Whether top-end quality or overall depth is more important in defining a conference as strong is debatable, but the best have ample quantities of both. Which leagues have the right balance to do the most damage in March? Using the categorical framework of Bubble Watch, here's a breakdown of the top 10 conferences this season:
Quick key:Locks: Virtual certainty to make NCAAsShould be in: Expected to make itIn the mix: Could make NCAAs if things break right
LOCKS (4): Michigan State, Illinois, Ohio State, Purdue
Michigan State is a national-title contender, but the Spartans will have their hands full just trying to win the Big Ten title. This is easily Illinois' best team since the 2005 national finalists, as Demetri McCamey's back to run the show with the support of a large frontcourt featuring Mike Tisdale, Mike Davis and highly regarded freshman Jereme Richmond. Ohio State lost consensus national player of the year Evan Turner, but adds stud freshman power forward Jared Sullinger to a mix that still includes David Lighty, William Buford and Jon Diebler. And even with the horribly unfortunate loss of Robbie Hummel (torn ACL), Purdue has more than enough returning talent in players like JaJuan Johnson and E'Twaun Moore to nab a decent NCAA seed.
SHOULD BE IN (2): Minnesota, Wisconsin
The Golden Gophers are being overlooked. Al Nolen is back to solve the enormous point guard void left last year by his injury, and the Gophers add physical forward Trevor Mbakwe, who missed last season because of legal issues. Throw in Blake Hoffarber and Devoe Joseph (back at the 2-guard spot) and Tubby Smith will have his best team yet in the Twin Cities. Wisconsin has Jon Leuer and Jordan Taylor back and should get a good season from forward Keaton Nankivil, too.
IN THE MIX (1): Northwestern
Despite losing big man Kevin Coble, who elected to cut short his injury- and absence-plagued college career and graduate in December, the Wildcats have a good core of talent returning to try (once again) to make the NCAAs for the first time in school history. With forward John Shurna, wing Drew Crawford and guard Michael Thompson all back, Northwestern returns its three leading scorers.
LOCKS (4): Kansas, Kansas State, Missouri, Baylor
Any of these four teams, if things break right, could win the conference, depending the statuses of Kansas' Josh Selby (eligibility) and Baylor's LaceDarius Dunn (suspension). Kansas and K-State will be in the mix for NCAA tournament No. 1 seeds. Missouri is underrated. The Tigers are very good and very, very deep, even without stud recruit Tony Mitchell, who isn't yet academically eligible. Conversely, I'm not as sold on Baylor as some others. Dunn's issues aside, the Bears lost a lot from last season's team and will be relying heavily on freshman stud Perry Jones and for someone to step up at point guard.
SHOULD BE IN (1): Texas
Not a bad fifth-place team. Texas lost its top three scorers from last season, but there's still more than enough talent back to pair with the incoming Findlay Prep (Nev.) duo of Tristan Thompson and Cory Joseph.
IN THE MIX (3): Colorado, Texas A&M, Texas Tech
Jeff Bzdelik is gone to rebuild Wake Forest, but he left a bunch of good players behnd for Tad Boyle, including star guard Cory Higgins. The Buffaloes, in their final season in the conference before heading to the Pac-10, could surprise and make a run at the NCAA tournament. The Aggies and Red Raiders also should find themselves with a chance down the stretch.
LOCKS (3): Pitt, Villanova, Syracuse
Even if the top of the conference isn't quite as dominant as it has been, there are still some very good teams. Ashton Gibbs is the leading man on a balanced and deep Pitt squad that is a classic sum-of-its-parts outfit. Villanova coach Jay Wright may finally have a frontcourt to brag about, but he still has some questions to answer in the backcourt after the departure of Scottie Reynolds. The Coreys (Stokes and Fisher) should get some help from the explosive Maalik Wayns. Don't count out Syracuse, though, especially if freshman center Fab Melo is as good as advertised. He could combine with Kris Joseph and Rick Jackson to form an extremely formidable frontcourt, and the backcourt with Scoop Jardine and Brandon Triche has upside.
