Ranking the Top College Basketball Conferences in 2018-19
With two weeks remaining until conference play begins in earnest, the ACC, Big 12 and Big Ten all have a claim to be the No. 1 conference in men's college basketball.
How did we decide which one claims the throne, you might wonder?
It's from the team rankings on KenPom.com through the start of Monday.
For each of the nine 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 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.
As we'll address once we get into the top three, there are varying opinions on how a conference's strength should be "graded." Just know that we take a holistic approach, both giving credit where it's due to great teams but also making sure the league's worst teams are properly accounted.
9. Mountain West
Title Contenders: Nevada
Second-Weekend Teams: N/A
Tournament Teams: N/A
Could Sneak In: Utah State, Fresno State, San Diego State
Not Completely Terrible: UNLV, Boise State, New Mexico
Others: Wyoming, Colorado State, Air Force, San Jose State
Nevada is obviously at the head of the class in the Mountain West.
Even though last year's starting point guard Lindsey Drew has already been ruled out for the rest of this season, the Wolf Pack have an embarrassment of riches in the experience department, with a starting five consisting entirely of fifth-year seniors. They also have a fourth-year junior for a sixth man in the form of Jazz Johnson, who has been lethal from three-point range (54.3 percent).
Nevada is one of nine remaining undefeated teams, and it is a threat to run the table and earn a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. This squad is probably better than the Wichita State team that entered the Big Dance undefeated in 2014 but not as good as the Kentucky team that did the same the following year. But depending on how the bracket breaks, 40-0 is at least a mathematical possibility here.
Let's not get too far ahead of ourselves, though, because the MWC is a good deal deeper with talent than it has been the past couple of years.
Utah State smoked Saint Mary's on a neutral court in mid-November. Fresno State did the same to Northwestern. And San Diego State picked up a quality neutral-site victory over Xavier in the Maui Invitational.
In particular, Fresno State seems like it might be able to give Nevada a run for its money, considering it also had close calls against Miami and TCU. The Bulldogs get the Wolf Pack at home Jan. 12, which should tell us a lot about this league's potential for multiple bids.
Title Contenders: N/A
Second-Weekend Teams: N/A
Tournament Teams: Cincinnati, Houston, UCF
Could Sneak In: Temple, Connecticut, SMU
Not Completely Terrible: Wichita State, Memphis, Tulsa
Others: South Florida, Tulane, East Carolina
In most seasons since its inception in 2013, the AAC has been strong enough that we frequently debate whether it's a seventh power conference or a mid-major league.
This year, however, it's more of a "Is this even a multibid league?" debate.
Houston has been a pleasant surprise. I expected the Cougars to regress considerably after losing Rob Gray and Devin Davis, but Armoni Brooks has been sensational in a bigger role, helping pace them to quality wins over Oregon, LSU, BYU, Saint Louis and Oklahoma State. (Brooks didn't do much of anything against BYU, though. Freshmen Cedrick Alley Jr. and Nate Hinton were key factors in that one.) Houston is surprisingly undefeated and might be the best team in this league.
Cincinnati is also solid, per usual, and will have something to say about Houston being the team to beat in the AAC. However, the Bearcats don't appear to be as good as their 30-win iterations from the past two seasons, which was to be expected after losing Gary Clark, Jacob Evans and Kyle Washington.
Beyond those top two teams, though, the AAC goes downhill in a hurry.
UCF was supposed to be the best team, but it quickly refuted that supposition with a home loss to Florida Atlantic. The Knights also lost to Missouri, which might be the worst team in the SEC. UCF isn't a bad team by any means, but it isn't as good as advertised.
And those are the only top-80 teams in the AAC, so "Could Sneak In" is a generous designation for Temple, Connecticut and SMU. Memphis is struggling in Penny Hardaway's first season as head coach. Wichita State is predictably having a tough go of things after losing basically the entire roster from last season. Etc. Etc.
There are a lot of decent teams here but no great ones and only a couple of good ones. Once the decent ones start stealing games from the good ones in conference play, this may well end up being a one-bid league.
