THROUGH THE YEARS, I have found one of the best ways to handicap the NCAA Tournament is to understand the strengths and weaknesses of the top conferences. There have been years when I have tossed an entire BCS conference in my bracket because it was obvious by March that the league was more about the past than the present. Conversely, I have ridden the top leagues hard to the Sweet 16 and Final Eight.

As we head for 2010, with conference play getting seriously under way everywhere but the Ivy League (it just likes to be different), what do we know?

Well, we know some assumptions about the strongest conferences were wrong. It was assumed the Big East would be down because how could a league, which supplied half the Final Eight and half the Final Four, be as good.

Well, it might not be as good, but, according to the RPI, it is still the best league in the country, with six teams in the RPI top 20 - West Virginia (4), Connecticut (8), Syracuse (9), St. John's (14), Georgetown (15) and Villanova (18). The Big 12 is next with four teams in the top 20 - Kansas State (2), Texas (5), Kansas (15) and Texas A & M (20).

The Atlantic Coast Conference has only one team ranked in the top 40, but Duke's No. 1 RPI is enough to rank the conference third overall.

As it gets set for conference play next week, the Atlantic 10 is ranked fourth, ahead of the Southeastern, Big Ten and Pacific 10. The league's teams have played the most difficult schedule. And, with so many significant wins, the league has really positioned itself for multiple bids.

Temple (3), Richmond (23), Rhode Island (25) and Dayton (28) are all in the RPI top 30, meaning they would all be NCAA locks if the bracket were coming out this Sunday. Much can change between now and mid-March, but the A-10's November and December will really impress the selection committee when the time comes.

Kentucky (10) is the only SEC team in the RPI top 30, which suggests the unbeaten Wildcats are going to rack up a big win

total in the league.

Purdue (13), Wisconsin (26) and Northwestern (46) are the only Big Ten teams in the top 50.

Washington (6) and California (11) have terrific RPIs, but the rest of the Pac-10 is so bad the league is ranked seventh overall.

I think the RPI numbers are right. The Big East and Big 12

also pass the eye test. These are clearly the two best leagues in the country with plenty of

separation to the next echelon.

Wild in Lexington

Kentucky coach John Calipari can't go the mall without getting overwhelmed by fans. Once people noticed that his daughter was a UK student, it got so uncomfortable for her that she transferred to Massachusetts.

Drexel coach Bruiser Flint, Calipari's longtime friend, got a first-hand look at the lunacy when he took his team to Lexington for a pre-Christmas game with Kentucky.

Drexel actually arrived in town from the West Coast on Saturday morning for the Monday game. After UK played in Rupp Arena against Austin Peay, Calipari and assistant John Robic went to a

local restaurant to hang with Flint and his staff.

"They actually had to stop people from coming in our private room because they found out he was there," Flint said.

They watched the Memphis-UMass game together. Then

Calipari slipped out. When Flint left, the fans wanted to know, "Is he still up there?"

How crazy is it?

"They have 10,000 people that stay after the game for his radio show," Flint said. And, Calipari told Flint, it was like that for

Clarion, an exhibition game.

"He said every time he goes somewhere, people just follow him around," Flint said. "Everybody's always asking for his autograph, want to take pictures."

For 2 days, all Flint heard on the news was UK is going for 2,000 wins. As his team was preparing to leave for the arena, he was watching the 5 o'clock news.

"There were 4,000 people outside the arena waiting to get into the game," Flint said. "I'm like, 'Yo, don't they know they're playing Drexel?' ''

There is coaching. And then there is coaching at Kentucky.

Drexel stayed a bit out of town at the Marriott Griffin Gate to avoid the sheer insanity of the Hyatt attached to Rupp. After UK crushed Drexel, Calipari came to the Drexel hotel. It

didn't stay calm for long.

"One lady said, 'I just want to touch you, I just want to stand next to you,' '' Flint said.

Calipari thought he understood the passion of the UK fans. He was not quite ready.

"He said it's a little bit more than he expected," Flint said. "He said. 'This is craziness.' ''

Vinman to the bench

It is not often, if ever, you see someone come off the radio broadcast team to the coaching staff. It is also not often you see a team make a coaching change in December.

When Penn replaced Glen Miller with assistant Jerome Allen, the Quakers needed someone to replace Allen.

The new coach chose his old friend Vince Curran. So, the

Vinman, who runs Palestra

Properties in his real life while

being involved in several horse partnerships in a side life, has left Penn radio play-by-play man Brian Seltzer's side to sit near Allen on the bench.

"For someone who has had the worldwide success that Jerome has had, he still has such humility, which then manifests itself in his incredible work ethic, loyalty and character," Curran said. "When your friends say they need you, it is a matter of how you make it happen, not if."

Allen was a freshman at Penn when Curran was a senior. They have been friends ever since.

This and that

* Try to imagine the reception Louisville coach Rick Pitino might get at Rupp Arena Saturday and then triple it. The UK fans were not happy when their former coach ended up at Louisville. And it is likely they have heard about Pitino's offcourt issue that got a bit of run in Kentucky media outlets since it broke last spring. This will not be a pretty scene.

* If you can get yourself away from football for a few minutes on New Year's Day, check out West Virginia at Purdue. There will be no game this season with more tough players in it. In fact, it might seem a little like football. Every possession will be contested and every basket will be earned. One or both of these teams could wind up in the Final Four.

* Drew Crawford set a Northwestern freshman record when he scored 35 points against North Carolina A&T on Dec. 13. He is the son of long-time NBA official Danny Crawford.

* Duquesne's Damian Saunders (13.9 points, 13.1 rebounds) already has 10 double-doubles and seven games with at least 15 rebounds.

* Bad news from Spain. Saint Joseph's Ahmad Nivins, the reigning Big 5 Player of the Year, has torn his anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments in his first season of professional basketball.

* Penn coach Jerome Allen on his college coach, Fran Dunphy: "If I could be half the man, let alone half the coach that he has been, then I'll be doing all right."

* Penn assistant Vince Curran on Allen and Dunphy: "My life was forever changed when Fran Dunphy was named head coach at Penn. These kids don't know it yet, but Jerome will impact them in the same way. They will be better men because of this. I am honored to be a part of it."