Ranking the Top 15 Conferences in College Basketball

As conference play starts up all over America, a picture of where each conference in college basketball stands entering 2015 is emerging. Today, I’ve decided to rank the top 15 conferences in the country. It’s a tough ranking to do and weighing different factors (depth, number of elite teams, etc.) can make it even more difficult. It is certainly a totally subjective, nebulous ranking, but that’s part of why it’s so much fun to do. Ranking conferences always seems to engender emotion, discussion, and debate. So go ahead, let me know what I got wrong in the comments!

1. Big 12

big 12The easy knock on the Big 12 is that its best teams aren’t that good. At least at this point in the season, it’s difficult to pinpoint a single dominant team in the conference and the highest ranked Big 12 team, Iowa State, clocks in at number nine. But the Big 12 is freaking deep. Six out of its ten teams are ranked. 13-0 TCU was ranked too before backlash against their weak schedule dropped them out. The Big 12 is going to put a lot of teams in the Dance.

2. ACC

ACCWhen the ACC expanded, folks expected the ACC to be dominant. And the new-look ACC is undoubtedly great. But while the ACC has four teams in Kenpom‘s top 10, it also five sub-100 teams. Louisville, Duke, and Virginia are all legit national title contenders. Meanwhile, Wake Forest, Florida State, and Virginia Tech are all legitimately mediocre. The ACC is huge, so of course it has some stinkers. It also has a bunch of teams with potential for great success in March, including a surprising Notre Dame squad. It’s reasonable to think of the ACC as the opposite of the Big 12: loaded at the very top, but not super deep.

3. Big East

big eastThe new look Big East might not be quite ready to reclaim its status as the best conference in the land, but it’s certainly very healthy. Villanova is nasty and still hasn’t lost. St. John’s has emerged on the national scene. The defending conference champion Friars are again good and getting better. Georgetown appears to be back. Aside from DePaul, everybody in the Big East had at least reasonable success in non-conference play. The Big East has good top-to-bottom depth. Get ready to watch a lot of Fox Sports.

4. Big Ten

b10Maryland arrived just in time for the Big Ten, because the Terps are really tough and the conference as a whole has taken a small step back. Wisconsin and Maryland are great. The conference’s other big-time programs are all down a bit, if not out. Michigan State and Ohio State’s aren’t playing at the high level we’re used to seeing them play. They’re still searching. Iowa and Illinois have both been good but not amazing. Michigan is young and has had some bad losses (NJIT…). The Big Ten has a lot of solid teams. There’s a lot of potential there. But, aside from a strong showing in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge, the conference largely disappointed in non-conference play.

5. Pac-12

PAC-12 (edit 2)_1Everybody knows how good Arizona is. Don’t sleep on Utah though–the Utes are for real. Stanford and Washington have plenty of game as well. USC is going to be good soon; they’re young. The Pac-12 is better than it was a few years ago when it bottomed out. But there’s still more mediocrity there than Pac-12 fans would probably like. The conference isn’t overly deep. And UCLA remains a slumbering giant. Their embarrassing loss to Kentucky was a blow to the conference.

6. SEC

secKentucky, baby! The undefeated Wildcats are filthy. But after that… The conference’s next two best teams (LSU and Arkansas) both lost to Clemson so, umm, yeah. Florida’s a mess, albeit a talented mess, which leaves Kentucky without a surfeit of competition. The Gators lost to FSU yesterday by two after tipping the ball into their own hoop in the game’s waning seconds. Even if Florida figures things out (here’s guessing they will), the SEC won’t have much to brag about outside of ‘Tucky.

7. Atlantic 10

atlantic 10The A-10 has been on a high the past couple of years, but it’s taken a small step back this year. UMass has not been great. Saint Louis has not been great. St. Joe’s has not been great. But it’s not all bad news. VCU’s a terrific team. George Washington is a quality team. Davidson can score with anybody. The A-10 is still more major than mid-major.

