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January 15, 2009

SCS.comItís very realistic to think the Big East conference this season could be remembered as the best conference in the history of college basketball. It has already placed an unheard of nine teams in the top 25 in the eighth week of the season in both the Associated Press and ESPN/USA Today polls, while also fittingly boasting the countryís top team in undefeated Pittsburgh, one of only three unbeatens remaining in the country. One would have to think with those credentials that no conference in America could top that.

However, a case could certainly be made that the Atlantic Coast Conference is just as good or better at the top than the Big East with Duke, North Carolina, and Wake Forest all sitting pretty in the top 5 of the most recent AP poll. Toss in Clemson at number nine and nobody will be disputing the fact that the top-heavy ACC takes a backseat to no one. And while the Big East may possess Pitt, guess where the other two unbeatens in America reside?

Thatís right, the ACC, where the Demon Deacons (No. 2 AP, No. 3 ESPN/USA Today) and the Tigers of Clemson (No. 9 AP, No. 10 ESPN/USA Today) are a combined 31-0. Thereís no doubting that these teams could beat any Big East opponent on any given night, with the exception possibly being Oliver Purnellís pesky Clemson team, who has yet to play a ranked team. That will certainly change starting this weekend when the Tigers host Wake Forest, and consequently travel to Chapel Hill, NC to take on the Tar Heels, all in a five-day span.

Unfortunately, thatís pretty much where the comparison ends between these two as the depth of the Big East begins to flex itsí muscle. While the Big East may not boast as many top teams as the ACC, it does have five other teams currently ranked 11th through 25th in the polls, and last week had six before West Virginia dropped two conference matchups to Connecticut and Marquette. The ACC has zero.

What about the Big 10? While they may not have any legitimate national title contenders other than Michigan State, there is certainly depth in this conference. The Spartans, along with Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Penn State all can be found in the most recent top 25 polls. Illinois maintains a 15-2 record and after beating the 24th-ranked Wolverines Wednesday night, theyíre in prime position of jumping into the fold and being a legitimate conference contender. And if Ohio State can get David Lighty healthy and back into their young but talented lineup (there is no current senior listed on the roster), they could make a run for it as well. But when comparing it to the Big East, the quality and depth of those teams are nowhere to be found. Games against Northwestern and Tom Creenís Indiana Hoosiers look to be surefire wins for everyone else in the conference this year, and Penn State and Iowa have struggled early on in conference play.

The Southeastern Conference currently has no ranked teams, so we wonít even begin to make that comparison. Spring football practice canít come soon enough for the rabid fans down south.

Oklahoma (No. 6 AP, No. 5 ESPN/USA Today) and Texas (No. 11) are the heavyweights of the Big IX, which looks to be a bit down this season with Kansas breaking in five new starters on Bill Selfís young squad. Baylor (No. 21), who has a key non-conference road win over Arizona State, and Oklahoma State have been nice surprises thus far, and Missouri has showed flashes as well. However, neither the Cowboys nor the Tigers figure to have much of a role in the national picture. The wild card in the conference could be Texas A&M, who picked up a huge conference win over Baylor Wednesday evening and now claim an impressive 15-2 record. This is a conference that will continue to get better as the season goes along, but still doesnít pose much of a threat to the much-superior Big East.

And that brings us to the Pac-10, led again by UCLA, who currently sits 7th in the country in the latest coaches top 25 poll. However, future lottery pick James Harden and his Arizona State Sun Devils (No. 16 AP, No. 15 ESPN/USA Today) should pose a serious threat to the Bruins, as will California (No. 22 AP, No. 23 ESPN/USA Today), who has already defeated Arizona State at home in early January and sits atop the conference standings thus far. Arizona and Washington seem to be solid players in the conference race, and Stanford has been impressive with an 11-3 record. But in a 10-team conference, those might be the only six teams that contend for the title. The loss of O.J. Mayo to the NBA looks to be too much for the USC Trojans to withstand after losing their last two Pac-10 contests, and the Washington State Cougars are a mere 9-6 on the season. In addition, Oregon State and Oregon have both looked below average while posting losing records thus far. The Bruins might be the only real national title contender of the bunch, but Arizona State and Cal could do some serious damage in the tournament come March. Still, it is no match for the Big East, and is probably battling the Big XII or Big 10 for the third best conference spot.

So what is it that all these conferences lack that the Big East contains? Itís not just the depth of the Big East with many teams having a shot at the title; itís the quality of those teams which makes it so appealing.

Syracuse, thought pre-season to be a bubble team when March rolled around, was picked eighth in the pre-season conference poll. As it stands right now, they might be fighting for a top 3 seed in the NCAA tournament. Theyíre 16-2, ranked 8th in the country, and their only defeat before Wednesday came at the hands of Cleveland State on a last-second full court buzzer beater. While they were beaten handedly by the Georgetown Hoyas (No. 13 AP, No. 12 ESPN/USA Today) on Wednesday evening, they do have three very good non-conference wins over Florida, Kansas, and Memphis, all of whom were ranked at the time and all of which occurred away from the Carrier Dome.

Louisville, who started off alarmingly slow with two unexpected losses to Western Kentucky and UNLV, has bounced back into the polls while reeling off four-straight wins heading into Saturdayís showdown with Pitt. A consensus top-ten pre-season pick, this looks to be another terrific club for Rick Pitino, who has become notorious for always having his team playing its best ball in March.

Connecticut (No. 4) has looked like the dominant force it is, with the only blemish on the record coming at the hands of the Hoyas a few weeks ago. Notre Dame and Marquette follow Georgetown in the rankings at 13th and 14th, respectively, while the Villanova Wildcats (No. 23 AP, No. 22 ESPN/USA Today) round out the list of current top 25 teams in the conference. The Golden Eagles are an intriguing team because of their senior leadership from star guards Dominic James, Jerel McNeal, and leading scorer Wesley Matthews, and will no doubt be a tough out in the Big Dance.

Throw in teams such as West Virginia, who posted a huge 28-point beat down of the Buckeyes in Columbus in late December, and a surprising Providence Friars squad, and it becomes very clear as to why some experts are picking ten teams in the NCAA tournament from the almighty Big East. Even usual bottom feeder St. Johns defeated Notre Dame earlier in the year at Madison Square Garden.

With the Big East taking all sixteen teams to the conference tournament for the first time starting this March, one can only imagine the drama that should unfold in the Garden. While it remains to be seen if this is the best conference ever assembled in college basketball, one thing is for certain; nothing compares to this conference right now, and as these teams know all too well, there is a never a night off in the Big East.

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