Will Duke finally win ACC again? How 'new blood' has shaken up league title pictures this season

Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college basketball (travel anxiety counselors standing by at San Jose State, where the Spartans haven’t won a road game since December 2017, and haven’t won a Mountain West Conference road game in more than two years):

[More Minutes: Ole Miss stands behind players as SEC falls apart]

CHANGING OF THE GUARD

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Some new blood is poised to win conference titles all over the nation, shaking up the landscape from the Northeast to the Southwest. The list:

In the ACC: Duke (21) is the new blood. No, seriously. The Blue Devils actually haven’t won the ACC regular-season title since 2010, when they shared the crown with a team now in the Big Ten (Maryland). Last outright title: 2006, when J.J. Redick was in uniform. Current lay of the land: Duke is tied for first with Virginia and North Carolina at 12-2. The Devils would own the tiebreaker over Virginia based on a season sweep, but are down 1-0 to the Tar Heels with the second meeting on March 9. Duke will be without injured Zion Williamson on Tuesday at Virginia Tech, but could probably get by subsequent home games against Miami and Wake Forest without the freshman strongman if need be. Williamson would be needed to win in the Dean Dome to close the regular season.

Duke's Zion Williamson, center, cheers after a basket from the bench during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Syracuse in Syracuse, N.Y., Saturday, Feb. 23, 2019. Duke won 75-65. (AP Photo/Nick Lisi)
Duke's Zion Williamson, center, cheers after a basket from the bench during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Syracuse in Syracuse, N.Y., Saturday, Feb. 23, 2019. Duke won 75-65. (AP Photo/Nick Lisi)

In the Big 12: For the first time since 2004, prepare the way for someone other than Kansas (22). Maybe. The Jayhawks staved off almost-certain elimination Monday night, thumping league-leading Kansas State in Lawrence. That keeps Kansas a game back of K-State and Texas Tech in the loss column with three games to play. But two of Kansas’ final three games are on the road, and the Jayhawks are 2-7 in true road games this season. The favorite down the stretch now appears to be Texas Tech, which last won a conference title in 1996. (More below on the red-hot Red Raiders.)

In the SEC: LSU. The last-second Tigers are shooting for their first title in decade, and they currently own the tiebreaker with the other two teams atop the league, Kentucky and Tennessee. LSU has a pair of layup home games remaining (Texas A&M and Vanderbilt) sandwiched around road games at Alabama and Florida. LSU hasn’t done anything easily, with five SEC games going into overtime, but the survival instinct is strong with this team. Beating the Volunteers on Saturday without leading scorer Tremont Waters (illness) and getting only one point from No. 2 scorer Naz Reid ranks as one of the more improbable victories of the season.

In the Pac-12: Washington (23) has clinched a tie for the title, its first since 2012, and should lock up the outright championship Thursday against pitiful California (0-15 in the league). The Huskies are the only real success story in the conference this season. The backstory on how a defense-first program dominated the league: Washington dramatically improved its perimeter shooting in conference play, after coach Mike Hopkins mandated regular shooting practices interspersed throughout the day to work on the craft.

In the American Athletic Conference: Houston (24). Believe it or not, the Cougars have not won a league title of any kind since 1992, when they were in the old Southwest Conference. That’s about to change. Houston is 13-1 in the AAC, with a one-game lead on Cincinnati and three walkovers to come before a second meeting with the Bearcats to conclude the regular season. It seems likely that the Cougars will go into that game having clinched at least a share of the title.

In the Big East: Marquette (25). The Golden Eagles shared the Big East title with Louisville and Georgetown in 2013 but have never won it outright since joining the league in 2006. The last outright league crown was in ’03, when Dwyane Wade was in uniform and the Eagles were in Conference USA. Marquette has a two-game lead in the loss column on Villanova with four to play. The two meet up in Philadelphia on Wednesday, and a Marquette win would clinch the title since it won the first meeting in Milwaukee.

In the Colonial Athletic Association: Hofstra (26) is trying to win first outright league title since 2001, when it was in the America East, the nickname was the Dutchmen and the coach was Jay Wright. The Pride has a one-game lead over Northeastern with two games to play, both on the road. Hofstra tied for the CAA title in 2016.

In the Northeast Conference: St. Francis (Pa.) (27) is trying to win its first league title since 1991, which was its only league title. An eight-game winning streak put the Red Flash in first, then a loss to LIU Brooklyn on Saturday narrowed the lead to a game with two left to play (both on the road). St. Francis ended a 12-year streak of non-winning records last season, and a conference championship would further establish Rob Krimmel’s program.

In the Southwestern Athletic: Prairie View A&M (28) is trying to win its first title since 2003. The Panthers are 13-1 in the SWAC, with a two-game lead over Texas Southern with four to play. But getting to the finish line will be a challenge, with three games between March 2-7 and two of them on the road. Prairie View (15-12) hasn’t even had a winning record since 2010.

In the Sun Belt: Texas State (29) is trying to win its first title since 1999. The Bobcats have a one-game lead over Georgia Southern and Georgia State with three games to play — all of which are on the road. Coach Danny Kaspar made a surprising lateral move from consistent winner Stephen F. Austin to underachiever Texas State in 2013 — really a downward move in every respect but conference affiliation. After four losing seasons in his first five years he’s just now seeing the payoff.

THE STRUGGLE IS REAL

Things have been better for …

Juwan Morgan (30), Indiana. In this season of misery for the Hoosiers, the 6-foot-8 forward who was expected to co-star with freshman Romeo Langford is not having a great February. He’s shooting too many threes and not enough free throws of late — Morgan is 3-20 from three-point range and 13-21 from the line during Indiana’s current five-game losing streak. In terms of intangibles, this is a team that appears low on leadership, and the only senior who plays a lot hasn’t been able to right the ship.