8. AAC 

I waacas hesitant to put the AAC so low. It’s the home of the defending champs, after all. But the conference has struggled this year. UConn’s still working out the kinks following their title run. There are other solid teams in the conference:  Temple, SMU, and Cincinnati are not slouches. But no team in the conference is ranked and only two have managed double-digit wins thus far.

9. Mountain West

mwAt 13-0, Colorado State has snuck into the top 25. But the truth is the Rams probably aren’t even the Mountain West’s best team. San Diego State is an elite defensive squad and is arguably the conference’s flagship program at the moment. UNLV grabbed a huge win over Arizona. Boise State’s got game. And Wyoming is a good squad too.

10. WCC

wccGonzaga’s for real. It might be early, but they’ve looked like a final four caliber team. Gonzaga isn’t the only reason not to sleep on the WCC. Saint Mary’s, BYU, and Portland are all quality mid-majors as well.

11. Missouri Valley: UNI and Wichita State are great.

12. MAC: Central Michigan, Eastern Michigan, and Western Michigan are all solid.

13. Ivy League: Harvard is supposed to be the favorite, but there’s a surprising amount of parity in the Ivy. Keep an eye on Yale.

14. Horizon League: Green Bay’s win over Miami was great for the conference.

15. Conference USA: A lot of teams here. One of them–Old Dominion–happens to be very good.

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Reflecting on Rajon Rondo’s Time in Boston

Last night, the Boston Celtics traded Rajon Rondo and Dwight Powell to the Dallas Mavericks for a pair of draft picks, Brendan Wright, Jae Crowder, and Jameer Nelson.

But let’s pause and go back a few years.

It was April 2009. The NBA postseason was in full swing and the second seed Boston Celtics were struggling against the up-and-coming seventh seed Chicago Bulls.

The defending champion Celtics had been dominant in the regular season, at one point winning 19 straight games, but they entered the playoffs without their defensive rock, Kevin Garnett, who was lost for the season when he injured his knee in February.

Ra-gone Rondo: the enigmatic point guard is headed to Dallas.

Ra-gone Rondo: the enigmatic point guard is headed to Dallas.

The Bulls, led by dynamo rookie Derrick Rose, were showing a lot of spunk. Celtics stars Paul Pierce and Ray Allen were doing their best to keep the C’s afloat, each averaging 23 points per game over the series. But it was the play of Rajon Rondo that put Boston over the top in a seven game series that spawned seven overtime periods.

At that moment, Rajon Rondo looked like the Celtics’ future. He was dominant, filling up every category in the stat sheet. In Game 1 he poured in 29 points. In Game 2 he put up 19 points, 16 assists, and 11 boards. In Game 4 he notched another triple double and scored 25 along the way. He finished Game 6 with 19 assists.

The media was billing the Rondo-Rose matchup as a battle between the NBA’s top two point guards of the future. Rondo, who a year previous had been little more than a fourth leg on the Celtics’ championship team, seemed to be blossoming into a bona fide star.

Celtics fans were dreaming big for Rondo. But he never reached the elite level we saw in him that series. At least not for an entire season.

Which is not to say there haven’t been glimpses. Or even prolonged stretches of tremendous play from the lightning quick point man. But Rondo, now 28, has never fully realized the potential once seen in him.

The glimpses have usually come in nationally televised games. Often in the postseason. If there’s been a consistent criticism of Rajon over the years, outside of the fact that he can’t shoot the dadgum ball, it’s that he’s always had a propensity for turning it on with a national audience watching–and off the rest of the time.

Among the highlights that came post-’09: a tremendous series against Cleveland in 2010 in the Conference Finals, as the Celtics blasted their way past LeBron and into the NBA Finals; a 20 assist performance in Game 3 of the Celtics’ four game sweep of the Knicks the next year, as his passing wizardry helped lead to a 38 point performance for Paul Pierce and a 32 point outing for Ray Allen; an unbelievable series in the Conference Finals in 2012 against a LeBron-led Heat team during which Rondo was unquestionably the Celtics’ best player and looking the part of the league’s best point guard; and more jaw dropping dimes than could be accounted for in any blog post.

