Power Ranking Every College Basketball Conference Ahead of the 2017-18 Season
It should come as no surprise that the ACC is expected to be the best conference in college basketball this season, but the SEC at No. 2?
Now that's a new one.
While we didn't use any sort of mathematical formula to sort these conferences, the ranking process boiled down to a combination of projected NCAA tournament bids, potential NCAA tournament champions and a guess at which conference would win if one were to rank the teams from top to bottom and pit leagues against one other. You'll see a specific example of that last point during the justification for ranking the Big East ahead of the Big 12.
Generally speaking, the decision is based on the teams in the middle of the projected standings, as deeper conferences are considered better than those that probably should have just one or two teams dominating everyone else. Looking specifically at the best conferences, the top seven all have one serious threat to win the national championship and at least one other team that could conceivably take the title. As a result, those top two teams in each league kind of cancel each other out, making the size and strength of each league's middle tier the pivotal factor.
This applies to the minor conferences, too. Leagues with just one good team in what is otherwise a sea of struggles didn't fare anywhere near as well as those with multiple teams with top-100 potential.
The 1-Bid Leagues (Part 1)
32. Mid-Eastern Athletic: In years past, at least North Carolina Central and/or Norfolk State had the potential to run the table before pulling off an NCAA tournament upset. There's really nothing to see here this season.
31. Southwest Athletic: This league has been "Texas Southern or bust" for several years, and that remains the case. But even the Tigers could be in some trouble after losing six of last year's eight leading scorers.
30. Northeast: It's a slight step up from the two basement-dwelling conferences, but the NEC seems destined for a spot in Dayton's First Four as well. St. Francis (Pa.) is arguably the best team in the league, and KenPom.com has the Red Flash projected to lose three of their first eight games by at least a 20-point margin.
29. Southland: Even when Stephen F. Austin was good, this was one of the least noteworthy leagues in the country. Now that the Lumberjacks have slipped back to the pack, the Southland might be worse than ever.
28. Big West: Long gone are the days of Alan Williams and Mamadou Ndiaye opening our eyes to the glory of the Big West. There's still Chima Moneke at UC Davis, but that might not be enough for this league to have a single top-200 team.
27. Atlantic Sun: Florida Gulf Coast is still relevant with Brandon Goodwin—one of the most underappreciated stat-sheet stuffers in the nation. Lipscomb could be a little frisky, too. The rest of this league, though, is just plain bad.
26. Big Sky: One-third of the Big Sky is not going to be any good, but the rest of the league is something of an amorphous blob of eight teams with the potential to win the conference. This should be one of the most entertaining races for conference supremacy, but it's still going to end up producing a No. 15 seed projected to get blown out of its first-round NCAA tournament game.
25. Big South: Bottom-feeders Longwood and Presbyterian drag down the league's overall ranking, but the top of the Big South is far and away better than that of any conference we've discussed so far. UNC-Asheville, Winthrop and Liberty all have "No. 13 seed that upsets a No. 4 seed" potential, and Campbell's Chris Clemons is going to be this year's version of Central Michigan's Marcus Keene, flirting with scoring 30 points per game.
24. Ohio Valley: Similar to the Big South, the Ohio Valley has a fair amount of dreck at the bottom of the projected standings and some legitimate talent up top. Belmont, Murray State and Jacksonville State will all be in the running to win this regular-season title. If any member of that group wins the OVC tournament, get ready for the No. 3 or No. 4 seed they're matched up against to get put on upset alert.
23. America East: Lather, rinse, repeat. The bottom of the America East—Maine and Hartford, in particular—is going to be awful, and even the middle tier doesn't figure to pose much of a threat. But league favorite Vermont should be darn good for a second straight year, and Albany brings back a lot of key pieces from a team that battled with the Catamounts three times.
The 1-Bid Leagues (Part 2)
22. Metro Atlantic Athletic: The MAAC is usually in the Nos. 14-18 range, but this might be the worst the league has been in a decade. Monmouth is going to come back to earth after losing five key seniors, and Iona is doing a bit of rebuilding of its own. The conference should be more wide-open than it has been the past four or so years, and that's not necessarily a good thing.
21. Patriot: Most of the Patriot League is going to be just OK, but Bucknell has some fringe at-large potential, should things go wrong in the conference tournament. And the Bison scheduled as such, with only one nonconference game against a team outside the preseason KenPom's top 200. But they should just about cakewalk to an automatic bid.
