Ranking College Basketball Conferences by Projected 2016 NCAA Tournament Bids
The Big 12 hasn't performed too well in the NCAA tournament in recent seasons, but it has been the best men's college basketball conference in the country for the first four months of the past two seasons and should fill that role once again in 2015-16.
To rank the potential multibid conferences in ascending order of strength, we referred back to the Bracket Matrix research from last week, in which the projected fields of seven bracketologists were used to come up with something of a consensus bracket.
Teams that received a No. 5 seed or better from at least five of the seven prognosticators got a "Lock" grade—16 teams were given this grade. Teams awarded a No. 10 seed or better by at least five of the bracketologists got a "Should Dance" designation—there were 19 of these teams. Nine teams received a "Might Dance" grade for being projected as a No. 10 seed or better by at least three bracketologists. And 19 teams were given an "Outside Shot" for appearing in at least one projected bracket.
But wait, there's more math. Locks were given 100 points, Should Dance teams got 85 points, Might Dance teams got 50 points and Outside Shots received 30 points. Each conference's score was added up and divided by the total number of teams in the conference for the final score listed on each slide. They were then ranked in ascending order of score.
In a nutshell, the more likely a conference is to send more than half of its teams to the 2016 NCAA tournament, the better it ranked on the list.
10. (tie) West Coast
Should Dance: N/A
Might Dance: N/A
Outside Shot: Brigham Young
Not much to talk about here. Gonzaga will easily be one of the 25 best teams in the country for a fifth straight year, and BYU is shaping up to be one of the bubbliest teams in the nation for a fifth straight year.
On the former front, Kevin Pangos, Gary Bell Jr. and Byron Wesley are out of the picture, but the return of Kyle Wiltjer, Domantas Sabonis and Przemek Karnowski is more than enough to make the Bulldogs the best team in the WCC by a country mile. We'll inevitably be subjected to the annual bombardment of "But how would they do in a real conference?" arguments, but those hypotheticals won't keep Gonzaga from getting into the tournament with ease.
Elsewhere, BYU may have a little more difficulty dealing with the loss of its starting guards. Finally getting Nick Emery is a nice boost, but losing Tyler Haws, Skyler Halford and Anson Winder in the same offseason could make things challenging, even with Kyle Collinsworth still around to record triple-doubles. How well Utah State transfer Kyle Davis fits into the equation may dictate whether the Cougars just barely make or miss the tournament.
With Saint Mary's losing all five of its starters and Pepperdine returning all seven of its leading scorers, the Waves are likely the only other team in the conference with any realistic hope of dancing. Though none of the bracketologists has the Waves in his projected field, it's not a crazy proposition. A slight increase in offensive efficiency—a staple among teams that are able to keep their primary rotation intact—could be enough of an edge to turn last year's 18-14 record into a tournament berth.
However, it's unlikely that this conference sends three teams to the Big Dance. It may just be a question of whether BYU or Pepperdine serves as the WCC's second representative.
10. (tie) Missouri Valley
Locks: Wichita State
Should Dance: N/A
Might Dance: N/A
Outside Shot: Illinois State
Just like Gonzaga in the West Coast, Wichita State figures to maintain its stranglehold atop the Missouri Valley for at least one more season.
The Shockers lost a couple of crucial pieces in Darius Carter and Tekele Cotton, but they could be in even better shape than last year after the additions of Anton Grady and Conner Frankamp. Much more important, however, is the return of Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker. Easily one of the most experienced backcourts in the country, the duo may well lead Wichita State to at least 30 wins for a fourth consecutive season.
The other Valley program heralded as a potential 2016 tournament team is Illinois State. The Redbirds have won at least 18 games in four straight years and do return a few key players in DeVaughn Akoon-Purcell, Paris Lee and Deontae Hawkins, but they lost even more important players in Daishon Knight and Reggie Lynch.
Still, two bids out of the MVC is usually a safe bet. It's really just a matter of deciding whom you think that second team will be.
Northern Iowa held that role last season, but it could be in a bit of trouble after losing four seniors. The most intact rosters belong to Loyola-Chicago and Evansville, each of which is positively loaded with upperclassmen as a result of losing just one relatively important player each. Both the Ramblers and the Purple Aces won 24 games last season, so they certainly don't need to improve by much to make the tournament.
Perchance the four-way battle for the silver medal will result in a bronze, as well? Given the depth of the power conferences, three bids for the Missouri Valley is a long shot, but there are enough above-average teams in the conference for it to remain a conversation late into the season.
