NCAA BK

Top 10 conferences in 2009-10

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Josh Herwitt

Josh Herwitt is an Editorial Manager for FOX Sports 1 and a former College Basketball Editor for FOXSports.com and CSTV.com. He has also written for Sporting News and Sports Illustrated, and worked as a sports reporter for two newspapers.

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For the past three seasons, the Big East has dominated college basketball as the sport's premiere conference. While there have been upswing years from the Big Ten, Pac-10, Big 12 and SEC during that time, perennial powers like Connecticut, Louisville, Villanova, Pittsburgh, Georgetown and Syracuse have carried the league's name to the top of the charts more recently. But with the conference losing a considerable amount of talent to the NBA after last season, the Big East's reign on college basketball may have to take a year off. So as we start to gear up for the upcoming 2009-10 season, here are the top 10 conferences in the country. 10. Mountain West Any time a conference loses the majority of its top scorers, it's going to struggle the following season. That could very easily be the reality in 2009-10 for the Mountain West, which will see BYU contend for a fourth straight regular-season conference championship. The Cougars, after all, have an excellent scoring duo in junior Jimmer Fredette, the conference's top returning scorer, and senior sidekick Jonathan Tavernari, who tested the NBA Draft waters in the spring but decided to return after averaging 15.7 points and leading his team with 85 3-pointers last season. But don't think Dave Rose's team will run away with things so easily during conference play. UNLV, for one, has a solid recruiting class coming in to complement an experienced veteran like junior Tre'Von Willis, who finished second on the team in scoring last year while managing to also grab 4.3 rebounds and dish out 3.3 assists. Surprisingly enough, with the amount of talent gone from last year, Croatian big man Zvonko Buljan (12.3 pgg, 7.8 rpg) could even make TCU a factor in the MWC title picture. Of course, there is always San Diego State, too, but with the Aztecs losing their top two scorers, it certainly puts BYU right back in the driver's seat next season. 9. West Coast Conference There has yet to be a better display of dominance within a conference than what Mark Few and Gonzaga have done over the last decade. The Bulldogs have owned the WCC for nine straight seasons, winning conference titles year after year with better than your average "mid-major" talent. Next season, though, could be more of a challenge for Few and company. The 'Zags will desperately miss Jeremy Pargo, Josh Heytvelt, Micah Downs and Austin Daye, who all played significant minutes and accounted for much of the team's scoring last season. But there's still hope in 2009-10 with Matt Bouldin and Demetri Goodson in the backcourt and junior guard Steven Gray able to fill up the basket on the offensive end. Even so, Gonzaga may have trouble stopping Saint Mary's big man Omar Samhan, who returns for the Gaels after a productive junior season that saw him average 14.1 points and 9.4 rebounds. Portland's Nik Ravio (16 ppg, 6.5 rpg) and Santa Clara's Kevin Foster (14.7 ppg, 2.5 apg), meanwhile, are guards that could also carry their teams through conference play and into title contention, particularly with a hot stretch of play in the WCC Tournament. But in the end, it's still Few's conference to lose, and with the way the last nine years have gone for him, there's no counting out the 'Zags ever. 8. Conference USA John Calipari carried Memphis' and Conference USA's name a long ways during his nine years in Graceland, but that's about to change with the two-time Naismith College Coach of the Year coming to Kentucky's rescue after the firing of Billy Gillispie. Now C-USA will be heavily dependent on what first-year Memphis coach Josh Pastner can bring to the table after a year-long apprenticeship under Calipari. But with the amount of talent the Tigers lost during the offseason, it's unfair to expect Pastner to keep the conference relevant on a national level — or keep the Tigers' Conference USA win streak of 61 games going very much longer — all by his lonesome. An experienced Houston squad that features a backcourt starring seniors Aubrey Coleman and Kelvin Lewis can challenge the Tigers. Coleman returns as the conference's top scorer after leading the Cougars with 19.4 points per game. And with Lewis showing his own set of offensive abilities with his 18-point scoring average last year, it might not be that long before we see a Tom Penders squad finally dancing again in March. The other big surprise in the league, in the meantime, could be Tulsa. With 7-footer Jerome Jordan in the middle and this year's conference tournament in their backyard, the Golden Hurricane have just as good of a shot as anyone to wear the C-USA crown and earn a trip to the NCAA tourney. 7. Atlantic 10 Over the past four years, Xavier has become the cream of the crop in the Atlantic 10 thanks to the leadership and coaching of Sean Miller. So with Miller now at Arizona and the Musketeers starting a new era under Chris Mack, the conference picture becomes a little more wide open in 2009-10. While Mack and company could still very well win a fourth straight A-10 title in the spring, UMass has a chance to contend with a big-time scorer in Ricky Harris, a 6-foot-2 senior guard who averaged a team-high 18.2 points last season. Fordham also has a star offensive weapon returning to the Bronx in sophomore point guard Jio Fontan, and Richmond has an experienced one-two punch with Kevin Anderson and David Gonzalvez back for Spiders coach Chris Mooney. But if there's one team that could knock Xavier off its perch, it's most likely Dayton. The Flyers return 6-foot-8 senior Chris Wright, who led Brian Gregory's team in scoring and rebounding last season at 13.3 points and 6.6 boards per game, and if Xavier's Jordan Crawford or even La Salle's Rodney Green doesn't manage to out-do him over the course of the season, he could very well end up winning the Atlantic 10 Player of the Year award. 