Ranking the Top College Basketball Conferences in 2017-18
With two weeks remaining until conference play begins in earnest, the ACC, Big 12, Big East and SEC all have a legitimate claim to be the No. 1 conference in men's college basketball.
How did we decide which one actually claims the throne, you might wonder?
It's from the team rankings on KenPom.com. For each of the 11 ranked conferences, you'll find the following designations: Title Contenders, Second-Weekend Teams, Tournament Teams, Could Sneak In, Not Completely Terrible and Others. Those buckets are actually the teams that fall into the KenPom top 10, top 25, top 50, top 100, top 200 and others, respectively.
Based on the percentage of teams in the conference in each of those buckets, the overall strength of the conference was calculated. The leagues were then ranked in ascending order by those scores.
And—spoiler alert—the Pac-12's score was so bad that it is ranked behind one mid-major conference and almost landed behind another.
11. Atlantic 10
Title Contenders: N/A
Second-Weekend Teams: N/A
Tournament Teams: Rhode Island
Could Sneak In: St. Bonaventure, Davidson, VCU
Not Completely Terrible: Saint Joseph's, Dayton, La Salle, Massachusetts, George Washington, Saint Louis
Others: George Mason, Richmond, Duquesne, Fordham
Normally, the A-10 is one of the best non-major leagues. Per KenPom, it has been either the seventh- or eighth-best conference in each of the past six years. The A-10 has also sent at least three teams to the NCAA tournament in 10 consecutive seasons.
That streak is almost certainly coming to an end this year.
Of the 14 teams in the A-10, 10 have already suffered at least five losses. Compare that to the ACC, Big East, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC, which have a combined total of just four teams with at least five losses. And of the four A-10 teams that have not suffered that many losses, one is Duquesne, which is 6-3 with no wins over KenPom top 300 teams.
Rhode Island is one of the exceptions to the rule here. It won a neutral-court game against an excellent Seton Hall and picked up a nice home win over Providence. St. Bonaventure is the other legitimate contender for an at-large bid, and it won a neutral-court game against Maryland. The Bonnies also have upcoming games against Vermont and Syracuse to potentially enhance their resume.
Aside from the two games against each other, though, there aren't many opportunities for good wins in league play. In order for both to have a reasonable case for an at-large bid, they might both need to go at least 15-3 in conference.
The most likely result is that this will be a one-bid league for the first time since 2005.
10. Missouri Valley
Title Contenders: N/A
Second-Weekend Teams: N/A
Tournament Teams: N/A
Could Sneak In: Loyola-Chicago, Northern Iowa, Missouri State
Not Completely Terrible: Valparaiso, Illinois State, Bradley, Evansville, Southern Illinois, Indiana State, Drake
The Missouri Valley Conference lost Wichita State, so it doesn't have a title contender. But this appears to be the best this league has been top to bottom since the mid-to-late 2000s.
Loyola-Chicago is 10-1 with a road win over Florida. Northern Iowa is 8-2 with "quality losses" to Villanova and North Carolina and quality wins over SMU, NC State, UNLV and Texas-Arlington. Both teams are, at worst, on the bubble, and they are the current flagship programs for the league. Newcomer Valparaiso hasn't been too shabby, either.
The most important development for the Valley is its lack of dead weight.
In each of the past four years, there have been multiple teams in this conference that were just plain bad. For instance, two years ago, Drake and Bradley went a combined 12-51 overall. But nine of the 10 teams are currently .500 or better. The one exception is 4-6 Illinois State, which has played a tough nonconference schedule and already has two wins over Tulsa and a neutral-court win over South Carolina.
This may be the 10th-best conference in the country, but don't expect it to be one of the 10 highest-scoring conferences. Nine of the 10 teams rank in the top 115 in adjusted defensive efficiency, but only three of the 10 rank in the top 175 in adjusted offensive efficiency. Most in this league play at a below-average tempo, too. Should be a lot of entertaining races to 55 points.
9. West Coast
Title Contenders: Gonzaga
Second-Weekend Teams: N/A
Tournament Teams: Saint Mary's
Could Sneak In: BYU
Not Completely Terrible: San Diego, San Francisco
Others: Loyola Marymount, Santa Clara, Pacific, Pepperdine, Portland
Though the West Coast Conference does have one of the 10 best teams in the country, the league as a whole just isn't very good.
