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:
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
The Golden Gophers are being overlooked.
Despite losing big man
Any of these four teams, if things break right, could win the conference, depending the statuses of Kansas'
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
Even if the top of the conference isn't quite as dominant as it has been, there are still some very good teams.
The Hoyas will have to do without
The Johnnies have a nice buzz around them with new coach
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.
Virginia Tech has a chance to be the second-best team in the ACC with
The Wolfpack may be low here; they could finish as high as second in the league if high-profile recruits
With the addition of physical power forward
This pair of Bulldogs could take a sizable bite out of SEC foes come February. In
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
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
The Lobos need to make up for the significant losses of
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.
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
It could be another two-bid season.
A couple of these teams could make the NCAAs. Star forward
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
If freshman point guard
There are too many good teams at the top of the league to think anyone's running away and locking up an NCAA berth.
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.
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