Fred Hoiberg didn't need time to think.
Asked at his weekly press gathering Monday to describe the quality of the Big 12, the Iowa State coach was short and succinct.
"It's a monster," Hoiberg said.
And that was before the Cyclones needed a block at the buzzer to stave off Oklahoma State 63-61 before a sold out crowd in Ames. The Cowboys were picked to finish eighth in the Big 12 Preseason Coaches Poll. As of Wednesday morning, Iowa State was third.
"Top to bottom," Hoiberg said, "there's not a better conference in all of college basketball."
While few will question the identity of the country's No. 1 team (Kentucky) and top overall player (Duke's Jahlil Okafor), naming college basketball's best conference stirs more debate.
Most would agree it's a two-team battle between the Big 12 and ACC.
The Big 12 posted the nation's top nonconference record (104-22, .825) and was the only league to tout a winning percentage above .800. Still, there are those who believe the ACC is the superior league.
"The ACC has more Final Four-caliber teams, more title contenders," ESPN basketball analyst Andy Katz told B/R. "The problem we're seeing with the Big 12 is that some of the top teams are a little more erratic than we expected."
Indeed, three days before Christmas, Big 12-favorite Kansas suffered a 25-point loss to unranked Temple. Texas fell to Stanford at home and, just last week, Iowa State was upset by South Carolina. In November, Oklahoma lost at rebuilding Creighton, and four days before Jan. 1 Kansas State was shocked by Texas Southern.
Those losses wouldn't seem as bad if they were suffered by the Big 12's second-tier teams. But those are the squads that were picked to finish in the top five of the league—the Big 12's "elite," if you will.
A national-best six Big 12 schools are ranked in this week's Associated Press Top 25 poll. But only one (No. 10 Texas) is in the Top 10—and the Longhorns will certainly tumble following Monday's embarrassing 21-point home loss to Oklahoma.
Meanwhile, the ACC has three teams (No. 2 Duke, No. 3 Virginia and No. 5 Louisville) ranked in the Top Five and two others (No. 14 Notre Dame and No. 18 North Carolina) in the Top 20.
"Duke, Louisville and Virginia all have a chance to make the Final Four," Katz said. "In the Big 12, Kansas is Kansas. They'll always be in the mix. But other than (the Jayhawks), I'm not sure any other team has a very good chance."
Most who argue for the Big 12 over the ACC cite the Big 12's depth and balance as the main reason. They point to the success of schools such as West Virginia, Baylor, Oklahoma State and TCU—all of whom were picked to finish in the second half of the league.
One-loss West Virginia is ranked No. 14, and Baylor is No. 21. TCU went undefeated in nonconference, and Oklahoma State only lost twice.
Other than Texas Tech, the league "doesn't have any real stinkers," Jerry Palm of CBS Sports told B/R.
"People can get superficial when they try to determine the strength of a conference," Palm said. "They don't go past the best teams. Instead, it's 'How many Top 25 teams do you have? That's the best league. How many top 10 teams do you have? That's the best league.
"But a good league has depth. If you're gong to measure a league, you can't just stop with the top good stats and numbers. A league is a league. It's not just about the top teams. It's about all all the teams."
While the ACC's second-tier programs may not have a good reputation nationally, there is reason to believe the criticism is a bit overblown.
Wake Forest, for example, only trailed Louisville by three points with 2:13 remaining before wilting down the stretch Sunday. Florida State boasts a win over Florida, and Clemson beat NCAA tournament contenders Arkansas and LSU. Georgia Tech lost in overtime to No. 13 Notre Dame, and Miami earned a spot in the rankings after beating then-ranked Florida and Illinois.
In the Big 12, Oklahoma State and TCU have gaudy records, but neither touts a victory over a team that's a sure bet to make the NCAA tournament.
None of that matters to Baylor coach Scott Drew, who says the Big 12 has the ultimate weapon to defend itself against anyone who tries to argue that the league isn't the country's best.
For the second straight year, the Big 12 is at the top of the list. The ACC is No. 2.
"The great thing about America is that everyone is entitled to their own opinion," Drew said. "But the one non-biased thing is the RPI, and the last two years, the Big 12 has been the No. 1 conference in the country.
"There's a formula to determine things like this and it's proven to be accurate. So we feel pretty comfortable saying we're the best."
Ole Miss: I've given head coach Andy Kennedy some grief in the past—wasn't a fan of how he handled Marshall Henderson—but he deserves loads of praise for the way his squad performed in Tuesday's 89-86 overtime loss at No. 1 Kentucky. That was a tough, focused team he put on the Rupp Arena court.
Frank Martin: The third-year South Carolina coach has convinced his players to embrace the same characteristics (defensive intensity, physicality, mental toughness) that defined his teams at Kansas State. Included in the Gamecocks' seven-game win streak are victories over Iowa State, Oklahoma State and Clemson.