Gonzaga's great. No need to spend too much time arguing something that everyone should agree with. Although I would like to point out that Josh Perkins is a stone-cold assassin right now. We were worried about what Gonzaga would do without Nigel Williams-Goss, but the junior combo guard has a stat line of 14.4 PPG, 4.8 APG, 3.8 RPG, 1.4 SPG, 51.6% 3PT. Redshirt freshman Zach Norvell Jr. has also been a revelation for the Zags.
Saint Mary's has been solid. Jock Landale (21.3 PPG and 9.4 RPG) has become even more of an unstoppable force than last year, and point guard Emmett Naar is reaping the benefits with 9.1 assists per game. But the Gaels lost back-to-back games to Washington State and Georgia in the Wooden Legacy, destroying any hope of putting together a respectable nonconference resume. Even though they're 8-2, they legitimately might need to win the WCC tournament to reach the big one.
And, per usual, the only other team worth mentioning is BYU. However, the Cougars are 0-2 against KenPom top 100 teams and are more of a potential landmine for Gonzaga and Saint Mary's than a potential tournament team.
At some point, a fourth team needs to rise up. Aside from these three teams, no one in the WCC has finished with more than 10 conference wins or finished in the KenPom top 100 in the past three years. San Diego might be that team this year. If the Toreros can do it, maybe the WCC climbs into the top seven.
8. Mountain West
Title Contenders: N/A
Second-Weekend Teams: N/A
Tournament Teams: Nevada
Could Sneak In: Boise State, San Diego State, Fresno State, UNLV
Not Completely Terrible: Wyoming, Utah State, New Mexico, Colorado State
Others: Air Force, San Jose State
The Mountain West is back, baby!
OK, that's a bit of an overreaction, but this is easily the best the league has been since the 2012-13 season that produced five NCAA tournament teams. After that year, the MWC added bottom-feeder San Jose State and middle-of-the-pack Utah State, and both New Mexico and UNLV tapered off considerably. As a result, the league that was better than some major conferences has sent just one team dancing in each of the past two years.
This should be a multi-bid year for the Mountain West, though.
Nevada—though it whiffed on recent opportunities for statement wins against Texas Tech and TCU—is clearly one of the 50 best teams in the country. Head coach Eric Musselman's strategy of stacking the roster with former major-conference transfers has worked wonderfully. Caleb and Cody Martin (NC State) are averaging nearly 36 combined points per game, and Kendall Stephens (Purdue) has been a great addition to the team's perimeter attack.
Not too far behind Nevada is 10-1 Boise State, which has an incredibly gifted player in Chandler Hutchison. There's a lot of BYU's former triple-double king, Kyle Collinsworth, in Hutchison's game, as the 6'7" point forward already has one triple-double and has averaged 22.8 points, 10.8 rebounds and 4.8 assists in December. A huge road game against SMU is coming up on Monday, but even if the Broncos don't win that one, they'll have a strong nonconference resume.
The rest of this league isn't too shabby, either. San Diego State, Fresno State and UNLV all rank in the KenPom top 75, and Wyoming is just outside the top 100. Compare that to 2016 when only one team finished higher than 90th on KenPom, and it's easy to see the overall improvement here.
Title Contenders: N/A
Second-Weekend Teams: Arizona
Tournament Teams: Arizona State, USC, UCLA
Could Sneak In: Oregon, Utah
Not Completely Terrible: Stanford, Oregon State, Colorado, Washington, California, Washington State
In 2012, the Pac-12 only sent two teams to the NCAA tournament, neither of which received better than a No. 11 seed.
This year's version of the league isn't that bad, but let's just say we're not expecting a repeat of 2016 when seven Pac-12 teams got in as No. 8 seeds or better.
Arizona State is the team that everyone is in love with because of its fun-to-watch, guard-heavy offense, but KenPom's rankings can't get past the brutal defensive metrics of the Sun Devils. They have steadily climbed from No. 100 to No. 32 in the tempo-free rankings, but ranking 152nd on defense isn't good enough for second-weekend status. This makes sense, though, since teams that give up more than 80 points per game against major-conference opponents tend to run into early trouble in March.
The top contender from the Pac-12 is Arizona, which already has three losses and could easily be 4-6, since wins over UNLV, Texas A&M and Alabama came by a combined total of 12 points. But with the exception of the Alabama game, the Wildcats had been playing without Rawle Alkins, which makes a huge difference on both sides of the floor. He is their best defender, and his ability to drive and dish will open things up for the entire offense. Give it another couple of weeks, and Arizona should make the jump from "Second-Weekend Team" back to "Title Contender."