9. Mountain West
Should Dance: San Diego State
Might Dance: Boise State
Outside Shot: UNLV
With UNLV and New Mexico both down and out, the 2014-15 Mountain West had its worst collective winning percentage in history. Three teams made the tournament, but Wyoming had no hope of dancing without the automatic bid, and Boise State just barely made it in as the second-to-last at-large bid.
However, the conference could be back in a big way this year.
As seems to always be the case lately, San Diego State figures to spend most of the season ranked in the AP Top 25. The Aztecs lost Aqeel Quinn, J.J. O'Brien and Dwayne Polee II, but they have outstanding candidates to replace them. Malik Pope is at or near the top of everyone's list of breakout candidates, and the combined forces of Zylan Cheatham, Jeremy Hemsley and Nolan Narain will be light-years better than any other freshman class in the conference.
Speaking of breakout candidates, Boise State's James Webb III is a big one. A rarely seen combination of skills, Webb was one of two players in the country to average at least 10 points, eight rebounds and one made three-pointer per game while converting on at least 40 percent of his perimeter attempts. The other was Frank Kaminsky; you may have heard of him. The Broncos also have Anthony Drmic and Nick Duncan coming back to work alongside Webb.
Elsewhere in the Mountain West, there are any number of fringe tournament candidates. UNLV has one of the best incoming classes in the nation, headlined by Stephen Zimmerman. New Mexico gets Cullen Neal back after he went down for the season after just three games. Colorado State still has four key players from last year's 27-win roster. And Fresno State has to be considered a sleeper team with all five of its leading scorers back for another year.
All six won't go dancing, but if the over/under on MWC teams in the 2016 NCAA tournament is 3.5, it'd be pretty tempting to take the over.
8. Atlantic 10
Should Dance: Dayton
Might Dance: Davidson, Rhode Island
Outside Shot: Virginia Commonwealth
There isn't a clear-cut top dog in the A-10, but don't misinterpret that as a lack of strength atop the conference standings. Rather, the bracketologists just can't seem to agree which team will represent this multibid conference.
Five of the seven prognosticators have three A-10 teams in their field, but there's only one instance of a team projected higher than a No. 7 seed—Davidson as a No. 5—so the consensus seems to be that the top four finishers will all be within shouting distance of the bubble.
Dayton is arguably the team to beat, with three of the seven forecasters bestowing the Flyers with the best seed among A-10 teams. Losing leading scorer and primary three-point shooter Jordan Sibert could cause some problems, but not if James Madison transfer Charles Cooke is able to plug that gap. Cooke averaged 14.3 points per game in 2013-14 and will likely be a starter from day one in Dayton.
Much like Dayton, Davidson might have some issues replacing leading scorer and primary three-point weapon Tyler Kalinoski, but the Wildcats are still loaded with talented scorers. A healthy season out of both Jack Gibbs and Jake Belford should be enough to get Davidson to the tournament for the seventh time in the past 11 years.
Rhode Island is looking pretty stout after the additions of Four McGlynn and Kuran Iverson. Thanks in large part to Hassan Martin's shot-blocking prowess, the Rams were already one of the best defensive teams in the nation. If that new blood can do anything to help jump-start their average offensive attack, it should be enough to elevate them from a No. 3 seed in the NIT to some sort of placement in the NCAA tourney.
VCU is the wild card after losing its head coach and three starters, but the Rams still have a pretty solid returning core between JeQuan Lewis, Melvin Johnson, Jordan Burgess and Mo Alie-Cox. Will Wade has some big shoes to fill, but he's taking over a team that has won at least 18 games in 14 straight seasons. The Rams might not make the tournament, but you know they'll compete.
7. American Athletic
Locks: Southern Methodist
Should Dance: Cincinnati
Might Dance: Connecticut
Outside Shot: Tulsa, Memphis, Temple
Most of these conferences are starting the 2015-16 season in pretty much the exact same position as they finished 2014-15. Maybe the arrangement of teams is considerably different, but the number of legitimate championship contenders, Sweet 16 candidates and teams on the bubble hasn't really changed.
That couldn't be much further from the truth in the American Athletic Conference. With Connecticut and Memphis drastically underachieving and Temple and Tulsa not quite overachieving enough to go dancing, SMU and Cincinnati were the only AAC teams in the 2015 NCAA tournament.
Those two are certainly in great shape to represent the conference again. SMU lost a pair of crucial frontcourt players, but the additions of Shake Milton and Jordan Tolbert might make the Mustangs even better than last year. And Cincinnati might be the best team in the AAC with freshmen Jacob Evans and Justin Jenifer joining all six of last year's leading scorers on one of the most intact rosters in the nation.