SHOULD BE IN (3): Georgetown, West Virginia, Marquette
The Hoyas will have to do without Greg Monroe, but they still have the league's preseason player of the year in guard Austin Freeman, and plenty of skill to complement him, even if size may be an issue. The Mountaineers also suffered significant losses from last season's Final Four team, but have nice building blocks in frontcourt standout Kevin Jones and guard Truck Bryant, plus some newcomers poised to make an immediate impact. Marquette, a.k.a. "Team Bubble Watch," still has guards Darius Johnson-Odom and Jimmy Butler, among others, and also brought in freshman wing Vander Blue and standout juco forward Jae Crowder.
IN THE MIX (5): Notre Dame, Seton Hall, St. John's, Connecticut, South Florida
The Johnnies have a nice buzz around them with new coach Steve Lavin and a lot of guys back from last season's NIT team, but sixth in the conference's preseason poll? Way too high. It seemed like they were accidentally switched with Seton Hall, which was picked an inexplicable 11th without people even knowing about the rumors (still unsubstantiated) that Herb Pope signed with a Turkish pro team. Notre Dame showed last season that they could play well without Luke Harangody and now get a whole season to prove it. UConn has obvious issues off the court and still is rebuilding on it. USF has a great frontcourt tandem in Gus Gilchrist and Jarrid Famous. Can the Bulls replace Dominique Jones, though?
LOCK (1): Duke
The defending national champs return loaded and it would be shocking if the Blue Devils don't earn a No. 1 seed in the NCAAs. With their typical ambitious-but-location-friendly nonleague schedule and an ACC that's not as robust as it used to be, Duke likely will be No. 1 in the RPI at season's end.
SHOULD BE IN (3): North Carolina, Virginia Tech and Florida State
Virginia Tech has a chance to be the second-best team in the ACC with Malcolm Delaney and a host of other returnees, but will be hampered by the loss of J.T. Thompson (the Hokies are still waiting for medical clearance for big man Allan Chaney, a Florida transfer). North Carolina, with freshman Harrison Barnes (a possible national player of the year candidate) and John Henson, should comfortably return to the NCAAs despite last season's meltdown and some significant offseason personnel losses. Florida State will miss Solomon Alabi's presence inside, but still has a solid returning core from last season's NCAA team, led by Chris Singleton.
IN THE MIX (3): N.C. State, Clemson and Maryland
The Wolfpack may be low here; they could finish as high as second in the league if high-profile recruits C.J. Leslie, Ryan Harrow and Lorenzo Brown are as good as advertised. Clemson has a lot of talent returning despite losing Trevor Booker, and adds new coach Brad Brownell, who is very underrated on the national scene. Maryland moves on from the Greivis Vasquez era and will look to Jordan Williams to lead the way, at least on the glass.
LOCKS (3): Florida, Kentucky, Tennessee
With the addition of physical power forward Patric Young to all five returning starters, the Gators should be the team to beat in the SEC. That is unless Kentucky gets Enes Kanter eligible to go with the rest of its precocious freshmen; then there could be a serious debate. Scotty Hopson will lead a revamped Vols squad that still has some firepower and the taste of that one-point loss that kept them from the Final Four.
SHOULD BE IN (2): Georgia, Mississippi State
This pair of Bulldogs could take a sizable bite out of SEC foes come February. In Trey Thompkins and Travis Leslie, Georgia has two of the better players in the league and should get a nice boost from Tennessee State transfer guard Gerald Robinson. Mississippi State will get its own boost when Renardo Sidney (nine games) and Dee Bost (nine games following academic ineligibility for the fall semester) get back on the floor after NCAA-mandated suspensions. MSU will be judged heavily on their league play with a full roster for at-large purposes.
IN THE MIX (2): Vanderbilt, Mississippi
The 'Dores are here mostly because someone has to finish fifth in the rugged East division, and that team may not have enough league wins to get in. They're a good team, though, led by sharpshooter John Jenkins. It wouldn't be a shock to see Vandy earn a bid, possibly at Georgia's expense. Ole Miss will rely on lead guard Chris Warren to pursue the West division crown and a possible bid.