But things drop off in a hurry from there. USC was supposed to be a title contender, but the Trojans can't get out of their own way on offense and are lacking on defense without De'Anthony Melton. UCLA was supposed to be a Top 25 team, but that whole shoplifting fiasco in China has kept the Bruins from playing at full strength. And Stanford—which was supposed to be the middle-of-the-pack team that maybe makes a run at the top four—is a 4-6 train wreck with losses to Eastern Washington, Portland State and Long Beach State.
Six of the 12 teams in this league rank outside the top 110 on KenPom. The other five major conferences (not counting American Athletic) have a combined total of two such teams. The divide isn't anywhere near as massive when looking at RPI numbers, but who wants to look at the RPI in mid-December? The fact of the matter is the Pac-12 has 75 percent of the eight worst teams from the six major conferences. Combine that with a lack of strong Final Four candidates, and, yeah, things are ugly out west.
6. American Athletic
Title Contenders: Wichita State
Second-Weekend Teams: Cincinnati
Tournament Teams: SMU, Houston
Could Sneak In: Temple, UCF, Connecticut
Not Completely Terrible: Tulsa, Tulane, Memphis
Others: East Carolina, South Florida
The American Athletic is clearly better than the Pac-12 right now, and there's a strong case to be made that it's even better than the Big Ten.
Certainly, the AAC can hold a candle to the Big Ten at the top of the standings. Wichita State is already a legitimate threat to win the national championship, and it is still playing without last year's leading scorer, Markis McDuffie, who should return from a foot injury in the next week or two. In his stead, Landry Shamet has become a Wooden Award-caliber lead guard, and both Shaquille Morris and Darral Willis Jr. have become outstanding weapons.
Cincinnati isn't far behind the Shockers, but the Bearcats better win Saturday's road game against UCLA if they expect to carry a respectable resume into conference play. Lack of marquee wins might keep them from contending for a spot on the top few seed lines, but the late-season games against Wichita State are going to be must-watch TV.
SMU has also been solid and is about to get even better. South Florida transfer Jahmal McMurray (15.2 PPG as a freshman) will be eligible to join the Mustangs at the start of the second semester, adding some much-needed depth to a backcourt playing Shake Milton and Jarrey Foster almost every minute of every game.
Where the AAC isn't quite at the same level as the top five conferences is its bottom half. South Florida and East Carolina are just plain bad, and neither Memphis nor Tulane has shown much of anything.
The wild card here is Connecticut. The Huskies have three remaining nonconference games against Arizona, Auburn and Villanova, and they have the talent on the roster to legitimately compete with anyone. But they just cannot seem to put it all together. If they suddenly wake up and make a run at a tournament bid, the AAC could bypass the Big Ten.
5. Big Ten
Title Contenders: Michigan State, Purdue
Second-Weekend Teams: N/A
Tournament Teams: Michigan, Maryland, Penn State, Minnesota, Northwestern, Ohio State
Could Sneak In: Wisconsin, Indiana, Iowa, Nebraska, Illinois
Not Completely Terrible: Rutgers
Before we dive into how disappointing this league has been, let's first focus on the good.
Michigan State might be the best team in the country, and that's with Miles Bridges playing only marginally better than last year. Cassius Winston's numbers as both a passer and a shooter have been incredible, and the frontcourt combo of Nick Ward and Jaren Jackson Jr. has been even more impressive. The last time a team suffered zero or one loss in Big Ten play was Ohio State in 2006-07. Considering MSU's only game against Purdue is a home game, the Spartans might run the table.
Speaking of Purdue, that's the only other Big Ten team worth trusting in the slightest. Somehow, the Boilermakers lost Caleb Swanigan and may have gotten even better. Vince Edwards has been the perfect stretch 4 for this team, leaving Isaac Haas and Matt Haarms to split the 5 duties. And in the backcourt, the trio of Carsen Edwards, Dakota Mathias and P.J. Thompson might be the most efficient in the country. Don't sweat the early loss to Western Kentucky. These guys are the real deal.
Beyond those top two teams, though, is a massive cluster of bubble teams. Rutgers still isn't any good, and Wisconsin and Iowa may have already played their way out of the NCAA tournament picture with a combined 13 losses. The other nine teams are virtually indistinguishable from a resume perspective. The six "Tournament Teams" above are all in the Nos. 36-48 range on KenPom, and you can't definitely say any of them is actually better than Nebraska.
