Conference Rankings: Big Ten, Big East live up to early-season hype
The Big Ten continues to be the strongest conference, but with revised standouts
Mountain West has exceeded expectations, holds D-I's best winning percentage
Gonzaga is living up to early hype with a big month ahead before conference play
After the initial conference rankings column posted in late October and created solid Twitter debate, one of my followers innocently asked whether they would be updated as the season went along, to capture the ebbs and flows of the developing year in hoops. Gauntlet thrown and accepted!
Remember, the rankings are based both on top-end quality in the league and quality of competitive depth. The balance and weightings are entirely subjective, so I can't be wrong. What a country!
Here's December's look at the ordering of the 32 Division I conferences, with a summary of the initial thoughts and then revised commentary based on what we've seen so far.
October conventional wisdom (OCW): The league had the nation's No. 1 team and a group of six that looked like very strong NCAA tournament candidates. The bottom of the league was pretty solid, too.
December conventional wisdom (DCW): The league still very well may have the nation's No. 1 team (although Duke's on-court accomplishments are inarguably better) and a group of six strong NCAA candidates, but the deck's been shuffled a bit. Illinois under John Groce is better than expected and the loss of Josh Gasser for the season has hurt Wisconsin. Minnesota looks expectedly solid. There are still very few soft spots in conference play, although Penn State sans Tim Frazier is going to have a rough go.
OCW: Louisville could be the nation's best team. Syracuse could be a national title sleeper. Notre Dame, Cincinnati, Marquette and Georgetown make up a strong second tier. Pitt should be much improved. UConn will, too. Expect 7-8 bids.
DCW: All of that still sounds pretty spot on. I had Syracuse in my preseason Final Four and love, love, love that pick right now. Marquette's weaker than that forecast, but the top five or six teams in the league look very good. The bottom of the league remains soft.
OCW: Top-end quality beyond Kansas is lacking, but the quality of depth is very good. Baylor, Kansas State, Texas, Oklahoma State and West Virginia should all challenge for NCAA bids.
DCW: The Jayhawks were my national title pick because of a) Experienced guard play; b) Jeff Withey's interior defense; c) better potential depth than last season; d) Ben McLemore's projected learning curve into primary scorer; and e) a good chance to win the league, grab a 1-seed and play in Kansas City on the first weekend. All of those remain well intact at this point. Beyond KU, there are teams that can beat or lose to almost anyone in the league. If Texas doesn't get Myck Kabongo back soon, trouble is coming.
OCW: UNLV and San Diego State will be excellent. New Mexico should challenge that duo in the league. Colorado State has the potential to make the NCAAs again. Nevada's a good import. Wyoming and Air Force should be improved, making virtually every road game a tough one.
DCW: As high as I was on the league, I undershot it so far. The MWC has the best collective winning percentage in Division I. Neither of the co-favorites have quite lived up to billing yet, but New Mexico's unbeaten. So is Colorado State. So is Wyoming after an epic rally at Illinois State! Air Force is much improved. And that doesn't even mention Boise State, which nearly won at Michigan State and then rolled Creighton in Omaha.
OCW: The top isn't as imposing as normal and the bottom half of the league is poor by top major-conference standards. NC State and Duke will be very good. UNC is a giant question mark. FSU and Miami have the potential to be ranked and solid. Maryland, with Dez Wells, could surprise.
DCW: Duke and NC State have flipped favorite roles. North Carolina still has major question marks. Florida State looks really light on scoring options. Miami with Durand Scott has things going a little bit. Maryland looks like an NCAA tournament team at this point. Virginia Tech at 7-0 is one of the huge surprise stories of the season. Good on ya, shorthanded Hokies.
OCW: Kentucky, not as good as '11-'12, but still very good. Missouri, maybe not as good as last season, but still very good. Florida, not as good ... eh, you get the point. The bottom half of the league is improving. Maybe a 5-bid league, give or take one, if Arkansas or Ole Miss deliver.
DCW: Kentucky's definitely not as good as '11-'12 ... or '09-'10 ... can we see a growth curve like '10-'11, which went 10-6 SEC but made the Final Four? Florida is making things work with a shoot-first-ask-later backcourt of Kenny Boynton and Mike Rosario and looks, at this point, like the league's best team. Missouri is going to miss Michael Dixon. Alabama has potential. The bottom looks softer than expected.
OCW: Every team has question marks, but Arizona, UCLA, Colorado and Stanford have solid potential. Cal should be decent. USC is a sleeper. The bottom of the league can't possibly be as bad as last season.
