Ranking the 10 Best Conferences in College Basketball as League Play Winds Down

Brian Pedersen@realBJPFeatured ColumnistMarch 4, 2014

Ranking the 10 Best Conferences in College Basketball as League Play Winds Down

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    Alonzo Adams/Associated Press

    Between Friday and March 16, all 32 Division I men's basketball conferences will qualify a team to be their official entrant in the 2014 NCAA tournament.

    These automatic bids (other than the Ivy League) will go to the team that manages to come out of its conference tournament unscathed, a watered-down version of what schools needed to endure during a 14- to 20-game league schedule that essentially only served as a classification round.

    But while the conference tourney champ gets a nice late-season bump in prestige, the real work is done during the regular season. And it's during this time that we see just which conferences are the best of the best.

    With one week of regular-season play remaining, here's our rankings of the 10 best Division I conferences.

10. West Coast

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    Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

    Potential NCAA tournament teams: 1-2

    The West Coast has its usual standard bearer in Gonzaga, but the Bulldogs have fallen back to the pack this year a bit and have several worthy challengers ready to jump up and swipe that automatic bid from the conference tournament this weekend in Las Vegas.

    The addition of BYU in 2011 has added to the league's depth, with the Cougars in good position to grab an at-large NCAA bid.

    Dark horses like San Francisco and St. Mary's wait in the shadows for one of the top teams to falter, while the rest of the field all has the capability to beat each other (Portland has wins over both BYU and Gonzaga) and keeps this league at the top of the "mid-major" category.

9. Mountain West

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    Juan Labreche/Associated Press

    Potential NCAA tournament teams: 2-4

    The Mountain West is down considerably from last season, when five teams made the NCAA field, but the league is still very strong up top with San Diego State and New Mexico.

    SDSU further enhanced that national profile with a 20-game win streak that included victories over Creighton, Marquette and at Kansas, while New Mexico has shaken off some early struggles to enter the final week battling for the conference regular-season title.

    Second-tier teams Boise State, UNLV and Wyoming are all solid in their own way, but no more than one is likely to get an at-large bid. UNLV hosting the conference tourney could deepen the league's NCAA pool if the Runnin' Rebels pull off some home magic.

8. SEC

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    Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

    Potential NCAA tournament teams: 3-5

    For as amazing as this conference is in football, as well as sports such as baseball and softball—and not to mention women's basketball—the men's hoops version is, once again, lacking for overall strength. Take out Florida and (on most nights) Kentucky, and all you're left with are a bunch of teams that can't seem to get out of each other's ways.

    A Georgia team that lost to 7-21 Temple in November sits in third place, while one game separates a motley crew of six clubs at 9-7 or 8-8 in league play. Arkansas has surprisingly emerged from that group as a solid contender, having found a way to win away from home, but, all in all, most of the SEC teams are just good enough to get beat by each other.

7. Big East

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    Nati Harnik/Associated Press

    Potential NCAA tournament teams: 3-6

    The league once temporarily referred to as the Catholic 7 (before adding three more schools and retaining the old Big East moniker) has been solid, if not spectacular, in its first season of this iteration.

    Villanova has benefited greatly from getting away from the likes of Connecticut, Pittsburgh and Syracuse, though getting paired up twice a year with Creighton (losses of 28 and 21 points) was the unexpected trade off. Creighton has been most impressive in its move up from the Missouri Valley, keeping the league from being a one-team show at the top.

    The middle of the pack is a bit middling, but still competitive, with the likes of Marquette, Providence, St. John's and Xavier all scrambling to be the least unimpressive in the eyes of the NCAA tournament selection committee.

6. American

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    Al Behrman/Associated Press

    Potential NCAA tournament teams: 5

    Division I's newest league has been better than most projections called for, and much of that credit goes to a Hall of Fame coach who's showing off his stuff yet again.

    Larry Brown's quick turnaround at SMU gives the American five quality programs, all of whom are capable of doing damage in the NCAA tournament. The Mustangs are only a game behind defending national champ Louisville and falling-back-to-earth Cincinnati for the league title entering the final week of play, while Connecticut and Memphis loom right behind to make five schools with at least 22 wins.

    It's great there's so much talent in the top half of the AAC, because the bottom half is pretty pathetic. Those five schools have a combined four wins over the upper tier.

