Even though it failed to send a team to the national championship game, the Big East developed a reputation last season as one of the best conferences in the history of college basketball, with four teams reaching the Elite Eight and two in the Final Four.
No one is predicting similar feats for the league in 2009-10. Still, even in a down year, the Big East should still be the best conference in the land. The conference boasts six top-20 quality teams in Villanova, Connecticut, West Virginia, Georgetown, Syracuse and Louisville. And some of those schools at the bottom won't be nearly as bad as they were a year go.
Not that the choice was easy. The country's top four conferences are extremely close, and the fifth-best league [the SEC] is greatly improved thanks to key additions at Kentucky, Mississippi State and Vanderbilt.
Three months before the start of the season, here's how I'd rank the Big Six conferences.
West Virginia’s Devin Ebanks
The league won't be nearly as strong as it was last year, but this is still the toughest conference in college basketball. With the exception of forward Dante Cunningham, preseason favorite Villanova returns all the key pieces from last year's Final Four team. Bob Huggins' West Virginia squad will be in the championship hunt thanks to Devin Ebanks and Da'Sean Butler, who are two of the nation's top swingmen. Connecticut will have a bit of a falloff – but not nearly as significant as the ones that will take place at Pittsburgh and Louisville. Both schools lost all of their starpower. Georgetown will have three McDonald's All-Americans in its starting lineup – and now they've got experience. And don't sleep on Syracuse. Yes, the Orange lost Jonny Flynn and Paul Harris, but they may have the Big East's Newcomer of the Year in Iowa State transfer Wesley Johnson. What pushes the league over the top is the improvement that will likely be made by bottom-tier teams such as Seton Hall, South Florida and Cincinnati. Seton Hall returns leading scorer Jeremy Hazell, who averaged 22.7 points last year, while welcoming what should be impact transfers in Keon Lawrence [from Missouri], Herb Pope [New Mexico State] and Jeff Robinson [Memphis]. South Florida signed one of the nation's top junior college players in forward Jarrid Famous while Cincinnati is full of momentum following the signing of Lance Stephenson over the summer.
Virginia’s Sylven Landesberg
No conference has as much depth – quality depth – as the ACC. Just look at some of last year's bottom teams. Georgia Tech is being hyped as an NCAA tournament team despite winning just two league games in 2009-10. Virginia hired one of the country's top young coaches in Tony Bennett and has a potential star in guard Sylven Landesberg. Virginia Tech returns a pair of double-digit scorers from a squad that upset then-No. 1 Wake Forest in Winston-Salem last season. Simply put, there won't be a bad team in the conference. Thing is, other than North Carolina, there won't be any great ones, either. Even with the loss of Tyler Hansbrough, Wayne Ellington and Ty Lawson, the Tar Heels will be a Final Four contender because they'll boast one of the top frontcourts in college basketball. Duke is has found its way into the top 10 of a handful of preseason polls, which is baffling considering the Blue Devils lost leading scorer Gerald Henderson to the NBA draft while emerging guard Elliott Williams transferred to Memphis. With a tissue-thin backcourt and no high-caliber threats in the post, the Blue Devils will be hard-pressed to make a deep postseason run. So will Wake Forest, which had two players [Jeff Teague and James Johnson] selected in the first round of the draft.
Kansas’ Cole Aldrich
This is easily the most top-heavy conference in college basketball. Led by All-American candidates Sherron Collins and Cole Aldrich, Kansas enters the season as the overwhelming favorite to win the national title, and some early rankings have Texas as high as No. 2. The Longhorns return all of their top players and welcome in a recruiting class that features a pair of potential starters in Avery Bradley and Jordan Hamilton. Entertaining as the race between Kansas and Texas will be, the battle for third place will also be entertaining. Oklahoma guard Willie Warren is a lottery pick who will try to lead the Sooners in the post-Griffin era. The addition of McDonald's All-American forward Wally Judge will give Kansas State the post presence it lacked in 2008-09. Oklahoma State and Texas A&M each finished last season on a strong note and should be much better. Missouri was hit hard by graduation will likely take a significant step back following last season's run to the Elite Eight. Same goes for Baylor. The good news for the conference is that some of the second-tier teams who have been non-competitive at times should be greatly improved in 2009-10 – mainly Iowa State and Texas Tech. The Cyclones signed two junior college players [LaRon Dendy and Marcus Gilstrap] to take some of the pressure off All-American candidate Craig Brackins. Texas Tech returns the core of a squad that finished last season on a high note with victories over Kansas and Texas A&M and a near-upset of Texas in Austin.