7. West Coast
Title Contenders: Gonzaga
Second-Weekend Teams: N/A
Tournament Teams: San Francisco
Could Sneak In: Saint Mary's, BYU, San Diego
Not Completely Terrible: Loyola Marymount, Pacific
Others: Pepperdine, Santa Clara, Portland
Despite recent losses to Tennessee (neutral) and North Carolina (road), Gonzaga remains one of the biggest threats to win the national championship. The Bulldogs scheduled aggressively for the first six weeks, but they should feast on the rest of their schedule, losing a maximum of two more games before the NCAA tournament—with zero more losses being a more likely result than two.
This team is sensational on offense, and it isn't even complete. Killian Tillie has yet to make his season debut following a stress fracture in his foot, and that stretch 5 should be a wonderful addition to an already elite team. (They better learn how to defend the three-point arc, though. Creighton, Tennessee and North Carolina each hurt Gonzaga from deep.)
As with Nevada in the Mountain West Conference, there is some competition in the WCC's second tier.
San Francisco is playing its best basketball since the early 1980s and is a threat to go dancing as an at-large team. The Dons are 10-1 with respectable wins over Harvard, California and Stephen F. Austin. Familiarize yourself with the name Frankie Ferrari because A) it's an awesome name and B) the senior point guard could be the architect of a beautiful Cinderella story.
BYU and Saint Mary's have both already racked up five losses, which effectively eliminates them from the at-large conversation. But they are both good enough to give Gonzaga more of a challenge than it usually faces in league play. San Diego is no joke, either, with wins over Colorado and San Diego State and competitive losses to Oregon, Washington and Ole Miss.
Even 10-1 Loyola Marymount merits keeping an eye on, despite getting crushed by UCLA in its only game against a top-100 opponent.
The WCC hasn't caught up to Gonzaga yet, but this is nowhere near the normal situation in which the Zags have one decent challenger—BYU or Saint Mary's—and eight other league opponents that might as well be scrimmages. For once, this looks a legitimate mid-major conference that should produce a lot of entertaining games.
Title Contenders: N/A
Second-Weekend Teams: N/A
Tournament Teams: Oregon, Arizona State, UCLA
Could Sneak In: Arizona, Washington, Colorado, Oregon State, USC
Not Completely Terrible: Stanford, Utah, Washington State, California
There's not much separating the Pac-12 from the AAC and the WCC, as this major conference is performing more like a mid-major league. It will probably sneak three teams into the NCAA tournament, but it's not going to be pretty.
Only two teams in the Pac-12 have fewer than three losses: Arizona State and Colorado. And the Buffaloes have not yet beaten a KenPom Top 150 team, so take their 8-1 record with a grain of salt.
As a whole, this league entered play Monday with a 3-21 record against KenPom Top 50 teams. Oregon's win over Syracuse, Arizona State's win over Mississippi State and Arizona's win over Iowa State—all on neutral courts—are the only outcomes preventing the Pac-12 from utter disaster.
Kansas, Michigan and Michigan State each have four KenPom Top 50 wins by themselves. Indiana already has five such victories. Needless to say, 3-21 isn't great.
UCLA still has games remaining against Cincinnati and Ohio State. Arizona State could score a massive win for the league when it hosts Kansas this coming Saturday. And Colorado might be able to pick up a quality win over TCU in the Diamond Head Classic. But the current state of affairs is troubling.
If anyone is going to separate from the pack as a clear tournament team, it's going to be Oregon and/or Arizona State. The more likely outcome, though, is that both the Ducks and Sun Devils end conference play with more questionable losses than quality wins and the conference tournament begins without any team feeling confident about its at-large status.
5. Big East
Title Contenders: N/A
Second-Weekend Teams: Villanova
Tournament Teams: Butler, Marquette, Creighton
Could Sneak In: St. John's, Seton Hall, Xavier, Providence, DePaul
Not Completely Terrible: Georgetown
The Big East is in much better shape than the Pac-12, but it is a far cry from the top four leagues.
This is primarily because of Villanova's struggles. The Wildcats were 62-3 in nonconference play (excluding the NCAA tournament) over the previous five seasons, but they are sitting at 8-4 this year with disturbing losses to Furman and Penn.
They aren't awful, though. The loss to Furman came in overtime, and the more recent losses to Penn and Kansas were both by a one-possession margin on the road. Only the blowout home loss to Michigan was particularly ugly, and the Wildcats do have a nice neutral-court win over Florida State. But they are nothing close to the Big East flag-bearers they had been for the past half-decade.
