S-E-C! S-E-C! Wait, that's the wrong sport. In the college game's other marquee sport, there's much more competitive balance and much more to argue when it comes to which conference is best. Does a superior conference need elite top-end quality or is it more important to have quality depth? The simple answer is "yes." Given those two dueling parameters, here is a breakdown of the 2012-13 college basketball conferences in order of overall strength, with a quick breakdown of what got them there.
You have the probable preseason No. 1 team in the nation in Indiana. You have very formidable Michigan and Michigan State teams. Ohio State, Wisconsin and Minnesota (with Trevor Mbakwe) should comfortably be NCAA teams. Iowa is going to be much improved this season and also could threaten for an NCAA bid. When you're assuming teams that could miss the NCAAs include Purdue, Illinois, Northwestern and Penn State, all of which have significant talent pieces returning, you know how difficult this league will be. (No, not to watch, to survive in.)
Louisville could be the best team in the nation. Syracuse has legitimate national title sleeper potential. Notre Dame, Cincinnati, Marquette and Georgetown all should be very solid. Pitt should be a lot better than last season with better health and 7-footer Steven Adams. UConn's guard depth should make the Huskies competitive even in a no-tournament season in Storrs. St. John's, South Florida, Rutgers and Villanova aren't bad if they're the "third quartile" of what's a 15-team league this season. Expect half the league (7-8 teams) to be dancing in March. The Big Ten pips the Beast for No. 1 because of less weakness at the bottom.
Top-end quality beyond Kansas may be a little lacking, but the quality of depth in the 10-member league makes it a tough run for almost anyone. Baylor, Kansas State, Texas, Oklahoma State and West Virginia should all be very much in the mix (at minimum) for NCAA bids, and Oklahoma and Iowa State will have chances to get there, too. With only Texas Tech and TCU to beat up on at the bottom of the league, it should be very competitive and a modest league record will likely be enough for a bid.
There's no dominant force like Kentucky 2011-12 at the top of the league, but Kentucky '12-'13 should be just fine, thanks. Throw in newcomer Missouri, which should be a top-10 team again, a Florida team that still has some weapons, a rising Tennessee squad and an Alabama club that should be better than a lot of people seem to expect, and the league should get a solid allotment of NCAA bids. Can Arkansas or Mississippi join the party? Is LSU ready to join the conversation? The bottom of the league is getting better, as well, so there are fewer gimme games than there have been the last couple of seasons.
The league is not as good at the top as it has been in previous years, and the bottom half of the league simply isn't very good by high-major standards. You have an X-factor in North Carolina, a couple of teams expected to be top-10 in caliber (NC State and Duke), a couple other teams that could be top-25 worthy (Florida State and Miami) and then a bunch of question marks and stragglers. Maryland could take another step forward, especially if Dez Wells is ruled eligible, but unless Virginia sans Mike Scott or Clemson becomes good, it's hard to see anyone below the midpoint of the league make a serious run for an NCAA tournament spot.
With the arrival of very strong VCU and Butler squads and a year before Temple departs for the Big East, this could be a watershed year for the league. Those three teams along with Saint Louis, Saint Joe's and UMass should battle it out for upper-division positioning and NCAA tournament consideration. But it's the depth of quality in the league that helps differentiate it from those below. La Salle, Dayton, Richmond and even perennial power Xavier (in a rebuilding year) won't be easy outs, and even St. Bonaventure (sans Andrew Nicholson) should be decent again. There are not a lot of soft spots, so assuming the league does credibly in nonconference play, four (or five?) NCAA bids seems possible.
UNLV and San Diego State should be excellent teams this season. New Mexico is probably being underrated (again). If Larry Eustachy can find the right tone with an experienced Colorado State core, the Rams could be a very difficult proposition again. Newcomer Nevada adds quality competitive depth. Even teams in the bottom part of the league, like Wyoming and Air Force are improved. It should be an fun season in the MWC and now more of you will actually be able to watch it with the demise of The Mtn. having pushed games onto ESPN, CBS Sports Network and NBC Sports Network.