20. Western Athletic: Grand Canyon is finally eligible for the NCAA tournament, and that puts the WAC in much better shape than it has been for the past few years during New Mexico State's dominance. Don't sleep on Utah Valley, either. There are three respectable minor-conference teams in this small league.
19. Summit: There's a lot of Dakota action atop the projected Summit League standings. South Dakota State should be the team to beat thanks to the return of Mike Daum, but North Dakota State and South Dakota have potential, too. Really, anyone other than Western Illinois might win the league, giving it a decent ranking despite the lack of top-100 teams.
18. Mid-American: Just like the Summit League, the MAC makes up for a lack of star power by being a generally solid league. Eight of the top 12 teams rank in the Nos. 138-184 range in KenPom's preseason algorithms, and only one team, Miami (Ohio), ranks outside the top 265 (at 294). Maybe don't expect a Cinderella candidate, but do expect a tight league race.
17. Sun Belt: The Sun Belt always seems to have a couple of teams that could be a real nuisance in March. This year, those teams are Georgia Southern and Texas-Arlington, but even Georgia State, Troy or Louisiana could be a tough out in the NCAA tournament. It's unlikely any team in this league will contend for an at-large bid, but there's not a major-conference coach in the country who wants to be matched up with the Sun Belt on Selection Sunday.
16. Southern: Even with VMI projected to be just plan dreadful at the bottom of this league, this might be the SoCon's best year in decades. Six of the conference's 10 teams are in KenPom's top 170, which is a far cry from how bad this league was back when Davidson was rolling year after year. Don't be surprised when a couple of teams from the SoCon pull off some nonconference upsets early in the year.
15. Horizon: Oakland tied for the Horizon League regular-season crown last year, brings back nearly everyone from that roster and adds former Illinois star Kendrick Nunn. The team the Golden Grizzlies tied with (Valparaiso) is no longer a factor after jumping ship to join the Missouri Valley. There might not be a more clear-cut favorite in any conference, and Oakland's expected dominance helps buoy a league that is otherwise nothing special.
14. Ivy: The bottom half of the Ivy League still leaves much to be desired, but Yale, Princeton and Harvard are all borderline top-100 teams. Moreover, all three scheduled fairly aggressively, so the league just might have the cumulative RPI to flirt with sending a second team dancing—provided those teams actually pass a couple of their nonconference tests.
13. Missouri Valley: The Missouri Valley has consistently been a top-12 league for more than a decade, but losing Wichita State to the AAC is going to be a problem. The good news is there aren't any truly awful teams dragging the conference down. The bad news is that means 80 percent of the league may finish the year within two games of .500 in conference play, because there aren't any great teams up top, either.
Leagues with Multi-Bid Potential
12. Conference USA
From a full-league ranking perspective, Conference USA has no business being this high on the list. Nearly 50 percent of the league is among the 100 worst teams in the country, so C-USA should be closer to No. 20 than No. 12.
But Middle Tennessee, Old Dominion, Louisiana Tech and UAB all have at-large potential, provided they can avoid taking on bad losses in league play. Western Kentucky could also be a factor, even though the whole Mitchell Robinson situation blew up in Rick Stansbury's face.
11. Colonial Athletic
For the first time since losing VCU, George Mason and others a few years ago, the CAA is ready to send a second team to the NCAA tournament.
Among the conferences we've hit on to this point, College of Charleston is the best team in the country, as the Cougars get back every noteworthy player from what was already a 25-win team. Towson, Elon and Hofstra are all going to be not too far behind, threatening to steal the title from the Cougars. And unlike the field of potential bad-loss landmines in C-USA, the CAA is respectable all the way down to its basement.
10. Mountain West
The MWC has been a one-bid league in each of the past two seasons, but could it get back into the selection committee's good graces?
There aren't any elite teams in this league; however, there's a heavy dose of at-large potential. Nevada is loaded with former major-conference transfers and looks to be the favorite. San Diego State is always a candidate. Fresno State and Wyoming will both be factors. And there's certainly enough talent on the UNLV roster for this to be the year it is competitive again.
9. Atlantic 10
Over the past few years, the A-10 has been the undisputed top dog not in the top seven conferences. In most of those seasons, one could even argue it was better than the American Athletic, thus residing just outside the power leagues.
This is not one of those years. Dayton and VCU have been NCAA tournament staples for the past four years, but they each lost a bunch of key players and their head coach. The Flyers and Rams appear destined for their worst season in some time.
