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Top of the Arc - January 19, 2009

Jan. 19, 12:15 p.m.: A few days after the Big East-ACC debate became a “national conversation” (maybe that’s overstating it), let’s turn our attention to the most intriguing conference races in the country. This is a look at the conferences that have the most contention at the top as well as races that matter in the national landscape:

1) Big East: Look at the top nine teams in the league and there is no comparison. One through nine, the league is the strongest in recent memory. The problem is that the bottom five teams in the league are a combined 2-23 in Big East play. At the top, however, there is no clear favorite. At least six teams have a shot at the regular season title. Connecticut is the most talented team. Pittsburgh is the most physically imposing. Louisville has recently looked like the team no one wants to play. And Georgetown has demonstrated it can beat anyone in the league.

2) Atlantic Coast Conference: The intrigue has increased because of unexpected developments. North Carolina has looked mortal, losing its first two ACC games. Clemson, Duke and particularly Wake Forest have been better than advertised. The league race realistically consists of those four teams. And it is very possible that two ACC teams could earn No. 1 seeds in the NCAA tournament. The Tar Heels are the nation’s most talented team and remain a favorite to win the national title, but the league race promises to be hotly contested the next several weeks.

3) West Coast Conference: Gonzaga could be the best team west of Normal, Okla. But the Bulldogs might not even win their own conference. St. Mary’s (17-1) don’t have a top 50 victory and has not played a difficult non-conference schedule. The Gaels, however, will be their best against Gonzaga. The teams could play three times (including the WCC title game). San Diego is a sleeper, the rest of the conference is a non-factor – but the St. Mary’s-Gonzaga battles are must-see contests and will determine exactly how high of a seed Gonzaga receives in the NCAAs.

4) Pac-10: The conference is weaker than it was last season after losing a host of superb players to the NBA draft. The conference favorite, UCLA, has also regressed a bit after losing the likes of Kevin Love and Russell Westbrook. Southern California has been uneven. Arizona has been disappointing. But the emergence of California as a national surprise has thrust Mike Montgomery into the national player of the year conversation and added some mystery to the conference race. What’s more, one of the nation’s most underrated players, Arizona State’s James Harden, has made the Sun Devils a trendy pick, but the Sun Devils have also been inconsistent. The Pac-10 is an unpredictable league that lacks a truly great team.

5) Mountain West Conference: No non-BCS conference is as strong. The MWC ranks as the nation’s seventh-strongest league in Jerry Palm’s RPI simulation. Seven of the league’s nine teams rank in the top 100 of the RPI. Two MWC teams will probably reach the NCAAs, but three have a chance. But it’s less certain which team is the best in the league. All have stumbled at least once, and road trips in the MWC can be particularly grueling. Brigham Young, Nevada-Las Vegas and San Diego State are probably three best teams (in whatever order you choose), but Utah and Texas Christian have proven to be spoilers.

Honorable mention: Missouri Valley Conference, Colonial Athletic Association, Patriot.

The least intriguing conference races: Southern, Horizon, Conference USA, Metro Atlantic.

By Eric Prisbell  |  January 19, 2009; 12:06 PM ET
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