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August 27, 2008

Big East an easy pick as best conference

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Don't expect any debate over the best conference this season.

The Big East is fully expected to run away with that title. The 16-team league, which had only two players (Syracuse's Donte Greene and West Virginia's Joe Alexander) make early departures to the NBA, has four teams in Rivals.com's preseason top 10 (Connecticut at No. 2, Pittsburgh at No. 3, Notre Dame at No. 5 and Louisville at No. 8); it has four more in the top 25 (Georgetown at No. 11, Villanova at No. 17, Marquette at No. 20 and West Virginia at No. 24). No other conference has half as many teams in the top 25.

But there should be a good battle for the second-best conference. The ACC, Big 12 and Pac-10 are tied for second with three top 25 teams apiece.

There will be plenty of competition to be the top mid-major conference, as well. No league outside the "Big Six" had more than one team in the top 25.

We sort through the top conferences and rank the 10 best in this week's mailbag. We also address questions on the best left-handed player in the country, the top coaches on the rise in small conferences, whether North Carolina's Wayne Ellington or Duke's Gerald Henderson is the better player and much more.

Pecking order

Dave from Minneapolis : Can you rank the conferences?

The Big East has to be No. 1. No other league will be on its level. It could send a record nine teams to the NCAA Tournament

I'd give the ACC a slight edge for second, ahead of the Big 12. Both leagues will send four to six teams to the NCAA Tournament, but the ACC has the heavy title favorite in North Carolina.

The Pac-10 and SEC, which I would rank fourth and fifth, aren't nearly as strong as last season, but they're still far better than the Big Ten, which is a distant sixth. The top half of the Big Ten remains solid; Purdue and Michigan State are legitimate Final Four contenders. But the bottom half is full of teams that would be fortunate to reach the NIT.

I think you'll see Conference USA emerge as the next-best league outside the Big Six. The league is deeper than it has been since the Big East raided five of its programs in 2005.

I have the West Coast slotted at eighth. All three of the WCC teams (Gonzaga, San Diego and St. Mary's) that reached the 2008 NCAA Tournament could make it back.

I've got the Atlantic 10 at ninth, followed by the Mountain West. The A-10 lost a large chunk of its top players after a banner season, but it still has more depth than the top-heavy MWC, which could be dominated by UNLV.

Leading lefty

Anonymous : Who is the best left-handed player in the country?

It would have been so much easier to answer this question last season when the best player in the country Kansas State's Michael Beasley was left-handed. A slew of the other top lefties either exhausted their eligibility or made an early jump to the NBA, including LSU's Anthony Randolph, Michigan State's Drew Neitzel, Mississippi State's Jamont Gordon and West Virginia's Darris Nichols.

That probably leaves Boston College's Tyrese Rice atop the list of best left-handers in 2008-09. Few, if any, players are more dangerous, righty or lefty. Rice needed only one half to hit 8-of-9 3-pointers and score 34 points against North Carolina last season (he finished with 46 points).

I don't have time to examine each of the 341 Division I schools out there, but Baylor's Curtis Jerrells certainly comes to mind when thinking of top lefthanders. So do two highly recruited freshmen who will make big impacts: Georgetown's Greg Monroe and Nevada's Luke Babbitt. A five-star recruit, Monroe actually is right-handed but shoots with his left.

Star search

Anonymous : There have been a lot of "hot" coaches (i.e., Belmont's Rick Byrd, Siena's Fran McCaffery and Austin Peay's Dave Loos) in smaller conferences who have made life unexpectedly treacherous for "name" schools. Who do see on the horizon as new coaching stars? Who will likely be moving up with big contracts soon?

That's a difficult question considering more than half of the 341 D-I schools play in the so-called "smaller" conferences. Nevertheless, here are three guys who come to mind: Jacksonville's Cliff Warren, Robert Morris' Mike Rice and Rider's Tommy Dempsey.

Warren, a former Georgia Tech assistant, has directed a gigantic turnaround. The Dolphins, only two years removed from a one-win season in Warren's first year, went 18-13 last season and reached the Atlantic Sun title game, where they lost to Byrd and Belmont.

Dempsey won eight games in his first season at Rider in 2005-06. Rider won 16 the next year and racked up a school-record 23 victories last season. The Broncs are losing first-round pick Jason Thompson, but they still should be a contender in the MAAC. Dempsey lured Ryan Thompson, Jason's youngest brother, to the program two years ago, and he may be the most talented player in the league now.

Rice, a former assistant at Pitt, did perhaps the best job of any rookie coach in the nation last season when he guided Robert Morris to a regular-season title in the Northeast Conference and 26 victories. The Colonials also put a scare into Syracuse in the NIT.

I also have a couple of wild cards: American's Jeff Jones and Morgan State's Todd Bozeman. Jones, who coached at Virginia from 1990-98, returned to the national radar last season when American landed in the NCAA Tournament. With every starter back, the Eagles could certainly go back and in turn make Jones who just signed a six-year extension a hot commodity again. Bozeman, basically banned from coaching for paying a recruit while at California, led Morgan State to 22 wins and an NIT appearance last season. If Bozeman can keep up those kinds of results, perhaps a high-major school will give him another chance.

Take your pick

Steven from New York City : Who do you think is the better player right now, Gerald Henderson or Wayne Ellington? Who do you think has more pro potential? I see Gerald taking a big step forward next year.

Going into last season, I certainly would have gone with Ellington; now, I'd give the slight edge to Henderson.

What cemented it was the NCAA Tournament. That's when Henderson was at his best. Duke would have lost to Belmont in the first round if it not for the big plays Henderson made down the stretch.

I expect an All-ACC-type season from Henderson. He is playing with more confidence, and with DeMarcus Nelson gone, the Blue Devils will lean on him more.

As far as pro potential, I'd also give Henderson the slight nod. He's more athletic and explosive. Ellington is a much better outside shooter, but he doesn't have Henderson's physical gifts and consequently not as much upside.

Best of the rest

John from Knoxville, Tenn. : We have all heard plenty about McDonald's All-Americans. Which incoming freshmen who were not All-Americans do you see having an impact this season?

There will be dozens of freshmen who weren't McDonald's All-Americans who will go on to make significant impacts on their respective teams, so I'll try and pick just a few of the best.

West Virginia small forward Devin Ebanks might be the Big East Rookie of the Year. The No. 11 prospect in the 2008 class, Ebanks steps into an ideal situation. He'll likely slide into the starting spot vacated by small forward Joe Alexander and join a program that returns a number of key players from a Sweet 16 team.

Cincinnati's Yancy Gates is a five-star big man who joins a team with big needs on the inside.

Five-star center J'Mison Morgan could be the biggest key to UCLA's chances of reaching a fourth consecutive Final Four. The Bruins are loaded on the perimeter again, but with the loss of Kevin Love and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute to the NBA, they have big gaps to fill in the post.

Here are some others to keep an eye on: Arkansas guards Courtney Fortson and Jason Henry, Florida big men Kenny Kadji and Eloy Vargas, Kansas big men Marcus Morris and Markieff Morris, Southern Illinois power forward Anthony Booker and Washington State guard Klay Thompson.

Andrew Skwara is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at askwara@rivals.com.

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