Ranking the conferences: 1 to 32
Friends, Romans, college hoops junkies trembling in anticipation of the impending arrival of the 2012-13 season (one more day!), lend me your eyeballs. You have now stepped virtual foot into the ESPN.com Preseason Conference Rankings, the third annual edition in the series.
As you may have guessed, there is one goal: to rank, group and describe all 32 of college basketball's conferences, from best to worst. Simple enough, right?
A standard disclaimer applies.
Because no basketball has yet been played, and I have not yet mastered the art of time travel (when I do, you'll be able to tell, because I'll come back wearing that cool jacket from "Looper"), these are nothing more than educated guesses based on a wide array of team projections and rankings. Think of it as an outline, one we'll work forward from throughout the season. Deal?
As part of that deal, you should probably try not to get offended. Of course, I say this every season, and still the aggrieved emails roll in. You've got to hand it to college sports fans: Despite everything, they remain league-loyal.
OK, enough prelude, let's just dive in:
The Power Six Plus Two
1. Big Ten: In the past two seasons, there was some argument to be had at the top of these standings. In 2012-13, there is no such uncertainty. Basically everyone I know/read/talk to/hear who watches college basketball -- whether seriously or casually, using advanced projections models or the good old-fashioned eye test -- considers the Big Ten to be the best conference in college basketball.
Why? Start with the five teams in the AP Top 25 (No. 1 Indiana, No. 4 Ohio State, No. 5 Michigan, No. 14 Michigan State, No. 23 Wisconsin), all of which are ranked even more favorably by Ken Pomeroy's national preseason efficiency rankings (respectively: No. 3, No. 2, No. 12, No. 4, No. 5). With Trevor Mbakwe back, Minnesota is a fringe Top 25 team, if not better.
Meanwhile, the rest of the conference is aberrantly deep, with a trendy sleeper in Iowa, a talented young refresh at Purdue, a better-than-most-people-think backcourt at Illinois, a criminally underrated Tim Frazier at Penn State, and a Northwestern team that won't be that far behind last season's near-tournament miss. Only Nebraska looks to be downright bad.
The top of the league is great, the bottom isn't far gone, and there is very little fat around the midsection, which is not something I could say about myself. This is simple: The Big Ten is loaded.
2. Big 12: Kansas is Kansas. The Jayhawks are the favorite to win this league on a yearly basis, and rightfully so; they've won at least a share of the league title for eight seasons running. The temptation, given that data point, is to assume the Big 12 is a one-team league.
Not so. Baylor is among the most talented teams in the country. Texas appears likely to dramatically improve. Kansas State under Bruce Weber could be one of the best defensive (and rebounding) teams in the country. Travis Ford has two McDonald's All-Americans (sophomore Le'Bryan Nash, freshman Marcus Smart) at Oklahoma State. West Virginia, Iowa State and Oklahoma all stand to be solid. If Missouri were still around, it would be a lively contender at No. 1. Even so, it's a taut league.
3. Big East: If you listen closely, you can almost hear it: That's the Big East as we know it taking its last gasp near the top of these power rankings. Things will never be the same again.
OK, so that might be overstating things a bit, but you get the idea. Next season, Syracuse and Pitt will jump to the ACC. Notre Dame is soon to follow. But for one more season, Syracuse is a national title threat, the Irish are a bona fide league contender, Louisville's returning Final Four squad is deeper and arguably even better, Pittsburgh is a likely rebound pick, and Cincinnati, Marquette and Georgetown are all more-than-credible NCAA tournament teams. The bottom half of the league is improved, too: Rutgers looks good, South Florida is a brutal out, St. John's is talented, even DePaul looks to be moving into mediocrity.
In its swan song as the Big East we know, the league stands to still be quite good, and not just because it's still bigger than most.
4. SEC: The addition of Missouri via realignment only adds to what is already not your father's SEC.Sure, Kentucky still lords over the league, but there is more depth now than ever in the conference's history.
Florida and Missouri are logical challengers to the young Wildcats' conference throne (and potential Final Four teams), the Jarnell Stokes-led Tennessee Volunteers streaked to a 10-6 finish in conference play last season, Arkansas is on its way up under Mike Anderson, Ole Miss is a possible tourney team, and Alabama under Anthony Grant is a guarantee to play some of the best defense in the conference. There are some major reclamation projects in the lower levels (LSU, South Carolina, Auburn, and, yikes, Mississsippi State), but the top two-thirds of the league is strong.