Still, at least two bids seem likely, as Saint Joseph's should be back with a vengeance after an 11-20 season, St. Bonaventure could be strong in Jaylen Adams' final season, and Rhode Island still has one of the better backcourts in the country.
8. West Coast
Per usual, the West Coast is just kind of in its own tier. Gonzaga probably isn't going to reach the NCAA championship game for a second straight year—though we all thought that about Butler in 2011, too. But these Bulldogs are still going to be a preseason Top 25 team, along with Saint Mary's. Which one should win the league depends on whom you ask, but both are undeniably expected to make the NCAA tournament.
That's nothing new, and neither is BYU opening the year as one of those "well, maybe" teams that will fall within 10 spots of the cut line in most preseason tournament projections. The Cougars still have some great backcourt weapons and figure to remain a team that both wins and loses a few games that it shouldn't. And the rest of the WCC is nothing special, though some people do think San Francisco has a chance to make some noise.
7. American Athletic
Serious National Championship Contenders: Wichita State
Fringe National Championship Contenders: Cincinnati
NCAA Tournament Candidates: UCF, SMU, Houston, Temple, Connecticut, Tulsa
Dead Weight: Memphis, East Carolina, Tulane, South Florida
Like the West Coast Conference, the American Athletic Conference has sort of been in its own tier for the past few years. This league has definitely been better than, say, the Mountain West Conference, but save for that first season when it had Louisville, the AAC hasn't been nearly good enough to be considered one of the major conferences.
After pilfering the best team from the Missouri Valley Conference, though, that might be a different story.
Wichita State gives the AAC a serious threat to win it all this year—provided Landry Shamet and Markis McDuffie are able to make full recoveries from offseason foot injuries. The Shockers were arguably one of the 10 best teams in the country at the end of last season, and they bring back everyone of note from that roster. They don't get quite the same national respect of a Kansas or Kentucky, but that doesn't make them any less of a candidate.
Cincinnati is another darn fine team that doesn't get the attention it deserves. The Bearcats get back four of last year's five leading scorers while also adding Cane Broome—who could be the most important transfer in the entire country. If Broome is even half the scorer he was at Sacred Heart (23.1 points per game) and if Jarron Cumberland makes any strides of improvement as a sophomore, this is another team that could win it all.
Beyond those two teams, though, there's not a whole lot to see here—and that's coming from someone who likes UCF as a top-40 team and thinks Connecticut is one of the biggest sleepers in the country. There are just too many bad teams and too many borderline teams (Tulsa, SMU and Houston) that could easily slip into that "bad" category.
This league should get at least three teams into the NCAA tournament, but it's going to take a little more than that to really stack up with the big boys.
Serious National Championship Contenders: Arizona
Fringe National Championship Contenders: USC, UCLA, Oregon
NCAA Tournament Candidates: Stanford, Utah, Oregon State
Dead Weight: Colorado, Arizona State, Washington, California, Washington State
The divide between good and bad in the Pac-12 is a bit jarring.
On the good side of things, Arizona spent the entire offseason as one of the top candidates to win the national championship. The Big Three of Allonzo Trier, Rawle Alkins and DeAndre Ayton is one of the best in the country, and the Wildcats have depth and versatility for days. As long as the FBI stuff doesn't become a distraction or result in a postseason ban, this should be the year Sean Miller finally reaches a Final Four.
And if Arizona is a 10 on the scale of championship potential, USC is, at worst, a 9.9.
The Trojans have the most intact roster from last season and even added Duke transfer Derryck Thornton and a few quality recruits. Like Wichita State and Cincinnati, USC isn't getting anywhere near the same amount of respect as a blue-blood team would with the same roster, but the Trojans are going to be a national factor. UCLA and Oregon also have some potential for greatness.
On the bad side of things, the Pac-12 arguably has five of the 10 worst major-conference teams in the country.
Both Washington and Washington State are going to be awful. Colorado and California basically lost everyone from teams that already weren't good. And Arizona State is somehow entering its fourth consecutive season of being one year away from the NCAA tournament. (The Penn State of the west, if you will.)
Here's the Pac-12 season outlook in a nutshell: Oregon State just had one of the worst seasons in major-conference history, and it's perfectly reasonable to assume the Beavers will finish in the top half of the league this year.
There are going to be some exciting battles between the top four teams, but most of the season will be the haves beating up on the have-nots, or—worse—have-nots struggling to put a palatable product on the floor when facing each other.
