Preseason Conference Rankings: Big Ten, Big East lead the pack
With a slew of top teams it's no surprise the Big Ten is the strongest conference
The Atlantic-10 could certainly see four or five NCAA tournament bids this year
Will the Memphis Tigers claim one more league title before leaving C-USA?
S-E-C! S-E-C! Wait, that's the wrong sport. In the college game's other marquee sport, there's much more competitive balance and much more to argue when it comes to which conference is best. Does a superior conference need elite top-end quality or is it more important to have quality depth? The simple answer is "yes." Given those two dueling parameters, here is a breakdown of the 2012-13 college basketball conferences in order of overall strength, with a quick breakdown of what got them there.
You have the probable preseason No. 1 team in the nation in Indiana. You have very formidable Michigan and Michigan State teams. Ohio State, Wisconsin and Minnesota (with Trevor Mbakwe) should comfortably be NCAA teams. Iowa is going to be much improved this season and also could threaten for an NCAA bid. When you're assuming teams that could miss the NCAAs include Purdue, Illinois, Northwestern and Penn State, all of which have significant talent pieces returning, you know how difficult this league will be. (No, not to watch, to survive in.)
Louisville could be the best team in the nation. Syracuse has legitimate national title sleeper potential. Notre Dame, Cincinnati, Marquette and Georgetown all should be very solid. Pitt should be a lot better than last season with better health and 7-footer Steven Adams. UConn's guard depth should make the Huskies competitive even in a no-tournament season in Storrs. St. John's, South Florida, Rutgers and Villanova aren't bad if they're the "third quartile" of what's a 15-team league this season. Expect half the league (7-8 teams) to be dancing in March. The Big Ten pips the Beast for No. 1 because of less weakness at the bottom.
Top-end quality beyond Kansas may be a little lacking, but the quality of depth in the 10-member league makes it a tough run for almost anyone. Baylor, Kansas State, Texas, Oklahoma State and West Virginia should all be very much in the mix (at minimum) for NCAA bids, and Oklahoma and Iowa State will have chances to get there, too. With only Texas Tech and TCU to beat up on at the bottom of the league, it should be very competitive and a modest league record will likely be enough for a bid.
There's no dominant force like Kentucky 2011-12 at the top of the league, but Kentucky '12-'13 should be just fine, thanks. Throw in newcomer Missouri, which should be a top-10 team again, a Florida team that still has some weapons, a rising Tennessee squad and an Alabama club that should be better than a lot of people seem to expect, and the league should get a solid allotment of NCAA bids. Can Arkansas or Mississippi join the party? Is LSU ready to join the conversation? The bottom of the league is getting better, as well, so there are fewer gimme games than there have been the last couple of seasons.
The league is not as good at the top as it has been in previous years, and the bottom half of the league simply isn't very good by high-major standards. You have an X-factor in North Carolina, a couple of teams expected to be top-10 in caliber (NC State and Duke), a couple other teams that could be top-25 worthy (Florida State and Miami) and then a bunch of question marks and stragglers. Maryland could take another step forward, especially if Dez Wells is ruled eligible, but unless Virginia sans Mike Scott or Clemson becomes good, it's hard to see anyone below the midpoint of the league make a serious run for an NCAA tournament spot.
With the arrival of very strong VCU and Butler squads and a year before Temple departs for the Big East, this could be a watershed year for the league. Those three teams along with Saint Louis, Saint Joe's and UMass should battle it out for upper-division positioning and NCAA tournament consideration. But it's the depth of quality in the league that helps differentiate it from those below. La Salle, Dayton, Richmond and even perennial power Xavier (in a rebuilding year) won't be easy outs, and even St. Bonaventure (sans Andrew Nicholson) should be decent again. There are not a lot of soft spots, so assuming the league does credibly in nonconference play, four (or five?) NCAA bids seems possible.
