In league rankings, power shifts to the Midwest

November, 10, 2009
Ranking the conferences is always going to be a debate without a real winner.

What matters most to someone is open for discussion. For me, I look at the possible No. 1 seeds and the number of potential NCAA tournament teams. It's still a prediction at this point, but I'll give it a shot …

1. Big Ten: Michigan State and Purdue start the season as potential No. 1 seeds. Ohio State, Illinois and Michigan should be nipping at their heels with Northwestern not that far behind. Minnesota, Wisconsin and Penn State are possible NCAA tournament teams as well. That brings the count to nine teams that enter the season thinking they can make the field. That's nine of 11 members.

2. Big 12: The race between Kansas and Texas should be one of the best in the country. Both teams can win the Big 12 and national titles. The Jayhawks and Longhorns may be the deepest teams in the country, too. Oklahoma and Kansas State seem like locks to make the field. Oklahoma State, Iowa State, Texas A&M and Missouri should all be in the mix to challenge for bids, putting eight of 12 in play for an NCAA berth.

3. ACC: This shouldn't come as a shock, but North Carolina and Duke are likely going to be 1-2 in the league -- and with the nonconference schedules they play, will be in position to challenge for a top-two seed. Then there is a drop-off, with the rest of the league wide open. Georgia Tech has the talent to challenge for the title, and being the only team in the league to play Duke and Carolina twice means the Yellow Jackets will have a chance to affect the race in their favor. Maryland, Boston College, Clemson, Wake Forest, Florida State, Miami and Virginia Tech are all starting the season believing they can make the NCAA tournament. That's 10 of the 12 teams in the league that are in play for bids. That could be a generous number, and it probably won't be more than seven, but the competitiveness from 1-12 has greatly improved.

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Jeremy Hazell
AP Photo/Julie JacobsonThe improvement of teams like Seton Hall will be the key to the Big East's overall success.

4. Big East: The league may not have a top-seeded team in 2010 after getting three last season (Louisville, UConn, Pitt), but the strength of the league from 1-16 has gotten better. The bottom of the league has risen up with Seton Hall and St. John's having a real shot at an NCAA bid. West Virginia should be the favorite, despite Villanova's high ranking. But the Wildcats, Connecticut, Georgetown, Syracuse and possibly Louisville will be in play for bids. So, too, should Notre Dame, with the possible player of the year in Luke Harangody. Cincinnati, with maybe the freshman of the year in Lance Stephenson, and Seton Hall are sleeper teams that could also rise up into the top four in the league. And never discount Pitt under Jamie Dixon. Toss in the Red Storm as the only team that returns all five starters, and the Big East has 11 of its 16 teams thinking NCAAs.

5. SEC: If the SEC was putting forward just the East division, the league would be higher on this list. Remember, the SEC had just three teams that made the field last season and would have had only two if Mississippi State didn't win the conference tournament. Kentucky is a candidate for a No. 1 seed. Tennessee, Vanderbilt and South Carolina should all make the field if each team lives up to its potential. Florida is the dark horse, as the Gators are still an unknown because of all the newcomers. Mississippi State and Ole Miss are likely the only two NCAA contenders in the West. That gives the SEC a strong five to seven candidates for bids, but probably only one for a top seed.

6. Pac-10: The Pac-10 is in a reshuffle mode. Cal and Washington are more than capable of making deep NCAA runs if their respective guard play is exceptional. But holes up front could make them vulnerable. These two are likely the only sure things. UCLA will make its usual run for an NCAA bid once it matures. Oregon State, Oregon and Arizona are call capable of earning a berth based on their personnel. But it's still a big if, meaning the Pac-10 could be this season's 2009 SEC if it doesn't stand out enough in the nonconference.

7. Mountain West: This is the beginning of what could be one-bid territory. BYU should be the repeat champ, winning a fourth straight MWC title. San Diego State and UNLV are more than capable of challenging for the league title. But all three better differentiate themselves in the nonconference slate in order for the league to get multiple bids.

8. Conference USA: The top of C-USA should be stronger than the MWC, with Memphis, UTEP, Tulsa and Houston all capable of winning the league and earning a berth. But the problem is the overall depth of the conference. The bottom of the league continues to drag down the top. Southern Miss should be improved and so, too, should Rice. But how will C-USA, without an elite Memphis, be viewed nationally?

9. Atlantic 10: The A-10 has a star team in Dayton, but just how much the Flyers can ascend is still a question. UD should be a very good team, but can the Flyers separate themselves to carry the league higher? Xavier, Richmond, Charlotte and La Salle are all possible NCAA teams if they win in the nonconference and create a division within the conference.

10. Missouri Valley: The Valley will be extremely competitive again with great balance, but will Northern Iowa and Creighton be able to put themselves clearly ahead of the rest? Illinois State, Wichita State, Southern Illinois and Bradley could all be players in the league race, which is great for the competition but not so much for multiple bids. If it's too competitive, then it might be hard to differentiate.

11. West Coast: Gonzaga is still the cream of the crop. The Zags have a top-30 team this season and should be in the mix to win a game or two in the NCAAs. Portland is second best and could pull off an upset in the 76 Classic later this month. Saint Mary's will still be decent, but it's more than likely CBI/NIT potential.

12. Horizon: Butler might carry this conference even higher in the rankings. The Bulldogs play a national schedule and should be a top 15-20 team throughout the season. Wright State has a real shot to split with Butler and earn a bid with a conference tournament title. The strength of this league goes beyond these two with a new pesky team in Cleveland State (just ask Wake Forest).