Rondo has had to share the spotlight for most of his time in Boston with future Hall of Famers. Since the departures of Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett before last season, that has changed. And the results have been ugly. Rondo stumbled his way through an injury-filled season last year and was lifeless when he did see the floor. This year has been worse. No starting point guard in the Association has scored less, and Rondo rarely looks even interested in trying to score. He defers. He searches for assists. Post-Pierce Rondo has been largely devoid of fun.

So what is Rondo’s legacy in Boston?

I’m certainly not the one to answer that question. I’ve never been Rondo’s biggest fan. His tendency to hold the ball deep into the shot clock has always driven me bananas. In fact, when Rondo missed much of the 2012-13 campaign (and playoffs) due to injury, I thought the Celtics became a more cohesive offensive unit. (When a post-prime Paul Pierce proved unable to carry the C’s past New York in the playoffs’ opening round, I questioned this assertion.)

Nonetheless, it is indisputable that Rondo was an irreplaceable cog in some great Celtics teams. He grew up faster than expected on the way to the ’08 title. Then he kept getting better. Eventually, he became the best and most exciting Celtics’ player, eclipsing an aging Pierce.

At this point, the happy Rondo days are merely memories. There’s little doubt that he wore out his welcome in Boston in the eyes of many. It feels like the Celtics have been trying to trade him since the dawn of the dinosaurs. And, as my brother noted to me last night, his departure draws easy parallels to that of Manny Ramirez. Perhaps a more apt comparison, though, would be Nomar Garciappara.

Rondo facilitated the Celtics' '08 title and nearly helped lead them to another in '10.

Rondo facilitated the Celtics’ 2008 title and nearly helped lead them to another in 2010.

Like Nomar, Boston got really excited about Rondo. Like Nomar, Rondo had some fantastic moments. Like Nomar, he could be beyond frustrating to watch (cue memories of Nomar whiffing on first pitch balls in the dirt). And, Like Nomar (circa ’04), Rondo’s not the player he once was. Maybe he’ll rekindle the magic in Dallas.

As with Nomar, not many Bostonians are devastated to see Rondo go.

The trade will allow the Celtics to continue building for the future. And I assure you, there will be some outstanding players in next year’s draft.

Ultimately, Rondo will be remembered for what he brought to Boston. He helped bring a title. He brought a swashbuckling (some might say careless) style to the defensive end. There were the passes too. Oh, the passes. Beautiful passes that seemed impossible. Passes he wrapped around defenders while he floated in the air, locating an open target 25 feet away.

And then the other passes. The kickouts to Courtney Lee for a three when Rondo had an uncontested layup right in front of him. The sloppy, lazy passes that he lofted into the second row. Rondo, after all, turned the ball over 1,488 times in a Celtics uniform.

Rajon Rondo delivered excitement, energy, and wins to Boston Celtics fans. And an awful lot of headaches.

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UConn-Duke Live Blog

Tonight, second ranked Duke will face the defending national champion UConn Huskies in a big time early season battle between two of the top college hoops programs in the nation. The game is set for an 8:00 PM ET start time and will be airing on ESPN. Join us here for a live blog and get ready for a classic college basketball battle. Joining in the live blog will be Grant Newman, a Duke freshman and one of our favorite guests here at CST. Click the link below to join!

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We Talkin’ About Napkins?

It’s been almost five years since Allen Iverson last played in an NBA game. And, here at College Sports Town, we miss the prodigiously talented combo guard.

AI gave us so much. He put up video game numbers, dished out absurd dimes, took the 2000-2001 76ers to the NBA Finals more or less by himself, and, more than any other player (including that wannabe Kobe) defined an era of NBA basketball. From the late ’90s to the late ’00s, Allen Iverson was to basketball what Derek Jeter was to baseball. But the Answer’s greatest gift to us might be the best press conference rant in sports history.

