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College Basketball Rankings: Who Will Emerge as Contenders in Conference?

Long Beach State remains the top area team at the start of conference play.

The long non-conference schedule is completed, and conference play has begun for the LA Eight, the NCAA Division I basketball teams of LA and Orange County. As the Pac-12, Big West and West Coast Conferences get underway, which of these teams have what it takes to perhaps challenge for a conference championship?

Long Beach State is a school that will be well prepared (and more than a little pleased) at the start of conference play. The 49ers played among the toughest non-conference schedules in the country and emerged with a record of 7-6. But they won't have to face the likes of North Carolina and Kansas in Big West play, not to mention the fact that fully half of their games will be at home, where they've barely set foot so far this season. The tough schedule will certainly have prepared the team, but it remains to be seen if it will do any good should the Beach falter in the conference tournament and fail to secure the automatic NCAA tournament bid. But as of now, Long Beach State is the only local team that would be considered a favorite to win their conference.

The LA Eight Rankings (through games of January 3):

1. Long Beach State 49ers 8-6 (Last week: 1)

Long Beach State is 1-0 in Big West play, grabbing an early road win, 74-60 over UC Irvine on Monday. As per usual, the Beach was led by senior Caspar Ware in the win.

This week: Cal Poly Jan. 5, @ CS Northridge Jan. 7

2. Cal State Fullerton Titans 10-3 (3)

The Titans keep winning, and I keep being unimpressed. Fullerton has now won seven straight, including a 2-0 start in Big West play - but those wins were at home against UC Davis and Pacific, two of the weakest teams in the conference. In fact, Fullerton barely beat Davis by a single point, and the Aggies haven't beaten a Division I opponent this season. This coming week will finally determine whether the Titans are for real, as they face tough road games at Santa Barbara and Cal Poly.

This week: @ UC Santa Barbara Jan 5; @ Cal Poly Jan 7.

3. UCLA Bruins 7-7 (2)

After running off 5 straight wins and six of seven heading into Pac-12 play, the Bruins crashed back to earth in the bay area. A strong effort in a one point loss to a solid Stanford team was followed by a bad loss to Cal, dropping UCLA to 0-2 after the opening weekend of conference play. Cal's guards exploited a UCLA defense that has been a step slow on the perimeter all season - which doesn't bode well for their meeting with Arizona on Thursday.

This week: Arizona Jan 5; Arizona State Jan 7 (both games are at the Honda Center in Anaheim).

4. Loyola Marymount Lions 8-6 (4)

The up and down Lions got off to a good start in WCC play with an overtime road win over San Francisco, a team many had as a sleeper pick in the conference this year. LMU has still yet to play a game at full strength this season but Drew Viney was back in the starting lineup against USF, and Ashley Hamilton may re-join the team soon. They face a tough game this Thursday against conference co-favorite BYU.

This week: BYU Jan 5; @ San Diego Jan 7.

5. Pepperdine Waves 7-6 (6)

Defying expectations during what was expected to be a rebuilding year, the Waves continue to hover around the .500 mark on the season, and that's how they opened WCC play as well, with a win and a loss. But while the win over San Francisco was solid, the loss to St. Mary's was embarrassing. Sure, the Gaels are a good team - but you never want to lose at home by 29. It only gets worse, as Pepperdine's next game is at Gonzaga.

This week: @ Gonzaga Jan 5; @ Portland Jan 7.

6. USC Trojans 5-10 (5)

Like UCLA, the Trojans dropped both games of their Northern California trip. USC was competitive against Stanford and Cal, but dropped to 0-2 in conference play nonetheless. The Trojans continue to struggle to score: they've been held below 50 points six times this season, including 5 of their last 7 games and their last three straight. Ouch.

This week: Arizona State Jan 5, Arizona Jan 8.

7. UC Irvine Anteaters 4-10 (7)

The Anteaters won the highly anticipated (at least by me) showdown with Northridge to open Big West play for both schools. Then they lost to Long Beach State. Justifying the placement of the 49ers and Matadors at opposite ends of these rankings.

This week: @ Pacific Jan 5; @ UC Davis Jan 7.

8. Cal State Northridge Matadors 4-8 (8)

While the Matadors are certainly not very good, they may find several winnable games in Big West play. That's because teams like Davis and Riverside are very bad as well. Northridge stands at 1-1 in Big West play, with a loss to Irvine and a win against Riverside.

This week: @ Long Beach State Jan 7.

If you go to only one college basketball game in the Southland this week, make it:

BYU @ Loyola Marymount, Thursday Jan 5 at 6 PM, Gersten Pavilion in Westchester. BYU is a likely NCAA tournament team this year, but if Loyola hopes to compete in the WCC, they'll have to knock off a WCC contender or two at home.