Conference Wars -

Conference Wars


by Andy Force
Senior Writer,
February 11, 2005


With the finish line in sight, several conference races spark regional interest. Conference pride and enhanced momentum leading into the postseason are two surefire ways to motivate the troops for the dog days of February. These games are of note as the conference seasons wind down.

The Gonzaga WhyNotMe?’s have split with the St. Mary’s Gaels, with each team winning on its respective home court. Two losses dot each team’s West Coast Conference record. St. Mary’s revenge contest at volatile Santa Clara tonight looms large. The Broncos have knocked off North Carolina, St. Mary's and Stanford while also dropping an embarrassing five straight at the end of 2004. Who knows which version shows up this evening? The edge in this two-horse race has to go to the Zags because they have won 6 of the last 7 WCC regular season championships. San Francisco, along with new coach Jessie Evans, goes for a season sweep of the Bulldogs on February 19th. Incidentally, ABC is carrying that game on its national package, so get a glimpse of a raucous atmosphere at K-2.

Duke’s home victory over North Carolina sets the table for a riveting final month of ACC battles. Wake Forest, stacked with talent and offensive prowess, figures to factor into ownership of the conference crown. All three teams have two losses entering Valentine's weekend.

Each of Wake Forest's conference losses was in overtime on the road. With 5 of their final 8 games in the Lawrence Joel Coliseum, where WF is unbeaten this year, Skip Prosser's crew has a favorable conclusion to its slate. Holding serve in the "Black Forest" assumed, Wake must focus on traveling to ACC newborn and surprisingly game Miami (Feb. 15).

In order to whet the appetite of broadcast corporations, the Blue Devils play a back-heavy conference schedule. Since establishing itself as a national power Duke has managed to pick up a few rivals, which makes their ordinary games heated and emotion-ridden. Maryland fans will be asked once again to curtail their venomous chants when Coach K leads his troops into College Park this Saturday.

Satan's approval is on the line February 20th as the Blue Devils host the Demon Deacons. Wake won the initial meeting of this infernal duo, 92-89. The return match to UNC on March 6th, could decide the regular season champions. An enchantingly good show for the wine and cheese crowd to be sure.

Fourteen teams, one winner. It’s not the pre-season NIT, it is the lame duck Conference USA. While the conference will be around next year, there will be a 7-team turnover. Memphis drubbed Pitino’s Cardinals, 85-68 in Louisville to bring them back to the pack. Six teams are now situated within a game and a half atop the C-USA standings.

DePaul and Memphis each appear to be long shots in the race simply because they are .500 teams on the road. The Blue Devils of DePaul have won 3 straight, but have the difficult task of three losable road games along with Cincy and Louisville at home. Memphis is in shambles after Sean Banks' ineligibility, Jeremy Hunt’s in-house fight and ensuing suspension, and Clyde Wade’s season-ending injury. Somehow Calipari’s Tigers are hanging on with inspired play from jet-quick Darius Washington, Jr. He is getting to the line for 8 free throw attempts per game, which contributes to his 18 ppg since Banks’ pre-NBA career ended. One redeeming statistic in the Barbeque Capital’s favor is that Coach Cal’s Tigers are 16-2 in February since 2002-03.

Louisville is an inconsistent team that either wins or loses by 30. From world-beaters to guys who should be wearing beaters playing pickup games, they are as unpredictable as any team. Brutish Cincy and speed merchants UAB are sitting at 6-3, within striking distance as the finish line approaches. A scenario similar to last year's 5-way tie (all 12-4) is a distinct possibility. An outright champion is the most unlikely of endings at this point.

Perhaps the tightest conference at this juncture is the Ohio Valley. Six teams stand within one game of the lead. Samford and Tennessee Tech are each 8-3; while Eastern Kentucky, Murray State, Southeast Murray State, and Austin Peay have managed maintain 7-4 marks. APU began this beleaguered year at 2-10, but could conceivably hold the OVC scepter at seasons’ end. Hobbling Murray State has lost its last two games. Frontrunner Samford began the conference at 6-0 and still remains a favorite despite losing three of the last five contests. The Bulldogs of Samford (Are there more teams named Bulldogs or Wildcats--ponder that while you go to sleep tonight…) meet up with the Tennessee Tech Golden Eagles in what could be the decisive OVC tilt. As per usual, J Robert Merritt led Samford in the first meeting of the conference leaders. Tenn Tech only managed one player in double figures, Willie Jenkins. Jenkins trails only SeMo’s Dainmon Gardner for the OVC scoring leadership. This is the month in which it will all be decided.

Stay close to your television, check the box scores, and search the websites. February may be the shortest of months, but this year it will be heavy on drama. With NBA players sorely distant from their fanbase and hockey nearly defunct in public perception after the impending lockout becomes finalized, college basketball gladly takes center stage. Do not miss a minute.