The Burger’s Priest, an Ontario burger joint just did a spoof of Iverson’s rant, and it’s amazing. Enjoy:

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Picking the 2014 ACC-Big Ten Challenge

The ACC-Big Ten Challenge started last night with a couple of less-than-marquee games: Nebraska knocked off Florida State and Rutgers took down Clemson. Tonight, the real fun starts. Here are my picks for the remaining games in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge.

Miami will attempt to stop Rayvonte Rice, who is averaging 18 points per game and shooting 58% for Illinois.

Miami will attempt to stop Rayvonte Rice, who is averaging 18 points per game and shooting 58% for Illinois.

Tuesday Night Games: 

Indiana 75, Pitt 73: Indiana can’t stop anybody, but the Hoosiers have shot the ball at a 51% clip to jump out to a 5-1 start to the season. Pitt hasn’t been great this year but is coming off a strong win over K-State. This looks like a toss up on paper–I’ll take IU at home.

Minnesota 74, Wake Forest 63: It may take a little while for Danny Manning to turn around the Demon Deacon program. Minnesota should handle Wake in Winston-Salem.

Syracuse 58, Michigan 50: Michigan is playing great ball so far this year. Still, Boeheim has had Beilein’s number in recent years. I have to take the Orange, even on the road.

Miami 67, Illinois 64: This is going to be a fun one. Two really good, well coached teams battling it out in front of what should be an electric atmosphere in Coral Gables.

Purdue 75, NC State 74: NC State’s looked sneaky good so far, and the Wolfpack are a pretty complete team. But Purdue owns the ACC-Big Ten challenge and the Boilermakers are at home. I’ll take Purdue. Reluctantly.

Louisville 73, Ohio State 66: Another tremendous matchup. This is the first true test of the year for Ohio State. And hoo boy, it’s a test!

Wednesday Night Games:

Michigan State 79, Notre Dame 76: This is a tough road test for Sparty. Notre Dame’s got game–they’re shooting 58% through seven contests. Michigan State will need to control the glass to pull this one out.

Penn State 70, Virginia Tech 62: Virginia Tech’s better than they’ve been the past couple years. They’re still far from good.

North Carolina 89, Iowa 76: Plenty of offense here. Not as much defense. The Tar Heels should roll at the Dean Dome.

Tony Bennett's defensively stout Cavs will take on a hot Maryland team.

Tony Bennett’s defensively stout Cavs will take on a hot Maryland team.

Virginia 55, Maryland 48: This one will be more defense-oriented. UVA is coming off a 45-26 win, so there’s that. The Terps just busted into the top 25 and they should have the Xfinity Center rocking. I’ll take the Cavs; I hate picking against Tony Bennett.

Georgia Tech 65, Northwestern 57: Northwestern’s 5-1 but they’re still searching for offensive answers. Georgia Tech should have the chops to win this one on the road.

Duke 74, Wisconsin 68: Final Four preview? Could well be. Both teams are filthy. Wiscy’s got home court. Duke’s got Jahlil.

 

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Nine Thoughts Through Nine Days of College Hoops

It’s nine o’clock on a Saturday…well nine o’clock-ish, PST. And we’re more than a week into college basketball season. Unsurprisingly, I have things to say about what I’ve seen. Here are nine thoughts on the young season.

Jahlil!

Jahlil!

1. Jahlil Okafor is absolutely the real deal. The Duke freshman came in with tons of hype and is living up to it early. The Blue Devils are 5-0 and have already logged wins over Michigan State and Stanford. Against MSU, Okafor scored 17 and shot 8-10 from the field. The near-seven-footer is mad skilled. Even when he misses, it looks good.

2. The Big East looks poised for a great season. Creighton is adjusting well to post-Doug McDermott life; they’re 3-0 and upset Oklahoma. Providence has looked sharp and sits at 4-0. They beat FSU 80-54 today. Villanova and Georgetown look good too. And only one of the conference’s ten teams has lost thus far (Marquette).