Arizona should be very good ... if its freshmen bigs perform and Mark Lyons can hold everything together for a season at the point. UCLA could be very good ... if the NCAA allows Shabazz Muhammad and Kyle Anderson to play, Larry Drew II shows improved proficiency at the point, Josh Smith can play quality minutes without fouling and this group somehow comes together defensively. Colorado could be very good ... if their freshmen come along quickly and their inverted backcourt with a 6-5 point and a 6-foot shooting guard makes enough jumpers. Stanford could be ... eh, you get the point. The bottom of the league can't possibly be as wretched as last season, but this is still not a good league 1 through 12 yet.
Gonzaga appears to be the best team in the conference, but the Zags will have to fend off St. Mary's (again) to win the league. Don't count out BYU, either, with a lot of talent and now a year's worth of experience of trekking through the WCC. San Diego and Loyola Marymount are clearly on the rise and Santa Clara should be a ton better than last season's 0-16 injury-wracked fiasco with Marc Trasolini returning to rejoin a core that brings everyone back. The bottom third of the league won't be great, but this conference is worlds better than it was a decade ago in terms of overall quality of depth.
Everyone's giving the league to Creighton, a tip to the Bluejays excellent returning cast and stud forward Doug McDermott, but it says here that Northern Iowa will challenge the Jays for the league crown. Wichita State was hard hit by graduation, but the Shockers should still put a solid team on the floor. Illinois State and Evansville add to the quality depth in the top half of the league. Indiana State and Bradley should be improved. Drake and Missouri State may take a step back. There's really only one bad team in the league, though (Southern Illinois) and even they have Barry Hinson now at the helm, so things could get rolling in the right direction.
Memphis' swan song should bring another league title before the Tigers bounce to the Big East, although the tournament being in Tulsa may open the door to a non-Memphis, auto-bid ticket to the NCAAs. Marshall may be the biggest threat to Memphis in terms of team quality, but UTEP's scheduling advantage could propel the Miners into the mix. Central Florida, thanks to Keith Clanton's somewhat surprising return (since the Knights are banned from the postseason), also should be a factor. The lack of quality depth is an almost-annual hindrance and this one's no different. SMU and Tulsa may be bad, but at least they have interesting new coaching hires in Larry Brown and Danny Manning.
Judging by Twitter, a lot of Ohio fans think the national media is overlooking the Bobcats. There's certainly the talent there, but with a new head coach and the reality that the MAC is just really hard to navigate, we'll see if they can put together a dominant season. They were only 11-5 last season, and the East Division (again) should be far more challenging than the West. The likely challengers appear to be Akron, with Buffalo and maybe Eastern Michigan having an outside chance to surprise. Toledo, another possible contender, is an APR casualty and ineligible for postseason play.
With VCU gone to the A-10 and Old Dominion banned from the league tournament before it heads to Conference USA, the popular line of thought is the auto bid will be contested between Drexel and George Mason. That's a reasonable theory, as both teams return a lot of talent from top-tier clubs last season, but it ignores the looming threat of the Delaware Blue Hens, who with Devon Saddler and Jamelle Hagins, should challenge. Watch for the Blue Hens to make an early splash by winning the Virginia bracket of the NIT Season Tip-Off and advancing to the semifinals at MSG.
This league should be a serious battle at the top. Loyola Md. (last season's NCAA rep) and Manhattan look like very strong bets to battle for top honors. The Greyhounds, in their final season before an interesting move to the Patriot League, have a ton back as do Steve Masiello's Jaspers. Don't count out Siena (returning basically the whole rotation, including O.D. Anosike), Niagara (all five starters back) and even graduation-depleted Iona as a title threat, though. There are a lot of good players in this league, even on teams expected to finish in the second division. The MAAC semis and finals are typically one of the better small-conference shows during championship week. Expect more of the same this season.