13. WAC: Utah State is likely the one team that will represent the conference. The Aggies have a shot to win a game in March again after nearly clipping Marquette in the first round last season. Nevada has Luke Babbitt and Fresno State has Paul George, two potential honorable mention-type All-Americans. But neither probably has enough to earn an NCAA at-large berth.

14. MAAC: Siena is the class of the league and has a shot to win another first-round NCAA tournament game. The Saints also will sniff the Top 25 at some point during the season. Niagara can push the Saints, but the lack of possible postseason teams in this league pushes it down to the mid-teens.

15. Colonial: Old Dominion gets very little pub, and maybe that's our fault. The Monarchs return the core of their team and Blaine Taylor is once again primed to pull off a few upsets. Don't sleep on this squad. But Northeastern, VCU and Drexel (and I'd never count out George Mason) are likely to give ODU fits and could prevent it from winning the league. The conference should be top-heavy and the winner will likely earn a decent seed in the NCAAs.

16. Sun Belt: Western Kentucky is still the team to beat. The Hilltoppers have one of the most consistent programs in the country, regardless of who is the coach. Expect Ken McDonald to keep the good vibes going with this crew. The Hilltoppers' schedule should give them a solid power rating. But WKU will be pushed by North Texas and Denver for the tournament title.

17. Southern: It's strange seeing Davidson picked third, but the Wildcats are in rebuilding mode. Still, don't be surprised to see Bob McKillop's team find a way into the title race with the College of Charleston and Appalachian State. Bobby Cremins' Cougars are the best team in the league, but that might not be enough to win a first-round NCAA tournament game.

18. Big West: Long Beach State will play an elite nonconference schedule and the 49ers will know early if they can be a player in March. Cal State Northridge's near-miss with Memphis in the NCAA first round last season should serve notice that the Big West is no longer a pushover. The race should be tight with Northridge, UC Riverside, UC Santa Barbara and Pacific all challenging Long Beach.

19. Mid-American: The MAC simply can't get itself in a position where it can earn multiple bids. The drought since 1999 will continue. Akron coach Keith Dambrot has the good karma with Akron native LeBron James helping out the program. The Zips are once again the team to beat.

20. Summit: North Dakota State was the darling of the Dance last season because it was the first time the Bison were eligible for a bid. NDSU is in a rebuilding mode this season, though. Oakland is the pick here and the Grizzlies' daunting nonconference slate will give them a high strength of schedule and prepare them for a possible first-round upset if they can get a 13- or 14-seed.

21. Patriot: Ralph Willard left what might've been his best Holy Cross team to become Rick Pitino's top assistant at Louisville. New coach Sean Kearney should take the Crusaders into the NCAA tournament and be a potential thorn for a first-round opponent.

22. Big Sky: Montana, Eastern Washington, Weber State and two-time defending tourney champ Portland State have taken turns of late becoming the "it" team in the conference. But the pendulum has swung back to Weber, where Randy Rahe went 15-1 last season and could produce another fine run. This time the Wildcats should be able to close out the league tournament, where they lost to Montana State last season.

23. Ivy: Cornell is the class of the league and might be able to pull off an upset in the first round of the NCAAs if it can get the right matchup. Princeton has improved and so, too, has Harvard. Never dismiss Penn, either.

24. America East: Binghamton would have been the pick to win the league and possibly challenge for a first-round win, but that program's offseason implosion has opened things up for a competitive, balanced race among Vermont, Boston University and New Hampshire among the contenders.

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James Florence
AP Photo/Gus RuelasPerhaps you've never heard of James Florence. But Mercer's opponents certainly have.

25. Atlantic Sun: James Florence's return to Mercer should keep the Bears in the race throughout the season. Florence averaged 20.8 points a game last season. Mercer has knocked off quality teams recently and the A-Sun has been a prickly early nonconference opponent for high-major leagues, especially the SEC.

26. Northeast: Quinnipiac, Mount Saint Mary's, Robert Morris and Long Island University should make this an interesting race down to the final weekend. But the top of the league will carry it and that means a possible 15- or 16-seed.

27. MEAC: Todd Bozeman has made Morgan State into a regular contender in the MEAC. He took the Bears to the NCAA tournament last season and could have them back again. The depth of the league isn't outstanding and pushes it down a few pegs. But Morgan State has the potential to be trouble again in March.

28. Big South: Brad Greenberg's Radford squad should be in the mix yet again for the automatic berth. The Highlanders can score and that shouldn't change this season. If it returns to the NCAA tournament, expect Radford to be a tough out in the first round.

29. Southland: The Southland has had its moments, notably when Northwestern State beat third-seeded Iowa in the 2005 NCAA tournament. Stephen F. Austin, Sam Houston State and Northwestern State have all had their share of success. The league is balanced, but doesn't have the standout team this season that might be able to win a first-round NCAA tournament game.

30. Ohio Valley: Maybe this is too low for the OVC, especially after watching No. 12 Cal escape with a 75-70 win over Murray State on Monday night. Murray is playing with four returning starters and the return of Jewuan Long and Donte Poole from season-ending injuries. If the Racers pull off a few in-season upsets, then this ranking needs to be revisited.

31. SWAC: Jackson State should be the class of the league. Tevester Anderson has a team that can defend with solid size for a low-major. This ranking might be too low for the SWAC and Jackson State may prove to be a tough out.

32. Great West: The newly formed Great West Conference doesn't get an automatic berth to the NCAA, NIT or CBI. But the winner will get to play in the postseason in the Tournament. Utah Valley might prove to be the best of this bunch.

Andy Katz | email

ESPN Senior Writer



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