Sterling Gibbs: If the Seton Hall guard continues his high level of play he'll be in the mix for All-American honors. A junior, Gibbs is averaging 16.6 points and 3.7 assists while shooting 47.7 percent from the field and 50 percent from three-point range. He had 25 points in a win over then-No. 15 St. John's and 20 in a victory of then-No. 6 Villanova.
Oklahoma frontcourt: The Sooners don't have much depth down low (or anywhere for that matter), but Ryan Spangler and TaShawn Thomas are one of college basketball's top twosomes. Thomas is averaging 18.0 points and 9.5 rebounds in Big 12 play, while Spangler is averaging 8.1 rebounds on the season.
Danny Manning: My main takeaway from Louisville's 85-76 victory at Wake Forest Sunday had less to do with how the Cardinals played and more to do with the glaring improvement made by the Demon Deacons, who only trailed by three points with 2:14 remaining. Just 15 games into his Wake Forest tenure, Danny Manning is clearly getting through to his players, who have developed a noticeable chemistry that was missing earlier in the season.
Iowa: The Hawkeyes are off to a 2-0 start in the Big Ten following victories over then-No. 20 Ohio State and Nebraska. The Ohio State win occurred on the road, marking the second time this season that the Hawkeyes beat a ranked opponent away from home, as Iowa won at then-No. 12 North Carolina on Dec. 3. Fran McCaffery's squad narrowly missed breaking into the latest Top 25 poll. But it'll likely be included next week if it beats Michigan State Thursday.
North Carolina: I'm not ready to buy stock in the Tar Heels, but I'm not ready to give up on them either. This isn't a great team, but it's not a bad one either. Roy Williams' squad did some positive things in Sunday's loss to an underappreciated Notre Dame squad. Kennedy Meeks has made loads of improvement for a frontcourt that's one of the nation's best. This team's ceiling is still high. Not Final Four-high, mind you. But still high.
Tubby Smith: Texas Tech is the least-talented team in the Big 12 and will probably finish last in the standings. But, man, the Red Raiders play hard and compete. They trailed by just three points at intermission against West Virginia. That's a credit to Smith, who won an NCAA title at Kentucky and has long been one of college basketball's top coaches.
LSU: I'm hesitant to say anything positive about the Tigers, because anytime I get excited about Johnny Jones' squad, it does something to make me look bad (like losing to Old Dominion and Clemson, for example). But LSU is looking pretty salty as of late, winning eight straight games, including its last three by an average of 20 points. Jarrell Martin and Jordan Mickey form one of the nation's top frontcourts.
Kentucky: The Wildcats weren't ready to play against Ole Miss Tuesday, and their dream of an undefeated season was nearly derailed because of it. There are much better teams in the SEC than the Rebels, who have losses to Charleston Southern, Western Kentucky, TCU and Dayton. Hopefully, Kentucky learned its lesson.
Cal: No, not Coach Cal at Kentucky. I'm talking about California, the school. First-year Golden Bears coach Cuonzo Martin was the talk of college basketball back in November and December when he started his Golden Bears tenure 10-1 with wins over Syracuse and upstart Wyoming. But since then Cal has lost to Cal State-Bakersfield and Washington State, widely considered to be the worst team in the Pac-12.
Kelvin Sampson: Speaking of new coaches, Sampson's first season at Houston has been a massive disappointment thus far with blowout losses to Memphis and Tulsa and an overtime defeat against Central Florida. Egads! Sampson inherited some talented players in L.J. Rose (5.6 apg), Devonta Pollard (11.9 ppg, 6.9 rpg) and Jherrod Stiggers (17.1 ppg). Houston should be better.
UCLA: The Bruins, it appears, have never recovered from their seven-point first half against Kentucky back on Dec. 20. Steve Alford's squad has lost five straight, including a 71-39 thrashing at the hands of Utah on Saturday. Alford is an excellent coach, but he may not have enough pieces to get things turned around this season.
Bruce Weber: Kansas State is among college basketball's biggest disappointments, and Weber needs to take some of the blame. This is the same team that won 20 games last year and featured one of the nation's top freshmen in Marcus Foster. One year later, Foster has become a non-factor, while players such as Nino Williams and Thomas Gipson appear to be struggling with motivation. Kansas State should be the fourth- or fifth-best team in the Big 12. Instead the Wildcats are eighth or ninth.
St. John's: Once ranked as high as No. 15, the Red Storm are a mess. Tuesday's 90-72 home loss to No. 8 Villanova was the third straight for Steve Lavin's squad, which is now 0-3 in the Big East. Luckily, St. John's has a week off before beginning a two-game road swing against Providence on Jan. 14.
A Dozen Words About My Top 12 Teams
Kentucky: Young Wildcats will benefit from Tuesday's overtime scare against pesky Ole Miss.
