- Eamonn Brennan, ESPN Staff Writer
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A year and a day ago, yours truly set out to rank every conference in college hoops from top to bottom. Laughs were shared. Tears were shed. Angry emails were written and received. If I ever needed a reminder that people still feel fidelity to their chosen team's league affiliation -- and argue with gusto accordingly -- ranking every league certainly provided it.
A year later, it's time for Round 2. A brief reminder: These are essentially educated guesses based in large part on uncertain projections for any number of teams. They are admittedly unscientific and hardly written in stone. Cool? Cool.
With that out of the way, let's dig in, shall we?
The Power Six
1. Big East: Is the Big East the best conference in the country, or just the biggest? Once endless, this debate will be brought to a close in coming seasons, as conference realignment cannibalizes the Big East and levels the playing field for leagues like the ACC, Big 12 and SEC. The pound-for-pound argument still applies this season, and it's a tricky one, but we're going to give the nod at No. 1 to the Big East thanks to its unique combination of depth and strength. In Syracuse, Pittsburgh, Connecticut and Louisville, the league has at least four teams with legitimate Final Four aspirations. Then there's the intriguing middle: Marquette and Cincinnati could contend for the league title, Villanova may be better than we all realize, and West Virginia, Notre Dame and even Georgetown -- possible .500 teams in the league -- each stand a decent shot to make the NCAA tournament. If Rutgers, St. John's or Seton Hall exceeds expectations, it will be hard to consider the Big East anything but the best conference in the country.
2. Big Ten: This seems counterintuitive: Isn't the Big Ten more wide open than at any point in recent memory? And doesn't that mean the conference is down? Quite the contrary. Ohio State is the power team, the one with a national title on its radar, while Wisconsin is the steady No. 2 you can be sure to count on. After that, the rest of this league is a bit of a mystery, but it could end up as the deepest in college hoops. There are at least six teams that could improve into tournament squads in 2011-12: Michigan, Michigan State, Indiana, Illinois, Northwestern and Minnesota. Meanwhile, a healthy Robbie Hummel is likely to keep Purdue in the hunt (even if the Boilermakers take a big step back from last season's highs), while Nebraska's experienced squad hunts a tournament berth and Fran McCaffery's second-year rebuilding project at Iowa begins to take shape. Of the 12 teams in this league, only Penn State should be genuinely bad. It may not be the most exciting or aesthetically pleasing conference in the country, but in 2011-12, it could be the deepest.
3. Big 12: When Colorado and Nebraska left the conference, the Big 12 looked poised for a conference-rankings basketball rebirth. Alas, thanks to the defections of Texas A&M and Missouri, we'll get only one season in the current less-is-more format. Still, that format is an enticing one: Of the 10 teams in this league, at least four -- Kansas, Baylor, Missouri, Texas A&M -- will compete for the conference title. Another three -- Kansas State, Texas, Oklahoma State -- will be right there. Iowa State has a boatload of talented transfers (Royce White and Chris Allen, among others), and the Cyclones are expecting a trip to the NCAA tournament. The Big 12 is hurt by two things: a lack of elite teams at the top (Kansas is still Kansas, but it may take a slight step back this season, and Baylor is the wait-and-see team of the year) and some truly ugly stuff at the bottom (Oklahoma, Texas Tech). But on a pound-for-pound basis, the 10-team Big 12 -- that's still confusing, by the way -- goes awfully deep.
4. SEC: Here's a fun counterfactual: If Bruce Pearl hadn't lied to NCAA investigators, would the SEC be the best league in the country? Tennessee's inevitable post-Pearl nosedive hurts, but the league still has plenty going for it. It boasts at least three Final Four contenders in Kentucky, Florida and Vanderbilt. It has Alabama, one of the nation's best defensive squads, looking to earn its way to the NCAA tournament for the first time under coach Anthony Grant. Georgia coach Mark Fox's young talent should keep the Bulldogs from falling too far; Mississippi State's ceiling is very high; and Arkansas under first-year coach Mike Anderson (who inherits a batch of talented freshman recruits) is very intriguing. If Tennessee were its usual self, the league could argue that it is as deep as any of those listed above it. In any case, SEC hoops, with its title contenders at the top and its handful of improving teams throughout, is proving it is much more than its football-obsessed reputation would have you believe.