5. Pac-12

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    Potential NCAA tournament teams: 5-8

    Two seasons removed from getting a scant two teams into the NCAA field, the Pac-12 has improved dramatically, despite having the most dominant top team the league has featured in several years.

    But while Arizona has locked up the regular-season title with two games left, its numerous close games in conference play is one of many indicators how much improvement exists across the board. UCLA and Arizona have been mostly solid all season, while Colorado has somehow managed to overcome the loss of its best player to remain in contention for a top-four finish.

    California, Oregon, Stanford and Utah are also playing well, for the most part, though as a whole the league has lost some potential style points from the lack of road wins by its upper half due to the Pac-12's more expansive, TV-fueled travel schedule.

4. Atlantic 10

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    Jason Hirschfeld/Associated Press

    Potential NCAA tournament teams: 5-7

    It might be time to stop calling the Atlantic 10 a mid-major conference, since the league keeps churning out top-level teams, and this season is no different.

    Saint Louis was a top-10 team until losing two straight this past week, but the Billikens are by no means alone at the top. You can count George Washington, Massachusetts, St. Joseph's and VCU among those teams that get the "you wouldn't want to face them in a win-or-go-home scenario" designation this time of year, while Dayton is angling to get to play on its home court as a possible First Four qualifier if the Flyers can't make a run and win the A-10 tournament.

    The league lost Butler and Xavier to the Big East during the offseason, yet somehow got better.

3. ACC

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    Steve Helber/Associated Press

    Potential NCAA tournament teams: 5-7

    Considering the star power in terms of coaches, players and ESPN-fueled media hype, the Atlantic Coast Conference should be No. 1 by a landslide in the rankings. But unlike when the 16-team Big East had 10 to 12 tournament-worthy teams, the 15-member ACC doesn't strike much fear beyond its top five or six teams.

    And while Syracuse made a great run of it before falling apart the last two weeks, the stud clubs have all underachieved at some point this season. North Carolina both helped and hurt the league's reputation in the preseason with its big victories and head-shaking losses, while even surprise conference champ Virginia got whooped by Tennessee back in December.

    Despite the decrease in quality this league has seen this year, it's almost a guarantee it will get at least two schools into the Sweet 16. That comes by virtue of the almost annual inclusion of a North Carolina-based site during the first weekend of NCAA tourney play, all but locking up close-to-home spots for two of the ACC's top clubs.

2. Big Ten

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    Potential NCAA tournament teams: 5-8

    The Big Ten can easily be judged by the top of its field, but to understand why the league is considered so good this year can better be answered by looking at the bottom end of the standings.

    Other than the hodgepodge Western Athletic Conference, no other league has its worst team sitting with five league wins at this point in the season. And the B1G has three of those in Northwestern, Penn State and Purdue, and that trio has wins over Ohio State (twice) and Wisconsin that include a pair of takedowns on the road.

    That kind of bottom-up depth has made it so no clear standouts have arisen at the top, at least from a national ranking standpoint, but the battles that Iowa, Michigan, Michigan State, OSU and Wisconsin have endured could prove to steel the Big Ten's bigs for lengthy postseason runs.

1. Big 12

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    Orlin Wagner/Associated Press

    Potential NCAA tournament teams: 5-8

    Kansas has locked up its 10th consecutive regular season Big 12 title, an amazing feat that compares favorably with nearly every decade-long run any college basketball team has ever had. The fact the Jayhawks were able to make it out of the country's top league with the least amount of losses for that 10th title is even more astounding.

    Other than woeful TCU, which is 0-16 this season and 2-32 since joining the league—is there a return policy on the Horned Frogs?—there are no easy nights on the conference schedule. Ninth-place Texas Tech has wins over Baylor, at Oklahoma and the infamous Marcus-Smart-into-the-crowd game against Oklahoma State, while that same OK State team that sits in eighth place was in the top 10 in mid-January.

    In fact, four different Big 12 teams have been ranked at least ninth or better, and the only reason they're not all still there is they've had to play each other. Twice. The only major conference with a true round-robin schedule is proving why it's the toughest, and likely will be one of the most difficult to eliminate from the 68-team NCAA tourney field in a few weeks.