- The Washington Times - Monday, January 16, 2012

One of college basketball’s prevailing storylines a year ago was the supersized Big East’s chase for an unusually large chunk of the NCAA tournament.

It happened, of course, with 11 Big East teams earning invitations to the 68-team field. Regardless of performance — Connecticut won the tournament, with only one other school (Marquette) surviving the event’s first weekend — it was clear the Big East was easily the nation’s deepest league.

(It’s time for an always necessary point of emphasis for any of these discussions: Individual teams earn NCAA tournament berths, not leagues.)

And what conference is the most likely to litter two-thirds of its teams across the postseason landscape this time? Try the Big Ten.

There are Ohio State (16-3) and Michigan State (15-3), the expected heavyweights in the Rust Belt who have lived up to their reputations.

There’s steady Illinois (15-3), which has set itself up well to make consecutive NCAA trips for the first time since 2000-07.

There’s resurgent Indiana (15-3), well on its way to its first postseason trip under coach Tom Crean.

Old standbys Purdue (13-5) and Wisconsin (14-5) are tough outs, as usual. Minnesota (14-5) struggled early in league play but turned around and beat Indiana and Penn State on the road in the past week.

The curious contender: Northwestern, now 12-5 and in pursuit of the first NCAA trip in school history.

Will all nine still be standing in two months? Tough to say, especially with the chance conference play buries a team along the way. But for now, the Big Ten looks like the likeliest league to produce the most NCAA teams.

Three other conferences with solid years to date:

Atlantic 10: Fairly top-heavy in recent years, 10 of the inaccurately named conference’s 14 teams are ranked in the top 100 of the RPI released Monday by the NCAA, with Duquesne checking in at No. 101. Some things don’t change: Temple and Xavier carved out decent resumes in nonconference play.

Big East: Six teams appear in the top 20 of the RPI, including No. 1 Syracuse. There aren’t as many strong teams as last year, but the top half of the Big East still is especially competitive.

Mountain West: No more Brigham Young? No problem. With the Cougars moving to the West Coast Conference, New Mexico has surged to rejoin San Diego State and UNLV as stout teams early in the season. And don’t overlook Colorado State, which has played the RPI game well by avoiding lousy opponents for the most part.

And here’s three struggling to produce deep postseason representation:

ACC: After Duke, North Carolina and Virginia — a strong top three for any league — there isn’t much of substance. Florida State sneaks into this week’s projection after throttling North Carolina last week. Maryland and N.C. State are off to 2-1 league starts, but didn’t collect standout victories before conference play.

Colonial: This won’t be a three-bid league again this year — and it probably won’t be home to two NCAA teams. The top (VCU and its RPI of 83) isn’t as potent, and the bottom (five teams with RPI figures above 250) is strikingly weaker than usual.

Pac-12: Is it as bad as advertised? The wretched bottom certainly is. The Bay Area schools — Stanford (15-3) and California (15-4) — share the league lead, and Arizona, Oregon and Washington remain talented. But if the tournament started today, the Pac-12 would be mighty grateful it exists in an era of 68-team fields rather than 64-team events.

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