5. ACC: Last fall, the best question to ask about the ACC was: What happened? How did a once-proud league get boiled down to three teams (Duke, UNC, and Florida State)? This season, there is reason to believe the ACC is recovering.
For one, North Carolina and Duke will be joined in the race to the top by NC State, which is ranked No. 6 in the AP poll to start the season on the strength of last season's Sweet 16 run, and Florida State's defense isn't going anywhere.
Likewise, many are predicting Maryland, following the late Dez Wells transfer decision, will be immediately good enough to challenge the Triangle + FSU projections.
Miami could be one of the surprise teams of the season. But the bottom end of the league -- Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech, Boston College, and especially Wake Forest -- is still very much in rebuilding mode.
6. Pac-12: I agonized here. I really did. I wanted to put the Pac-12 below the one-year-only, get-it-while-it's-hot, 16-team Atlantic 10.
After all, the A-10 is seductive, and the Pac-12 just submitted quite possibly its worst season in nearly 100 years.
Washington became the first regular-season power-six conference champ to not receive an at-large NCAA tournament bid since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985. I mean come on. Anyone interested in dissing the Pac-12 can stop right there. Check and mate.
But I'm predicting a rebound for the Pac-12 this season, though it hinges on a few factors. If preseason favorite Arizona exceeds its projection, and UCLA star freshman Shabazz Muhammad gets eligible, and Stanford takes the customary post-NIT-title leap, and Cal holds the line, and Colorado's Andre Roberson expands his offense to go with his potent rebounding, and a totally revamped USC is as good as coach Kevin O'Neill seems to think, the Pac-12 could very easily start racking up a healthy number of NCAA tournament teams.
That's a lot of ifs, so we'll see. But it can't possibly be worse than 2011-12.
7. Atlantic 10: In any case, if I had ranked the Atlantic 10 above the Pac-12, it would have been more a statement about the former than the latter. Because in 2012-13, the A-10 is going to be freakishly good. This is a result, of course, of conference realignment.
When the CAA and Horizon told VCU and Butler they wouldn't be eligible to participate in their respective conference tournaments, both schools scrammed, taking their step up in league quality a season earlier than anyone anticipated. Because of the rush, they beat the impending departures of Temple (a constant league contender under Fran Dunphy) and Charlotte (not so much). The end result is a league that contains VCU, Butler, Temple, Saint Louis, Xavier, Saint Joseph's (which has all five starters back), UMass (a trendy sleeper pick), Richmond (just two seasons removed from the Sweet 16), and emerging programs such as La Salle, St. Bonaventure and Dayton.
The tail end of the league still looks more like a mediocre mid-major outfit, but of the 16 teams in the league, I'd say 10 have a puncher's chance at a tournament bid. This is the A-10 as you've never seen it before.
8. Mountain West: The realignment buzzards are picking apart the Mountain West like a carcass in one of its program's neighboring deserts.
Last season, BYU left for the WCC; next season, San Diego State will be a member of the Big West. But for now, the league remains very strong, particularly at the top. UNLV will be among the nation's most talented teams. Steve Alford's New Mexico program remains the pinnacle of solidity. San Diego State might be the league favorite, thanks to its balance and poise. But Colorado State (coached by newly hired Larry Eustachy) is not going anywhere post-Tim Miles, Wyoming surprised people, and Nevada adds a quality program to the league this season.
Like the Atlantic 10, the Mountain West -- by all financial, basketball and branding metrics -- is far closer to the power-six monoliths than any other league in the country. In last season's rankings, they were cordoned off into their own hemisphere. Not anymore. They belong.
The Usual Suspects
(Or: Get to know these leagues now.)
9. Missouri Valley: Traditionally, C-USA has been better than the Missouri Valley, and the WCC probably has more tournament teams. But when you dig in, the top-to-bottom depth of the Missouri Valley Conference -- starting with Creighton, UNI, Wichita State and Illinois State at the top, obviously, but even through Evansville and Missouri State -- makes it a lot tougher than a quick glance would lead you to believe.
