Not only were college basketball fans deprived of the 2020 NCAA Tournament, but they also missed out on a normal non-conference schedule early in this season's campaign.
As a result, we didn’t get as many pre-season tournaments or heavyweight matchups between teams of different conferences. Nevertheless, we’ve seen enough of the season to get a good idea of where the power lies in college basketball.
Granted, we’ll know for sure in March when we see what conferences are sending more teams deep into the 2021 NCAA Tournament. But in the meantime, we’ve come up with our rankings of the 10 best college basketball conferences in 2021.
10. Missouri Valley
It was a close call with both the AAC and Southern Conference making a strong bid. However, the AAC has Houston and little else while the Missouri Valley has a handful of teams that could hold their own and then some in a power conference.
Not enough people realize that Drake is still undefeated and opened the season with a road win against Kansas State. Loyola Chicago is also a team worth watching moving forward, as the Ramblers are good enough to make another NCAA Tournament run.
Both Missouri State and Bradley are also worth monitoring. Bradley, in particular, nearly knocked off Missouri on the road. Those four teams are enough to make the MVC a little better than the AAC.
9. West Coast Conference
Obviously, Gonzaga is the best team in the country, giving the WCC a big boost. But it’s not just the Bulldogs that make this conference stand out. BYU can play with anyone and San Francisco is a potential giant-killer, beating Virginia early in the season.
We also don’t want to overlook Santa Clara and Saint Mary’s, as both are teams that could make the regular season a little tricky on Gonzaga.
8. Mountain West
Despite some recent struggles from San Diego State, the Aztecs are still a proud flag holder for the Mountain West. Don’t forget that the Aztecs have two wins over Pac-12 teams on their resume.
Meanwhile, Boise State has been equally impressive. The Broncos are 12-1 with their only loss coming against Houston in their season opener. Those two teams are both capable of making some noise in March, elevating the Mountain West above most other mid-major conferences.
Utah State also looks legitimate after back-to-back wins over San Diego State. The Aggies give the Mountain West a third team that’s worth monitoring down the stretch. Plus, Colorado State and Nevada give this league plenty of depth.
7. Atlantic 10
Unlike last season, the Atlantic 10 doesn’t have a top-five team like Dayton to help draw national attention. However, the depth of the conference makes it superior to any other mid-major league and almost on par with some of the lesser power conferences.
The Atlantic 10 has eight teams in the top 100 of the BPI. Despite some recent postponements, St. Louis is still the A-10’s best chance to make some noise in March. But don’t overlook Richmond, who beat Kentucky earlier this season, or Davidson, who lost to Texas and Providence by a combined three points during an early-season tournament.
Also, don’t forget about Dayton, which has two wins over SEC opponents. The likes of VCU and Rhode Island also have impressive wins this season that prove just how deep the A-10 is this season.
The fact that Oregon, UCLA and Colorado are all in or around the top-25 is just enough to elevate the Pac-12 over the A-10. The likes of USC and Arizona also help the Pac-12 stay a step ahead of the mid-majors.
If Arizona State can get going and reach its potential, the conference could look a lot better. However, it’s hard to find at least one serious national championship contender in this league.
Perhaps UCLA or Oregon can click at the right time and make a run. But at this point, the Pac-12 will be lucky just to get one or two teams reaching the Sweet 16.
Needless to say, it hurts the SEC that Kentucky is having a down year. Of course, you should never discount the possibility of the Wildcats getting their act together before March rolls around.
On the plus side, Tennessee looks like a legitimate Final Four contender while Alabama and Missouri have both shown signs of being something special. However, Kentucky is far from a guarantee to come around and Florida has been irrevocably hurt by the loss of Keyontae Johnson.
The likes of LSU and Arkansas help give the SEC a little bit of depth, keeping it just ahead of the Pac-12.
4. Big East
The Big East is where we start to see some separation between the elite conferences and those that are just a little above average.
Nobody can deny that both Villanova and Creighton a serious Final Four contenders. But the re-emergence of UConn may have added a third team to the upper-echelon of the Big East. Seton Hall and Xavier look like two more teams that are a safe bet to reach the NCAA Tournament, giving the Big East at least five teams in the Big Dance.
Meanwhile, the middle part of the conference is deeper than most realize, as Marquette, Providence, and St. John’s are all good enough to cause trouble for the teams at the top.
Admittedly, this hasn’t been a great season for the ACC. The conference was a little down last year and still hasn’t come back up. But if nothing else, the league is a sleeping giant, as there are a ton of teams that have the potential to get their act together before March.
Keep in mind the ACC has nine teams in the top 50 of the BPI. Teams like Virginia, Clemson, Louisville, Florida State and Virginia Tech all have the pieces to make a run in the Big Dance. That doesn’t even include traditional powers like Duke and North Carolina, who shouldn’t be overlooked either. Plus, there are only one or two teams at the bottom of the standings that are a pushover. Mid-level teams like Pitt, Georgia Tech, and Miami are all better than most anticipated.
When all is said and done, the ACC is likely to get at least seven or eight teams in the NCAA Tournament, and none of them will be an easy out.
2. Big 12
Know that the Big 12 is a great league because Kansas is no better than the third-best team in the league. Baylor is arguably the best team in the country alongside Gonzaga while Shaka Smart’s Texas team has been far better than expected. Kansas, Baylor and Texas make for an incredible trio at the top of the Big 12.
We also can’t overlook Texas Tech, Oklahoma and even a struggling West Virginia team. Those three give the Big 12 six teams in the top 25 of the BPI. The likes of TCU and Oklahoma State are also fascinating wild cards that are capable of playing with any team in the conference.
If the league could find a way to ditch Kansas State and Iowa State, the Big 12 would be the most compelling and competitive eight-team conference imaginable.
1. Big Ten
We knew before the season that the Big Ten would probably be the best conference in the country, and somehow it has been better than expected.
Iowa and Illinois were always going to be serious Final Four contenders, but now Michigan, Wisconsin and even Ohio State can all be added to that category.
Even compared to the ACC, the Big Ten’s depth is unreal. Indiana, Purdue and Rutgers can play with anybody while Minnesota has enough backcourt talent to give the top teams a run for their money. Of course, nobody should overlook Michigan State, and the same can be said for Northwestern and Maryland.
Any fewer than eight teams in the NCAA Tournament would be a shock. At the same time, the Big Ten sending as much as 11 or 12 teams to the Big Dance isn’t out of the question. That’s how deep the league is this season.
More importantly, it’d be shocking to see a Sweet 16 field that doesn’t have at least four or five Big Ten teams in it. Not only is the Big Ten deep, but the teams at the top are also among the best in the country.
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