Butler's departure hurts the quality of the league, but the Horizon has been very competitive for a number of years, with depth beyond the Bulldogs. Valpo won the league last season and returns everyone for another run at the crown. Then take your pick from a cluster of Detroit, UW-Green Bay, Cleveland State, UW-Milwaukee and maybe Youngstown State to see who will challenge. The Titans and maybe the Vikings may be the best picks there, but it should be another tussle.
The Zombie Conference lives! At least for this season. Then who knows, when multiple teams depart. The Battle of the Aggies will rage for one more year until Utah State takes their blueness to the Mountain West. They were very young last season and now should reap the benefits of a core built around Preston Medlin. New Mexico State has replenished and will provide its normal athletic challenge to the sweet shooters from Logan. The interesting twist is the arrival of Denver from the Sun Belt. The Pioneers were one of the best teams in the SBC last season and have the talent, starting with Chris Udofia, to take the title in their debut season.
With Belmont's arrival and Murray State losing some core pieces from last season, there should be a great battle for 1-2 in the league ... assuming Tennessee State doesn't wreck that party. With Kerron Johnson, Isaiah Canaan and Robert Covington this season, the OVC has as good a three-player punch as you will see outside the top 10 conferences.
This is a two-team show, but what a show it could be between Lehigh and Bucknell, as C.J. McCollum and Mike Muscala wrap up their four-year rivalry. Holy Cross is probably the best bet to pick one of the two powers off at least once. American has some talent back, too, and Army may be poised to take a step forward with all-league forward Ella Ellis.
Denver's exit to the WAC weakens the depth at the top of the league, but there's still some quality here. It starts with Middle Tennessee State, which returns everyone but league POY LaRon Dendy from last season's 27-win team. The Blue Raiders will be challenged by North Texas, which features presumed league POY Tony Mitchell and returns the entire rotation from last season for new coach Tony Benford. Last season's miracle auto-bid winner, Western Kentucky, also brings back some talent, but this should be a two-team battle.
With Oral Roberts gone to the Southland, this is now South Dakota State's league to lose. Expect Nate Wolters and Co. to make a return trip to the NCAAs after they won the auto-bid last season. This is a solid team with the ability to shoot from range. Oakland and North Dakota State are probably the biggest threat to the Jackrabbits. The Golden Grizzlies lose the nation's leading scorer in Reggie Hamilton, but have a strong supporting cast returning. NDSU has a now-experienced upperclass core that should take a leap from last year's 9-9 league campaign.
This is Davidson's league to lose, and may be for the foreseeable future with primary foil College of Charleston electing to move on to the CAA for the 2013-14 season. The two teams should have two or three solid battles this season, though. The Wildcats, with Jake Cohen and De'Mon Brooks, have the talent to make a splash on the national scene. Georgia Southern appears to be the best dark horse.
Probably the nation's most underrated one-bid league, the NEC is loaded with talented, experienced teams that could challenge for the league title. Since LIU Brooklyn reinstated numerous players after some preseason malfeasance, the Blackbirds are the presumptive favorite, but Robert Morris and Wagner return stacked rosters, too (and really young head coaches in 32-year-old Andy Toole and 28-year-old Bashir Mason, respectively). Quinnipiac should be tough again and Monmouth appears to be on the rise under King Rice. This is another conference tourney to check out from the semis on.
This should be a transitional year for the league, with a number of teams dropping off of last year's strong standard. Princeton is now favored to win the league and the NCAA bid after Harvard lost Kyle Casey and Brandyn Curry as part of a university-wide academic scandal. Penn and Yale suffered significant personnel losses and Columbia also lost solid shooter Noruwa Agho.
