Ranking the top 10 conferences entering the 2010-11 season
The Big Ten and the Big 12 both feature four NCAA tournament locks
The Big East isn't dominant, but Pitt, Villanova and Syracuse should be very good
The Mountain West has three NCAA tourney locks and is better than the Pac-10
Whether top-end quality or overall depth is more important in defining a conference as strong is debatable, but the best have ample quantities of both. Which leagues have the right balance to do the most damage in March? Using the categorical framework of Bubble Watch, here's a breakdown of the top 10 conferences this season:
Locks: Virtual certainty to make NCAAs
Should be in: Expected to make it
In the mix: Could make NCAAs if things break right
LOCKS (4): Michigan State, Illinois, Ohio State, Purdue
Michigan State is a national-title contender, but the Spartans will have their hands full just trying to win the Big Ten title. This is easily Illinois' best team since the 2005 national finalists, as Demetri McCamey's back to run the show with the support of a large frontcourt featuring Mike Tisdale, Mike Davis and highly regarded freshman Jereme Richmond. Ohio State lost consensus national player of the year Evan Turner, but adds stud freshman power forward Jared Sullinger to a mix that still includes David Lighty, William Buford and Jon Diebler. And even with the horribly unfortunate loss of Robbie Hummel (torn ACL), Purdue has more than enough returning talent in players like JaJuan Johnson and E'Twaun Moore to nab a decent NCAA seed.
SHOULD BE IN (2): Minnesota, Wisconsin
The Golden Gophers are being overlooked. Al Nolen is back to solve the enormous point guard void left last year by his injury, and the Gophers add physical forward Trevor Mbakwe, who missed last season because of legal issues. Throw in Blake Hoffarber and Devoe Joseph (back at the 2-guard spot) and Tubby Smith will have his best team yet in the Twin Cities. Wisconsin has Jon Leuer and Jordan Taylor back and should get a good season from forward Keaton Nankivil, too.
IN THE MIX (1): Northwestern
Despite losing big man Kevin Coble, who elected to cut short his injury- and absence-plagued college career and graduate in December, the Wildcats have a good core of talent returning to try (once again) to make the NCAAs for the first time in school history. With forward John Shurna, wing Drew Crawford and guard Michael Thompson all back, Northwestern returns its three leading scorers.
LOCKS (4): Kansas, Kansas State, Missouri, Baylor
Any of these four teams, if things break right, could win the conference, depending the statuses of Kansas' Josh Selby (eligibility) and Baylor's LaceDarius Dunn (suspension). Kansas and K-State will be in the mix for NCAA tournament No. 1 seeds. Missouri is underrated. The Tigers are very good and very, very deep, even without stud recruit Tony Mitchell, who isn't yet academically eligible. Conversely, I'm not as sold on Baylor as some others. Dunn's issues aside, the Bears lost a lot from last season's team and will be relying heavily on freshman stud Perry Jones and for someone to step up at point guard.
SHOULD BE IN (1): Texas
Not a bad fifth-place team. Texas lost its top three scorers from last season, but there's still more than enough talent back to pair with the incoming Findlay Prep (Nev.) duo of Tristan Thompson and Cory Joseph.
IN THE MIX (3): Colorado, Texas A&M, Texas Tech
Jeff Bzdelik is gone to rebuild Wake Forest, but he left a bunch of good players behnd for Tad Boyle, including star guard Cory Higgins. The Buffaloes, in their final season in the conference before heading to the Pac-10, could surprise and make a run at the NCAA tournament. The Aggies and Red Raiders also should find themselves with a chance down the stretch.
LOCKS (3): Pitt, Villanova, Syracuse
Even if the top of the conference isn't quite as dominant as it has been, there are still some very good teams. Ashton Gibbs is the leading man on a balanced and deep Pitt squad that is a classic sum-of-its-parts outfit. Villanova coach Jay Wright may finally have a frontcourt to brag about, but he still has some questions to answer in the backcourt after the departure of Scottie Reynolds. The Coreys (Stokes and Fisher) should get some help from the explosive Maalik Wayns. Don't count out Syracuse, though, especially if freshman center Fab Melo is as good as advertised. He could combine with Kris Joseph and Rick Jackson to form an extremely formidable frontcourt, and the backcourt with Scoop Jardine and Brandon Triche has upside.
SHOULD BE IN (3): Georgetown, West Virginia, Marquette
The Hoyas will have to do without Greg Monroe, but they still have the league's preseason player of the year in guard Austin Freeman, and plenty of skill to complement him, even if size may be an issue. The Mountaineers also suffered significant losses from last season's Final Four team, but have nice building blocks in frontcourt standout Kevin Jones and guard Truck Bryant, plus some newcomers poised to make an immediate impact. Marquette, a.k.a. "Team Bubble Watch," still has guards Darius Johnson-Odom and Jimmy Butler, among others, and also brought in freshman wing Vander Blue and standout juco forward Jae Crowder.
IN THE MIX (5): Notre Dame, Seton Hall, St. John's, Connecticut, South Florida
The Johnnies have a nice buzz around them with new coach Steve Lavin and a lot of guys back from last season's NIT team, but sixth in the conference's preseason poll? Way too high. It seemed like they were accidentally switched with Seton Hall, which was picked an inexplicable 11th without people even knowing about the rumors (still unsubstantiated) that Herb Pope signed with a Turkish pro team. Notre Dame showed last season that they could play well without Luke Harangody and now get a whole season to prove it. UConn has obvious issues off the court and still is rebuilding on it. USF has a great frontcourt tandem in Gus Gilchrist and Jarrid Famous. Can the Bulls replace Dominique Jones, though?