Arguments over conference strength always seem to hold more sway in college football than college basketball because it is a factor in the computer formula that determines a national champion. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t important on the hardwood.
The 2013-14 season brings some changes for the traditional leagues, and fans will be in for a treat when powerhouses like Syracuse and Duke battle for ACC supremacy and upstarts like Creighton and Xavier test their mettle in the Big East.
While the name on the front of the jersey is always most important, the names on the back of the jersey often determine which conferences play the best basketball. The Big Lead recently ranked the top 50 players for the 2013-14 campaign, and these are the guys that will have the biggest impact on the league races.
Using that list as a reference point, read on to see the conferences with the most star power for the upcoming year.
The Big East will never be the same after the mass exodus of traditional powers to the ACC and American Athletic Conference, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t some star power remaining.
Doug McDermott leads a list of three players to make the cut on the Big Lead’s top 50 players at the No. 7 spot. Creighton’s returning senior is on the short list of candidates to lead the nation in scoring, and his shooting stroke and high percentages will not fall off in this new-look league.
Villanova’s Ryan Arcidiacono checks in at the No. 28 spot, which may even be a bit low. If Arcidiacono had more talent surrounding him, many people would know his name and appreciate how much effort it will require on his part to get the Wildcats in the NCAA tournament.
Providence’s Bryce Cotton also makes the list (No. 45) on the back of his impressive scoring prowess, but don’t overlook unlisted Semaj Christon of Xavier. Christon has a chance to be a surprise contender for conference player of the year (realistically though McDermott has this on lock) and could lead the Musketeers back to the postseason.
The Big 12 may not have the depth of star power that some of the other major conferences do, but the stars it does have shine brighter than any others.
The top two ranked players on the Big Lead’s list headline the talent in the Big 12 and what should be one of the most exciting conference races in the country. Freshman Andrew Wiggins of Kansas is the No. 1 player on the list and the favorite to be the top pick in the next NBA draft.
But Oklahoma State’s Marcus Smart, the No. 2 player on the list, will challenge him for Big 12 Player of the Year and lead his talented Cowboys (who also feature honorable mention Markel Brown) in their effort to dethrone Kansas from the top of the standings. The battle between Wiggins and Wayne Selden (No. 35) versus Smart and Brown may even determine a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.
Baylor may be the third wheel in the Big 12, but Isaiah Austin (No. 24) and Cory Jefferson (honorable mention) is a solid combo as well.
Aaron Gordon may be the best player in the country that nobody is talking about.
The Big Lead lists Arizona’s Gordon as the No. 4 player in its rankings and tabs him as the early favorite for Pac-12 Player of the Year. The Wildcats lost tons of talent from last season’s team, but behind Gordon and transfer TJ McConnell (No. 39), Sean Miller has plenty of horses in the stable to make a run at a conference crown.
UCLA will probably be the top challenger, largely due to its combination of Kyle Anderson (No. 44) and Jordan Adams (No. 27). Anderson didn’t live up to the hype as a freshman, but he should improve this year with a larger role. Adams is recovering from a broken foot and could end up leading the conference in scoring.
Elsewhere, Jahii Carson (No. 16) of Arizona State may be the fastest player in the country and lit up the scoreboard for the Sun Devils as a freshman, and Colorado’s Spencer Dinwiddie (No. 15) is arguably one of the most underrated players in the nation.
Laugh at the American Athletic Conference all you want come football season, but there is plenty of talent in the cupboard when basketball rolls around (at least until Louisville leaves).
The defending champion Cardinals check in with four players on the list, headlined by Montrezl Harrell at No. 14 and Russ Smith at No. 26. It may seem strange that the relatively unproven Harrell is listed ahead of Smith, but many expect Harrell to take significant strides this year and continue the solid play we saw in the NCAA tournament.
Throw in Chane Behannan at No. 49 and Luke Hancock at No. 36, and it is clear who the favorite in this new league will be in 2013-14.
Louisville’s biggest challengers figure to be Memphis, which will be led by Joe Jackson (No. 47), and Connecticut, which will feature Shabazz Napier yet again (No. 23).
Just wait until the ACC adds Louisville after its brief stop in American Athletic Conference purgatory.
The league that is so often dominated by Duke and North Carolina will feature plenty of Blue Devil and Tar Heel star power, but newcomer Syracuse will have a say in the conference race. CJ Fair checks in at No. 12 on the list, and freshman point guard Tyler Ennis garners honorable mention status. Look for those two to form one of the best duos on the east coast.
As for Duke, Rodney Hood (No. 21), Rasheed Sulaimon (No. 19) and Jabari Parker (No. 5) will arguably form as good of a “big three” as we will see in college basketball. Parker has drawn all the headlines, but Hood is another newcomer who should not be overlooked in any All-Acc First Team discussions.
Down Tobacco Road the Tar Heels feature James Michael McAdoo (No. 32) and the talented but trouble-plagued P.J. Hairston (No. 18). McAdoo was productive last year but failed to live up to his incredible hype, while Hairston just needs to make sure he will be on the court for the majority of the schedule.
Elsewhere, Dez Wells (No. 33) should keep Maryland competitive even without Alex Len. He will need to put up big numbers if the Terrapins are going to make the NCAA tournament.
The SEC may have been comically bad as a whole last season, but the return of Kentucky as well as a few other pieces has it loaded with star power heading into the 2013-14 season.
James Young (No. 48), Alex Poythress (No. 42), Andrew Harrison (No. 37), Willie Cauley-Stein (No. 20) and Julius Randle (No. 3) give the Wildcats the most players for any individual team on the Big Lead’s list. The only issue in Lexington may be the fact that there is only one ball to go around.
Florida figures to be the biggest challenger to John Calipari’s title hopes, but only Dorian Finney-Smith (No. 34) makes the cut for the Gators. Patric Young probably has a gripe or two about that. Tennessee actually has more players than Florida (Jarnell Stokes at No. 40 and Jordan McRae at No. 22).
Finally, the nation’s biggest lightning rod Marshall Henderson is listed at No. 25. Whether he will play this season or not is another issue, but when he is on the floor he is a threat to score every time Mississippi has the ball.
The Big Ten lost Cody Zeller, Trey Burke, Victor Oladipo, Tim Hardaway Jr. and Deshaun Thomas in the offseason and still checks in with more top 50 players according to the Big Lead than any other league.
The 10 players are as follows: Indiana’s Will Sheehey (No. 46), Ohio State’s LaQuinton Ross (No. 41), Minnesota’s Andre Hollins (No. 38), Indiana’s Noah Vonleh (No. 31), Wisconsin’s Sam Dekker (No. 13), Michigan’s Mitch McGary (No. 11), Michigan State’s Adreian Payne (No. 10), Michigan’s Glenn Robinson III (No. 9), Michigan State’s Gary Harris (No. 8) and Ohio State’s Aaron Craft (No. 6).
That’s not even counting Ohio State’s Sam Thompson, who was given honorable mention status.
The fact that Craft is listed as the sixth best player in the nation and top star in the Big Ten probably won’t sit well with opposing fanbases who love to hate the Buckeye senior, but he impacts that game in such a unique way that it is hard to argue his inclusion. It is also clear looking at the list that the Buckeyes, Wolverines and Spartans will battle it out for supremacy all year.
The Big Ten should be as entertaining of a race as any across the country thanks largely to its litany of superstars.
Follow and interact with college basketball writer Scott Polacek on Twitter @ScottPolacek.