And yet, we should expect to see at least six tournament teams from the Big Ten, simply because we have to get to 68 somehow.
There are only a couple of potential great wins to be had in conference play, but more importantly, there aren't many terrible losses to find. And with the exception of Wisconsin and Iowa, no team in the Big Ten has been so bad in nonconference play that it would take 13 conference wins to make the NCAA tournament.
We'll end up spending the entire month of February talking about the sheer number of bubble teams in this league, but Michigan State, Purdue and a handful of teams that have no business reaching the Sweet 16 is enough to keep the Big Ten within shouting distance of some of the conferences that are actually good.
4. Big East
Title Contenders: Villanova
Second-Weekend Teams: Xavier, Seton Hall
Tournament Teams: Creighton, Butler, St. John's
Could Sneak In: Marquette, Providence, Georgetown
Not Completely Terrible: DePaul
Let it be known that the gap between Nos. 4 and 5 is wider than any other. You could argue for the inverse of just about any two spots in these rankings and I would at least consider the argument. But the top four conferences are so far ahead of the Big Ten, AAC and Pac-12.
Once in the top four, there's a case to be made for each conference as the best in the country.
The Big East's case is that Villanova is the No. 1 team with Xavier and Seton Hall not too far behind. Thirty percent of this conference is a serious threat to reach the Final Four.
The case against the Big East is that its middle tier isn't any better than the Big Ten's and that the bottom two teams (Georgetown and DePaul) are a combined 0-4 against the KenPom top 220.
Let's work our way back up the standings, though.
While it may not be clear which teams from that middle tier will reach the tournament, it feels like a minimum of three out of five from Creighton, Butler, St. John's, Marquette and Providence will go dancing. Though that group has collectively whiffed on all of its big opportunities, it still has 12 KenPom top 100 victories and only has one bad loss (Providence at Massachusetts). As long as the group gets through the next two weeks without any disasters, any member of it that goes 8-10 in Big East play will have a strong case for a bid.
The top runners-up to Villanova have been making mincemeat of their competition for the past two-plus weeks. Seton Hall beat Texas Tech, Louisville, VCU and Saint Peter's. Xavier defeated Baylor, Cincinnati, Kent State and Colorado. Those eight wins have come by an average margin of 17.1 points, and only Seton Hall's road win over Louisville was by a single-digit margin. They are steamrolling their way into conference play.
And then there's Villanova, which has slaughtered Gonzaga, Saint Joseph's and Temple in the past two weeks. In the 87-67 win at Temple, redshirt freshman Omari Spellman exploded for 27 points. The young man already has three double-doubles this season and has been one heck of a fifth-best scoring option for this team. The Big East might not be the No. 1 conference, but it does have the team that would be the favorite to win the NCAA tournament if it began today.
Title Contenders: Texas A&M
Second-Weekend Teams: Kentucky, Florida, Tennessee
Tournament Teams: Arkansas, Alabama, Auburn
Could Sneak In: Missouri, South Carolina, Mississippi State, Georgia, Ole Miss, Vanderbilt, LSU
Not Completely Terrible: N/A
So, here's a question: Who is the worst team in the SEC?
For all other major conferences, there are one or two obvious answers. However, if you had to bet your car on one team finishing in the bottom four of the SEC, who would you pick?
Before the season, the choices would have been LSU and Tennessee. But the Tigers are 6-2 with wins over Michigan and Houston and have one of the more efficient offenses in the country, and the Volunteers are 7-1 and ranked in the AP Top 25 with a win over Purdue and a good fight against Villanova.
With those two teams drastically exceeding expectations, every team in the SEC ranks in the top 90 on KenPom.
Oddly enough, the issue keeping the SEC out of the top two is that Kentucky and Florida haven't been quite as good as expected. That isn't to say the annual favorites in this conference have been bad, but they haven't looked like the fifth- and eighth-best teams in the country, which is where they were ranked in the preseason.
Outside of that, the SEC has been every bit as impressive as expected, and then some.
When the early news broke of Alabama's Collin Sexton suspended for the opener, two of Auburn's best players being held out of action indefinitely and Missouri's Michael Porter Jr. suffering an injury, it looked like "the SEC's best season ever" might be headed to hell in a handbasket. But Sexton was back by the second game, and all three of those teams have played like contenders to reach the tournament. Considering not one of the three has gone dancing in the past four years, that's a huge deal for this league.