5. Big Ten
Serious National Championship Contenders: Michigan State
Fringe National Championship Contenders: Minnesota, Northwestern, Purdue, Michigan
NCAA Tournament Candidates: Maryland, Wisconsin, Iowa, Penn State, Indiana
Dead Weight: Ohio State, Illinois, Rutgers, Nebraska
Let's begin this section by noting that there is a giant gap between the top five conferences and the Pac-12, and another giant gap between the Pac-12 and the best of the mid-majors. Numerically, five is obviously closer to six than it is to one, but if we were giving these conferences grades from 1-100, each of the top five conferences would be in the 97-100 range compared to about a 92 for the Pac-12. Thus, no matter which conference ended up in this spot, its fans were inevitably going to be upset.
So, with apologies to the Big Ten, here we go.
The biggest problem for the Big Ten is its sheer amount of dead weight. Ideally, a conference would have at least one Top 15 team for every dud at the bottom of its standings. That's what made the Big 12 so good for several consecutive years, even though TCU and Texas Tech were constantly bringing up the rear by barely even competing.
But the Big Ten's ratio is nowhere close to that. Michigan State might be the best team in the country, but Minnesota, Northwestern and Purdue are all fringe Top 25 teams. Meanwhile, the league has three teams that are probably going to be awful (Illinois, Rutgers and Nebraska), one that should be bad unless Chris Holtmann actually is a wizard (Ohio State) and two others that we might be too generous by listing as NCAA candidates (Indiana and Penn State).
The Big Ten is still going to send six or seven teams to the tournament because that always seems to be the case. But its overall strength will be determined by how well Maryland, Michigan and Wisconsin fare. If any member of that trio becomes a serious threat to reach the Final Four, the Big Ten should be a top-three conference. If not—which preseason rankings would suggest to be the case—it'll be one of the worst major conferences.
4. Big 12
Serious National Championship Contenders: Kansas
Fringe National Championship Contenders: West Virginia, Baylor, TCU
NCAA Tournament Candidates: Oklahoma, Texas, Texas Tech, Kansas State
Dead Weight: Iowa State, Oklahoma State
For the past few years, it has been the ACC and the Big 12 up top with everyone else fighting for third place. However, with Iowa State almost certainly headed for its worst season since 2010-11, the league dips to No. 4.
It's not all the Cyclones' fault. Oklahoma State is likely also going to struggle after reaching the NCAA tournament in four of the past five years. Kansas State is nothing close to a guarantee to go dancing, either, after losing Wesley Iwundu and several others.
Really, though, what this conference is lacking is a clear challenger to Kansas.
Usually there are at least one or two teams with Final Four potential that we can talk ourselves into as the team that finally ends the Jayhawks' streak of Big 12 dominance. At the beginning of the offseason, West Virginia appeared to be that team. But with Elijah Macon unexpectedly going pro and Esa Ahmad suspended for the first half of this season, the Mountaineers might have some growing pains.
Don't get me wrong. There's plenty of potential in this league. No matter the roster turnover, Press Virginia is always a problem. Same goes for Baylor. Texas might have more raw talent than any team in this conference. Oklahoma should bounce back nicely with the addition of stud freshman point guard Trae Young. And TCU might end up being the second-best team in the league.
But Kansas is the only bet-your-house, stone-cold lock to make the NCAA tournament—and even that could be an adventure if Udoka Azubuike is unable to become a 25-minute-per-game type of big man.
It won't be a massive fall from grace, but fewer Top 25 teams than usual could mean a more middle-of-the-pack type of year for the Big 12.
3. Big East
Serious National Championship Contenders: Villanova
Fringe National Championship Contenders: Xavier, Seton Hall, Providence
NCAA Tournament Candidates: Butler, Creighton, St. John's, Marquette
Dead Weight: Georgetown, DePaul
In terms of number of teams in each bucket, the Big East is identical to the Big 12. However, if you were to rank each team from top to bottom and then compare the leagues one by one, you should find that the Big East is just a little bit stronger—particularly in the middle tier. (You'll also find that you desperately wish there would be a Big East/Big 12 challenge to settle this debate.)
Kansas vs. Villanova is somewhat of a draw. Same goes for Xavier vs. West Virginia and Seton Hall vs. Baylor. But in the trio of Providence, Creighton and Butler against TCU, Texas and Oklahoma, the Big East wins comfortably. Providence brings back everyone from last season, Creighton still has Marcus Foster, and Butler has Kelan Martin and Kamar Baldwin. Maybe Texas and Oklahoma end up being better teams than Creighton and Butler, but the Big East clearly has more proven talent in the Nos. 4-6 range.