Purdue’s Robbie Hummel
After receiving criticism throughout much of last season, the Big Ten's reputation improved considerably when Michigan State advanced to the championship game of the NCAA tournament, where it lost to North Carolina. With most of their key players returning, the Spartans will open the season in most everyone's top five. So will Purdue, which touts an underrated coach [Matt Painter] and player [Robbie Hummel]. The Boilermakers, who lost to Connecticut in last season's Sweet 16, will challenge Michigan State for the Big Ten title. Still, even though the conference championship will likely be decided in a two-team race, it's not as if the Big Ten is void of any other threats. Ohio State's Evan Turner is an All-American candidate who should get some help with the return of injured forward David Lighty. Michigan has one of the league's top one-two punches in guard Manny Harris and forward DeShawn Sims, and expectations in Ann Arbor are high following last season's long-awaited return to the NCAA tournament. Illinois and Minnesota have everyone back. Penn State is fresh off an NIT Championship and Northwestern is no longer a pushover. Neither is Indiana, although one would think otherwise when assessing the Hoosiers' youth and inexperience. But coach Tom Crean is doing a phenomenal job of bringing pride back to Bloomington.
This may not be the country's best conference – but it's certainly the most improved. The hiring of John Calipari has turned a Kentucky team that failed to make last year's NCAA tournament into a national championship contender. Freshman guard John Wall is already being projected as the No. 1 pick in next summer's NBA draft, and the Wildcats got a huge boost when future first-round pick Patrick Patterson announced he was returning for his junior season. The other team expected to make a significant surge is Mississippi State. Even if high-profile recruit Renardo Sidney isn't eligible – and the guess here is that he will be – the Bulldogs return the nation's leading shot blocker [Jarvis Varnado] along with an experienced backcourt. Tasmin Mitchell pulled out of the NBA draft to try to lead LSU to another division title. So did Tennessee's Tyler Smith. Florida is hoping guard Kenny Boynton will help the Gators back to the NCAA tournament following a two-year hiatus, but it may be tough without guard Nick Calathes, who left Gainesville after just two seasons. Looking for a surprise team? Try either South Carolina, which has two of the SEC's more underrated players in Devan Downey and Dominique Archie; or Vanderbilt, a well-coached team that is eager for the debut of sharpshooting freshman John Jenkins, the 15th-ranked player in the Class of 2009 by Rivals.com.
Washington’s Isaiah Thomas
Just a few years ago there were folks who considered the Pac-10 the best of the Big Six conferences. This year, though, it will undoubtedly be the worst. Don't be surprised if Washington, UCLA and Cal are the only Pac-10 teams to make the NCAA tournament. The main reasons for the problems are the messy situations that have occurred at USC and Arizona. Both programs will be operating under new head coaches. While Sean Miller and Kevin O'Neill were both solid hires, it may be a year or two before they return to the top 25. Stanford is still reeling from the loss of Trent Johnson and the Lopez twins, while Oregon's Ernie Kent is probably entering his final year following a last place finish in 2008-09. Arizona State lost James Harden and Jeff Pendergraph to the NBA draft and doesn't have much in the way of replacements. Tony Bennett, who helped put Washington State back on the map, bolted for Virginia. UCLA lost its four best players from a mediocre team. The bright spots will be Cal and Washington, who should provide an entertaining race for the conference title. Jerome Randle and Patrick Christopher highlight a cast of four senior returnees who combined to average 13.9 points at Cal last season. Touted freshman Abdul Gaddy will team with Isaiah Thomas and Quincy Pondexter to lead a Huskies squad seeking its second straight Pac-10 crown.