and then absolute blowouts of Wisconsin and now Villanova? The #9 team in the country?

It was honestly hard to get a read on Nova at all, that’s how complete this slaughter was. Oklahoma manhandled them from the tip on, pouring in threes and dunks faster than you can sing, “OOOOOKLAHOMA.”

Seriously y’all, if you like watching the Warriors play, tune in to Oklahoma basketball games this season to see the Splash Brothers of college basketball play. Buddy Heild and Isaiah Cousins are reaching Warriors-esque levels of wetness from deep (Heild at 48.6%, Cousins at 53.8%, Jordan Woodard at 52%).

I don’t do locks for deep tournament runs because there’s just too much magic that goes into March Madness, but Oklahoma looks like a team poised to make a run at a national title this year.


#16 Vanderbilt 67 – #25 Baylor 69

If Rico Gathers and I were stranded on a deserted island together, and there were only one coconut left, I’d let him have it. He’s had four straight double doubles including a game of 31 points and 20 rebounds.

rico gathers
What would you do if your coach told you to take a charge when this man is driving to the basket on you? Better hope you wore a diaper.
Former “NCAA Most Intimidating Man” title-holder.

He’s listed at 6-8 and 275 pounds, but that can’t be accurate because I looked it up and the average male grizzly bear weighs 600 pounds. Rico Gathers is a 6 foot 8 grizzly bear.

He’s the manliest man in college basketball, taking the title passed on by Patric Young of Florida a few years back. I’d pay all the money in my bank account to see a back-alley brawl between these two.

Add to the team another stud in Taurean Prince, and you’re talking about another really impressive team in the Big 12.

As for Vanderbilt, my oh my do they like to shoot the three ball. Luckily they have some of the best shooters in the nation, but what happens in March when you’re playing in a dome and everyone is nervous??

Don’t lock them in just yet, but they smell upset prone to me (maybe that’s just because their uniforms look like excrement idk).

#10 Virginia 70 – #14 West Virginia 54

Bob Huggins was asked before the game on ESPN how he was going to handle the contrast in styles between his fast-paced pressure and Tony Bennet’s slow, methodical packline. He responded, “I really don’t know.” Now that sounds like a man with a plan.

What? You expected a good interview answer from me??

Despite this, West Virginia led for the entire game until there were 13 minutes left. The Mountaineers controlled the tempo during that time, and made UVA really uncomfortable. When they do that, they are a pretty tough team to beat.

But Tony Bennett’s bunch is just too experienced and disciplined, not taking themselves out of the gameplan. Eventually they slowed the game down and were able to make it a half court chess match, which favored them.

But when Virginia gets a lead, there’s not a better team in the nation at grinding and squeezing the life out of the opponent. The Virginia Anacondas has a nice ring to it, I think I’ll stick with it.

I really like Virginia’s style for the NCAA tournament. A lot of tournament games come down to possession-by-possession games, and they are the best at that. I predicted them to win it all last year, and they only lost to another team that play’s the same style as them (Izzo’s Spartans).

It’s also really encouraging to see Virginia look so good without Malcolm Brogdon dominating. In this game they have four players in double figures, with Anthony Gill leading the way with 20.

Pretty bullish on both of these squads, with WVU giving the Big 12 another solid reason why this year, they’re the big dogs!

That’s all for this week, hope you enjoyed it!

Next week I’ve got something special planned since college basketball is finally taking a break from giving us dozens of marquee matchups each week. Let’s be honest, this may be the best start to a college basketball season in….ever?!?

Until then, stay strong and stay vigilant my fellow Survivalists!


By Matt Craig


Please leave your thoughts and comments below!



Author: Matt Craig

Chirp City Founder & Director of Content. Hey Bill Simmons, if you're reading this, hire me.

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