Now that conference play is upon us, the nation's elite teams split off into their own little worlds and we are left to argue over which league is toughest and best. Every year, coaches, players and fans believe their league is the most difficult league in which to get a win. When you are immersed in it, it is hard to feel otherwise.
Only an ACC school knows how tough it is to go to Clemson and win, even though those outside the league might not notice the significance of a road win at Littlejohn from the blurb in the paper. Only the Big East wonks truly appreciate how difficult it is to win at Rutgers. Similarly, unless you have played or coached, you might not internalize the struggle of winning at Washington State in the Pac-10. Beating Northwestern is perceived to be a layup, but Big Ten coaches and players know otherwise.
The truth is, it is very difficult to win in any league. Your opponents know you and your tendencies, the officials know you, and there are few surprises. Conference play separates teams more than nonconference play, but separating conferences is a tough task, as well. What does it mean to be tagged as the nation's best conference? Does it mean your league has the most NCAA Tournament-quality teams? Does it mean your league is the best at the very top? Does it mean your league is the most competitive top to bottom, with teams in the cellar that can beat the teams at the top? Hey, it's subjective, but so is all of college football (gratuitous shot at the BCS ... sorry, I couldn't help it).
Anyway, here are my early judgments on the best leagues in the country:
Best Conference at the Top
Big Ten/Big East: The Big Ten has taken it on the chin from the talking heads the last few years, with nearly annual proclamations that the league is down. Despite the nearly annual trips to the Final Four by Big Ten schools, the league has had a bad reputation during the season because of some unpredictable results.
Clearly, there are some underperforming teams at the bottom of the league (Penn State, Purdue, Northwestern), but there is real power at the top. Michigan State is a title contender; Illinois and Indiana can reach an Elite Eight; and Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa, Ohio State and Minnesota can be NCAA Tournament teams. The Big Ten has shown itself to be the most competitive league, top to bottom, in the country, which usually has been the exclusive reputation of the Big East over the last few years.
Tied with the Big Ten is the Big East, with expansion only a minor factor. UConn is the best team in the country, and will only get better with the addition of Marcus Williams. Villanova is a title contender despite the loss of Curtis Sumpter. Louisville, West Virginia, Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati all look like solid NCAA Tournament threats, and Georgetown and Notre Dame are capable of making the field, as well. Rutgers and Marquette are postseason teams that can rise up and beat the top teams. There are not many doormats in the Big East, which makes it a draining challenge and ties it with the Big Ten as the best league in the country.
Most improved conference
The Atlantic 10: The A-10 has added some quality, and the league has delivered in the nonconference season. Xavier, Dayton, Temple, George Washington, Saint Joseph's and Charlotte are good teams that are capable of beating elite teams. The question is, will the league's teams get any respect for beating each other?
Saint Joseph's beat Kansas and took Gonzaga to the wire on the road, but will the league get credit for that? It should. Xavier pounded Purdue and took Illinois to the buzzer. Temple blasted Alabama (but was routed at Auburn). GW beat Maryland (but got blitzed at NC State). Does the A-10 get credit for the wins or blame for the losses? I doubt the A-10 will get more than three NCAA bids, but there are several quality teams in the much-improved league.
ACC/Big 12: Is it blasphemy to suggest the ACC is down? Well, it is down relative to its usual strength, and anyone who tells you otherwise is just trying to puff up the league or is lying to your face.
Look at the facts, and consider what the league lost. North Carolina, Georgia Tech and Virginia are not as powerful as they have been in the past. Clemson, after a fast start and a win against South Carolina, lost to Elon. Florida State, Miami and Virginia Tech are good enough to beat you with an inspired performance at home, but are not world-beaters overall. Wake Forest is NCAA Tournament-good, but not as good as it has been over the last five years.
The best teams in the league are Duke, Boston College, NC State and Maryland, and all are beatable. Only Duke has looked Final Four-worthy, which is a departure for the league. The ACC is one of the country's best conferences, certainly in the top four, but the league is not as good as it has been in the past. It's just a cycle, so don't panic. The world will not spin off its axis if we don't automatically include the ACC in the discussion of the nation's best league.
The Big 12 is in a similar position. Kansas, Oklahoma State and Texas Tech are good, but not quite as good as they were last year. Kansas State, Missouri, Nebraska, Texas A&M and Colorado are capable of beating you at home. Iowa State is a quality team that likely will be in the NCAA Tournament. Texas and Oklahoma are very good, but are still trying to find themselves in order to be Final Four-caliber teams. And, of course, Baylor is undefeated ... thanks to a stupid sanction on those not involved in the Dave Bliss fiasco.
Most competitive mid-major league
Missouri Valley Conference: The mid-majors are leagues of seniors and teams that have played together, and that is cyclical, but this year, the MVC has the most quality teams and the most competitive balance. The Horizon League is right there, as is the Mid-American, but I think the MVC takes the crown.
Of course, it always seems as though a mid-major team has to rip through the league with only one or two road losses to have even a chance for an at-large bid, which ignores how tough it is to get a win in this league. Creighton, Northern Iowa, Southern Illinois, Wichita State, Indiana State, Bradley and Missouri State are all very good teams. So far, the MVC has wins over Indiana (Indiana State), DePaul (Missouri State), Dayton (Creighton, Northern Iowa), Nebraska (Creighton), Xavier (Creighton), Iowa (Northern Iowa), LSU (Northern Iowa) and Providence (Wichita State), and Wichita State came within a hair of clipping Illinois. Heck, some of the major conferences would brag over beating some of these teams.
The key will be, will the MVC teams get credit for beating each other, or will that diminish the nonconference success? The teams that gain at-large consideration will be the teams that win on the road in league play.
Jay Bilas, a college basketball analyst for ESPN, is a regular contributor to Insider.