UNLV and San Diego State should be excellent teams this season. New Mexico is probably being underrated (again). If Larry Eustachy can find the right tone with an experienced Colorado State core, the Rams could be a very difficult proposition again. Newcomer Nevada adds quality competitive depth. Even teams in the bottom part of the league, like Wyoming and Air Force are improved. It should be an fun season in the MWC and now more of you will actually be able to watch it with the demise of The Mtn. having pushed games onto ESPN, CBS Sports Network and NBC Sports Network.
Arizona should be very good ... if its freshmen bigs perform and Mark Lyons can hold everything together for a season at the point. UCLA could be very good ... if the NCAA allows Shabazz Muhammad and Kyle Anderson to play, Larry Drew II shows improved proficiency at the point, Josh Smith can play quality minutes without fouling and this group somehow comes together defensively. Colorado could be very good ... if their freshmen come along quickly and their inverted backcourt with a 6-5 point and a 6-foot shooting guard makes enough jumpers. Stanford could be ... eh, you get the point. The bottom of the league can't possibly be as wretched as last season, but this is still not a good league 1 through 12 yet.
Gonzaga appears to be the best team in the conference, but the Zags will have to fend off St. Mary's (again) to win the league. Don't count out BYU, either, with a lot of talent and now a year's worth of experience of trekking through the WCC. San Diego and Loyola Marymount are clearly on the rise and Santa Clara should be a ton better than last season's 0-16 injury-wracked fiasco with Marc Trasolini returning to rejoin a core that brings everyone back. The bottom third of the league won't be great, but this conference is worlds better than it was a decade ago in terms of overall quality of depth.
Everyone's giving the league to Creighton, a tip to the Bluejays excellent returning cast and stud forward Doug McDermott, but it says here that Northern Iowa will challenge the Jays for the league crown. Wichita State was hard hit by graduation, but the Shockers should still put a solid team on the floor. Illinois State and Evansville add to the quality depth in the top half of the league. Indiana State and Bradley should be improved. Drake and Missouri State may take a step back. There's really only one bad team in the league, though (Southern Illinois) and even they have Barry Hinson now at the helm, so things could get rolling in the right direction.
Memphis' swan song should bring another league title before the Tigers bounce to the Big East, although the tournament being in Tulsa may open the door to a non-Memphis, auto-bid ticket to the NCAAs. Marshall may be the biggest threat to Memphis in terms of team quality, but UTEP's scheduling advantage could propel the Miners into the mix. Central Florida, thanks to Keith Clanton's somewhat surprising return (since the Knights are banned from the postseason), also should be a factor. The lack of quality depth is an almost-annual hindrance and this one's no different. SMU and Tulsa may be bad, but at least they have interesting new coaching hires in Larry Brown and Danny Manning.
Judging by Twitter, a lot of Ohio fans think the national media is overlooking the Bobcats. There's certainly the talent there, but with a new head coach and the reality that the MAC is just really hard to navigate, we'll see if they can put together a dominant season. They were only 11-5 last season, and the East Division (again) should be far more challenging than the West. The likely challengers appear to be Akron, with Buffalo and maybe Eastern Michigan having an outside chance to surprise. Toledo, another possible contender, is an APR casualty and ineligible for postseason play.
With VCU gone to the A-10 and Old Dominion banned from the league tournament before it heads to Conference USA, the popular line of thought is the auto bid will be contested between Drexel and George Mason. That's a reasonable theory, as both teams return a lot of talent from top-tier clubs last season, but it ignores the looming threat of the Delaware Blue Hens, who with Devon Saddler and Jamelle Hagins, should challenge. Watch for the Blue Hens to make an early splash by winning the Virginia bracket of the NIT Season Tip-Off and advancing to the semifinals at MSG.
This league should be a serious battle at the top. Loyola Md. (last season's NCAA rep) and Manhattan look like very strong bets to battle for top honors. The Greyhounds, in their final season before an interesting move to the Patriot League, have a ton back as do Steve Masiello's Jaspers. Don't count out Siena (returning basically the whole rotation, including O.D. Anosike), Niagara (all five starters back) and even graduation-depleted Iona as a title threat, though. There are a lot of good players in this league, even on teams expected to finish in the second division. The MAAC semis and finals are typically one of the better small-conference shows during championship week. Expect more of the same this season.