As Iowa welcomes itself to the Top 5 and March's 1-seed discussions, this all feels just a little surreal, doesn't it? It wasn't that long ago that Iowa was unranked, and coming into the season the jury was still out on whether this was a tournament team at all.
It's funny what starting a conference season 7-0 will do, then. And not just any old 7-0, like Indiana's, but a legit 7-0, with season sweeps over Top 25 and putative B1G title contenders Michigan State and Purdue. It's a hell of an accomplishment, and while Iowa still has 11 conference games and a tourney before its B1G resume is wrapped up, its work already is absolutely noteworthy.
In fact, it might be the best start to conference play anyone in men's college basketball has put together thus far. Let's take a look at the potential candidates.
NOTE: RPI stats are via the most recent ESPN projections at the time of writing. We're restricting the potential teams, and the KenPom conference SOS rankings, to the 74 teams in the "high-major" conferences of the ACC, Big 12, Big East, Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC, as they're far ahead of the pack in terms of overall quality this season. Even if SMU hadn't dropped a game to Temple over the weekend, its conference schedule strength is comically bad—the equivalent of playing Northern Iowa every single game—and better than precisely one Power 6 team: Indiana. So yeah, neither of those teams have any claim to the best start to conference play.
Conference: Big Ten
Conference Record: 7-0
Conference RPI: 2
Conference RPI SOS: 22
KenPom Conference SOS: .8127 (4th in B1G, 25th overall)
Average Margin: +12.1
Best Performance: W 76-59 at Michigan State
Worst Performance: W 90-76 at Rutgers
Iowa is one of just four high-major teams still undefeated in conference play, and it has several "signature wins" already under its belt. Iowa doesn't have any gigantic margins of victory to skew its average—that 17-point win at MSU is its largest of the conference season—but only a trip to Purdue has stayed within single digits at the final horn. Letting Rutgers stay in the same zip code for all 40 minutes was unimpressive, and we wouldn't recommend falling behind by 19 at Mackey Arena, but those are background noise to the main fact that Iowa has been solidly in control in the home stretch of every single Big Ten game it has played. There are no flukes here. Jarrod Uthoff has been the star of the show, but Iowa's starting lineup is loaded with seniors, and literally everyone on the team is playing the best basketball of their careers.
If there's any criticism to be levied at Iowa's record thus far, it's that the four best wins have come against two teams and not a variety of opponents to solidify the team's dominance over the rest of the conference. But again, that's background noise until proven otherwise. Iowa is doing the damn thing.
Conference: Big East
Conference Record: 7-1
Conference RPI: 1
Conference RPI SOS: 7
KenPom Conference SOS: .8166 (3rd in Big East, 24th overall)
Average Margin: +9.5
Best Performance: W 95-64 vs. Xavier
Worst Performance: L 82-76 (OT) vs. Providence
There's some disconnect between the KenPom and RPI in terms of how good Nova's slate has been thus far, but the Wildcats have been remarkably resilient, especially on the road against four very good foes. Not that Villanova's any slouch at home; Xavier's 17-2 on the season and a likely 2-seed, and the Musketeers got absolutely incinerated in that game in Philly. The Big East has a substantial bubble population that'll make evaluating that conference tricky in the coming weeks, but one team is the clear class of the joint and it's Villanova.
Conference: Big 12
Conference Record: 5-2
Conference RPI: 7
Conference RPI SOS: 8
KenPom Conference SOS: .8929 (1st in Big 12, 1st overall)
Average Margin: +2.87
Best Performance: W 82-72 at Baylor
Worst Performance: L 82-77 at Iowa State
If the RPI thinks six teams have faced a tougher start to the conference season than Oklahoma, the RPI is insane—the Sooners have gone to Kansas, Iowa State, Baylor and Oklahoma State while sweeping at home against West Virginia, ISU and Kansas State. Don't let the final margin at Baylor fool you: Oklahoma ran the Bears off their own damn court in the second half, turning a tie game at 41 into an 82-58 lead in the span of about 12 minutes. Buddy Hield has been a force of nature in this conference run, and he might as well have lapped the field in the national Player of the Year discussion, with Uthoff and Providence's Kris Dunn providing cursory competition.
NORTH CAROLINA TAR HEELS
Conference Record: 7-0
Conference RPI: 5
Conference RPI SOS: 57
KenPom Conference SOS: .7281 (14th in ACC, 66th overall)
Average Margin: +11.1
Best Performance: W 106-90 at Florida State
Worst Performance: W 67-55 vs. NC State
UNC's schedule is laughably backloaded, as the Tar Heels won't play Louisville, Miami, Notre Dame, Duke or Pitt until February. But the Tar Heels have taken care of business thus far, beating a pair of bubble teams (FSU, Syracuse) at their houses and handily beating the next team we'll hear from. Iowa native point guard Marcus Paige was the preseason darling for the Tar Heels, but big man Brice Johnson has emerged as a force of nature over the course of the season, and he'll be on the short list for ACC Player of the Year honors. And hey, even for that ACC-worst strength of schedule, KenPom still projects UNC to win the ACC at 15-3.
Conference Record: 5-2
Conference RPI: 3
Conference RPI SOS: 1
KenPom Conference SOS: .8914 (1st in ACC, 2nd overall)
Average Margin: +1.71
Best Performance: W 66-62 vs. Louisville
Worst Performance: L 80-69 at North Carolina
Clemson looked destined for the ACC basement after a horrific non-conference schedule where its best victory was over perennial 16-seed Texas Southern, and a 17-point neutral-court loss to UMass, who is very, very bad. Then out of nowhere, the Tigers ripped off consecutive wins over Florida State, Syracuse, Louisville, Duke and Miami. Virginia eventually put a stop to Clemson's run, but it had to come on the Cavs' home court and Clemson brought the game to within two points with three minutes and change left. Junior wing Jaron Blossomgame's game has really blossomed, and coach Brad Brownell's slow-down approach has given ACC foes fits. There's really no telling where Clemson goes from here, but its schedule lightens up considerably in February, and if the Tigers are as good as this start to ACC play indicates, they can make a big push toward the top of the standings. Yeah, Clemson. I don't know either.
TEXAS A&M AGGIES
Conference Record: 7-0
Conference RPI: 11
Conference RPI SOS: 109
KenPom Conference SOS: .7056 (14th in SEC, 73rd overall)
Average Margin: +13.1
Best Performance: W 71-68 vs. Florida
Worst Performance: W 61-60 at Mississippi St.
The Aggies have solidified a strong non-conference showing by knocking off Florida and OMG-Ben-Simmons-Errr-I-Mean-LSU, and while it's fair to reserve judgement until A&M faces Kentucky or Vandy, we're back in the position of asking how you argue with "7-0." Texas A&M is ferocious on defense and comfortable going deep on its bench, and if it can knock off visiting Iowa State this Saturday, it might be time to start looking at the Aggies as a potential 1-seed.
So what do you think? Who has impressed you the most in conference action?