10. Conference USA: This is Memphis' last season in the league. Since 2005, when the league lost Louisville, Cincinnati, Marquette, DePaul (and Charlotte and Saint Louis) and former coach John Calipari started recruiting the nation's best players on a consistent basis, that program has been singularly dominant.
In 2012-13, C-USA might field two tournament teams -- the aformentioned Tigers and a tough, veteran Marshall squad (and its brutal nonconference schedule). UTEP could make some noise. But with Tulsa rebuilding and UCF under sanctions, this could be a really bad year on the court just in time for its marquee program to bolt.
11. West Coast Conference: The WCC's three best teams -- Gonzaga, Saint Mary's and BYU (and this season, at least, Gonzaga looks far and away the best) -- appear likely to battle each other for league supremacy for years to come. The mere existence of those three is enough to legitimize the league, but the success isn't trickling down to the San Diegos and Santa Claras and Loyola Marymounts of the world, at least not yet.
Where Cinderella Happens
(Or: Conferences of wildly varying quality that nonetheless all feature at least one or two teams you could see spring an upset come March)
12. Ivy League: Before an academic scandal cost Harvard its two senior captains, the Crimson were gearing up for a conceivably unprecedented run of success in the Ivy League. As is, they're neck and neck with a solid Princeton team in the preseason projections, and the rest of the league is classically Ivy, as in, not particularly good.
13. Western Athletic Conference: For the better part of the past decade, Utah State has been the marquee program in the WAC. Now, Stew Morrill's reign of terror appears to be ending, and not only because Utah State took a step or two back last season. New Mexico State has emerged as a potential perennial contender, Denver is on the rise, and Seattle, new to Division I, could be a long-term threat. This is poised to be a deeper league than most people think.
14. Horizon League: The Horizon essentially booted Butler a year early for jumping ship to the Atlantic 10; one wonders if the league shouldn't have swallowed its pride and milked one final year out of Brad Stevens' golden calf. Bryce Drew has Valpo poised atop the league, and Detroit is intriguing. The Horizon's programs play good solid hoop, but without Butler, I'm not sure if anyone will notice.
15. Mid-American Conference: This league is all about Ohio and Akron. The Bobcats are fresh off a defense-fueled run to the Sweet 16, where they nearly upset No. 1-seeded North Carolina, and new coach Jim Christian will be eager to add a conference title to D.J. Cooper & Co's résumé. Akron, a stalwart under Keith Dambrot, returns most of its key contributors.
I would like to rank this league even higher, given the top two and the projected emergence of Buffalo, but seven teams finished at or below No. 180 (and usually far below) in the final Pomeroy rankings last season. The West Division is really ugly stuff.
16. CAA: In recent seasons, the CAA was the sport's ascendant mid-major conference. Naturally, that could mean only one thing: It would soon be ravaged by conference realignment. And so it has come to pass. VCU jumped to the A-10, ODU will be leaving for C-USA after this season, and Georgia State is en route to the Sun Belt. This is all great news for Drexel, which now has a clear path to the NCAA tournament. But it's crippling news for the league.
17. Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference: The MAAC actually sent an at-large team to the NCAA tournament last season in Iona, which lost the nation's assists leader in Scott Machado but retained former Arizona transfer MoMo Jones, who stands to get a lot of touches this season. Other than that, the MAAC is basically your standard one-bid mid-major conference.
18. Ohio Valley Conference: You already know about Murray State, which features preseason All-American Isaiah Canaan and is coming off a 31-2 campaign last season. Canaan lost a few of his key running mates, but he also gained a big-time competitor. Belmont, formerly of the A-Sun, joins the league this season, and Rick Byrd's always efficient program is sure to push the Racers to the brink right away. Unfortunately, those two programs are the only thing propping the OVC up in this ranking, and it may even be too generous, given how drastic the gap is through the rest of the league.
19. Atlantic Sun: South Carolina Upstate coach Eddie Payne has the chance to make a real go at the NCAA tournament not only this season, but in years to come. He returns five starters -- all of them sophomores and juniors -- from a team that went 21-13. Mercer is also a consistent factor at the top. Most important, previously dominant Belmont's move to the Ohio Valley means the whole league now has a window to the Big Dance.
