After the initial conference rankings column posted in late October and created solid Twitter debate, one of my followers innocently asked whether they would be updated as the season went along, to capture the ebbs and flows of the developing year in hoops. Gauntlet thrown and accepted!
Remember, the rankings are based both on top-end quality in the league and quality of competitive depth. The balance and weightings are entirely subjective, so I can't be wrong. What a country!
Here's December's look at the ordering of the 32 Division I conferences, with a summary of the initial thoughts and then revised commentary based on what we've seen so far.
October conventional wisdom (OCW): The league had the nation's No. 1 team and a group of six that looked like very strong NCAA tournament candidates. The bottom of the league was pretty solid, too.
December conventional wisdom (DCW): The league still very well may have the nation's No. 1 team (although Duke's on-court accomplishments are inarguably better) and a group of six strong NCAA candidates, but the deck's been shuffled a bit. Illinois under John Groce is better than expected and the loss of Josh Gasser for the season has hurt Wisconsin. Minnesota looks expectedly solid. There are still very few soft spots in conference play, although Penn State sans Tim Frazier is going to have a rough go.
OCW: Louisville could be the nation's best team. Syracuse could be a national title sleeper. Notre Dame, Cincinnati, Marquette and Georgetown make up a strong second tier. Pitt should be much improved. UConn will, too. Expect 7-8 bids.
DCW: All of that still sounds pretty spot on. I had Syracuse in my preseason Final Four and love, love, love that pick right now. Marquette's weaker than that forecast, but the top five or six teams in the league look very good. The bottom of the league remains soft.
OCW: Top-end quality beyond Kansas is lacking, but the quality of depth is very good. Baylor, Kansas State, Texas, Oklahoma State and West Virginia should all challenge for NCAA bids.
DCW: The Jayhawks were my national title pick because of a) Experienced guard play; b) Jeff Withey's interior defense; c) better potential depth than last season; d) Ben McLemore's projected learning curve into primary scorer; and e) a good chance to win the league, grab a 1-seed and play in Kansas City on the first weekend. All of those remain well intact at this point. Beyond KU, there are teams that can beat or lose to almost anyone in the league. If Texas doesn't get Myck Kabongo back soon, trouble is coming.
OCW: UNLV and San Diego State will be excellent. New Mexico should challenge that duo in the league. Colorado State has the potential to make the NCAAs again. Nevada's a good import. Wyoming and Air Force should be improved, making virtually every road game a tough one.
DCW: As high as I was on the league, I undershot it so far. The MWC has the best collective winning percentage in Division I. Neither of the co-favorites have quite lived up to billing yet, but New Mexico's unbeaten. So is Colorado State. So is Wyoming after an epic rally at Illinois State! Air Force is much improved. And that doesn't even mention Boise State, which nearly won at Michigan State and then rolled Creighton in Omaha.
OCW: The top isn't as imposing as normal and the bottom half of the league is poor by top major-conference standards. NC State and Duke will be very good. UNC is a giant question mark. FSU and Miami have the potential to be ranked and solid. Maryland, with Dez Wells, could surprise.
DCW: Duke and NC State have flipped favorite roles. North Carolina still has major question marks. Florida State looks really light on scoring options. Miami with Durand Scott has things going a little bit. Maryland looks like an NCAA tournament team at this point. Virginia Tech at 7-0 is one of the huge surprise stories of the season. Good on ya, shorthanded Hokies.
OCW: Kentucky, not as good as '11-'12, but still very good. Missouri, maybe not as good as last season, but still very good. Florida, not as good ... eh, you get the point. The bottom half of the league is improving. Maybe a 5-bid league, give or take one, if Arkansas or Ole Miss deliver.
DCW: Kentucky's definitely not as good as '11-'12 ... or '09-'10 ... can we see a growth curve like '10-'11, which went 10-6 SEC but made the Final Four? Florida is making things work with a shoot-first-ask-later backcourt of Kenny Boynton and Mike Rosario and looks, at this point, like the league's best team. Missouri is going to miss Michael Dixon. Alabama has potential. The bottom looks softer than expected.
OCW: Every team has question marks, but Arizona, UCLA, Colorado and Stanford have solid potential. Cal should be decent. USC is a sleeper. The bottom of the league can't possibly be as bad as last season.
DCW: Arizona's question mark (Mark Lyons) has scored well, but been suspect with distribution and Arizona's PG issue remains unanswered. UCLA's question marks (many) remain somewhat unanswered as the Bruins morph by necessity into a small-ball team that runs opportunistically and plays a good amount of zone to hide defensive deficiencies. Colorado is trending well. Stanford's been OK. Cal's been better than expected. The bottom of the league has improved a bit, for whatever that's worth.
OCW: Everyone's giving the league to Creighton, but Northern Iowa will challenge for the league crown. Wichita State should still be solid. Illinois State and Evansville add quality depth. Indiana State and Bradley should be improved. No really bad teams in the league.