It's the calm before the San Diego State storm arrives, and the league should be down a little bit. Long Beach State should still be the class of the conference, especially when transfers Keala King (Arizona State) and Tony Freeland (DePaul) become eligible in December, but the 49ers won't be as formidable as last season. Can Michael Wilder and UC Irvine make a run? Cal State Fullerton may be the most likely challenger on paper, but parted ways with coach Bob Burton at the end of May, so the Titans are a bit of a question mark. Will UCSB's underclassmen develop in a hurry? Can Bob Thomason make something out of his final season at the helm at Pacific?
Belmont's departure to the Ohio Valley weakens this league significantly at the top. The Bruins' exit leaves top billing for another set of Bears, this one from Mercer. Fresh off a CIT postseason title, these Bears return almost everyone from that roster. They'll be challenged by USC Upstate, one of the stories of last season in their full D-I debut. All five starters are back for the Spartans, who tied with Mercer at 13-5 last season. Tournament finalist Florida Gulf Coast could continue its upward ascent and could traditionally solid Lipscomb be a sleeper after an almost complete roster overhaul?
Oral Roberts joins the conference from the Summit League and should be the strong favorite to take the conference title in its debut season. The Golden Eagles won 27 games last season and have a strong returning core plus some transfer help. Stephen F. Austin, Northwestern State and McNeese State could have something to say about the title race. Last year's auto bid winner, Lamar, is rebuilding.
Montana is the odds-on favorite to repeat as league champ, but the Grizzlies need to get guard Will Cherry (broken foot) healthy and overcome the loss of expected big man Marko Kovacevic, who was deemed ineligible for this season and now will transfer to Utah for next season. The presumed challenger is Weber State, but the Wildcats have their own issues, principally replacing Damian Lillard.
UNC Asheville has lost its star guard tandem of J.P. Primm and Matt Dickey, so the league is really up for grabs. The Bulldogs still have the frontcourt talent to stay in the mix, but we'll see how they replenish the backcourt. Is this the year Anthony Raffa and Coastal Carolina break through? Will Charleston Southern build on last year's step forward? Is VMI a looming dark horse with its latest group of athletes and shooters built around leading scorer Stan Okoye? Coastal hosts the conference tourney, so perhaps that will be the boost the Chanticleers need to make their first NCAA trip since 1993.
Despite losing Four McGlynn to transfer, Vermont should be a pretty strong favorite this season. Most of the core of last season's tournament champs are back and several other contenders, including Stony Brook and Boston U. were harder hit by departures. The Seawolves, who won the regular-season crown last season, bring back Tommy Brenton and get Anthony Mayo back in the frontcourt. BU was crippled when, thanks to its decision to move to the Patriot League in 2013-14, the Terriers were banned from this season's conference tournament and then lost Jake O'Brien to a transfer.
Coach Horace Broadnax's Savannah State Tigers stormed to a shocking regular-season title in their league debut last season, a tremendous rise for a program that went a combined 2-56 (with a non-DI win and one over transitional D-I Longwood) in the 2004-05 and 2005-06 seasons. Now Broadnax returns the whole group to take another run at atoning for a quarterfinal upset in the league tourney that cost them an NCAA bid. Last year's NCAA Cinderella, Norfolk State, probably will drop a step after losing Kyle O'Quinn in the middle. Delaware State may be the most logical challenger, and the Hornets are fueled by a similar post-season MEAC flop.
With graduation, APR issues and postseason bans continuing to riddle the league, it's hard to find a definitive favorite. Plus, you never know how teams will respond to the brutal nonconference road trips that are a regular fundraising feature in this league. Given the dynamics of the league, you can't go wrong with picking a team with experience and solid guard play. Therefore, Prairie View A&M is the nominal pick.
In what could be the final season for this "scheduling consortium" of former transitional D-I programs, Utah Valley is the likely favorite. The Wolverines head for the WAC next season and Houston Baptist will move to the Southland (as will current independent New Orleans, in its return from the brink of de-emphasis). That leaves just Texas-Pan American, Chicago State and NJIT without a conference home for 2013-14.