College basketball season tips off Friday with all but four Top 25 teams in action. Below is a quick look at each of the strongest conferences ranked from 1 to 12.
Pick to win the league title: Duke
Projected NCAA tournament teams: 7 (Duke, Miami, Louisville, North Carolina, Notre Dame, Virginia, Virginia Tech)
Three players to watch: Marvin Bagley, F, Duke; Bonzie Colson, F, Notre Dame; Bruce Brown, G, Miami
Coach under the most pressure: Brad Brownell, Clemson
Outlook: The ACC boasts a stronger collection of elite teams than any other league. It would not be a surprise to see Duke, Miami, Louisville, North Carolina or Notre Dame playing for a spot in the Final Four in five months. Duke became the favorite to win the ACC when Marvin Bagley announced he was committing and reclassifying just days before the start of the new school year. The heralded freshman’s presence makes the Blue Devils again the nation’s most talented team as Bagley joins senior standout Grayson Allen, former McDonald’s All-American Marques Bolden and heralded freshmen Gary Trent, Trevon Duval and Wendell Carter as pillars of the rotation. The ACC appears to be more top-heavy than previous years with NC State, Pittsburgh and Syracuse each in transition. Virginia and Virginia Tech should emerge as the best of the middle tier.
2. BIG 12
Pick to win the league title: Kansas
Projected NCAA tournament teams: 6 (Kansas, West Virginia, Baylor, TCU, Oklahoma, Texas)
Three players to watch: Devonte Graham, G, Kansas; Jevon Carter, G, West Virginia; Mohamed Bamba, C, Texas
Coach under the most pressure: Bruce Weber, Kansas State
Outlook: It would be a major surprise if Kansas doesn’t capture at least a share of the conference title for a record-breaking 14th consecutive season. The Jayhawks may have to play more small ball than Bill Self typically prefers given the composition of their roster, but their Devonte Graham-led backcourt is among the deepest and best in the nation. The Big 12’s depth behind Kansas is once again impressive as every team in the league could finish in the top 100 nationally. West Virginia could be the best of the rest if the guard-heavy Mountaineers can weather top big man Esa Ahmad’s absence until the end of the fall semester. Baylor, TCU, Oklahoma and Texas each also have the potential to be part of the league’s upper echelon.
3. BIG EAST
Pick to win the league title: Villanova
Projected NCAA tournament teams: 6 (Villanova, Xavier, Seton Hall, Providence, Creighton, Butler)
Three players to watch: Jalen Brunson, G, Villanova; Trevon Bluiett, G/F, Xavier; Angel Delgado, F, Seton Hall
Coach under the most pressure: Chris Mullin, St. John’s
Outlook: Don’t count on this being the year someone unseats Villanova as Big East champion. The Wildcats are a worthy favorite to claim a fifth straight league title thanks to the return of preseason All-American point guard Jalen Brunson and a experienced supporting cast headlined by a healthy Phil Booth, promising wings Mikal Bridges and Donte DiVincenzo and a true big man in former McDonald’s All-American Omari Spellman. The Big East is deep behind Villanova with all but talent-starved Georgetown and perennially rebuilding DePaul capable of reaching the NCAA tournament. Xavier and Seton Hall could be the best of the chase group if Quentin Goodin solidifies the point guard position for the Musketeers and the Pirates find other ways to score besides pounding the offensive glass.
4. BIG TEN
Pick to win the league title: Michigan State
Projected NCAA tournament teams: 7 (Michigan State, Purdue, Minnesota, Northwestern, Maryland, Michigan, Wisconsin)
Three players to watch: Miles Bridges, F, Michigan State; Bryant McIntosh, G, Northwestern; Ethan Happ, F, Wisconsin
Coach under the most pressure: Tim Miles, Nebraska
Outlook: Why is the Big Ten ranked below leagues projected to land fewer NCAA bids? It has fewer elite teams than the ACC and a weaker bottom half than either the Big 12 or Big East. Michigan State appears to be Big Ten’s best hope of ending the league’s national title drought thanks largely to an absurd collection of frontcourt talent highlighted by national player of the year candidate Miles Bridges. If point guard Cassius Winston can lower his turnover rate and wing Josh Langford blossoms into more than just an outside shooter, Michigan State has an excellent chance to secure a No. 1 seed in March. The gap between the Spartans and the rest of the league’s top tier appears wide, but a few other teams have Top 25 potential. Minnesota’s elite defense should carry it to a top-four league finish. Purdue returns plenty of talent despite All-American Caleb Swanigan’s departure. And point guard Bryant McIntosh should carry Northwestern to a second straight NCAA bid.
