by Rob Joyce
Non-conference play is largely over in college basketball. Going forward we’ll have the occasional outlier – the SEC/Big 12 Challenge, for example – but from here on out it’s league play. The first seven weeks of the season have already brought us numerous surprises (Arizona State ranked third? Kansas and Duke losing to Washington and Boston College?) with plenty more certain to come.
Heading into an 18-game battle, which conferences are the best in the country? Here are the five top, most complete leagues in America:
Make the fifth spot a toss-up between the Pac-12, Big Ten and American, as all are top-heavy, but largely mediocre after the top two or three programs. The Pac-12 gets the nod because their top teams have the most potential. Nearly everyone would have predicted two months ago that an Arizona team would be unbeaten and ranked third in the nation, but no one would have guessed it’s Arizona State, not Arizona, to do it. Ranked third in the nation, the Sun Devils are 12-0 and have convincing wins over Xavier (neutral court) and Kansas (in Lawrence) on their resume. A conference-opening game with rival Arizona – as talented as any team in the country – in Tucson should be a phenomenal start.
Usually the worst top-to-bottom of the power conferences, the SEC is deeper than in recent years. Texas A&M has a couple of potential lottery picks, and it has them in the top-5. Kentucky is awfully young, even by John Calipari’s standards, but they are as talented as anyone in the nation. Tennessee is also ranked, Arkansas is the top team receiving votes, and Auburn and Mississippi State are both 11-1. There is more
3) Big East:
DePaul drags the league down a little, but they are 7-5 and look to be better than in recent history. The top of this conference is arguably as good as any in the country. Villanova is the nation’s clear-cut best team right now, but Xavier, Seton Hall and Creighton are ranked as well. In addition to those four, St. John’s (10-2) is in midst of a resurgence under Chris Mullin, Butler is always a threat, and Marquette’s losses are to Purdue, Wichita State and Georgia.
Of the 16 teams in the league, 15 of them are above .500 (Georgia Tech is 5-6). They have five teams than are ranked, led by No. 4 Duke and have an additional three on the cusp of the top-25. And though it’s technically by formality, since 14 teams are 0-0 in ACC play, but the first place team heading into this week is Boston College, who shocked Duke earlier this month for a 1-0 record. At least eight teams will get into the NCAA Tournament, and they could crack double-digits if a Syracuse, Virginia Tech or NC State makes some noise.
1) Big 12:
Top to bottom, the league is loaded. The conference’s 10 teams combined for 16 non-conference losses, they collectively won their final 25 games before the holiday break, and have an overall .864 win percentage, all tops in college basketball. Consider that Texas has the worst mark in the Big 12, and they’re 9-3. They feature six ranked teams, including four in the top 12, while two others are receiving votes. TCU leads the way, at 12-0 and riding a program-record 17-game win streak dating back to last season. And Oklahoma has the Player of the Year favorite in freshman Trae Young, who leads the nation in both points (28.7) and assists (10.4) per game.