They'll have plenty of competition, though.
Like Cincinnati, Tulsa returns all of its important players from a team that was probably good enough for the tournament, even if its schedule wasn't. Connecticut lost a star in Ryan Boatright, but the Huskies should be a much better and more complete team by adding Sterling Gibbs, Shonn Miller, Jalen Adams and Steve Enoch.
Similarly, Memphis lost its top player in Austin Nichols before reloading in a huge way with the Lawson brothers, Ricky Tarrant, Nick Marshall and several others. Even Temple should be in the mix for a bid if the Owls can stay healthy for a change.
Six bids likely isn't happening, but neither is two. This should be a four-bid conference with a chance at five if the cookies crumble compliantly.
Should Dance: LSU, Texas A&M, Vanderbilt
Might Dance: N/A
Outside Shot: Florida, Georgia, Mississippi State, Arkansas
The SEC is loaded with teams that could do some serious damage and should have little difficulty sending at least four teams to the NCAA tournament. However, are you willing to bet a limb on an individual team in this conference not named Kentucky going dancing? It's that lack of surefire contenders keeping the SEC out of the top five.
That isn't to say we don't feel strongly about the likely success of any of these teams. Quite the contrary, actually.
Seemingly everyone is on the bandwagon of LSU, Texas A&M and Vanderbilt for various reasons. People love LSU because the Tigers have Ben Simmons, Antonio Blakeney and Brandon Sampson as potential freshman studs. Vanderbilt is a popular, slightly below-the-radar team because the Commodores return nearly everyone from a young team that won 21 games. And Texas A&M's cause for hype falls somewhere in between—a combination of crucial returnees and new arrivals.
It's a little further down the pecking order where things get both convoluted and intriguing.
Mississippi State may not be the best of the bunch, but the Bulldogs are certainly the sexiest of the sleepers with the addition of head coach Ben Howland and outstanding freshman Malik Newman. It's primarily because they have lost at least 19 games in three straight seasons that we're beyond hesitant to invest in their stock, but they had better at least be on your watch list.
The SEC's middle tier also features a trio of tournament candidates that has a total of three 19-loss seasons in the past 15 years, so it's a safe bet they'll be somewhere in the conversation. Florida is looking to bounce back from a rare and brutal sub-.500 season. Arkansas is hoping to avoid falling apart while losing nearly its entire 2014-15 roster. And Georgia should be headed for a third straight season as a solid bubble team that is rarely discussed on the national scene.
Also, they weren't included in any of the projected brackets, but we absolutely cannot sleep on the Gamecocks of South Carolina. They return five of the six leading scorers from a team that smoked Oklahoma State, clipped Iowa State and nearly beat Baylor in the first two months of the season. To that core, they're adding a sensational freshman in Perry Dozier who should help improve their woeful shooting percentages from last year.
Should Dance: California, UCLA, Utah
Might Dance: Oregon
Outside Shot: Oregon State, Stanford
Two things are surprising about the consensus rankings of the Pac-12.
First, how is California not a lock? (Technical answer: Two of the bracketologists have the Golden Bears as a No. 8 seed, and one somehow managed to omit them altogether.) When they signed Ivan Rabb and Jaylen Brown and got Tyrone Wallace to return for another season, this instantly became a Final Four candidate.
On the other end of the spectrum, Stanford's inclusion as an outside shot mathematically makes up for the slight against California. Evidently, in the eyes of one bracketologist, losing all three leading scorers from a team that missed the NCAA tournament is a formula for dancing. I'm not saying it's impossible for Stanford to make the tournament, but the Cardinal embody the "Outside Shot" category more than any other team on this list.
In between those outliers, though, it's hard to argue with what the Pac-12 is projected to bring to the table. You may have California finishing ahead of Arizona, but the Wildcats are a lock for the tournament with one of the deepest rotations in the nation. UCLA and Utah aren't blessed with anywhere near Arizona's level of depth, but if they get a healthy season out of their starting fives, they'll both be headed for 20 wins again.
The Oregon schools probably deserve a little more respect than they got. Even without Joseph Young, the Ducks are definitely a Top 25 candidate with the additions of Villanova transfer Dylan Ennis, JUCO transfer Chris Boucher and a trio of 4-star freshmen. Meanwhile, the Beavers are arguably more than just an outside shot with the return of every key player from last year's defensive stalwart.