DCW: I got the quality of depth right, but perhaps the Creighton challenger wrong. Rebuilt and unbeaten Wichita State has been a pleasant surprise. Illinois State looks tough despite recent late fades at Louisville and home to Wyoming. Overall, the league looks very solid.
OCW: The league is loaded at the top with VCU, Butler, Temple, Saint Joe's, Saint Louis and UMass, and the depth behind that with La Salle, Dayton, Richmond and Xavier makes this a bear of a league. Projected as a four-bid league.
DCW: Ehhhh. VCU is still figuring things out a bit. Same with Butler, who is inordinately dependent upon Rotnei Clarke's heroics. Saint Louis is not as good defensively and now has Rick Majerus' passing to cope with, too. UMass has been exposed, as I suggested in my preseason rankings. Saint Joe's had a chance to make a statement at Creighton, and did -- losing by like 90. I whiffed on Temple. Sorry, Fran. I won't make that mistake again. Xavier is the huge upside surprise. Some things never change.
OCW: Gonzaga looks like the best team. Saint Mary's and BYU will have a say. San Diego and LMU are on the rise. Santa Clara should be much better with Marc Trasolini back.
DCW: Gonzaga is the best team in the league by far, and a lot of CBB watchers' predictions that this was the best Zags team in awhile look spot on. Very impressive so far, with a big month ahead before conference play. Gonzaga faces Washington State, Illinois, Kansas State, Baylor and Oklahoma State before New Year's. Saint Mary's and BYU aren't quite as good as expected at this point. Santa Clara definitely is much better.
OCW: Butler's departure hurt, but the league will still be solid. Valpo is the favorite, then take your pick from a cluster of Detroit, UW-Green Bay, Cleveland State, UW-Milwaukee and maybe Youngstown State.
DCW: Still like Valpo as the league favorite, but can Illinois-Chicago provide a surprise challenge? The Flames have wins over Iona, Mercer and Northwestern already. Cleveland State should also be right there as Gary Waters has another good club. Detroit has disappointed thus far.
OCW: Memphis should win the league, although the conference tournament in Tulsa may hand the auto bid to someone else. Marshall and UTEP are the likeliest challengers. The league lacks quality of depth. Interesting coaching hires won't save SMU and Tulsa this season, anyway.
DCW: Confirmed: This is not a good year for the league. Memphis clanged its opportunity at Battle 4 Atlantis and appears in some disarray. Marshall and UTEP have disappointed. SMU is 8-1 under Larry Brown, with a couple of not-entirely-bad wins! Southern Miss is also better than expected, for whatever it's worth.
OCW: Ohio fans felt overlooked. Akron, Buffalo and maybe Eastern Michigan can challenge. Overall, not a vintage year for a tough-to-navigate-anyway conference.
DCW: Ohio is very solid (despite a home loss to Robert Morris). Akron's also pretty good. Kent State's OK. The rest of the league is ... not great, despite a couple teams with decent records.
OCW: Should be a serious battle at the top between Loyola Md. and Manhattan. Don't count out Siena, Niagara and even Iona as a title threat.
DCW: Loyola and Iona have lived up to billing. Manhattan, Siena and Niagara have not. Still should be a competitive league season and exciting conference tournament. Maybe the best of the 1-bid leagues.
OCW: This is a two-team show, but what a show it could be between Lehigh and Bucknell. Holy Cross is probably the best bet to grab an upset. American and Army have some talent.
DCW: Nothing's changed, other than maybe Bucknell is now a slight favorite. Both teams (when healthy, in Lehigh's case) have played very well. The battle for league POY between C.J. McCollum and Mike Muscala should also be sensational. I wish I could get to one of those head-to-heads.
OCW: Belmont's arrival should create a great 1-2 battle in the league ... assuming Tennessee State doesn't wreck that party. Great individual talents fleck a number of rosters in the league.
DCW: The pecking order looks solidly intact. Murray State and Belmont are both solid, if not great. The Bruins' dossier would look better without the huge cave-in against Northeastern in Alaska, and if they ever can grab a defensive rebound again. Murray State hosts the Bruins in the only regular-season meeting, so advantage Racers. Tennessee State has been a little disappointing thus far, albeit against a very challenging schedule.
OCW: 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. Utah State is the favorite. New Mexico State and newcomer Denver will challenge.
DCW: The Zombie Conference is trying to stay alive by grabbing every piece of flotsam it can find, including inviting for-profit Division II Grand Canyon University. With all due respect to the Antelopes, morphing into a downscale proxy of the Great West is not a good look. That same phrase can describe New Mexico State and (especially) Denver so far this season as both have underachieved. Utah State looks like the clear favorite.
OCW: With VCU gone and Old Dominion banned, the auto bid will be contested between Drexel and George Mason. Don't ignore Delaware, though. They'll get early buzz by winning the Virginia bracket of the NIT Season Tip-Off and advancing to MSG.
DCW: Well, the Blue Hens did win the Virginia subregional and almost took out Kansas State at the Garden. Everything else has pretty much been a disaster. Drexel is one of the biggest disappointments in the nation. This was clearly a one-bid league three weeks into the season. That's really bad.
