Just as America’s reign as the world’s lone superpower is encountering a challenge from a
rising China, the Big East’s dominant position in college basketball is being tested by the Big Ten and the Big 12 this season. But to make a fair assessment of the picture, a ranking of the power conferences and the stronger mid-major leagues is in order.
1a. Big East – Georgetown’s league is still on top but is nowhere near as impressive as it has been in recent years. The argument could be made that Syracuse is the best team in the country, but questions linger about its ability to go the distance in the Big Dance. Georgetown, Louisville, Marquette and Notre Dame round out the Big East’s upper tier, but none of them seems likely to cut down the nets in New Orleans. Other likely tournament teams — Cincinnati, Seton Hall, South Florida and West Virginia come to mind — will likely be quick outs in the tournament.
1b. Big Ten – While the Big East may ultimately qualify more squads for the NCAA Tournament, the Big Ten has more teams could go far in that event. Ohio State is a possible championship contender, and Tom Izzo’s masterful coaching has Michigan State primed for another run to the Final Four. Michigan and Wisconsin are dangerous, if streaky. Cody Zeller and DeMatha Catholic High School graduate Victor Oladipo might just have enough hoops prowess to give Indiana a shot at their first Sweet 16 since 2002.
3. Big 12 – No conference has as strong a top tier as the Big 12. Kansas and Missouri dominate the league with high-level talent like Thomas Robinson of the Jayhawks and Marcus Denmon of the Tigers. Baylor, too, is stacked with talent. Kansas State, which pulled off a huge upset at Mizzou on Tuesday, is a potential tourney giant-killer. Iowa State and Texas also both figure into a complex league picture.
4. ACC – Although North Carolina hasn’t kept pace with Syracuse and Kentucky at the top of the national polls, the Tar Heels are part of a loaded trio in the ACC. Duke — which has outperformed this season and has only one bad loss, a 22-point beatdown at Ohio State — is also a top-10 team. Florida State, with dynamic guards Ian Miller and Michael Snaer, will be a tournament threat as well. Virginia and North Carolina State are tournament teams, although the Wolfpack has disappointed against quality opponents.
5. SEC – Kentucky, far and away the nation’s best team, makes the SEC look good. But the weakness of Florida, overrated at No. 11 in the polls, shows that the conference is not particularly deep. Vanderbilt, which carried high expectations into the season, has been sorely disappointing, and Anthony Grant has allowed a circus-like atmosphere to descend over Alabama’s roster, imperiling the Crimson Tide’s attempts to reach their league’s upper rung.
6. Pac-12 – Once again, the Pac-12 is miserable. The conference’s twelve teams have a combined 0-12 record against teams in the AP Top 25. UCLA, which was tabbed to be the league’s best team, lost at St. John’s last weekend and even the league’s best, California, lost by 40 points to Missouri.
BEST OF THE REST: THE Mid-Majors
Mid-majors that have been strong in the past, such as the MAC and Conference USA, are floundering this season. But the Atlantic 10 and the Mountain West have both come on strong. Who would have thought that the West Coast Conference would have better basketball than the Pac-12 this season?
Atlantic 10 – Temple, whom the Big East appears to be courting, is the league’s best team and proved itself to be a national player after knocking off Duke. But the Owls are joined by St. Louis and Xavier at the top of the league. Going forward, the Musketeers may be in the best position, as they have impressed while at full strength.
Mountain West – This conference is stacked, with New Mexico, UNLV and San Diego State all fitting into the AP Top 25 this week. Steve Alford, the Indiana legend and former Iowa head coach, could take the Lobos even further than the Sweet 16, where he led Southwest Missouri State in 1999. UNLV, with some gutsy road wins, may have the best chance of tournament success.
West Coast Conference – No Jimmer Fredette, no problem for the WCC, whose standard-bearer this season is St. Mary’s. However, the Gaels faltered in their clash at Murray State, raising questions about their tournament chances. Come March, the edge goes to Gonzaga, which has done better in close matchups. In any case, this league is better than the Pac-12, the Pacific Coast’s other conference.
Evan Hollander is a sophomore in the School of Foreign Service and Deputy Sports Editor of The Hoya. TOP OF THE KEY appears every Friday.