Ranking the College Basketball Conferences
by Trevor Whenham - 1/7/2011
We are, in round numbers, halfway through the college basketball season. The nonconference schedule has mostly been played out, and now we get to enjoy the serious business of conference play. This transitional time is a perfect time to stand back and take a look at how the six major conferences stack up. The criteria here are loose -- betting performance, performance against overall expectations, general strength, and a bit of my personal bias. Here they are, from top to bottom:
Big East - In my mind the Big East defaults into the top position. That doesn’t mean that they can’t end up anywhere else -- just that they have so many teams and such depth that the top spot is theirs to lose. They certainly haven’t lost it this year. If the tournament were to start today, Syracuse would be, for the second straight year, a No. 1 seed, and they would be joined by probably nine other teams -- including as many as five others in the top four seeds. Conference play is going to be absolutely brilliant - as always -- for this group. The usual cast of characters is mostly solid, and teams like Temple (the top ATS team in the country) and St. John’s are showing some real flair. This conference was built to shine at basketball, and that’s what its are doing. I’m not sure I see an eventual champion in this group, but I see a lot of teams that will have something to say in the tournament.
Big Ten - I really hate Ohio State, so it kills me to say this, but I think the Buckeyes are the best team in the country right now since Kyrie Irving was hurt. Jared Sullinger has been ridiculous, and the team has a discipline and relentlessness that can’t be matched. Purdue is playing as well as a team can after losing their best player. Illinois is for real. Wisconsin borrows some of their toughness and defensive intensity from the football team. Michigan State has been a slight disappointment so far, but still has the talent and potential to repeat last year’s Final Four appearance. Minnesota and Northwestern are interesting. For its size this conference is loaded, and their three best teams are at least as good as any conference’s top three.
Big 12 - Kansas is Kansas. They have been very good, and are only going to get better. Missouri is better than I expected thanks to the impressive Marcus Denmon, and I don’t think anyone will beat them at home. Texas makes me proud to be Canadian -- stars Tristan Thompson and Cory Joseph are both fellow Canucks, and they have combined to make this team one of the biggest surprises in the country. Kansas State isn’t yet scary but easily could be. Oklahoma State and Texas A&M are two teams that do more than you would think because they play hard and commit to defense. Baylor has way too much talent to be as underwhelming as they have been so far. I don’t like the league on top as much as the Big Ten, but they are just as deep and exciting as that group this year. Coming off a frustrating couple of seasons the Big 12 looks like it is ready to roar -- and then cease to exist in its current form. As an aside, it’s interesting to note that losing Nebraska and Colorado next year may hurt on the football field, but it only makes the league better on the basketball side.
ACC - This league is ridiculous this year -- and not in a good way. Duke is easily one of the best two teams in the country, and if they can get Irving back by March they will be scary. And that’s pretty much it. When your second best team is NC State you aren’t much of a conference right now. North Carolina is making some noise, and Florida State would be dangerous if teams only had to play defense, but outside of Duke there isn’t a team I really take seriously. Virginia Tech is, bar none, the biggest disappointment in the country. I should probably have the ACC lower in these ratings, but it just doesn’t seem right to have the league with the No. 1 team at the bottom.
SEC - John Calipari has shown just how good he is -- at coaching and recruiting. His squad was decimated in the draft, yet here he is with a decent shot at a No. 1 seed. If Enes Kanter is freed from purgatory and allowed to play then this team will be very tough to beat in March. The problem with the SEC is that there isn’t another team to fear. Vanderbilt, Georgia, and Florida can play, but all are way too flawed to take seriously. Tennessee is a mess. No one else is even worthy of mention. The most noteworthy thing remaining in this group is that Auburn can be so very good at football and so very bad at basketball in the same year. You’d think one program would lift the other. I guess the football team spent all of the player acquisition budget the program had this year.
Pac 10 - I keep hearing that this team will be tough come tournament time like they were last year. That could be true, but right now this group is a giant disappointment again. If the tournament started today their best seed would probably be Washington at a No. 5 -- and their hopes took a hit when they just lost Abdul Gaddy for the year. That’s embarrassing. Arizona should return to the tournament, and is probably the class of the group in my eyes. The biggest mystery here is what happened to Ben Howland? I really don’t understand how he has managed to coach UCLA right off the map. Teams have to rebuild occasionally, but there is no excuse for a team like his to take this long to be relevant again. I mean, it’s freaking UCLA.
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