Bob McClellan Rivals.com College Basketball Editor
No coach is going to tell you the conference in which his team toils is down.
A lot of them heard the question at preseason media days ? unless they happen to coach in the Big East.
No one is questioning the credentials of the Big East. That would be akin to calling Jessica Biel homely.
No less than seven Big East teams are in the ESPN/USA Today coaches' preseason top 25 poll. No other conference has more than four teams in the top 25. The Southeastern Conference has only two, Tennessee and Florida. That's one more than the Southern Conference (Davidson).
"I think the Big East Conference speaks for itself," coach Jamie Dixon said at Pittsburgh's media day. "We're talking about what could be the best conference in the history of college basketball when you're talking about nine or 10 teams getting in the NCAA tournament. I don't know how it's going to happen; we're going to beat each other up. But when you talk about having nine teams in the top 25 of some polls, as I've seen, the league just can't be compared to anything in the past. It's been the best in the country for a number of years now, and I think this year might be the best that it's had."
He won't get any argument from us. Which is the second-best league is a matter for debate. Here are the Rivals Preseason Conference Power Rankings.
Rivals.com Preseason Conference Power Rankings
1. Big East
The league's coaches are openly talking about a record nine NCAA bids. And it's not being brash. Four Big East teams are in the top 10 of the coaches' preseason poll. You will hear talk of this being the best conference ever.
2. Atlantic Coast
The ACC has the favorite to win the national title (North Carolina) and a perennial top-10 team (Duke). Wake Forest appears to be on an upswing, as does Miami. And someone from the lower pack will rise up, a la Miami last season.
3. Big 12
There's a lot to like about Oklahoma and Texas. Baylor could be headed for another big year, and national champion Kansas will remake its roster and come out fighting. The depth is coming along, too.
4. Big Ten
The Big Ten is solid at the top with Purdue, Michigan State, Wisconsin and Ohio State. The bottom five teams are an utter mess. The league had five teams in the top 50 in the RPI last year, and the other six were outside the top 100.
The Pac-10 was strong last year, but it had more one-and-dones than anybody else. UCLA remains a model program, but who can you be sure of after the Bruins this year? Arizona State? USC?
Sorry, but it's a down year in the SEC. Tennessee is the overwhelming preseason favorite and it lost Chris Lofton and JaJuan Smith. Only two SEC teams cracked the coaches' top 25.
7. Conference USA
This is the year C-USA finally breaks through. Everyone knows the strength of the Memphis program, but Mike Davis is building at UAB - and watch out for Tulsa.
8. Mountain West
UNLV and BYU were picked first and second in the league preseason poll, and both have been to the past two NCAA tournaments. San Diego State is a solid sleeper; the bottom half of the league needs to hold up its end.
With seven teams in the top 80 of the RPI, it was a banner year for the A-10 last season. It just doesn't appear as though it can maintain the same depth this season.
10. West Coast Conference
The WCC broke through with a record three NCAA bids after playing the second-toughest non-conference schedule in the nation. Gonzaga, Saint Mary's and San Diego all are going to be very strong again.
11. Missouri Valley
How down is the Valley? The MVC hasn't been lower than eighth in the RPI since 2004, but after Creighton every team has a fair share of questions. Southern Illinois is the No. 2 pick in the preseason poll, but it has eight newcomers.
The MAC played another tough slate out of conference (No. 3 strength of schedule) and produced three 20-win teams and one that won 19. It had four teams in the top 85 in the RPI and should have at least three this year.
Butler was picked fifth in the preseason poll, which gives you some idea of the downturn in expectations for the Bulldogs. Cleveland State and Wright State will bolster the league, but it will take a step back from No. 11 in the RPI.
VCU is picked to win the league, which it did last season but didn't get the NCAA bid when it lost in the conference tournament. The second choice, Northeastern, could be a sleeper. Old Dominion and George Mason are good, too.
The Patriot was the only league outside of the top 11 in the RPI to post a winning record in non-conference play (62-55). Its strength of schedule was last, but at least it won. Defending champ American should be solid again.
Nevada is the preseason pick by both the league's coaches and media, and Utah State and New Mexico State are consensus Nos. 2 and 3. The league could be on the uptick.
Five MAAC teams had winning records last season led by powerful Siena (No. 66 in the RPI), which won an NCAA tournament game and could crack the top 25 this season.
18. Sun Belt
With bell cows Western Kentucky (No. 39 in the RPI) and South Alabama (No. 37) probably taking big steps back, it's hard to believe the Sun Belt will be a two-bid league again.
Following Davidson's lead, the SoCon had the nation's strongest non-conference schedule last season, and it also produced an Elite Eight team in the Wildcats.
20. Big West
Cal State Fullerton (No. 79) had the league's highest RPI, but they lost too much to contend. Northridge is the pick this year, but the league won't be quite as good as last season.
Summit teams played a solid non-conference schedule last season (ranked No. 14 in strength of schedule); league champ Oral Roberts was a top-100 RPI team for the third time in four years.
Cornell soared all the way to No. 65 in the final RPI and was a unanimous pick to repeat as champ with Ivy League Player of the Year Louis Dale among the returning starters.
The Southland bounced up to No. 19 in the final RPI ? its best mark in the past 10 years ? and Stephen F. Austin (No. 64 in the RPI) still looks strong. But the rest of the league may not be up to last year's standard.
The NEC had four teams in the top 165 in the final RPI, and it went a respectable 50-72 out of conference.
25. Big Sky
Portland State returns three starters, including Big Sky MVP Jeremiah Dominguez, and adds three D-I transfers.
26. Big South
Seven teams received first-place votes in the preseason media poll, led by consistent winner Winthrop.
27. America East
Vermont could be a team that messes up an NCAA bracket, but the bottom of the league drags it down.
28. Atlantic Sun
Belmont is the standard-bearer, but Mercer (over USC) and Gardner-Webb (over Kentucky) helped the A-Sun gain some acclaim early last season. Gardner-Webb has since departed for the Big South.
29. Ohio Valley
The OVC struggled big time last year, dropping to an all-time low of No. 28 in the RPI after going a paltry 20-68 outside the league.
30. Mid-Eastern Athletic
Thank goodness for the SWAC: It's the only league the MEAC has had a better non-conference winning percentage than in the past four years.
31. Southwestern Athletic
For the fourth consecutive year the SWAC had the worst non-conference record, going 8-86.