Jack White (31), Duke. He’s mired in the mother of all slumps, having missed his last 25 three-point shots. Yes, that’s a real stat. White’s corner three ball was reliable in the first 13 games of the year, providing a deadly counter when defenses obsessed on Duke’s four talented freshmen. But then came an 0-for-10 three-point nightmare in a loss to Syracuse on Jan. 14, and White hasn’t made one since. White’s playing time has plummeted accordingly, and he did not play at all in the rematch with Syracuse on Saturday. Instead, Mike Krzyzewski took the extraordinary step of burning the redshirt year of Joey Baker and inserting him against the Orange.

The Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (32). Wow, has this once-fiesty league fallen off the map. From 2014-17, the MAAC had at least one team in the Ken Pomeroy top 100. Then last year it placed no teams in the Pomeroy top 130. Now? There are none in the top 200. After starting 2-9, Iona now leads the league with a 13-15 overall record. Everyone in the conference has a minimum of 12 losses. It looks like the winner of the MAAC tournament is destined to be a No. 16 NCAA tourney seed.

WHO IS ON THE HOTTEST ROLL?

Players and/or teams doing every bit as well as the above are struggling:

Jordan Bohannon (33), Iowa. The junior guard has become the Mr. Clutch of college basketball, lifting the Hawkeyes into the top half of the Big Ten and the top half of most 68-team bracket projections. Bohannon killed Indiana twice in a span of 15 days, hitting all the big shots in a close win in Bloomington and then scoring all 17 of his points in the second half and overtime in Iowa City on Friday. Between those two games he also hit a difficult game-winner against Northwestern. In February, Bohannon is 20-39 from three-point range.

Iowa guard Jordan Bohannon, center, celebrates with teammates after hitting a three-point shot at the end of the game to beat Northwestern on Feb. 10, 2019, in Iowa City, Iowa. (AP)
Iowa guard Jordan Bohannon, center, celebrates with teammates after hitting a three-point shot at the end of the game to beat Northwestern on Feb. 10, 2019, in Iowa City, Iowa. (AP)

Texas Tech (34). Since losing Feb. 2 to Kansas in Lawrence, the Red Raiders have gone ballistic on the Big 12. Tech has won five straight by an average margin of 25 points. The capper was the 29-point payback demolition of the Jayhawks in Lubbock on Tuesday. It was Kansas’ worst loss since Nov. 18, 2014. Good luck taking on Chris Beard’s team right now.

Jeremiah Martin (35), Memphis. February has also been a blazing month for Martin, a senior guard who has led the Tigers back to competitiveness in the AAC in recent weeks. Martin is averaging 30.7 points and 4.6 assists for Memphis, which has won four of its last five in rising to fifth place in the league. Martin has made 31 of 57 threes and 54 of 66 free throws this month.

But really, nobody is hotter than Gonzaga (36) in the entire sport. The Zags have locked up their seventh straight West Coast Conference title while hitting a new level of dominance. They’ve won 18 straight, but that hardly tells the story. Against the four other WCC teams that are .500 or better in league play, Gonzaga is 7-0 with an average winning margin of 36.7 points. That’s just preposterous. The Bulldogs beat second-place Saint Mary’s by 48; third-place BYU by 34 and 30; fourth-place San Francisco by 13 and 30; and fifth-place Santa Clara by 43 and (gulp) 59. The WCC tournament is going to be viewer discretion advised.

UNDER THE RADAR LOVE

Each week The Minutes shines a little love on a player who is doing good work outside the game’s power conferences. This week: Charleston guard Grant Riller (37). Last year, Riller led the Cougars to the CAA tournament title, averaging 21 points and 2.3 steals in three Cougars victories while playing 116 out of 125 minutes. He’s upped the output this season, ranking 17th nationally in scoring at 22.3 points per game. The 6-3 junior went for 43 and 33 on Feb. 14 and 16, respectively, against the other top two teams in the CAA, Hofstra and Northeastern, and he will top all opposing scouting reports at this year’s CAA tourney.

COACH WHO EARNED COMP CAR THIS WEEK

Tom Izzo (38), Michigan State. It’s hard to believe that a month ago the Spartans were on a three-game losing streak and then last week lost their top post player, Nick Ward, to a fractured hand. But nobody loves a crisis more than Izzo, who does his best work when things seem to be falling apart. Michigan State now is on a five-game winning streak, capped by a surprise punch out of Michigan in Ann Arbor that was keyed by guard Cassius Winston’s dismantling of the Wolverines’ vaunted defense. Just when the wheels appeared to be coming off, the first-place Spartans have a chance to become the first back-to-back Big Ten regular season champions since Ohio State in 2011-12.

COACH WHO SHOULD RIDE BUS TO WORK

Mike Anderson (39), Arkansas. It went from bad to worse for Anderson and the Razorbacks on Saturday when they lost at home to a bad Texas A&M team. It was the Hogs’ fifth straight loss, dropping them to 14-13 overall and 5-9 in the SEC, and it ratchets up the pressure on the eighth-year Arkansas coach. Certainly, Anderson has squandered a surprise second season with big man Daniel Gafford, who many expected to turn pro after his freshman year. Gafford has had 14 games this season with single-digit field-goal attempts, including eight of them in SEC play. That’s ridiculous.

BUZZER BEATER

When hungry and thirsty in the great SEC town of Athens, The Minutes highly recommends a visit to South Kitchen & Bar (40). The small plates are good, the large plates are good, the drinks are good. Get the shrimp and grits (delicious complemented with sausage and collard greens) and a Chimay on tap. Thank The Minutes later.

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