DURHAM, N.C. — The Big East can lay claim right now to being the best basketball conference in America.
As the conference season tips off around the country, it’s hard to argue against the Big East.
The league has seven teams in the Top 25 poll and ended 2010 with five in the top 10. The Big East has earned eight NCAA tournament bids three times in five seasons and put five different teams in the Final Four in six years.
“This league is just so tough,” said Villanova coach Jay Wright, whose Wildcats are No. 7. “What is going to the Final Four? It’s not always the most talented teams. It’s who can get through four games against different styles. That’s one thing about this league, it does prepare you for that.”
The Big Ten and Big 12 appear stocked with talent and poised to challenge the Big East, while the rest of the power conferences look several steps behind.
The Atlantic Coast Conference has No. 1 Duke and seemingly little else. The Southeastern Conference has just two teams in the poll. The Pac-10, meanwhile, didn’t have a ranked team for the final three weeks of 2010.
That means this weekend’s games — which include Maryland at Duke, Cincinnati at Villanova, Kentucky at Georgia and UCLA at USC — marks the start of a rugged stretch that will either change perceptions or reinforce them.
“Where a team is ranked or thought of by the start of conference play is a pretty good indicator of where they’re going to wind up at the end,” said Jay Bilas, an ESPN college basketball analyst and former Duke player. “If you’ve won against your pre-conference schedule — and you’ve played a good one — chances are that you’re going to play pretty well in your conference schedule.
“Teams that are struggling and have not beaten anybody, there’s not some light switch they’re going to turn on and all of a sudden get real good. It can happen, but it’s not the norm.”
The Big Ten has four ranked teams led by No. 2 Ohio State, and beat the ACC in its head-to-head series for the second straight year after losing the first 10 meetings. The Big 12 has five ranked teams led by No. 3 Kansas, and won its series with the Pac-10 for the second straight year.
Texas helped the Big 12 with marquee victories against Illinois, North Carolina and Michigan State. Still, senior reserve Matt Hill said it’s too early to know which teams really are the best.
“It’s hard to right now, but teams will get tested coming up here,” Hill said after the Longhorns edged the Tar Heels last month. “And once we get into the Big 12, teams will separate themselves away from the pack. But these big games help, I think, getting on these stages and testing yourself.”
The Big East, Big Ten and Big 12 have to like what they’ve learned in nonconference play. The Big East (153-39) and the Big Ten (105-27) each won nearly 80 percent of those games entering the new year, according to research from STATS Inc., while the Big 12 (122-33) won almost 79 percent.
Compare that to the ACC, which came in a distant fourth at around 71 percent (106-43). Then came the SEC (108-46, 70 percent) and finally the Pac-10 (78-40, 66 percent).
What the Big East hasn’t had recently is a national champion. Connecticut was the last to win the title in 2004, and that’s an area where the ACC has staked its claim as being the pre-eminent basketball conference.
The ACC has the best nonconference record over the past decade (77 percent), the most Final Fours (nine) and the most NCAA championships (five) — including the past two by rivals Duke and North Carolina.
But a closer look reveals the ACC’s vulnerability. No league team other than Duke and North Carolina has survived the opening weekend of the past four NCAA tournaments, and the Tar Heels’ slide isn’t helping the league’s reputation, either.
North Carolina won two NCAA titles in five seasons before losing 17 games last season, then went from eighth in preseason to unranked by the start of December. They were one of eight ACC teams with at least four losses before January, raising the question of whether there’s a real challenger to the reigning champion Blue Devils.
Duke senior Nolan Smith — who heard offseason trash talk from Connecticut’s Kemba Walker about the Big East’s dominance — still believes the ACC is tough enough to prepare its teams for the tournament.
“I think we’re going to get our share of teams in the NCAA tournament,” Smith said. “You’re going to see ACC teams start to get better. It’s early in the year and I think we’re going to have some late bloomers in this conference.”
Meanwhile, the SEC has just Kentucky and Vanderbilt in the Top 25. That’s one fewer than the Mountain West and the same as Conference USA, a pair of leagues with far less basketball prestige.
As for the Pac-10, it hasn’t won a championship in nearly 14 years and is coming off an ugly season in which it had just two NCAA bids.
“I could see that last year with people talking about that, but our conference is a lot better this year,” Arizona sophomore Derrick Williams said. “I think people underestimate the whole conference.”
Maybe, but the time has arrived for teams to start proving their worth — especially come tournament time and maybe no one more than the Big East.
“The way I look at it is, if this were a race, we’ve watched the initial couple of laps and the jockeying for position and now’s the meat of the race,” Bilas said. “Everybody knows what they have to do. Now it’s just a question of who’s going to go out and do it.”
AP Basketball Writer Dan Gelston in Philadelphia contributed to this report.