6. Pac-10 Sending six teams to the Big Dance the last two seasons, the Pac-10 has made its voice heard amidst the traditional East Coast power conferences with young, talented recruiting classes at Washington, UCLA, Arizona State, USC and even Washington State in recent years. But with few veteran stars remaining in the league other than Arizona's Nic Wise, the conference will be younger and more unpredictable than ever. Though Washington and Lorenzo Romar should remain the favorite to win a second straight conference title, Mike Montgomery will have Cal right there with the Huskies. That's because the former Stanford coach will have his top two scorers back in seniors Jerome Randle (18.3 ppg) and Patrick Christopher (14.5 ppg). Down in Southern California, meanwhile, Ben Howland will be attempting to rebuild a UCLA program that saw the final pieces of its previous Final Four teams — Darren Collison, Josh Shipp and Alfred Aboya — leave and highly-touted point guard Jrue Holiday jump for the NBA after a pedestrian freshman season. But knowing the kind of coach Howland is, the Bruins might not be down for long, with the same fortune also applying to Arizona and first-year coach Sean Miller. 5. Big East Unlike last season, it won't be a typical year for the Big East in 2009-10. With the absence of such stars as Hasheem Thabeet, DeJuan Blair, Terrence Williams, Jonny Flynn and Jerel McNeal, the conference certainly won't be sending eight teams to the Big Dance on Selection Sunday next March. There still remains some quality returning talent scattered throughout the league, however. Connecticut lost an imposing frontline that included the 7-foot-3 Thabeet and power forward Jeff Adrien, but Jim Calhoun will welcome back speedy point man Kemba Walker and even more importantly, senior guard Jerome Dyson, who missed the Huskies' Final Four run after tearing his lateral meniscus in February. Stanley Robinson and Gavin Edwards also give UConn a nice one-two punch inside, and if Ater Majok ends up being as good as advertised, the Huskies could be on their way to winning another Big East title. Bob Huggins and West Virginia will be there to make it difficult for UConn to run away with things and highly-touted freshman Lance Stephenson might even show some flashes of greatness at Cincinnati, but Villanova, Pittsburgh, Louisville, Marquette and Syracuse all lost a lot from last year and won't have the firepower to contend with the Huskies or Mountaineers down the stretch in conference play. 4. SEC There was little debate last season over which BCS conference ranked the worst among the six. That honor undoubtedly went to the SEC. But the arrival of former Memphis coach John Calipari at Kentucky this past spring has quickly changed the conference's outlook in 2009-10. While Jodie Meeks' decision to bolt for the NBA hurt the SEC's star power to some degree, the return of Kentucky big man Patrick Patterson and the last-minute signings of John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins have Calipari and the Wildcats back on the national radar once again. Tennessee and Mississippi State, meanwhile, also has some big-time talent to showcase next season. The Vols, for one, return senior wingman Tyler Smith, who has a knack for scoring and brings a sense of leadership to a program that's transformed under Bruce Pearl's tutelage. And for Rick Stansbury and the Bulldogs, getting Jarvis Varnado, the nation's top shot blocker the past two seasons, to return along with a commitment from top-five recruit Renardo Sidney, has fans in Starkville, Miss., anxious to see what could transpire. 3. ACC Long considered by many to be college basketball's deepest and toughest conference, the ACC hasn't lived up to that billing with the Big East sending seven and eight teams to the NCAA tournament the past three seasons. But even with the Big East down from last year, the ACC isn't back on top like many might expect it to be. That's largely due, however, to the departure of North Carolina's powerful trio of Tyler Hansbrough, Wayne Ellington and Ty Lawson, Wake Forest's inside-outside tandem of Jeff Teague and James Johnson and Florida State's do-it-all scorer Toney Douglas. Meanwhile, Gerald Henderson of Duke, K.C. Rivers of Clemson and Tyrese Rice of Boston College have also moved on from the college ranks, leaving the league's few remaining veteran stars — Duke's Kyle Singler, Wake's Al-Farouq Aminu and Maryland's Greivis Vasquez — a chance to finally stand as the elite players in the ACC next season. 2. Big Ten The Big Ten made considerable strides from previous down years several seasons ago with seven teams earning invitations to the Big Dance in 2008-09. This year, believe it or not, that number could actually increase. The conference, in fact, has a chance to send eight teams to the NCAA tournament in March, which would match the Big East's record of eight in 2006 and 2008. While Michigan State, Purdue, Minnesota, Illinois, Ohio State and Michigan should all be locks to earn bids next March, Penn State and Wisconsin could also find their way into the tourney mix with some quality non-conference wins and a .500 record in Big Ten play. The league, however, doesn't have as strong of a freshmen class coming in as the Big 12's. Therefore, veterans like Evan Turner (Ohio State), Kalin Lucas (Michigan State), Robbie Hummel (Purdue) and Manny Harris (Michigan) will be relied upon to carry the conference's name nationally on their way to competing for this year's league title. 1. Big 12 With two of the nation's top five teams, including next season's national title favorite and potential preseason No. 1, the Big 12 makes a convincing argument to be the top conference in 2009-10. While Kansas and Texas will be among the country's elite teams and could even meet in Indianapolis when April rolls around, the conference also features two of the top big men in Kansas' Cole Aldrich and Iowa State's Craig Brackins. Throw other big-time returning players like Kansas' Sherron Collins, Oklahoma State's James Anderson, Oklahoma's Willie Warren, Texas' Damion James, Kansas State's Jacob Pullen and Texas A&M's Donald Sloan into the conversation, along with highly-touted freshmen Xavier Henry (Kansas), Avery Bradley (Texas) and Keith Gallon (Oklahoma), and there's no question that the Big 12 has the strongest crop of talent on the hardwood next year. To see the full list in photos, click here.

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