DCW: Arizona's question mark (Mark Lyons) has scored well, but been suspect with distribution and Arizona's PG issue remains unanswered. UCLA's question marks (many) remain somewhat unanswered as the Bruins morph by necessity into a small-ball team that runs opportunistically and plays a good amount of zone to hide defensive deficiencies. Colorado is trending well. Stanford's been OK. Cal's been better than expected. The bottom of the league has improved a bit, for whatever that's worth.
OCW: Everyone's giving the league to Creighton, but Northern Iowa will challenge for the league crown. Wichita State should still be solid. Illinois State and Evansville add quality depth. Indiana State and Bradley should be improved. No really bad teams in the league.
DCW: I got the quality of depth right, but perhaps the Creighton challenger wrong. Rebuilt and unbeaten Wichita State has been a pleasant surprise. Illinois State looks tough despite recent late fades at Louisville and home to Wyoming. Overall, the league looks very solid.
OCW: The league is loaded at the top with VCU, Butler, Temple, Saint Joe's, Saint Louis and UMass, and the depth behind that with La Salle, Dayton, Richmond and Xavier makes this a bear of a league. Projected as a four-bid league.
DCW: Ehhhh. VCU is still figuring things out a bit. Same with Butler, who is inordinately dependent upon Rotnei Clarke's heroics. Saint Louis is not as good defensively and now has Rick Majerus' passing to cope with, too. UMass has been exposed, as I suggested in my preseason rankings. Saint Joe's had a chance to make a statement at Creighton, and did -- losing by like 90. I whiffed on Temple. Sorry, Fran. I won't make that mistake again. Xavier is the huge upside surprise. Some things never change.
OCW: Gonzaga looks like the best team. Saint Mary's and BYU will have a say. San Diego and LMU are on the rise. Santa Clara should be much better with Marc Trasolini back.
DCW: Gonzaga is the best team in the league by far, and a lot of CBB watchers' predictions that this was the best Zags team in awhile look spot on. Very impressive so far, with a big month ahead before conference play. Gonzaga faces Washington State, Illinois, Kansas State, Baylor and Oklahoma State before New Year's. Saint Mary's and BYU aren't quite as good as expected at this point. Santa Clara definitely is much better.
OCW: Butler's departure hurt, but the league will still be solid. Valpo is the favorite, then take your pick from a cluster of Detroit, UW-Green Bay, Cleveland State, UW-Milwaukee and maybe Youngstown State.
DCW: Still like Valpo as the league favorite, but can Illinois-Chicago provide a surprise challenge? The Flames have wins over Iona, Mercer and Northwestern already. Cleveland State should also be right there as Gary Waters has another good club. Detroit has disappointed thus far.
OCW: Memphis should win the league, although the conference tournament in Tulsa may hand the auto bid to someone else. Marshall and UTEP are the likeliest challengers. The league lacks quality of depth. Interesting coaching hires won't save SMU and Tulsa this season, anyway.
DCW: Confirmed: This is not a good year for the league. Memphis clanged its opportunity at Battle 4 Atlantis and appears in some disarray. Marshall and UTEP have disappointed. SMU is 8-1 under Larry Brown, with a couple of not-entirely-bad wins! Southern Miss is also better than expected, for whatever it's worth.
OCW: Ohio fans felt overlooked. Akron, Buffalo and maybe Eastern Michigan can challenge. Overall, not a vintage year for a tough-to-navigate-anyway conference.
DCW: Ohio is very solid (despite a home loss to Robert Morris). Akron's also pretty good. Kent State's OK. The rest of the league is ... not great, despite a couple teams with decent records.
OCW: Should be a serious battle at the top between Loyola Md. and Manhattan. Don't count out Siena, Niagara and even Iona as a title threat.
DCW: Loyola and Iona have lived up to billing. Manhattan, Siena and Niagara have not. Still should be a competitive league season and exciting conference tournament. Maybe the best of the 1-bid leagues.
OCW: This is a two-team show, but what a show it could be between Lehigh and Bucknell. Holy Cross is probably the best bet to grab an upset. American and Army have some talent.
DCW: Nothing's changed, other than maybe Bucknell is now a slight favorite. Both teams (when healthy, in Lehigh's case) have played very well. The battle for league POY between C.J. McCollum and Mike Muscala should also be sensational. I wish I could get to one of those head-to-heads.