By Jim Hurley:

So, is there really any question about who's the top College Basketball Conference in the land?
Any die-hard hoop fans who has been paying attention - and paying attention to what the so-called experts have been saying - knows the Big East is the king of the College B-Ball universe with four teams currently residing in the Associated Press Top 10 (that's #3 Villanova, #5 Syracuse, #8 West Virginia and #10 Georgetown) and then don't forget about born-again Pittsburgh sitting there at #19 and fresh off a big-time road win at Marquette this past Thursday night.
Maybe we will see a revisit to 1985 this year - when three Big East Conference teams made it all the way to the Final Four - or maybe a couple of these powerhouse squads will get short-circuited come March but right here and right now the still-bloated 16-team Big East is head-and-shoulders better than anyone else out there in hoops land.
Stick around, though, and we'll rank the top 10 conferences/leagues as we wind down the all-important month of February plus today's weekend edition of Jim Sez also gets you a couple of key Sunday matchups in College Basketball (that's Villanova at Pittsburgh and then Virginia Tech at Duke).
First, this ultra-important reminder:
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Sorry, but here we won't be citing the Sagarin ratings or RPI mumbo-jumbo. As some hoop analysts like to say, we'll be doing the "eye test" and that means we'll rank the College Basketball Conferences the way we see 'em with our own eyes right now. At the end of each conference/league writeup, we will attach a power rating from 1-to-10 (with 10 being the best, of course):

#1 - THE BIG EAST: No secret or surprise here but let's clue you in on some of the things the know-it-alls on TV haven't been saying about this talent-packed league: While much has been made about the upper-crust teams that we mentioned above and more than a few cheap shots have been taken at the dregs of this conference (see DePaul, St. John's, Rutgers and Providence) the key to making this the no-doubt-about-it best league in the land is the middle-rung teams out there such as South Florida, Cincinnati and Marquette.
These clubs are all right around the .500 mark in conference play this 2009-10 season but ask coaches outside the Big East is they would like scheduling a home-and-home series with these teams and the answer would be a resounding "no". There's superstar talent on those high-level teams but there's blooming young talent on these .500-type Big East clubs and USF, Cincy and Marquette all have pulled off upset wins this year and all are capable of a couple of surprise wins in next month's Big East Tournament at Madison Square Garden.

#2 - THE BIG 12: The mere presence of #1 Kansas gives this conference the edge over all the other so-called power conferences that are trying to play "second fiddle" to the mighty Big East. The Jayhawks have to be the favorite to win it all at Lucas Oil Field in Indianapolis on the first Monday night in April but if Bill Self's crew winds up going undefeated in league play this year and then throughout the Big 12 Tournament, then even we will stand up and applaud.
No doubt the recent decline of the Texas Longhorns -- the once-upon-a-time #1 team in the country (remember?) - hurts this league's ranking but the triumvirate of Kansas State, Missouri and Baylor is better than anyone could have envisioned at the start of this season and any of these teams could be Sweet 16 material in next month's "Big Dance".
Note that one-fifth of this week's AP Top 25 is comprised of Big 12 teams -- #1 Kansas, #7 Kansas State, #15 Texas, #22 Baylor and #24 Texas A&M.

#3 - THE ACC: Now here's an intriguing league that often (in our opinion) gets overrated by the mass media but this year may be slightly underrated.
Note that there are only two Top 25 teams hailing from the Atlantic Coast Conference right now in #6 Duke and #23 Wake Forest but our contention is that Virginia Tech never should have been considered a "bubble team" prior to that major come-from-behind win against Wake earlier in the week and that both Florida State and Georgia Tech are a bit better than their current conference records - we will admit that Maryland (8-3 in ACC play while entering this weekend) probably isn't as good as that won/loss mark portrays  but Gary Williams is such a high-quality general that his undersized crew has overachieved this year.