And, oh yeah, Texas A&M is a threat to win the national championship. Heck of a breakout year for a league that almost never ranks in the top four.
2. Atlantic Coast
Title Contenders: Duke, North Carolina, Virginia
Second-Weekend Teams: Miami, Notre Dame, Florida State, Louisville
Tournament Teams: Virginia Tech, Clemson
Could Sneak In: Syracuse, Wake Forest, North Carolina State, Boston College, Georgia Tech
Not Completely Terrible: Pittsburgh
For the fourth consecutive year, it's a debate between the ACC and the Big 12 for the honor of best conference.
Where you land on said debate depends on how you perceive a conference's value.
If you're looking for a league in which every game should be competitive because every team has a good chance to make the tournament, you should want the Big 12 at No. 1. As far as top-to-bottom strength goes, it doesn't get any better than that league.
But if you're looking for the league that is most likely to win the national championship and that is going to have the most "Battle of the Titans" type games throughout the season, it's hard to argue with the ACC.
Duke, North Carolina and Virginia all have realistic national championship aspirations, and I would have Miami on that list if these buckets weren't dictated by KenPom rankings. Even Notre Dame and Louisville have the chops to make a Final Four run and will be the furthest thing from easy outs in conference play. It's going to be almost impossible to get through one week of conference play without at least one game in this league that feels like a potential Final Four preview.
The problem is the bottom third of this league isn't great, which is usually the problem for the ACC.
Pittsburgh might be the worst major-conference team, and Georgia Tech sure is making a run at that title with losses to Grambling State and Wofford in December. Boston College did beat Duke, but it is just 1-3 against the KenPom top 125. And though Wake Forest appears to have recovered from its slow start, that jury is still out until the Demon Deacons face a respectable opponent again.
Does it matter, though, if the bottom few teams aren't great? The ACC is likely going to send either eight or nine teams to the NCAA tournament, and those teams ought to combine for the best winning percentage of any conference. It doesn't always work that way in a single-elimination tournament in which stylistic matchups, hot shooting and poor officiating dictate the outcome, but it does feel like the ACC is the safest bet to put at least one team into the Final Four.
1. Big 12
Title Contenders: Kansas
Second-Weekend Teams: West Virginia, Texas Tech, TCU, Baylor
Tournament Teams: Oklahoma, Texas, Kansas State
Could Sneak In: Oklahoma State, Iowa State
Not Completely Terrible: N/A
Before the season began, I had the Big 12 at No. 4 in my conference power rankings.
I apologize for that error in judgment.
The funny thing (or sad thing, maybe) is that with the exception of Texas Tech, this league isn't any better than it was expected to be. In fact, with Kansas already suffering two losses and Texas looking like it may never make another jump shot, you could make the case that this conference is a bit worse than it should be.
But there's not a bad team in the bunch, and 60 percent of the league—if you're chugging the Trae Young Kool-Aid like I am—appears to have Sweet 16 potential.
Put it this way: From a KenPom rankings perspective, the least competitive game in this league should be Iowa State at Kansas, and that's still a game I would much rather watch than anything that has been on during finals week. And it's a testament to the overall strength of the Big 12 that the supposed-worst-in-the-conference Cyclones are on a seven-game winning streak with nice wins over Iowa and Boise State.
Suffice it to say, DePaul, Pittsburgh, Rutgers and Washington State aren't playing that well.
Here's a fun question: Could all 10 Big 12 teams make the NCAA tournament?
Both the Pac-12 and the A-10 are much worse than they have been in recent years, and you could legitimately make the case that the third-best team in the Big Ten would be the worst team in the Big 12. Maybe Kansas goes 13-5 and wins the league outright because that's just what Kansas does, but what if every other team finishes 7-11 or better in conference play?
Kansas State and Oklahoma State have the worst resumes at the moment, but the Cowboys play Florida State on Saturday and draw Arkansas in the SEC-B12 Challenge. The Wildcats aren't going to have a great nonconference resume, but if they're one of the teams that goes 10-8 or 9-9 in conference play, sure, they'll get in.
Every win is a quality win and there are no bad losses, so 7-11 in this league would count for more than most 10-8 records in other leagues. My guess is at least one team eventually falls out of the running, but there will be a strong case made for 90 percent of this league to make the 2018 NCAA tournament.
Kerry Miller covers college basketball and college football for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @kerrancejames.