5. ACC: North Carolina is, well, North Carolina. Duke, despite its high turnover, is Duke. Florida State, a solid team with the best defense in the country, is Florida State. And those three sentences are pretty much all we know about the quality of the ACC this season. Outside of a dominant national title contender, an elite program with young talent and a better-than-average defensive force, there's no telling what the ACC will be in 2011-12. There are a couple of teams worth watching: Clemson and Miami are both viable NCAA tournament hopefuls, NC State should improve, and Seth Greenberg could keep Virginia Tech in the conversation for much of the season. But those are all guesses. This is, as of today, arguably the most top-heavy league in the country. By the end of the season, ACC fans might be able to argue their conference's strength based on the winner of the national title. That may be the only argument they'll have at their disposal.
6. Pac-12: Ah, the much-maligned Pac-12. Before the chants of "East Coast bias!" ring out (and by the way, I live in Chicago and grew up in Iowa, so it's Midwest bias, thank you very much), it should be noted that this league is getting better -- at least in spots. Adding Colorado and Utah didn't do much to provide an overall boost, but the continued recruiting excellence of Arizona has Sean Miller's program back on the elite precipice ahead of schedule. Meanwhile, UCLA boasts one of the biggest and toughest frontcourts in the country, Washington is young but extremely talented, and Cal returns the best suite of guards in the conference. All four teams should target a trip to the NCAA tournament. If this conference truly improves in the years to come, it will be thanks to ongoing projects at Stanford, Oregon, Arizona State and USC. The Pac-12 isn't there just yet. But it's not as far behind as it seemed, say, two years ago.
MINOS: Mid-Majors In Name Only (With Limited Exceptions)
7. Atlantic 10: No surprises here -- with the possible exception of the Mountain West, no non-BCS league in the last five seasons has produced as much quality basketball as the Atlantic 10. In keeping with recent tradition, Temple and Xavier enter 2011-12 as the obvious favorites; the Owls lost only Lavoy Allen from last season's 14-2 A-10 finish, while the Musketeers (15-1 last season) return their do-everything national player of the year candidate, senior guard Tu Holloway. The league offers some depth, too: Saint Louis could make NCAA tourney bid waves, St. Bonaventure has stud Andrew Nicholson, Dayton's Archie Miller has some talent left over from the Brian Gregory era, while Duquesne and Richmond -- one of last season's Sweet 16 darlings -- will lurk menacingly throughout the conference season.
8. West Coast: Greedy BCS leagues, take note: This is how you do conference realignment. For all the maneuvers we've seen in the past 24 months, no league has improved as much as the WCC from the simple addition of one team. That team? The Brigham Young Cougars. Even without the power of The Jimmer, BYU has the chops to challenge a tough Gonzaga frontline for tops in this league. And don't forget about Saint Mary's, the Bulldogs' stalwart rival. Mickey McConnell is gone, but Matthew Dellavedova and the rest of his cohort are back in 2011-12, and the Gaels are a legitimate contender here, too. You have to feel for the rest of the WCC: As if Gonzaga and SMC weren't already roadblocks to the NCAA tournament. Now they have to deal with BYU, too? Brutal.
9. Missouri Valley: In my opinion, Wichita State is the team to beat in the MVC this season; Gregg Marshall returns five seniors and one junior from a team that narrowly missed on the NCAA tournament and went on to win the NIT instead. But there's a bit more depth here than in recent seasons, largely thanks to the emergence -- or re-emergence -- of Creighton. Sophomore forward Doug McDermott (son of the head coach) leads an impressive frontcourt that also includes Gregory Echenique, a former Rutgers transfer who averaged 14.0 points, 5.8 rebounds and 2.2 blocks in six games in the CBI last season. Northern Iowa is still in the mix too, and don't sleep on Indiana State, which returns much of its core from last season's surprise run to the NCAA tournament.