Pick to win the league title: Florida
Projected NCAA tournament teams: 6 (Florida, Kentucky, Texas A&M, Vanderbilt, Missouri, Arkansas)
Three players to watch: Michael Porter, F, Missouri; Robert Williams, F, Texas A&M; Hamidou Diallo, G, Kentucky
Coach under the most pressure: Bruce Pearl, Auburn
Outlook: For a few fleeting months, it appeared the SEC was on the cusp of a basketball renaissance. Then along came the FBI probe to put a dent into the league’s resurgence. Auburn is holding out two key starters due to eligibility concerns, effectively removing the Tigers from NCAA tournament contention. Alabama is doing the same with prized freshman point guard Collin Sexton, a season-changing blow made worse by a knee injury suffered by leading returning scorer Braxton Key. Throw in some early turmoil at Texas A&M, and the conference no longer looks nearly as deep as it once did behind perennial bell cows Kentucky and Florida. Texas A&M’s formidable frontcourt still gives it hope of contending for an SEC title. Michael Porter Jr. should elevate Missouri into NCAA tournament contention. Vanderbilt, Arkansas and Ole Miss are also threats to make the field of 68, but there’s no question the federal investigation has hurt the SEC as much as any other league.
Pick to win the league title: Arizona
Projected NCAA tournament teams: 5 (Arizona, USC, Oregon, UCLA, Stanford)
Three players to watch: Allonzo Trier, G, Arizona; Reid Travis, F, Stanford; Chimezie Metu, F, USC
Coach under the most pressure: Sean Miller, Arizona
Outlook: The league’s two best teams both open the season with the specter of the FBI probe hanging over their programs. Arizona and USC are both loaded with experienced talent, yet could fall shy of expectations if they lose key players to eligibility issues or allow the scandal to become a distraction. Chasing the Wildcats and Trojans are two teams are capable of reloading on the fly despite losing most of last year’s rotation players. Oregon will surround returning point guard Peyton Pritchard with a pair of prized graduate transfers and a quartet of freshmen headlined by Dana Altman’s first five-star prospect, while UCLA will build around returners Aaron Holiday and Thomas Welsh and one of the nation’s elite freshman classes.
7. AMERICAN ATHLETIC CONFERENCE
Pick to win the league title: Cincinnati
Projected NCAA tournament teams: 3 (Cincinnati, Wichita State, UConn)
Three players to watch: Landry Shamet, G, Wichita State; Rob Gray, G, Houston, Shake Milton, G, SMU
Coach under the most pressure: Jeff Lebo, East Carolina
Outlook: The arrival of Wichita State instantly boosts the American Athletic Conference’s profile. Between Wichita State and Cincinnati, the league now boasts a pair of teams with the potential to play deep into March. Wichita State should have no trouble adjusting to the AAC as long as Landry Shamet and Markis McDuffie recover from offseason foot injuries in time for conference play. Cincinnati should continue last season’s offensive uptick if high-scoring transfer Cane Broome makes a smooth transition to a higher-caliber conference. For the AAC to establish itself as the seventh major conference, its other name-brand programs need to perform to their potential. UConn has the perimeter weapons for a potential return to the NCAA tournament and SMU won’t fall too far, but talent-starved Memphis will be way down and Temple has slipped to the league’s middle tier.
8. ATLANTIC 10
Pick to win the league title: Rhode Island
Projected NCAA tournament teams: 2 (Rhode Island, St. Bonaventure)
Three players to watch: Jaylen Adams, G, St. Bonaventure; Peyton Aldridge, F, Davidson; E.C. Matthews, G, Rhode Island
Coach under the most pressure: John Giannini, La Salle
Outlook: Two of the Atlantic 10’s powerhouse programs might be due for a temporary step backward this season. Dayton lost a trio of double-digit scorers and its head coach this past spring, leaving it without any proven shot creators in the backcourt. VCU also endured a coaching change and massive roster turnover, leaving it lacking outside shooting and interior defense. Where would that leave the A-10 if both the Flyers and Rams failed to earn NCAA bids? In real jeopardy of putting two or fewer teams in the NCAA tournament for the first time in more than a decade. A deep, talented backcourt gives league favorite Rhode Island an excellent chance to return to the NCAA tournament this year. St. Bonaventure should also be optimistic because of its potent backcourt, while Davidson and St. Joseph’s join VCU and Dayton in the league’s next tier.
