Dickie V: Top to bottom, which conference is the strongest? Big East? SEC? Big 12?

ByDick Vitale ESPN logo
Friday, October 27, 2023

There are many lists and many rankings this time of year. We know, by now, who looks to have a good season. What we don't always consider early is potential conference strength -- which can be a huge factor come Selection Sunday.

In making my choices, I don't just factor in the upper echelon teams, but look at the conference from top to bottom. Let's face it, in many cases, it is close. But, I give the edge to conferences that not only have national championship contenders, but also analyze the strength of the league in respect to its depth.

Here's my VBDI -- Vitale's Bald Dome Index -- in order:

No. 1 Big 12 Conference

We'll begin with the Big 12 which has expanded by four schools. But it's still the Kansas Jayhawks that are the team to beat. That added depth with the Houston Cougars, Cincinnati Bearcats, BYU Cougars, and the UCF Golden Knights makes winning this league even more arduous. With the departure of the Texas Longhorns and Oklahoma Sooners after the season, the additions of the Arizona Wildcats, Arizona State Sun Devils, Colorado Buffaloes and Utah Utes make this league even more powerful on the hardwood in the upcoming years.

But enough about the future, let's talk about this season. The Big 12 has ranked No. 1 or 2 in the top leagues for the past five seasons and this year is no exception. With eight members in the postseason last year (7 NCAA, 1 NIT), that total shouldn't diminish this season.

Kansas won the transfer lottery by snagging Michigan Wolverines' Hunter Dickinson out of the portal. The three-time All-Big Ten performer will be featured more in the Jayhawks' system and given them stability down low.

Impactful freshmen to watch are Ja'Kobe Walter from the Baylor Bears who might be the answer to their back court questions. I also want to see the physical nature of the Iowa State Cyclones' Omaha Biliew on display. At 6-8, 210 pounds, he's a versatile finisher. And not least, Kansas' Elmarko Jackson, a 6-3 penetrating point guard should pair nicely with Dajuan Harris.

After years of success in the American Athletic Conference Houston rejoins four of its old Southwest Conference rivals this season and even with the loss of three starters from last year's Sweet 16 team, the Cougars aren't as vulnerable as you might think. With plenty of bench experience, look for Terrance Arceneaux's role to increase as well as Emanuel Sharp to light it up from the perimeter.

I'm excited to see how one of the leading scorers the past three seasons will translate to a power conference as Max Abamas makes the move from the Oral Roberts Golden Eagles to Texas. Additionally, watch for another Longhorn as Dylan Disu is a potential all-conference caliber player.

Grant McCasland is the new head man at Texas Tech, while Josh Eliert is the interim head coach at West Virginia.

No. 2 Southeastern Conference

Do you enjoy the ups and downs of conference play? Well, then pay attention to the SEC this year. The Tennessee Volunteers are one of the oldest teams in the country and are listed as the odds-on favorite. But four other teams - Alabama Crimson Tide, Arkansas Razorbacks, Kentucky Wildcats, and Texas A&M Aggies - are poised to make a run at the top spot.

In contrast, John Calipari's Kentucky squad is one of the youngest and most talented in Division I. But it's veterans Antonio Reeves and Tre Mitchell that must guide these Diaper Dandies through the gauntlet.

There was no deeper league in the country last year as the SEC sent 10 of its 14 teams to the postseason, including a record-tying eight to the Big Dance of which three advanced to the Sweet 16 (Tennessee, Arkansas, Alabama). There's no reason it shouldn't get 7-8 teams in again.

If you're looking for an inspirational story of hard work to reach the top, look no further than Aggies' Wade Taylor IV who has steadily progressed into one of the sport's best guards. Not listed on anyone's top 100 in the class of 2021, his development has been fun to follow.

As far as newcomers to watch, take your pick from Kentucky's crop of Diaper Dandies in Justin Edwards, a strong contender to be the No. 1 pick of the 2024 NBA Draft, as well as DJ Wagner, Aaron Bradshaw, Reed Sheppard, and Robert Dillingham. Don't discount Auburn's Aden Hollway. He's an elite shooter as an undersized point guard.

More underrated players to keep an eye on include Tennessee's Tobe Awaka, who excelled for Team USA this summer, Alabama's Rylan Griffen, and Florida Gators' Riley Kugel, who's primed to be one of the league's top scorers.

The only new coach in the conference is former Texas Longhorns coach Chris Beard who is taking over the Ole Miss Rebels.

No. 3 Big East Conference

The casual basketball fan may not realize that the Big East Conference has averaged nearly five teams in the NCAA Tournament over the last 10 seasons. Add to the fact that the defending national champion UConn Huskies reside in the in league, having won their fifth title since 1999, there's a lot of positive buzz around this conference.

The Marquette Golden Eagles weren't having any of the 2022 preseason projection as the ninth-place team as it pulled off the double-double by winning the regular season and tourney titles. No one is overlooking the Golden Eagles this year, especially with reigning Big East Player of the Year Tyler Kolek leading this Final Four contender.

It's not just a two-team race between UConn and Marquette though. The Creighton Blue Jays and Villanova Wildcats will vie for top spot as well. Creighton was a play away from the Final Four last season and with a stopper like Ryan Kalkbrenner in the middle, they might take that final step. After missing the tournament last year, a trio of transfers in T.J. Bamba, Tyler Burton and Hakim Hart are expected to put Nova back in the Dance.

