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September 22, 2008The Big East will be the Big Beast this year.
We've been saying that since the end of last season. The conference has nine teams in our top 32. It's possible no one will get out alive. The Big East could have the best year any conference has ever had.
What about the flip side? Which Big Six conference will make the biggest slide this season? We've decided not to pick on the Big Ten. It was kind of down last year, and with what happened at Indiana we don't foresee a big bounceback.
So really we've got only four leagues from which to choose. Here's what basketball editor Bob McClellan and staff writer Andrew Skwara had to say.
SKWARA'S PICK: PAC-10
The Pac-10 isn't the worst of the "BCS" basketball conferences. But, it may be fifth out of six. That's quite a slide considering it was the best conference in the country last season.
The Pac-10 may have actually had its best year ever last season. Six of its teams went to the NCAA tournament. UCLA reached the Final Four for the third consecutive season. Stanford and Washington State went to the Sweet 16. Arizona garnered an at-large bid despite an 8-10 conference record, which shows just how deep the NCAA selection committee felt the league was. Arizona State was probably the last team left out of the field of 65, and California went to the NIT. Washington played in the first College Basketball Invitational. Oregon State was the only Pac-10 team not in the postseason.
The problem is that most of that success was generated by players who either left school early or whose eligibility expired.
Six Pac-10 players were taken among the first 15 picks in the NBA draft, including two from the vaunted Bruins (Russell Westbrook was taken fourth and league player of the year Kevin Love fifth). USC not only lost O.J. Mayo, who was taken third, but also Davon Jefferson, their second-best player. Jefferson unwisely chose to leave early and went undrafted. Stanford was hit with a triple whammy as the Cardinal lost 7-foot twins Brook (10th) and Robin Lopez (15th) and their coach Trent Johnson, who made a move to LSU.
Oregon and Washington State each lost three longtime starters. Cal got a new coach in former Stanford leader Mike Montgomery, but lost its best player when Ryan Anderson (21st pick) chose to stay in the draft.
The damage didn't end there either. Arizona's prize recruit, Brandon Jennings, chose to play professionally in Europe after struggling to get a qualifying test score.
The result is a league with far less firepower. UCLA still has Final Four potential thanks to signing the nation's No. 1 recruiting class. Arizona State returns everyone, including future lottery pick James Harden. However, I wouldn't classify any other Pac-10 team as an NCAA tournament lock.
Even Arizona, which has been to 24 consecutive NCAA tournaments, has big questions to answer. Lute Olson is back after a year away from the game, but he's made some strange comments and even stranger moves - including overhauling his entire staff. At best, the Wildcats are going to be a bubble team again - and this time around they won't have a strong league RPI to lean on.
A league has three places to go year over year. It can get better, hold steady, or get worse, based on attrition and recruiting.
The SEC is headed for a downturn. It had six NCAA tournament teams last year (Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi State, Tennessee and Vanderbilt), and you can make a case that none of those six will be as good as they were a year ago. And think about this: Of that group, only Tennessee made the Sweet 16.
The Razorbacks' roster was decimated. Eligibility losses were heavy, and that was before Patrick Beverley was suspended for the season. Their leading returning scorer averaged 5.3 ppg last season.
The news is similar at Georgia. All-everything guard Sundiata Gaines graduated, and second-leading scorer Billy Humphrey was dismissed from the team.
Kentucky lost leading scorer Joe Crawford and third-leading scorer Ramel Bradley, as well as transfer losses. Mississippi State saw Jamont Gordon enter the NBA Draft early in addition to heavy graduation losses. Tennessee lost the high-scoring guard tandem of Chris Lofton and JaJuan Smith. Where will Vanderbilt be without SEC Player of the Year Shan Foster?
A glance at the Rivals.com Top 65 Countdown shows no SEC team higher than No. 39 LSU. Yes, Florida and Tennessee still are to come in the countdown, but they're the only two SEC teams higher than No. 39.
There are some recruits about whom to be excited. However, league teams signed only one ranked in the top 20 by Rivals.com, Vols guard Scotty Hopson (No. 5 overall prospect). JaMychal Green is No. 21 overall, but how much can you do at Alabama if Ronald Steele isn't fully ready to go?
Beyond Tennessee and possibly Florida, there just isn't much to get excited about. Some team could put up a gaudy record because the league is down, but what does that mean if you're not playing past the first weekend of the NCAA tournament?