As far as tournament resumes are concerned, Marquette has been the best team in this league, already picking up quality wins over Wisconsin, Kansas State and Louisville. The Golden Eagles will get another chance to prove their mettle when they host Buffalo on Friday.
St. John's is also looking good with a 10-0 record, although the Red Storm have yet to face an opponent better than Georgia Tech. We'll need to wait until league play begins to get a better sense of how good this team is, but hey, it's the best possible record against the schedule they were given. Between the 2015-16 and 2016-17 seasons, St. John's went 13-13 in nonconference play, so a 10-0 start from a habitual basement-dweller is a great boost for the league.
Even "Not Completely Terrible" Georgetown has been respectable and is shaping up to be arguably the best last-place team from a major conference. Put the Hoyas in a round-robin tournament with Rutgers, Wake Forest, Oklahoma State, Georgia and California, and they might go 5-0. That also helps the conference look better from top to bottom.
In summation: There are no elite teams in the Big East, but, more importantly, there are no awful teams. It's going to be an "any given night" kind of 10 weeks throughout the Big East. It will be fun to watch, even if no one ever emerges as a title threat.
Title Contenders: Tennessee
Second-Weekend Teams: Auburn, Kentucky, Mississippi State, Florida
Tournament Teams: LSU, Arkansas
Could Sneak In: Ole Miss, Vanderbilt, Alabama, Texas A&M, Missouri
Not Completely Terrible: South Carolina, Georgia
For as good as the SEC has been thus far, it was supposed to be better.
South Carolina and Texas A&M both opened the season in the KenPom Top 50, but they are a collective 8-9 with only one KenPom Top 190 victory (A&M's win over No. 73 Oregon State this past Saturday). Vanderbilt's potentially great season was derailed by a season-ending injury for freshman Darius Garland. LSU hasn't quite lived up to its potential; nor has Alabama.
Most noteworthy of all is Kentucky getting blown out by Duke and losing in overtime to Seton Hall in its only games away from Rupp Arena. The Wildcats were supposed to be one of the top candidates to win the national championship, but they don't have a single win yet to show it. However, their remaining nonconference games are against North Carolina, Louisville and Kansas, so the ink isn't exactly dry on that narrative.
Still, the SEC is a heck of a lot better than the Pac-12 and Big East.
Tennessee is a serious candidate to win the national championship, and both Auburn and Kentucky are at least on the fringe of that conversation. Mississippi State has been every bit as good as advertised during its 9-1 start. And Ole Miss has been the lone pleasant surprise in this league, surging to an 8-2 start with a lot of help from 3-star freshmen KJ Buffen and Blake Hinson.
If the Rebels continue to play well, the SEC should be an eight-bid league for the second consecutive year.
Title Contenders: Duke, Virginia, North Carolina
Second-Weekend Teams: Virginia Tech, Florida State, North Carolina State
Tournament Teams: Syracuse, Louisville, Clemson, Miami
Could Sneak In: Notre Dame, Georgia Tech, Boston College
Not Completely Terrible: Pittsburgh, Wake Forest
This is, inevitably, where people start to get angry and where I need to state that the gaps between each pair of conferences is not equidistant. What we have is a 1A, 1B and 1C situation in which the ACC, Big Ten and Big 12 are in a tier of their own, well above even the closest challenger.
The order in which you rank those three conferences depends on how you define a conference's strength.
If all you care about is the likelihood that the league will win the national championship, you would have the ACC at No. 1, considering Duke, Virginia and North Carolina are currently Nos. 1, 2 and 4 in the KenPom rankings. No other conference has multiple teams in the top seven, so three in the top four is ridiculous.
Similarly, if all you care about is the collective strength of the top half of the league, the ACC would also have a rock-solid claim at the top spot. In addition to the three aforementioned title contenders, Virginia Tech, Florida State and NC State are all sitting pretty with 9-1 records, and Syracuse was a KenPom Top 20 team all season prior to its home loss to Old Dominion this past weekend. Hard to argue with that septet.
However, we look at the full conference, and the bottom 20 percent of the ACC (Wake Forest, Pittsburgh and Boston College) is far enough behind the bottom 20 percent of the Big Ten (Rutgers, Illinois and Minnesota) and the Big 12 (Oklahoma State and Baylor) for the ACC to land at No. 3. We're obviously splitting hairs, though, if it comes down to a matter of how good the basement of the league is.