OCW: Middle Tennessee State is the class of the league. North Texas, with Tony Mitchell, will challenge. Last season's miracle auto-bid winner, Western Kentucky, also brings back some talent.
DCW: MTSU remains the clear best team in the league. Western Kentucky has looked OK. North Texas has been disappointing. South Alabama is out to a 2-0 league start along with the Blue Raiders.
OCW: With Oral Roberts gone to the Southland, this is now South Dakota State's league to lose. Oakland and North Dakota State are probably the biggest threats to the Jackrabbits.
DCW: Pretty much verbatim. As long as Nate Wolters is healthy (unlike Tuesday night at Minnesota), the Jackrabbits are a strong favorite. NDSU probably is the best bet to unseat them.
OCW: Should be a transitional year for the league, with a number of teams dropping off of last year's strong standard. Princeton is favored after Harvard lost Kyle Casey and Brandyn Curry as part of a university-wide academic scandal.
DCW: Princeton is still probably the favorite, but Harvard has looked pretty strong, led by freshman point guard Siyani Chambers. Columbia (won by 18 at Villanova) lurks as a legitimate title dark horse.
OCW: This is Davidson's league to lose. College of Charleston is the obvious challenger. Georgia Southern appears to be the most logical dark horse.
DCW: If you ignore that part about George Southern, this is a correct assessment. The Wildcats are easily the best team in the league. The bottom half of the league looks really weak.
OCW: LIU is the presumptive favorite, but Robert Morris and Wagner return stacked rosters, too. Quinnipiac should be tough again and Monmouth appears to be on the rise under King Rice. This should be an excellent conference race and tournament for the auto bid.
DCW: The whole league has started off slower than expected, but the best teams still look like they will be the best teams and Monmouth definitely is making some noise. Robert Morris, with a strong win at Ohio, may be the slight favorite at this stage.
OCW: The league should be down a little bit. Long Beach State should still be the class. UC Irvine and Cal State Fullerton may be the best bets to challenge.
DCW: It's hard to tell what Long Beach State will end up being until they get several transfers eligible in a couple of weeks, but they should win the league. Irvine and Fullerton have lived up to billing and Pacific is looking friskier than expected in Bob Thomason's final season on the bench.
OCW: Belmont's departure leaves Mercer as the favorite. They'll be challenged by USC Upstate. Florida Gulf Coast could continue its upward ascent. Lipscomb could be a sleeper after an almost complete roster overhaul.
DCW: This all looks pretty solid still. I still like Mercer as the slight favorite, although KenPom picks Upstate at this stage.
OCW: Vermont should be a pretty strong favorite. Stony Brook and Boston U. were hit by departures. The Seawolves still could mount a challenge.
DCW: Vermont's been as advertised. Stony Brook has been better than advertised. Albany (a win at Washington) has been much better than advertised. It could be a much more interesting league season than expected.
OCW: Oral Roberts joins the conference and should be the strong favorite. Stephen F. Austin, Northwestern State and McNeese State could have something to say about the title race.
DCW: If you believe KenPom, I had the four contenders correct, but the magnitude of Oral Roberts' favorite status has dwindled significantly. Unbeaten (only three D-I wins, but still), defensively stingy Stephen F. Austin is making an early statement of intent. I'd still take the Golden Eagles.
OCW: Montana is the odds-on favorite to repeat as league champ, but the Grizzlies need to get guard Will Cherry (broken foot) healthy. The presumed challenger is Weber State, even sans Damian Lillard.
DCW: Those look like the two best teams and it's impossible to know the size of the gap between the two until Cherry comes back and plays a few games.
OCW: The league is really up for grabs. Asheville, Coastal Carolina, Charleston Southern and VMI all have a chance to win it. Coastal hosts the conference tourney, so they're the pick for the auto bid.
DCW: The league will be a mess. KenPom has seven teams projected between 9-7 and 12-4. So far, this has been an awful league offensively. Only Charleston Southern is even at one point per possession for the season.
OCW: Savannah State returns the whole group from the shocking regular-season champs. 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.
DCW: The slow and stingy Tigers still look like the best team in the league. They were very competitive against solid nonconference foes and sport an extremely rare offensive (horrible)/defensive (excellent) points-per-possession split. That said, they lost their league opener at home to Norfolk State, an early statement of intent from the Spartans.
OCW: With graduation, APR issues and postseason bans continuing to riddle the league, who knows. Prairie View A&M is the nominal pick.
DCW: Prairie View has played decently and picked up two legitimate D-I wins, including one against Houston. Texas Southern has shown some potential, especially in the double OT loss at Colorado.
OCW: In what appears to be the final season for this "scheduling consortium," Utah Valley is the likely favorite.
DCW: NJIT is staking a claim to nominal league favorite, but KenPom has all five league members finishing between 3-5 and 5-3 at this point. More important is finding greener (auto-bid) pastures for next season. Utah Valley and UTPA (WAC), and Houston Baptist (Southland) are already on their way.