As was the case with the SEC, there's one other team that could make some noise despite not making it into any of the brackets: USC. The Trojans have been quite bad in recent memory, but they return pretty much everyone from last year's extremely young roster—their primary seven-man rotation consisted of three freshmen and four sophomores.
With a pair of 4-star forwards coming in, USC has all the pieces of a breakout team, including a coach (Andy Enfield) who has already orchestrated a surprise success story (Florida Gulf Coast) once before in his career.
4. Big East
Should Dance: Georgetown, Butler, Xavier
Might Dance: N/A
Outside Shot: Marquette, Providence
Admittedly, the ranking system skews a bit in favor of smaller conferences. Teams given no chance of making the tournament get zero points, so the fewer bottom-feeders a conference has, the better its score ends up being. So, even though the SEC, Pac-12 and Big East each has one lock and three teams in the "Should Dance" category, the Big East came out on top because it only has four teams that no one is believing in.
And, frankly, two of those four teams deserve some credit. Seton Hall and St. John's are likely both headed for disastrous years because of all that they lost, but Creighton and DePaul could both be on the rise—the former because of a few impact transfers; the latter because of a long-needed coaching change and a trio of returning players who averaged double digits in scoring last year.
But let's focus on the teams with a realistic shot at dancing. For me, all four of Villanova, Butler, Georgetown and Xavier are comfortably in the tournament field.
The Musketeers are probably the shakiest of that quartet after losing Matt Stainbrook and Dee Davis, but they're still in great hands with Myles Davis, Edmond Sumner, Trevon Bluiett and Jalen Reynolds in tow. The other three teams are overflowing with both veteran backcourt talent and exciting incoming players. Villanova might not win the Big East this year, but only because Butler and Georgetown are going to make a serious run at the crown.
Elsewhere, Providence has one of the most talented and multifaceted players in the nation in Kris Dunn, but we're going to find out just how well he can elevate the talent (or lack thereof) around him. And Marquette is extremely young—both on the court and in the coaching box—but the Golden Eagles have more than enough promise in both departments to make the tournament this year.
3. Big Ten
Locks: Maryland, Indiana, Michigan State, Wisconsin
Should Dance: Purdue, Michigan
Might Dance: Ohio State
Outside Shot: Iowa, Illinois
Before you get all bent out of shape that the Big Ten is "only" ranked third on the list, be sure to note that the gap between No. 3 and No. 4 is more than twice as large as the gap between No. 1 and No. 3.
It's a small enough difference that if Ohio State had gotten just a little bit more love to bump up to a "Should Dance" or if one person had the stones to put Northwestern in his projected bracket, the Big Ten would have jumped to No. 2. If both of those things had happened, this conference would be at No. 1. Rest assured that there are three elite conferences heading into the 2015-16 season and the B1G is very much one of them.
Atop the conference standings and potentially the national ones are the Maryland Terrapins. It's extremely unlikely that they will be the unanimous No. 1 team when the preseason AP Top 25 is announced, but they'll certainly get some votes and should be the consensus top dog. Melo Trimble had a phenomenal freshman season and will have even better teammates to work with this year.
Not far at all behind the Terps are Indiana, Michigan State, Wisconsin and Purdue—we probably could/should have made an exception to bump the Boilermakers up to a lock, as Joe Lunardi is the only bracketologist who doesn't have the Boilermakers as a No. 6 seed or better, and he has them as a No. 8 seed.
None of those four teams will get any first-place votes in the first AP poll, but something will have gone horribly awry if they aren't all ranked somewhere in the Top 25. Michigan could join them, too, with Caris LeVert and Derrick Walton Jr. back from last year's season-ending injuries.
Ohio State is arguably the biggest unknown in the conference after losing D'Angelo Russell, Shannon Scott, Sam Thompson and several other key pieces. However, Thad Matta has won at least 22 games in all 14 seasons that his team was eligible for the NCAA tournament, and he is adding what 247Sports has evaluated as the best recruiting class in the conference for the upcoming season. "Might Dance" might be too harsh of an assessment on an NCAA tournament staple.
If the Big Ten is going to send more than 50 percent of its teams to the NCAA tournament for just the second time in five years, Iowa and Illinois are by far the most likely to help. The Illini have had a rocky offseason, losing Tracy Abrams and possibly Darius Paul, but they still have some excellent pieces and could be a real sleeper team if Leron Black has a breakout sophomore season.
The Hawkeyes will also be searching for a breakout year from a sophomore forward, as a solid season from Dominique Uhl could propel them into the conference's top half and a tournament berth.