Look for the ACC to send at least nine—possibly as many as 11—teams to the NCAA tournament, and don't be surprised if half of those teams reach the Sweet 16 or if multiple ACC teams appear in the Final Four.
2. Big Ten
Title Contenders: Michigan, Michigan State
Second-Weekend Teams: Wisconsin, Purdue, Nebraska, Indiana, Ohio State
Tournament Teams: Maryland, Iowa, Penn State, Northwestern
Could Sneak In: Minnesota, Illinois
Not Completely Terrible: Rutgers
What an incredible first six weeks of the season for the Big Ten.
Michigan, Michigan State, Iowa and Minnesota each won neutral-site tournaments, and both Wisconsin and Nebraska made it to the championship games of their events before falling to still-undefeated opponents. The Big Ten already has 27 wins over KenPom Top 50 teams—eight of those coming against teams in the KenPom Top 25. (Remember the Pac-12's 3-21 record against Top 50 teams?)
No other conference has more than six teams in the Top 45 of the latest NET rankings, but the Big Ten has 10 such squads. And with half the league in the KenPom Top 25 and more than 75 percent of the conference in the KenPom Top 50, it's hard to believe this isn't the best league in the country.
As was the case with the ACC at No. 3, it's primarily because the bottom couple of teams are weighing down the overall averages. But as long as Illinois and Rutgers don't pull off too many upsets in conference play, who cares? Especially with this year's increase from 18 Big Ten games to 20, there will be ample opportunity for the league's good teams to exchange quality wins with one another, paving the way for up to 10 teams to reach the NCAA tournament.
The Big Ten only sent four teams to the Big Dance last year and has never had more than seven teams make it, so it is in rarefied air right now.
The biggest differences from last year are that Nebraska is better than it has ever been during the KenPom era, and that Wisconsin, Indiana and Iowa have rallied from down years to return to their usual levels of excellence. Each of those teams is up at least 40 spots in the KenPom rankings from where it finished the 2017-18 season, and Northwestern (was 85; now 47) isn't far behind. Even Rutgers (109) is less of an albatross than it usually is.
Add it all up and this is easily the best the Big Ten has been from top to bottom since expanding to 14 teams five years ago.
1. Big 12
Title Contenders: Kansas, Texas Tech
Second-Weekend Teams: Iowa State, Kansas State
Tournament Teams: TCU, Oklahoma, Texas, West Virginia
Could Sneak In: Baylor, Oklahoma State
Not Completely Terrible: N/A
For the sixth consecutive year, the Big 12 is in great shape to have the best regular season.
It hasn't done the league much good in the tournament, though. During that stretch, the Big 12 has only had two teams reach the Final Four. Both of those teams (Oklahoma in 2016, Kansas in 2018) got smoked by Villanova in the national semifinals.
But that's more of a factoid to remember in March than it is a reason to bump this league from the top spot.
Per usual, Kansas is a top-10 team, and it has a stiff challenger with Final Four potential. This year, that team is 10-0 Texas Tech, which is somehow thriving despite losing Keenan Evans, Zhaire Smith, Justin Gray, Niem Stevenson, Zach Smith and Tommy Hamilton. Chris Beard has to be the early front-runner for National Coach of the Year because of that.
Also per usual, there are no nights off in the Big 12. Nine of the 10 teams went at least 8-10 last year, and that might be the case again this year, with Oklahoma State being the only team in the league that might crash and burn. But the 4-6 Cowboys are still ranked 77th on KenPom and already have wins away from home (by double-digit margins) against LSU and Memphis. When that's probably the worst team in the conference, yikes.
West Virginia is the only Big 12 team that doesn't already have at least one win over a KenPom Top 100 opponent. Texas has three such victories. Oklahoma has five. And all nine of Kansas' wins have come against teams in the Top 150.
The Big 12 is already in great shape to get seven or eight teams into the NCAA tournament, and it could even make a run at sending 90 percent of the conference dancing, depending on how things shake out in the SEC-B12 Challenge in late January.
Kerry Miller covers men's college basketball and college football for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter: @kerrancejames.