20. Sun Belt: Prepare for a two-team showdown. In the East Division is Middle Tennessee, which went 27-7 and finished No. 60 in Pomeroy's final efficiency rankings last season, and lost only one starter, LaRon Dendy, this offseason. In the West Division, it's North Texas, which features trendy All-American candidate, former top-15 prospect/Mizzou commit and likely future pro, forward Tony Mitchell.
21. Summit League: South Dakota State is Cinderella waiting to happen. The Jackrabbits - first of all, their nickname is the Jackrabbits, that's reason No. 1 -- are led by guard Nate Wolters, a do-everything combo guard who shredded Washington at Washington and put up a reasonable fight in the first round of the NCAA tournament against Baylor. Is this the season? Meanwhile, Oakland under Greg Kampe has to replace a similar player in Reggie Hamilton, who was efficient despite the nation's fourth-highest usage rate. Fascinating league, and one to watch in February.
22. Northeast Conference: Robert Morris is the favorite to win this league, which has been the case more often than not in recent NEC seasons. But Wagner, Long Island, and Quinnipiac all look likely to improve this season, and have perfectly reasonable chances to take the regular-season title (and, more important, the conference tournament in March). If that balance holds up, the NEC won't be quite so off the radar in 2011-12.
23. Big West: There's a reason Long Beach State coach Dan Monson has to play absolutely insane nonconference schedules to boost his team's RPI every season: The rest of this league just isn't very good, especially since UC Santa Barbara star Orlando Johnson has graduated. At least San Diego State comes on board next season.
24. Southern Conference: All the offseason SoCon talk revolved around the possibility that Davidson, the league's marquee program, might be lured away by realignment. Instead, Bob McKillop's program stayed put, convinced it didn't need to move to get to the NCAA tournament every season, and this season he's most certainly right. This should be by far the best Davdison team McKillop has had since you-know-who was on campus.
25. Patriot League: Both Bucknell and Lehigh have big-time stars (Mike Muscala and C..J. McCollum, whom you last saw dropping Duke in the first round of the NCAA tournament). Both have the ability, as McCollum proved last season, to take down a loftily perched No. 2 or No. 3 seed. Both are really good basketball teams. But because the Patriot League is so atrocious otherwise, it's almost a lock that neither team will be able to secure an at-large bid. Bummer.
Today You Learned These Conferences Exist
(Or: There is very little to see here.)
26. Big Sky: With Damian Lillard now running the show at point guard for the Portland Trail Blazers, beyond an always-quality Montana program there is little to keep your interest out in the Big Sky this season.
27. America East: Vermont was racked by defections this offseason, and it still remains the consensus favorite to win the league. That probably tells you all you need to know; the bottom half of America East is as bad as almost anything that follows here.
28. Southland: Over the long haul, the addition of Scott Sutton's Oral Roberts program (previously of the Summit League) will make the Southland conference more noticeable. Still, even having lost their top two players, the Golden Eagles are projected to win the Southland.
29. Big South: UNC Asheville, Coastal Carolina and Charleston Southern are all located in places you'd very much like to visit. But you probably wouldn't make a college hoops game part of your itinerary.
Abandon All Hope, Ye Who Enter Here
(Or: Through me you pass into the city of woe.)
MEAC Great West SWAC
Beyond the Dante, I refuse to joke at these schools' expense.
In fact, if these rankings do nothing else each November (besides provoke you to send me that angry tweet, obviously), I hope they provide a reminder of just how big a tent Division I men's college hoops really is, and how stark the differences between top and bottom can be.
Through the next two months, you'll see teams from the MEAC, Great West and SWAC crisscross the country, playing guarantee games, cashing checks to keep the lights on and balls inflated and the rickety buses rolling. They go not in search of NCAA tournament glory or to leverage TV brand equity across synergistic digital platforms but in service of educational opportunities for athletes who may never otherwise have received them.
These teams exist in a world that looks absolutely nothing like the college basketball you know and love.
Today, we salute them. In the next five months, we'll spend most of our time paying attention to the Indianas and Kentuckys and UCLAs of the world, the big conferences with big-name teams and the big TV contracts. But we won't forget about the bottom half of this list either, because we will see every league, from 1 through 31 (not yet Great West!), again in March.
That is, lest we forget, the true beauty of it all.
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