Summer Discussion: The Best Conference In College Basketball Will Be ... ?

In the barren summer landscape of college hoops news, the release of ESPN's Big 12 Monday schedule rates as a highlight. College Hoops Nation has the particulars of the schedule, which features Kansas State and Kansas four times. (Only two games for Mizzou and Baylor, which is mildly disappointing.) But as a whole, it got me thinking about how loaded that league looks next season. Are they the best in the nation? If not who is?
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↵When you survey the landscape of college hoops, it would seem the race for the best conference will come down to the Big Ten and the Big 12. (The ACC, while obviously top-heavy thanks to Duke, doesn't present a lot else beyond the Blue Devils, North Carolina and Virginia Tech in the way of top 25 teams. The Big East has greater depth, but fewer Final Four caliber teams at this point.) To render a verdict, we'll go through four categories: Final Four contenders, overall depth, star players and coaches. ↵

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↵FINAL FOUR CONTENDERS: Winner - Big Ten. ↵

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↵This one narrowly goes to the Big Ten and probably hinges on Ohio State's ability to bounce back from losing Evan Turner and the assimilation of Jared Sullinger. Both conferences clearly have two teams: The Big 12 has Kansas and Kansas State while the Big Ten has Michigan State and Purdue. The wildcards: Ohio State in the Big Ten and Missouri in the Big 12. The consensus opinion probably puts Ohio State closer to the Final Four, particularly here at Sporting News where Mike DeCourcy ranked Ohio State No. 5 for next season. If McDonald's All-American center Jared Sullinger is the kind of instant impact player many expect, possibly challenging for a first team All-American spot, the slight edge goes to the Big Ten. ↵

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↵DEPTH: Winner - Big 12. ↵

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↵Neither league suffers from a lack of depth, particularly given their respective sizes. In the Big 12, you're rolling out half a dozen teams -- Kansas, Kansas State, Missouri, Baylor, Texas A&M, Texas -- that will be formidable teams vying for 20-plus wins. In the Big Ten, you could probably confidently say the same about six teams: Michigan State, Purdue, Ohio State, Wisconsin, Illinois, Northwestern. So where's the distinction? For one, the bottom of the Big Ten might be worse than the Big 12. Michigan, Penn State and Iowa all still figure to be a mess. Indiana might marginally improve, but not enough to really matter. In the Big 12, Oklahoma is basically in hoops purgatory. Nebraska just isn't competing. Iowa State lost its only real talent. At that point, we're talking about comparing the prospective success of Indiana and Minnesota to Texas Tech and Colorado. In that slapfight of mediocrity, the edge goes to the Big 12, but it's hardly a knockout. ↵

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↵STAR PLAYERS: Winner - Big 12 ↵

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↵The Big 12 makes a compelling case in this category thanks to numerous players who figure to be in the conversation for first team All-American. Kansas State guard Jacob Pullen, Baylor guard LaceDarius Dunn and Kansas forward Marcus Morris will all garner that kind of attention. Add four McDonald's All-Americans (Cory Joseph, Tristan Thompson, Josh Selby and Perry Jones) and there is more than a little bit of star power. ↵

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↵The Big Ten counters with four McDonald's All-Americans (Jared Sullinger, DeShaun Thomas, Keith Appling and Jereme Richmond) of its own. In the returning stars, the Big Ten probably comes up a few notches short. Purdue's trio of Robbie Hummel, JaJuan Johnson and E'Twaun Moore is compelling as a group, but individually they don't really match the Big 12's best. Kalin Lucas is coming off an injury for Michigan State, but even when healthy, would you take him over Pullen? Durrell Summers presents an interesting name as a breakout player. His NCAA Tournament play was outstanding. Scoring at 18 a clip will put him right next to any of those Big 12 names. ↵

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↵COACHES: Winner - Big Ten ↵

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↵If we're comparing the class of each league, you start with Tom Izzo vs. Bill Self, with Izzo getting a nod thanks to more Final Four appearances (six to one). Hitting second, the Big Ten rolls out Thad Matta, who has an NCAA runner-up to his credit. You can roll him out against Texas' Rick Barnes, who has a Final Four and more wins over a longer period of time, but hasn't been to a title game. Matta also sports a higher winning percentage, but both kill in recruiting circles. Slight advantage to the Big Ten there. ↵

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↵Going down the list, there are a lot of strong coaches for both sides. Scott Drew and Matt Painter are bright young coaches who have already accomplished a great deal. Drew's work is particularly impressive given the rebuilding job he pulled off, not to mention making Baylor a destination school out of thin air. But on the other side there is the steady crop of coaches like Tubby Smith, Bo Ryan and Bruce Weber. Don't forget, Tubby Smith does have a title. Even the coaches with programs struggling at the moment like John Beilein and Tom Crean have some serious chops. This one goes to the Big Ten. ↵

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↵Overall verdict: It really depends what flavor you're searching for here. In the end, it feels like the Big Ten is better positioned to impact college hoops across a number of fronts. Sullinger is a potential first team All-American. The league has three coaches probably competing for Final Fours and, by association, coach of the year awards. The Big 12 will probably pile up more postseason awards for individual achievement, but in the end I think the separation in coaching and top-heavy teams negates the narrow advantage in depth the Big 12 might possess. ↵

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This post originally appeared on the Sporting Blog. For more, see The Sporting Blog Archives.

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