Ranking the conferences for 2011-12
Eamonn Brennan [ARCHIVE]
November 9, 2011
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A year and a day ago, yours truly set out to rank every conference in college hoops from top to bottom. Laughs were shared. Tears were shed. Angry emails were written and received. If I ever needed a reminder that people still feel fidelity to their chosen team's league affiliation -- and argue with gusto accordingly -- ranking every league certainly provided it.

A year later, it's time for Round 2. A brief reminder: These are essentially educated guesses based in large part on uncertain projections for any number of teams. They are admittedly unscientific and hardly written in stone. Cool? Cool.

With that out of the way, let's dig in, shall we?

The Power Six

1. Big East: Is the Big East the best conference in the country, or just the biggest? Once endless, this debate will be brought to a close in coming seasons, as conference realignment cannibalizes the Big East and levels the playing field for leagues like the ACC, Big 12 and SEC. The pound-for-pound argument still applies this season, and it's a tricky one, but we're going to give the nod at No. 1 to the Big East thanks to its unique combination of depth and strength. In Syracuse, Pittsburgh, Connecticut and Louisville, the league has at least four teams with legitimate Final Four aspirations. Then there's the intriguing middle: Marquette and Cincinnati could contend for the league title, Villanova may be better than we all realize, and West Virginia, Notre Dame and even Georgetown -- possible .500 teams in the league -- each stand a decent shot to make the NCAA tournament. If Rutgers, St. John's or Seton Hall exceeds expectations, it will be hard to consider the Big East anything but the best conference in the country.

2. Big Ten: This seems counterintuitive: Isn't the Big Ten more wide open than at any point in recent memory? And doesn't that mean the conference is down? Quite the contrary. Ohio State is the power team, the one with a national title on its radar, while Wisconsin is the steady No. 2 you can be sure to count on. After that, the rest of this league is a bit of a mystery, but it could end up as the deepest in college hoops. There are at least six teams that could improve into tournament squads in 2011-12: Michigan, Michigan State, Indiana, Illinois, Northwestern and Minnesota. Meanwhile, a healthy Robbie Hummel is likely to keep Purdue in the hunt (even if the Boilermakers take a big step back from last season's highs), while Nebraska's experienced squad hunts a tournament berth and Fran McCaffery's second-year rebuilding project at Iowa begins to take shape. Of the 12 teams in this league, only Penn State should be genuinely bad. It may not be the most exciting or aesthetically pleasing conference in the country, but in 2011-12, it could be the deepest.

3. Big 12: When Colorado and Nebraska left the conference, the Big 12 looked poised for a conference-rankings basketball rebirth. Alas, thanks to the defections of Texas A&M and Missouri, we'll get only one season in the current less-is-more format. Still, that format is an enticing one: Of the 10 teams in this league, at least four -- Kansas, Baylor, Missouri, Texas A&M -- will compete for the conference title. Another three -- Kansas State, Texas, Oklahoma State -- will be right there. Iowa State has a boatload of talented transfers (Royce White and Chris Allen, among others), and the Cyclones are expecting a trip to the NCAA tournament. The Big 12 is hurt by two things: a lack of elite teams at the top (Kansas is still Kansas, but it may take a slight step back this season, and Baylor is the wait-and-see team of the year) and some truly ugly stuff at the bottom (Oklahoma, Texas Tech). But on a pound-for-pound basis, the 10-team Big 12 -- that's still confusing, by the way -- goes awfully deep.

4. SEC: Here's a fun counterfactual: If Bruce Pearl hadn't lied to NCAA investigators, would the SEC be the best league in the country? Tennessee's inevitable post-Pearl nosedive hurts, but the league still has plenty going for it. It boasts at least three Final Four contenders in Kentucky, Florida and Vanderbilt. It has Alabama, one of the nation's best defensive squads, looking to earn its way to the NCAA tournament for the first time under coach Anthony Grant. Georgia coach Mark Fox's young talent should keep the Bulldogs from falling too far; Mississippi State's ceiling is very high; and Arkansas under first-year coach Mike Anderson (who inherits a batch of talented freshman recruits) is very intriguing. If Tennessee were its usual self, the league could argue that it is as deep as any of those listed above it. In any case, SEC hoops, with its title contenders at the top and its handful of improving teams throughout, is proving it is much more than its football-obsessed reputation would have you believe.

5. ACC: North Carolina is, well, North Carolina. Duke, despite its high turnover, is Duke. Florida State, a solid team with the best defense in the country, is Florida State. And those three sentences are pretty much all we know about the quality of the ACC this season. Outside of a dominant national title contender, an elite program with young talent and a better-than-average defensive force, there's no telling what the ACC will be in 2011-12. There are a couple of teams worth watching: Clemson and Miami are both viable NCAA tournament hopefuls, NC State should improve, and Seth Greenberg could keep Virginia Tech in the conversation for much of the season. But those are all guesses. This is, as of today, arguably the most top-heavy league in the country. By the end of the season, ACC fans might be able to argue their conference's strength based on the winner of the national title. That may be the only argument they'll have at their disposal.

6. Pac-12: Ah, the much-maligned Pac-12. Before the chants of "East Coast bias!" ring out (and by the way, I live in Chicago and grew up in Iowa, so it's Midwest bias, thank you very much), it should be noted that this league is getting better -- at least in spots. Adding Colorado and Utah didn't do much to provide an overall boost, but the continued recruiting excellence of Arizona has Sean Miller's program back on the elite precipice ahead of schedule. Meanwhile, UCLA boasts one of the biggest and toughest frontcourts in the country, Washington is young but extremely talented, and Cal returns the best suite of guards in the conference. All four teams should target a trip to the NCAA tournament. If this conference truly improves in the years to come, it will be thanks to ongoing projects at Stanford, Oregon, Arizona State and USC. The Pac-12 isn't there just yet. But it's not as far behind as it seemed, say, two years ago.

MINOS: Mid-Majors In Name Only (With Limited Exceptions)

7. Atlantic 10: No surprises here -- with the possible exception of the Mountain West, no non-BCS league in the last five seasons has...
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