9. WEST COAST CONFERENCE
Pick to win the league title: Gonzaga
Projected NCAA tournament teams: 2 (Gonzaga, Saint Mary’s)
Three players to watch: Jock Landale, C, Saint Mary’s; Johnathan Williams, F, Gonzaga; Yoeli Childs, F, BYU
Coach under the most pressure: Mike Dunlap, Loyola Marymount
Outlook: No other league in college basketball has a bigger gulf separating its haves and have-nots. Nobody besides Gonzaga or Saint Mary’s has won even a share of the WCC title since 2002. Only once since BYU entered the league in 2011 has another team besides the WCC’s marquee three managed to finish third or higher. That trend isn’t likely to change this season even though San Francisco is a program on the rise. The league title race will be between Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s with BYU desperately trying to make it a three-horse race. While Gonzaga will miss the steady leadership of Nigel Williams-Goss and the rim protection of Przemek Karnowski and Zach Collins, the Zags won’t make it easy for Saint Mary’s to surpass them. Four of their top eight players return and some talented young guys are ready to make an impact.
10. MOUNTAIN WEST
Pick to win the league title: Nevada
Projected NCAA tournament teams: 2 (Nevada, San Diego State)
Three players to watch: Jordan Carolina, F, Nevada; Chandler Hutchison, G, Boise State; Trey Kell, G, San Diego State
Coach under the most pressure: Tim Duryea, Utah State
Outlook: Only four years after it finished No. 1 in conference RPI and sent five teams to the NCAA tournament, the Mountain West hit rock bottom last March. The league produced just one NCAA tournament team for a second straight season, a product of BYU and Utah bolting at the same time as flagship programs UNLV and New Mexico both faltered. The Mountain West won’t approach its previous heights this season, but it also shouldn’t be as dreadful as it has been the past couple years either. Reigning champion Nevada reloaded with a bevy of high-major transfers, perennial league power San Diego State has its best collection of offensive talent in years and Fresno State, Boise State, Colorado State and UNLV headline an improved middle of the league.
11. MISSOURI VALLEY CONFERENCE
Pick to win the league title: Missouri State
Projected NCAA tournament teams: 1 (Missouri State)
Three players to watch: Alize Scott, F, Missouri State; Bennett Koch, F, Northern Iowa; Donte Ingram, G/F, Loyola
Coach under the most pressure: Barry Hinson, Southern Illinois
Outlook: Creighton left for the Big East four years ago. Wichita State bolted for the American Athletic Conference this past spring. With its two former flagship programs now playing elsewhere, the Missouri Valley Conference appears in jeopardy of becoming a perennial one-bid league. Missouri State could be the class of the league this season, but the Bears didn’t assemble a strong enough non-league schedule to give themselves realistic hope of an at-large NCAA tournament bid. Northern Iowa and Illinois State are the league’s strongest remaining brands, but the Panthers have some holes in their backcourt and the Redbirds were decimated by offseason transfers. Wichita State kept the Valley nationally relevant the past five years by producing a Final Four, an undefeated regular season and 10 NCAA tournament victories. An heir apparent may someday emerge, but for now the Shockers appear irreplaceable.
12. CONFERENCE USA
Pick to win the league title: Middle Tennessee
Projected NCAA tournament teams: 1 (Middle Tennessee)
Three players to watch: Giddy Potts, G, Middle Tennessee; William Lee, F, UAB, Jacobi Boykins, G, Louisiana Tech
Coach under the most pressure: Anthony Evans, Florida International
Outlook: The argument for Conference USA being underrated starts with its recent postseason track record. The league has produced three NCAA tournament victories the past three years despite receiving nothing but double-digit seeds. Fourteenth-seeded UAB upended Iowa State in 2015. Fifteenth-seeded Middle Tennessee toppled Michigan State in 2016. And last year the Blue Raiders struck again, this time taking down Minnesota as a No. 12 seed. Conference USA once again appears capable of springing more March upsets this spring, but it’s unclear which team will be playing the role of Cinderella. It could be Middle Tennessee, which boasts the league’s best guard tandem in Tyrik Dixon and Giddy Potts. Or UAB, which features the league’s best all-around player, William Lee. Guard-heavy Louisiana Tech could also be a factor, as could Western Kentucky depending on which of its high-major transfers are eligible to play.
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