10. Mountain West: No question about it: BYU's move hurts the overall strength of the Mountain West. But there are still some very good teams here. UNLV returns star forward Chace Stanback and a coterie of talented guards from last season's 24-9 team. If new coach Dave Rice can install an uptempo system without losing the defensive edge that carried former coach Lon Kruger's success, the Rebels are not only the league favorite but a team to watch on a national level. Steve Alford's New Mexico team, thanks to senior forward (and former UCLA transfer) Drew Gordon and potential breakout sophomore Kendall Williams, should be much improved. Colorado State may not make the tournament, but it will be competitive. And while San Diego State isn't likely to come anywhere close to last season's dream 34-3 record, at the minimum the Aztecs will remain a tough out.
11. Conference USA: Are you sold on Memphis? If so, you might think C-USA is a bit under-ranked here. If you're not sold on Memphis -- and I'm not, not yet, for reasons Insider John Gasaway details here -- then C-USA looks fine where it is. Even if the Tigers end up fulfilling their rather large preseason hype, this league remains mostly uninspiring. UAB lost its two best players, Aaron Johnson and Jamarr Sanders, to graduation. Tulsa is slowly improving under Doug Wojcik, but an impending tournament berth seems unlikely. Marshall is this league's hot sleeper pick, but the Thundering Herd have to shore up the defensive end of the floor first. Unless UCF's Marcus Jordan carries last season's hot start into an entire season of play, or a team like Southern Miss or UTEP surprises everyone, Conference USA as a whole is looking just OK. In that context, No. 11 feels about right, doesn't it?
Mid-Majors That Play Basketball You'll Actually Want To Watch
12. Colonial Athletic Association: The CAA is coming off an unprecedented run of success. In 2011, the conference sent three teams -- George Mason, Virginia Commonwealth and Old Dominion -- to the NCAA tournament, and saw VCU make an unfathomable run from the First Four to the Final Four. Given all that, you'd think the league would be ranked a bit higher. Instead, there are tons of questions to go around. Can Paul Hewitt keep GMU humming? Will Old Dominion recover from the loss of senior forward Frank Hassell? How will VCU coach Shaka Smart replace so many components from last season's Final Four run? Can preseason favorite Drexel make the leap, or is Bruiser Flint's team overrated? To be fair, there are questions about every team in every conference. But it's also fair to assume the CAA could take a step back to reality -- at least in terms of overall conference strength -- in 2011-12.
13. Horizon League: The Horizon could be in for one of its more intriguing seasons in recent memory. Butler, the typical favorite, is far from unchallenged: The Bulldogs will have to replace Matt Howard and Shelvin Mack in time to hold off challenges from the very talented Detroit Titans and a UW-Milwaukee squad that was the top seed in the 2011 league tourney. Meanwhile, the conference gets a viable third challenger in the form of Cleveland State, which lost star Norris Cole but returns everyone else. The Horizon League doesn't have Butler's top-down excellence this season, but it should be deeper than usual.
14. Western Athletic Conference: The WAC, on the other hand, is the definition of a top-down league: Utah State coach Stew Morrill's program just keeps dominating year after year. This season may not yield a 30-4 record to rival 2011, as Utah State lost four seniors from last season's starting five. But even if the Aggies aren't as ruthless as last season, the league itself should get a boost in the form of a much-improved Nevada squad, one that returns all five starters including sophomore breakout candidate Deonte Burton. Keep an eye out for New Mexico State, too. The league isn't exactly a buzz saw, especially in its lower regions. But it does have some quality hoops to offer at the top.
15. Ivy League: If you didn't know any better, you'd assume Harvard was a basketball power. Not so: In fact, the Crimson are still looking to make their first NCAA tournament since 1946. As the obvious favorite with few second-guessers -- the question seems to be not whether Tommy Amaker's talented team will win the league, but whether it will go unbeaten in doing so. Harvard's talent, at least in terms of conference rankings, is the rising tide that lifts all boats. Princeton and Yale (and possibly Penn) are the other teams worth watching here.
16. Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference: Typically, one player shouldn't figure too heavily in the conference rankings, but the transfer and immediate eligibility of former Arizona guard Lamont "MoMo" Jones to Iona immediately made the MAAC more demanding. The Gaels' backcourt combination of Jones and Scott Machado and double-double machine in forward Michael Glover makes them not only the favorite but one of the nation's expected mid-major darlings. And they're not the only team with NCAA tournament aspirations here. Former Princeton coach Sydney Johnson is the new man at Fairfield, where he inherits a tough defensive squad that could unseat Iona if it ever figures out how to make a shot.
(Phew. In keeping with last year, here's your halftime mental health break. Did you make it this far? Way to go! But don't stop now. You've almost accomplished nothing at work today! The goal is within reach! You can do it!)
17. Mid-American Conference: Kent State and Akron have heated up a nice little rivalry these past few seasons; last season's NCAA tournament bid was awarded at the end of a thrilling one-point overtime finish in the conference championship game. Both teams should be expected to compete for the league title this season, with potential threats from Ohio, Western Michigan and Central Michigan, where talented sophomore Trey Zeigler seeks to lead the Chippewas to the NCAA tournament. If Zeigler has a big year, this No. 17 rank will have been too low. But until we see it, the MAC doesn't yet get the benefit of the doubt.
18. Summit League: Oral Roberts coach Scott Sutton unveiled a star in Dominique Morrison last season, and now Sutton is hoping Morrison's offensive brilliance can be combined with some defensive consistency on a team that returns so much of its core. However, the Golden Eagles did lose Ken Holdman to the season with a torn ACL. Meanwhile, Oakland lost 7-foot star Keith Benson and hyper-efficient forward Will Hudson to graduation, but the Golden Grizzlies still have do-everything point guard Reggie Hamilton leading the way. That's a quality twosome for any mid-major league, and if either IUPUI or South Dakota State improves markedly, the Summit League will be far from the all-Oakland show we've grown accustomed to in recent seasons.
19. Big West: Two Big West squads will vie for the conference's automatic bid this season, and will have similar compositions in doing so. Long Beach State is a senior-dominated team led by a star guard, the 5-foot-10 Casper Ware. UC Santa Barbara is a senior-dominated team led by a star guard, 6-foot-5 Orlando Johnson. In a head-to-head battle, the edge might go to Johnson; he's the type of talent that could end up in the NBA next season. There isn't much beyond that in this league, but the presence of both teams could make for an intriguing conference horse race.
The Noticeable Drop-Off
20. Atlantic Sun: At the risk of being obvious and repetitive, there's a rather large drop-off between the members of this group and the above leagues. Two factors contribute to that gap. The first is depth. The second is quality, or lack thereof, on the low end. The A-Sun is the best of the group, if only because it can boast the presence of Belmont, which -- coming off a 30-5 season with only minor holes to plug -- might be the best true mid-major team in the country. Can the Bruins run the table in its last season before moving on to the Ohio Valley?
21. Southern: The SoCon is like the little Big East, in so far as it has more teams -- 12 total in two six-team divisions -- than most of the conferences in this mid-major tier. In that way, it has depth, though that "depth" can be translated less generously as "no clear favorite": Western Carolina, Appalachian State, Chattanooga, Davidson and Charleston could all contend for the conference title in 2011-12. Deep though it may be, no team in this league will keep BCS-conference coaches up at night.
22. Sun Belt: Florida Atlantic should have a pretty decent squad, but none of the league's apparent contenders is head and shoulders above any of the others; Western Kentucky isn't in its usual impressive form, and the supposed improvement at Florida International under Isiah Thomas -- remember him? -- has yet to materialize. If it does, this league could be a bit better than expected. If not, it'll be, well, the Sun Belt.