Even Nos. 7-8 would arguably go to the Big East, with St. John's and Marquette edging out Texas Tech and Kansas State. The Big 12 makes up a lot of ground when comparing DePaul and Georgetown to Iowa State and Oklahoma State, but not enough to undo the Big East's lead up until that point.
The moral of the story is that the top 80 percent of this league is looking good.
Depth is a major concern for Marquette, but that's a tournament team if it can stay healthy. St. John's has a boatload of talent and could absolutely finish in the top half of the Big East standings if it embraces its potential. As previously mentioned, Butler and Creighton have potential first-team All-Americans in Martin and Foster, respectively.
Oftentimes, it's that third tier of teams that determines how strong a conference feels as a whole. A conference needs enough title contenders to offset its bottom feeders, but it also needs to have at least three-fifths of the league seriously contending for a spot in the NCAA tournament. And the Big East hits that mark with room to spare.
Serious National Championship Contenders: Kentucky
Fringe National Championship Contenders: Florida, Texas A&M, Alabama, Missouri
NCAA Tournament Candidates: Vanderbilt, Auburn, South Carolina, Ole Miss, Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi State, Tennessee
Dead Weight: LSU
Without question, the SEC's placement was the toughest decision to make.
On the one hand, this league doesn't have that many Final Four candidates. Kentucky and Florida are certainly on the list.
I would also argue for Texas A&M, but that's admittedly an opinion in the minority. And while Vegas has Missouri among the top 10 candidates to win it all, we all know that's just because the public loves Michael Porter Jr. and the books had to place that line at a point where they wouldn't get completely destroyed if the Tigers happened to pull off that miracle. Long story short: Kentucky and Florida are the favorites, per usual.
On the other hand, the rest of the league has caught up to those leaders in a huge way.
Combining the preseason ratings from KenPom and Matt Norlander's ranking of all 351 teams for CBSSports.com into one average, the SEC has 12 of the top 72 teams in the country. Tennessee would be the SEC's 13th team on that list if Norlander hadn't inexplicably ranked the Volunteers 75 spots lower than KenPom.
As you can see above, the SEC only has one dead-weight team, and are we even certain LSU is going to be as bad as a Rutgers, DePaul or Washington State? New head coach Will Wade did some serious work with the roster over the offseason and could absolutely have the Tigers as the best last-place team in the country.
It has been more than a decade since the SEC was one of the top three conferences, but I seriously considered putting this league as high as No. 1. As long as things don't completely fall apart in nonconference play, get ready for the SEC to receive as many as eight NCAA tournament invites. Considering six teams is the most the SEC has ever sent dancing, that would be a huge year for what is normally considered a football conference.
1. Atlantic Coast
Serious National Championship Contenders: Duke
Fringe National Championship Contenders: North Carolina, Miami, Notre Dame, Louisville, Virginia
NCAA Tournament Candidates: Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech, Wake Forest, Clemson, Syracuse, Florida State
Dead Weight: Boston College, North Carolina State, Pittsburgh
Maybe it's a stretch to list Virginia as a candidate to win the title. However, even if we bump the Cavaliers down a notch, we're still talking about a league that is likely going to open the season with 33 percent of its teams ranked in the AP Top 20—if not the Top 15.
North Carolina is the reigning national champion, and Duke is the favorite to win it all this year. Per usual, the Tobacco Road rivalry is going to produce two (or more) of the best games of the entire season. And as has become the norm, this league runs much deeper than just those two blue bloods.
The ACC had six teams receive a No. 5 seed or better in last year's NCAA tournament. If Louisville had been eligible in 2016, this league also would've had five teams on the top four lines in each of the previous two years.
Because of basement dwellers like Boston College, Wake Forest and North Carolina State, the ACC's overall KenPom rank hasn't been No. 1 since 2007. There's a good chance that streak will continue for at least one more year, as the bottom three to five teams in this league are looking rather unappealing once again.
Still, the ACC has 12 viable candidates to reach the NCAA tournament, six of which have at least an outside shot at winning the whole kit and caboodle. If you had to bet on any conference sending more than 30 percent of its teams to the Sweet 16, this is the obvious choice.
Kerry Miller covers college basketball and college football for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @kerrancejames.