Duke: ACC is brutally tough, but could the Blue Devils go undefeated too?
Wisconsin: Junior Sam Dekker is feeling it for the Big Ten's best team.
Virginia: All but two of the Cavaliers' victories have come by double digits.
Gonzaga: Few teams can boast of the chemistry and offensive firepower of Zags.
Arizona: Defense makes Sean Miller's Wildcats the clear favorite in the Pac-12.
Louisville: Chris Jones made huge plays late in Sunday's win at Wake Forest.
Villanova: The Wildcats have bounced back nicely from their loss at Seton Hall.
Notre Dame: Mike Brey's experienced team leads the entire nation in field-goal percentage (54.8).
Kansas: Wonder if Bill Self realized that Frank Mason could be this good?
Utah: Freshman center Jakob Poeltl has been one of the nation's biggest surprises.
Maryland: Forget the hot seat. Mark Turgeon is deserving of a new contract.
Five high-profile players who need to step up their games in a hurry
Rysheed Jordan, St. John's: The sophomore NBA prospect scored just two points in Tuesday's loss to Temple and is shooting 29 percent from three-point range.
Cameron Ridley, Texas: A year ago, Ridley averaged 11.2 points, 8.2 rebounds and 2.2 blocks per game. This year those numbers have dipped to 8.3, 4.3 and 1.5.
Marcus Paige, North Carolina: The Tar Heels guard and preseason All-American averaged 17.5 points last season but is only scoring 13.5 points per game in 2014-15 while shooting 36.8 percent from the field. Only once has he shot better than 50 percent in a game.
Kasey Hill, Florida: A highly touted point guard, Hill has had just two double-digit scoring games for the struggling Gators and is shooting just 37.9 percent.
Wayne Selden, Kansas: Once hailed as a future NBA lottery pick, Selden is shooting just 34 percent for the Jayhawks, who desperately need him to step up as a leader.
Welcome to My Radar
D'Angelo Russell: The Ohio State guard is playing as well as any freshman in America, averaging 18.3 points and 5.1 assists per game.
Oklahoma State: Travis Ford's squad is exceeding my expectations, mainly because senior Le'Bryan Nash is enjoying the best year of his career.
Larry Nance Jr.: Wyoming is 13-2 overall and 2-0 in the Mountain West thanks to Nance Jr., a senior forward who's averaging a career-high 15.7 points along with 6.5 boards.
Temple: Back in mid-December I didn't think the Owls had any chance of making the NCAA tournament. I've changed my mind and may even put them in my next top 25 poll.
What the heck has happened to: Washington
What's gotten into: Old Dominion
Contender: Northern Iowa
Not as good as I thought: Pac-12
Not as bad as I thought: SEC
Starting to sizzle: VCU
Starting to fizzle: Arizona State
Damaged beyond repair: Fresno State
Random topics discussed during media meals/phone conversations with colleagues in recent weeks.
Top Five Coaches I'd Consider If I Were Starting a Program From Scratch
(Note: Age a consideration)
• Bill Self, Kansas
• Sean Miller, Arizona
• Gregg Marshall, Wichita State
• Tony Bennett, Virginia
• Fred Hoiberg, Iowa State
Five Assistant Coaches Who Don't Receive Nearly Enough Praise
• John Robic, Kentucky
• Mike Hopkins, Syracuse
• Greg Gard, Wisconsin
• John Pelphrey, Florida
• Grant McCasland, Baylor
Five Restaurants I've Heard Good Things About But Never Tried
• BurgerFi, various locations
• Franklin Barbecue, Austin
• Carmine's, New York and Las Vegas
• Mike Ditka's, Chicago
• Jacque Imo's Cafe, New Orleans
Five Places I Plan to Visit in Las Vegas This Weekend
• Secret Pizza, Cosmopolitan (minimum of three times)
• N9NE, The Palms
• Marquee, Cosmopolitan
• Gordon Ramsay BurGR, Planet Hollywood
• Hyde, Bellagio
Jake Melnick's Corner Tap, Chicago: I'll always visit any place that specializes in wings, and my friends in the Windy City claimed Jake Melnick's serves the Windy City's best. I appreciated the different options such as Firecracker (Sweet Thai Chili and Sriracha), Poncho's (Wood-Grilled with Garlic and Cayenne) and even PB&J. But I went with the Traditional Buffalo. I was pleased (especially with the size of each wing) but certainly not overwhelmed. More impressive to me was the basket of buffalo fries topped with bleu cheese dressing and the skillet cornbread. Entrees such as the Jumbo Smoked Hot Links and the Sloppy Pig (a sandwich featuring pulled pork, brisket and smoked chicken topped with cheddar cheese, crispy onions and barbecue sauce) gave the place a Southern feel that made this Texas native feel right at home.
Jason King covers college sports for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @JasonKingBR.