Last—and certainly least for the past 75 years—is a Northwestern program still searching for its first NCAA tournament berth. The Wildcats were competitive in most of their losses, and they should continue to improve in Chris Collins' third season with all five of last year's leaders in minutes played back for another season. Because of their history, no one will say they should make the tournament, but good luck finding someone foolish enough to say that they can't pull it off.
2. Atlantic Coast
Locks: Duke, North Carolina, Virginia
Should Dance: Louisville, Miami, Notre Dame, NC State
Might Dance: Florida State
Outside Shot: Pittsburgh, Syracuse
As far as raw number of national championship contenders is concerned, it doesn't get any better than the ACC. Duke and North Carolina will be among the five favorites to win the 2016 title. Virginia probably should be in the top five, but it will certainly be somewhere in the top 10. And you just know that Louisville will get some love in the "sleeper to win it all" range due in large part to the grad-transfers whom Rick Pitino picked up this summer.
We'll save the gush-fest over those top four teams for another day and instead focus on some of the middling teams that led to the ACC's high ranking, despite sending just 40 percent of its teams to the 2015 NCAA tournament.
Without question, Miami and Florida State are the biggest upgrades for the ACC. Both whiffed on the tournament last year, but both could finish top-five in the conference this season because of their absurdly deep rosters. The Seminoles will likely have a 4-star freshman (Terance Mann) and a top-notch JUCO transfer (Benji Bell) as their ninth- and 10th-best players, and the Hurricanes had two talented wings (Manu Lecomte and Deandre Burnett) transfer out of the program in lieu of becoming the team's ninth- and 10th-most-used weapons.
Those two teams might leapfrog both Notre Dame and North Carolina State, but the projected improvement of Miami and Florida State doesn't mean the Fighting Irish and Wolfpack fall out of the tournament picture. Notre Dame lost two studs but should remain one of the most offensively efficient teams in the country with Demetrius Jackson steering the ship. NC State also lost several key pieces, but Mark Gottfried had a great class of freshman forwards last season that is set to explode this year.
Nine or 10 bids for the ACC is probably a stretch, but former Big East staples Pittsburgh and Syracuse will likely cause the selection committee to at least consider it.
Inexperience and poor shooting plagued the Panthers last season, but they addressed both issues by getting one year older (imagine that) and adding a couple of shooting guards. Meanwhile, the Orange were hampered by injuries to Chris McCullough and DaJuan Coleman, but if they can get and stay healthy this year, they could have a formidable eight-man rotation.
1. Big 12
Locks: Kansas, Iowa State, Oklahoma
Should Dance: Baylor, Texas
Might Dance: West Virginia
Outside Shot: N/A
If you're of the frame of mind that teams must do well in the tournament in order to be considered successful, then you probably hate the Big 12 at No. 1 on the list. Over the past three seasons, the conference has seen just 26.3 percent of its tournament participants reach the Sweet 16 and hasn't had any reach the Elite Eight.
During the same time period, the ACC, Big Ten and SEC have registered marks of at least 45 percent and 25 percent in those categories, respectively.
However, the conference has mastered the art of getting teams into the tournament, sending 70 percent of its schools to the Big Dance in each of the past two seasons. Those were the only two times in the past 24 years that a conference had a dancing rate of 70 percent or better.
Will it happen for a third straight year?
A 60 percent rate seems like a safe bet. Kansas, Iowa State and Oklahoma should all open the season ranked in the Top 10, and Baylor, Texas and West Virginia each have a reasonable shot at sneaking into the back end of the Top 25.
The only member of that group that might be up for debate for tournament inclusion is West Virginia, and that conversation isn't so much a debate as it is a reminder that the Mountaineers played the best full-court pressure defense in the nation one year in advance of a season in which full-court pressure defense will be all the rage. They shot miserably from the field and still earned a No. 5 seed in 2015. There's no good reason to assume they'll miss the tournament.
Whether the Big 12 bats .700 again is up to Oklahoma State. No one is projecting the Cowboys to make the tournament, because they're pretty much Phil Forte and a bunch of new guys. However, the addition of Jawun Evans, Igor Ibaka and Chris Olivier could keep Oklahoma State just competitive enough to hang around the tournament bubble.
Even if the Cowboys don't sniff the field, though, the Big 12 should send a higher percentage of its teams to the tournament than any other conference. Feel free to argue with our premise that highest concentration of tournament teams is the proper way to identify the best conference, but there's no question that the Big 12 is most likely to fit that bill.
Recruiting rankings courtesy of 247Sports.
Kerry Miller covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @kerrancejames.