23. Northeast: Things get uglier and uglier down this way. Long Island's uptempo attack should serve Jim Ferry's team well within the league and the Blackbirds are probably co-favorites with Robert Morris, but neither team seems to be one that will shock the world in March and the conference has plenty of unsightly doormats.
24. Patriot League: Lehigh's C.J. McCollum has been the best player in this league since he showed up as a freshman two seasons ago. But is his team good enough to overcome Mike Muscala and Bucknell? Those are the likely contenders here, and neither is particularly threatening in the way Belmont or Iona can be.
25. Ohio Valley: Last year, Murray State was every college hoops analyst's sneaky mid-major sleeper pick. The Racers had a solid season, but never quite lived up to their high expectations outside of their own league. They're one of the favorites again this season, but the gap with teams like Austin Peay, Morehead State and the emerging Tennessee Tech is less drastic than before. Meanwhile, the bottom half of the OVC -- featuring brutal, barely Division I squads like Jacksonville State, Eastern Illinois and SIU Edwardsville -- is a significant drag.
26. Big Sky: The Big Sky, like the OVC, is no stranger to a bad bottom half. Blame the "States": Portland State, Montana State, Idaho State and Sacramento State are all likely to be among the worst teams in Division I hoops. But the presence of two solid (if unspectacular) mid-major outfits -- Montana and Weber State -- at the top of the league helps matters somewhat.
27. Big South: UNC Asheville and Coastal Carolina are solid mid-major squads, and Virginia Military Institute is fascinating -- Duggar Baucom's team is one of the fastest in the country, and it plays pretty efficient offense. The only problem? Horrible defense. But VMI might have an outside shot at the league title, and that doesn't lend any compliments to the Big South at large.
28. America East: Vermont earned some renown last season thanks largely to senior forward Evan Fjeld and his trusty companion, a full and bushy mustache. Fjeld is gone now, but the Catamounts should still contend for the league title in tandem with Boston University, a solid all-around team that will nonetheless have to transition to life without former coach Pat Chambers, now at Penn State.
The "Trying Hard To Find Nice Things To Say" Group
29. Southland: This is the part of the rankings where we get to the usual No. 15 and No. 16 seeds in the NCAA tournament, and there's a reason no No. 16 seed has ever won a game in March Madness: There's just not a whole lot going on down here. The Southland is emblematic of this trend. Last season, only one of the conference's teams (Sam Houston State) finished ranked higher than No. 200 in Ken Pomeroy's adjusted efficiency rankings. Expect the same this season.
30. Mid-Eastern Athletic: The MEAC has never been good, but prior to last season, it could count on at least one thing: Todd Bozeman's Morgan State team would be a force in the league. That wasn't the case last season, as the Bears struggled in league play, finished 17-14 overall, and missed the NCAA tournament. Expect Bozeman to turn things around quickly this season, but the rest of the MEAC is looking typically paltry.
31. Great West: Last season, I called the Great West and the SWAC the "barely Division I basketball group," and that seemed sort of mean, precisely because it's true. In terms of program history and modern resources, these teams really are only barely Division I. Frankly, the Great West -- which does not receive an automatic NCAA tournament bid yet -- is less conference than "loose confederation." Every team here is bad, but some are less bad than others: Utah Valley's strong play last season helps push this "league" just above the SWAC for the nation's worst.
32. Southwestern Athletic Conference: Comprised mostly of historical black colleges and universities, the SWAC's champion is the team you see when you, in your pre-Christmas-esque excitement for the NCAA tournament, tune in for the play-in game(s). Last season, no team in this league finished above No. 280 in Pomeroy's rankings. Meanwhile, the SWAC's bottom four all finished among the worst six teams in the country. Still, one feels for the SWAC: Many of these teams have to play brutal slates of guarantee games just to keep the balls inflated. It's an admirable, unfair and ultimately doomed existence. But that's life at the bottom of the Division I barrel.
Eamonn Brennan covers college basketball for ESPN.com. You can see his work every Monday through Friday in the College Basketball Nation blog. To contact Eamonn, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or reach him on Twitter (@eamonnbrennan).