3. The national media might have overrated Nebraska. The 21st ranked Cornhuskers fell at Rhode Island today. It’s only one loss, but I continue to question any team coached by a guy who tweets during games. (I’m mostly kidding–Tim Miles is a good coach–but Nebraska’s ranking is probably steep.)

4. Gonzaga’s filthy. The 4-0 Bulldogs dominated SMU on November 17th and then beat St. Joe’s 94-42 on the 19th. The Hawks aren’t as good as they’ve been in past years, but still! Gonzaga had a 48-10 halftime lead!

5. San Diego State’s defense: still outstanding. The Aztecs held Utah to 49 points in a win on Tuesday and are giving up 45 points per game through three contests. Sure makes it less important that they’re shooting 36% from the field.

Bill Self

Bill Self’s Jayhawks had a rough go against Kentucky.

6. Colorado scored 90 points in their second game of the season (a blowout win over Auburn) and 33 points in their third game of the season (a blowout loss to Wyoming). Against Wyoming, they managed just nine second half points. Weird shit.

7. Kansas’ number five pre-season ranking might have been presumptuous. My ranking of them (tenth) in College Sports Town’s preview might have been, too. The youthful Jayhawks, who lost Joel Embiid and Andrew Wiggins to the NBA Draft, looked plenty green in a 72-40 loss to Kentucky earlier this week.

8. As for Kentucky, they might be OK.

9. Virginia Tech athletics had a rough day today. Their basketball team lost to Appalachian State. Their football team was involved in this.

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Ruminations on the Retirement of Alfonso Soriano

Alfonso Soriano announced his retirement this week.

Alfonso Soriano's career was all about bat flips, bombs, and big smiles.

Alfonso Soriano’s career was all about bat flips, bombs, and big smiles.

Looking back at Soriano’s career, it certainly had its contradictions. Soriano was famously overpaid and overrated, and yet somehow also underrated for much of his career. His longevity and (relative) consistency is striking–from 2002 to 2013 he hit at least 20 home runs every year. Sure, there were major ups and (often injury-induced) downs. During his time with the Cubs from 2007 to 2013, Soriano was often a lightening rod due to his huge contract and struggles to get on base. Yet, he still had plenty of good times in Chicago: enough to produce 181 home runs and a cumulative .812 OPS in 889 games.

Soriano will go down as a Yankee first, though, not a Cub. Sori broke onto the scene as one of the league’s best young players in the early 2000s, thrilling Bronx crowds with his combination of blazing speed and prodigious power. He nearly hit the 40 home run-40 stolen base mark in those early New York years…twice (’02 &’03)! He eventually joined the 40-40 club during his one year with the Washington Nationals in ’06, blasting 46 homers and pilfering 41 bases.

Soriano made it back to New York in 2013, and finished off his best late-career season by knocking out 17 home runs in 58 games after a mid-season trade from the Cubs.

In some strange way, Sori still feels like a product of the steroid era, even though he was always built like a stick and never tested positive for any PEDs. Yet, Soriano’s ‘cleanness’ is essential to his legacy. He’s the only 40-40 member who’s not linked to roids. His 412 home runs are not impugned by the shadow of roids. In the era of PEDs, Soriano was a pro’s pro. A star with a tree trunk for a bat and legendary swagger who (as far as we know) wasn’t sticking needles in his body.

And, even as Soriano became one of those guys who you felt like you’d been watching forever, watching the fleet-footed infielder-turned-outfielder always felt like rediscovering one of the game’s gems–his retirement feels both overdue and, simultaneously, abrupt and unexpected.

Alfonso Soriano now exits quietly, the polar opposite of the way his venerable Yankee teammate–Derek Jeter–went out. Much like Jeter, though, Soriano was a unique, often times polarizing player. And, like Jeter, Sori represented the type of eye-catching talent that seems to become rarer and rarer in today’s MLB.

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