#4 & #5 (tie) - THE BIG 10 and THE SEC: Too close to call here as the Big 10 does sport three teams with double-digit conference wins already in #11 Michigan State, #4 Purdue and #9 Ohio State but then the bottom three teams in this league are downright putrid with Penn State, Iowa and Indiana absolute laughingstocks that might not win a game among if placed in this year's Big East. If you pushed for an answer, any of the "big three" has a legit shot to get to the Final Four this year with some breaks along the way
On the flip side, the Southeastern Conference does sport the country's #2 team in the Kentucky Wildcats plus a pair of other Top 25 teams (see #17 Vanderbilt and # 20 Tennessee) but there have been times when the SEC's other expected tourney teams such as Mississippi State and Florida haven't always looked great and there's no denying the fact that this league has some creampuffs in Georgia and LSU - and when is the last time you really could say the SEC had teams that were absolute walkovers?
#6 - THE PAC-10:  At press time there isn't a single team from this league in the AP Top 25 and no team has fewer than five conference losses. Egads!
Okay, so the Pac-10 is having a down year with UCLA grounded by youth, Washington besieged by inconsistency and both teams from the great state of Arizona only hitting on-court high notes on few-and-far-between occasions.
If we wanted to be encouraging, then we'd point out the fact the Pac-10 will be super-charged next year and may even get a couple of surprise teams rolling come March - much like the U of A Wildcats did last year when 'Zona won a couple of games before bowing out in the Sweet 16 round. Maybe California or USC could get jump-started in time to make some NCAA Tournament noise but right now you can throw a blanket over a bunch of these teams and not know who's who. The Pac-10 is the low man on the power conference totem pole - until further notice.
#7 - THE MOUNTAIN WEST CONFERENCE: No doubt this league hasn't had much recent success in the NCAA Tournament but that may change in a few weeks. The MWC has a couple of really legit powers in New Mexico and BYU (both 24-3 overall at press time) and there's a good chance that both athletic San Diego State and guard-oriented UNLV will make the tourney field of 65 teams and then cause some trouble for the higher-ranked teams. Call the Mountain West guys the "best of the rest" after you have sorted out the power conferences first.

#8 - THE WAC: Count us among the folks that believe Utah State (21-6 overall) is a legit Sweet 16 contender should things fall just right for Stew Morrill's club and then the rest of the Western Athletic Conference gets lifted by the fortunes of New Mexico State, Louisiana Tech and Nevada (all of whom are 8-4 or better in league play so far).
#9 - THE MISSOURI VALLEY CONFERENCE: Expect this league to get three teams into the NCAA Tournament (that's Northern Iowa, Wichita State and Illinois State) and take note the current 8-8 MVC teams are better-than-average clubs (that's Creighton, Bradley and Indiana State) and so that's the major reason why "The Valley" nudges out the 10th-placed conference in our Jim Sez rankings.

#10: CONFERENCE USA: Once upon a time the Memphis Tigers allowed this to be a top-heavy league but now post-John Calipari the talent wealth is spread out more with UTEP, UAB and Tulsa joining Memphis as solid hoop squads and must admit that C-USA just barely topped both the Atlantic-10 and the West Coast Conference here. Note that Conference USA is more athletic than these other leagues and generally play tougher "comp" than those two conferences.


#3 VILLANOVA (22-3, 11-2 in Big East) at #19 PITTSBURGH (20-6, 9-4 Big East) - 12 p.m. ET, CBS
Are the 'Nova Wildcats beginning to show signs of late-season stress?
Jay Wright's club has split its last four games including last Monday's 84-75 setback at home against 9 ½-point pup Connecticut. The Wildcats were pounded on the boards 40-to-29 and guard Scottie Reynolds couldn't pull this one out of the fire despite his team-high 18 points and gotta believe that Pittsburgh's slew of capable guards will make Reynolds work for every point here.
Note that Pittsburgh's 14-1 SU (straightup) at home this year and that includes a nifty 5-1 mark versus Big East competition. If the Panthers' tandem of Ashton Gibbs and Brad Wanamaker kick it into gear with some fast-break hoops, then the 'Nova slide might well continue into the final week of February.

VIRGINIA TECH (21-4, 8-3 ACC) at #6 DUKE (22-4, 10-2 ACC) - 7:45 p.m. ET, Fox Sports Network
Here's something you might not have known about this year's Duke Blue Devils: They are quite capable of coming from behind to stomp an opponent as proven by last Wednesday's 81-74 triumph at 7-point underdog Miami. The Dookies fell behind 37-25 at halftime - they are usually the ones who take over the game by storm in the first 10-or-so minutes - and then smoked the Hurricanes with a 56-point second half points that included nine triples.
If do-it-all swingman Kyle Singler (22 points and 11 boards at Miami) just gets a few perimeter screens here - and if V-Tech isn't aggressive enough in its pursuit of him - than Mike Krzyzewski's club will rock-and-roll to another ACC win but here's the flip side:
The Hokies have their own designated game-saver in guard Malcolm Delaney who poured in 31 points earlier this week to help extinguish Wake Forest 87-83. Delaney connected on 10-of-13 free throws in that non-cover win but will he be getting any favorable calls inside Cameron Indoor Stadium?

NOTE: Get our complete weekend College Basketball and NBA wrap-up report in the next edition of Jim Sez.



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