LOCKS (3): San Diego State, BYU, UNLV
San Diego State will have to deal with the expectations of being the hunted, as the Aztecs were the preseason pick to win the league. With a ton of talent back, including rebounding fiend Kawhi Leonard, there is ample reason to believe they can do so. That said, there will be strong challenges from UNLV (with newfound size of its own in Kansas transfer Quintrell Thomas and juco Carlos Lopez) and BYU, which brings back the devastating guard pairing of Jimmer Fredette and Jackson Emery and some talented frontcourt players.
SHOULD BE IN (1): New Mexico
The Lobos need to make up for the significant losses of Darington Hobson and Ramon Martinez. Fortunately, they have two potential high-impact transfer bigs in Emmanuel Negedu (Tennessee) and Drew Gordon (UCLA, eligible in January). If the newcomers fit in well, there is more than enough talent here not only to make the NCAAs, but threaten to repeat as league champs.
IN THE MIX (1): Colorado State
A sleeper team with some good talent returning, the Rams need to break through against the top half of the league if they want to make an NCAA push. Last season, they went 0-8 against the four NCAA teams and 7-1 against the rest of the league.
LOCKS (1): Washington
The Huskies appear to easily be the cream of this conference this season. Underachievers for much of last season, they found their form down the stretch and parlayed it into a Sweet 16 appearance. The same level of March achievement is within reach this season, too, with Isaiah Thomas, Venoy Overton and Abdul Gaddy back to pick up the backcourt slack for the departed Quincy Pondexter.
SHOULD BE IN: None.
It could be another two-bid season.
IN THE MIX (4): Arizona, UCLA, Arizona State, Washington State
A couple of these teams could make the NCAAs. Star forward Derrick Williams makes Arizona the most likely to get there. Arizona State will need to shoot its way there, but having Rihards Kuksiks and Ty Abbott is a nice start. Wazzu should be markedly better in league play in Ken Bone's second season, with Klay Thompson a possible league player of the year.
LOCKS (3): Temple, Richmond, Xavier
The A-10 might be better at the top than the Pac-10, but has too much dreck still at the bottom. The league's top three teams last season will be the top three again this season, especially after Saint Louis was crushed by the dismissals of its two leading scorers earlier this month. Expect more than the two combined NCAA wins this trio yielded last season, with the hope that at least one goes to Temple's Fran Dunphy, one of the class acts in the business who is improbably riding a record 11-game NCAA tournament losing streak, including defeats in each of the last three seasons.
SHOULD BE IN: None.
IN THE MIX (1): Dayton
If freshman point guard Juwan Staten lives up to billing, the Flyers have more than enough talent to make the NCAAs. Dayton lost a slew of close games last season, in part because of subpar late-game decision-making.
There are too many good teams at the top of the league to think anyone's running away and locking up an NCAA berth.
SHOULD BE IN (1): Wichita State
The Shockers look like the best Valley team on paper, with practically everyone back from last season's second-place club that had late-season hopes for at-large consideration before a couple of sloppy losses. They have the size, depth and talent not only to subdue the Valley but also to win some nonleague games to help with seeding or as a safety net should the Shockers not win the auto bid.
IN THE MIX (2): Missouri State, Creighton
Cuonzo Martin's Bears have serious firepower in Sonny Weems and Adam Leonard. Creighton, under new coach (and Valley veteran) Greg McDermott, is its typically solid, balanced self and will get a huge boost when Rutgers transfer Greg Echenique gets eligible in December. He was a double-double threat in the Big East and should be a nightmare in the Valley.
LOCKS (1): Butler
With Matt Howard, Shelvin Mack and Ronald Nored returning from the national finalists, these Bulldogs should be dancing comfortably, but that doesn't mean life in this underrated conference will be easy.
SHOULD BE IN: None
IN THE MIX (3): Cleveland State, Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Detroit
Butler's 20-0 romp through the conference masked the fact that there were five 20-win teams in the Horizon League last season. It's not clear that anyone is close enough to knock Butler off its perch, but there are a number of solid teams that could steal the auto bid. Cleveland State and Wisconsin-Milwaukee more or less return everyone from burgeoning 2009-10 teams and should be threats to finish a very strong second. Another option is Detroit, which not only added two standout juco transfers but also the coach's son, point guard Ray McCallum, a top-25 national recruit.
Other leagues considered: Colonial Athletic Conference, Conference USA, West Coast Conference, Mid-America Conference.