Excitement is sweeping through Queens where coaching legend Rick Pitino overhauled the St. John's Red Storm roster and are projected to make the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2019.

Expected to dazzle all season is 6-6 wing Stephon Castle from UConn. His size and dynamic play make him a possible one-and-done, but let's just enjoy his on-court performance this season.

Others I like are Villanova's Mark Armstrong who was part of Team USA in the U19 World Cup, Xavier's Demond Claude, and Marquette's David Joplin, the reigning Big East Sixth Man of the Year.

Two coaches joined the league in Kim English with the Providence Friars and Rick Pitino at the St. John's Red Storm. Ed Cooley moved from Providence to the Georgetown Hoyas.

No. 4 Big Ten Conference

Is this year the Big 10 finally breaks through and wins its first national title since 2000 when Tom Izzo'sMichigan State Spartanstook home the crown? Since then, the league has finished as a bridesmaid seven times, most recently with theMichigan Wolverinesin 2018.

Preseason headliners Purdue Boilermakers, Michigan State and the Illinois Fighting Illini might be in the early spotlight, but the rest of the league should not be overlooked as it is jammed with teams that have realistic chances to make the postseason.

With consensus preseason conference Player of the Year in 7-4 center Zach Edey leading Purdue, be on the lookout for some of the top guards in the country. Highlighting that list are Terrence Shannon Jr.(Illinois), Jahmir Young (Maryland Terrapins), Boo Buie (Northwestern Wildcats) and the outstanding Michigan State duo of A.J. Hoggard and Tyson Walker.

Edey has a chance to become the first player since the Virginia Cavaliers' Ralph Sampson (1981-83) to win consecutive National Player of the Year honors.

Look for McDonald's All-Americans Mackenzie Mgbako (Indiana Hoosiers), Xavier Booker (Michigan State), and Jeremy Fears Jr.(Michigan State) to lead the parade of newcomers.

Also keep an eye on these under the radar players: Michigan State's Jaden Akins, Northwestern'sBrooks Barnhizer, Purdue's Trey Kaufman-Renn, Michigan's Tarris Reed, and Rutgers Scarlet Knights' Derek Simpson.

Penn State Nittany Lions' Mike Rhoades is the only new coach in the league.

No. 5 Atlantic Coast Conference

Highlighting the ACC's depth over the last decade was the surprise run of the Miami Hurricanes to the Final Four last year, as it marked the fifth different league team to reach the national semifinals since 2015. Even with that deep run, none of the other four teams to make the NCAA Tournament field (Duke Blue Devils, Pittsburgh Panthers, Virginia, NC State Wolfpack) got past the second round. Hopes are high to place more than five teams in the Dance this go-around.

If some faces look familiar, but the uniform doesn't, it's because a record 10 players transferred from one ACC team to another during the offseason. One player that didn't move is North Carolina Tar Heels fifth-year senior Armando Bacot who is the school's all-time leader with 1,335 rebounds and 68 double-doubles.

Last season's ACC Rookie of the Year, Duke's Kyle Filipowski, who turned down NBA money to return, is the odds-on favorite to unseat Purdue's Zach Edey for National Player of the Year honors.

Be on the lookout for UNC'sElliott Cadeauas one of the top freshmen along with Duke's sharpshooting Jared McCain and gamer Caleb Foster among the top newcomers.

I also like Duke's Tyrese Proctor who is ready to explode this season and could find a spot on an All-America team. And a guy with a great name, Wooga Poplar down in Miami, needs to be a consistent scoring threat on the perimeter for the Hurricanes.

There are three new coaches in the conference in Adrian Autry (Syracuse Orange), Micah Shrewsberry (Notre Dame Fighting Irish) and Damon Stoudamire (Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets).

No. 6 Pac-12 Conference

In the final year of the Pac-12 before most of the teams bolt after the season, the league looks to improve upon last year's showing in the postseason as it failed to have a team make it beyond the Sweet 16 for the second consecutive season.

Arizona is once again the class of the conference, even after regrouping and replacing four starters through the transfer portal. But the anchor on the block is returning center Oumar Ballo, who averaged 14.2 points and 8.6 rebounds. Expect those numbers to rise if they want to make a deep NCAA Tournament run.

Overall play in the league should be high as it welcomes back five first team All-Conference selections [Ballo, Branden Carlson (Utah), Tristan da Silva (Colorado), N'Faly Dante (Oregon Ducks), Boogie Ellis (USC Trojans)], the most since 2007-08. Also keep an eye on Westwood for the reigning Pac-12 Freshman of the Year in UCLA Bruins' Adem Bona, who withdrew from the NBA Draft and is one of the best defensive players in the league.

The top Diaper Dandy in ESPN's Top 100 also resides in Los Angeles in USC's Isaiah Collier. He's also in the mix to be the No. 1 overall pick in the 2024 NBA Draft. Joining him in the lineup is Bronny James (20th in ESPN Top 100), whose health and well-being was the offseason story. If James does play, it would be a substantial boost for the Trojans.

Colorado made waves as well by bringing in the highest-rated recruit in school history in guard Cody Williams (7th in ESPN Top 100). The brother of NBA star Jalen Williams could spark a deep tournament run by the Buffaloes.

A few more breakout players are UCLA's Dylan Andrews, an all-conference caliber guard, USC's Kobe Johnson is a great perimeter defender while Arizona's Kylan Boswell takes over a point guard for the Top 25 Wildcats.

California Golden Bears' Mark Madsen is the lone new coach in the conference.

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