Ranking the Top 10 Conferences in Men's College Basketball in 2021-22 Season

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystJanuary 13, 2022

Ranking the Top 10 Conferences in Men's College Basketball in 2021-22 Season

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    Kansas' Ochai Agbaji
    Kansas' Ochai AgbajiCharlie Riedel/Associated Press

    Much time has been spent discussing how disappointing this season has been for both the ACC and the Pac-12 in men's college basketball, but on the flip side of that coin, the Big 12, Big East, Big Ten and SEC each appear to have at least four teams capable of reaching the Final Four.

    How did we decide on an order for those top four leagues, as well as the next six, you might wonder?

    By combining the six metrics used by the NCAA selection committeeNCAA Evaluation Tool, Strength of Record, Kevin Pauga Index, KenPom, ESPN's BPI and Sagarininto one average metric for each team and then comparing the conferences.

    For each of our 10 ranked conferences, you'll find the following designations: Title Contenders, Final Four Threats, Tournament Teams, Could Sneak In, Not Completely Terrible and Dead Weight. Those buckets are the teams that fall into the composite Top 10, Nos. 11-25, Nos. 26-50, Nos. 51-100, Nos. 101-200 and Nos. 201-358, respectively, as of Tuesday evening.

    Title Contenders were given a score of 10 points, Final Four Threats got five, Tournament Teams received three, Could Sneak In got one, Not Completely Terrible were given a negative-one while Dead Weight got a negative-two. For each conference, the points were added up and divided by the number of teams in the conference, for a maximum score of 10 (if every team is a Title Contender) and a minimum score of negative-two (if every team is a Dead Weight).

    The leagues were then ranked in ascending order by those scores.

    There are varying opinions on how a conference's strength should be "graded." We tried to take a holistic approach, both giving credit where it's due to great teams while also making sure the league's worst teams are properly accounted. 

10. Atlantic 10

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    Davidson's Hyunjung Lee
    Davidson's Hyunjung LeeVasha Hunt/Associated Press

    Title Contenders: N/A

    Final Four Threats: N/A

    Tournament Teams: Davidson 

    Could Sneak In: VCU, Saint Louis, St. Bonaventure, Richmond, Dayton

    Not Completely Terrible: Rhode Island, George Mason, Saint Joseph's, Massachusetts, Fordham, Duquesne

    Dead Weight: La Salle, George Washington

    Score: -0.143

    The A-10 likely would have ranked at least one spot higher had we done this exercise before the season, since St. Bonaventure would have counted as a Final Four Threat at the time.

    Two months later, though, the Bonnies have suffered three blowout losses, and the league is more or less pinning its NCAA hopes and dreams on Davidson.

    At Nos. 53 and 61, respectively, in the composite ranking, VCU and Saint Louis could legitimately sneak in as at-large teams. However, there's little question that Hyunjung Lee and the Wildcats have the best odds of actually winning a game in the dance. After all, they already knocked off Alabama in Birmingham and boast one of the most potent three-point barrages in the country.

    Dayton also could be a factor in March. The Flyers started out horribly with early home losses to Austin Peay, Lipscomb and UMass LowellQuadrant 4 results that all but guarantee no chance at an at-large bid. Since then, though, they're 9-3 with wins over Miami, Kansas and Belmont in the ESPN Events Invitational, plus home wins over Virginia Tech and Saint Louis.

    But with more than half of the conference ranked outside the top 100, it's hard to make a case for anything better than 10th place for the A-10.

9. Mountain West

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    Colorado State's David Roddy
    Colorado State's David RoddyTony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    Title Contenders: N/A

    Final Four Threats: N/A

    Tournament Teams: Colorado State, San Diego State

    Could Sneak In: Boise State, Wyoming, Utah State, Fresno State

    Not Completely Terrible: Nevada, UNLV

    Dead Weight: New Mexico, San Jose State, Air Force

    Score: 0.182

    While everyone has been marveling at the possibility of a four-bid West Coast Conference, the Mountain West is quietly having its best season since the 2012-13 campaign that netted five NCAA tournament berths.

    The reason it has been so quiet is the near-complete lack of AP Top 25 teams. The only MWC squad to crack the poll thus far was Colorado State, which endured a lengthy COVID-19 pause right after getting into the Top 25. The Rams then got smashed by San Diego State last weekend in just their second game back.

    But while the league is lacking in viable title contenders, more than half of the Mountain West ranks in the composite top 80which is more than the Pac-12 can boast.

    There's also a good amount of star power in this conference. Fresno State's Orlando Robinson, Utah State's Justin Bean and Colorado State's David Roddy and Isaiah Stevens rank among the best mid-major players in the nation.

    This might only be a one- or two-bid league when all is said and done, but there are going to be a lot of good games in advance of what should be one of the most entertaining conference tournaments.

8. American Athletic

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    Memphis' Emoni Bates
    Memphis' Emoni BatesJohn Bazemore/Associated Press

    Title Contenders: Houston

    Final Four Threats: N/A

    Tournament Teams: Memphis 

    Could Sneak In: UCF, SMU, Wichita State, Cincinnati

    Not Completely Terrible: Temple, East Carolina, Tulane, Tulsa

    Dead Weight: South Florida

    Score: 1.000

    The AAC a league with one excellent team (Houston), one dreadful team (South Florida) and a stockpile of shrug emojis in between. With just one team up top, that means it can't quite compete with the guaranteed multi-bid leagues. But with just one team in the basement, that also means it belongs head and shoulders ahead of the vast majority of mid-major / minor conferences.

    The wild card here is Memphisa team barely hanging onto "Tournament Teams" status after opening the season as a fringe title contender.

    The Tigers are still disturbingly sloppy with the ball and cannot seem to string together three consecutive "give a darn" possessions on defense, but they're starting to figure things out on offense in spite of those shortcomings. If they can get anywhere close to their preseason potential, there might be a case for moving the AAC ahead of the WCC and/or ACC.

    Conversely, if Houston slips in these next two months after losing both Marcus Sasser and Tramon Mark to season-ending injuries, that might be enough for the Mountain West to surpass the AAC.

7. West Coast Conference

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    Gonzaga's Chet Holmgren
    Gonzaga's Chet HolmgrenYoung Kwak/Associated Press

    Title Contenders: Gonzaga

    Final Four Threats: N/A

    Tournament Teams: BYU, San Francisco, Saint Mary's 

    Could Sneak In: Santa Clara

    Not Completely Terrible: Loyola Marymount, San Diego

    Dead Weight: Portland, Pepperdine, Pacific

    Score: 1.200

    The WCC is oh so close to bypassing the ACC for sixth place, but there's just too much dead weight to make that a reality.

    Still, with four teams in great shape for a tournament bid, the WCC is having its best year ever.

    Gonzaga, BYU, San Francisco and Saint Mary's are a combined 52-11 heading into play on Thursday, with nary a Quadrant 3 or Quadrant 4 loss among them. If they're able to maintain that collective lack of resume landmines throughout conference play, the WCC may well end up with not just four bids, but four single-digit seeds in the dance.

    That will depend to some extent on whether they share wins with each other. If Saint Mary's (which already lost to BYU) ends up going 0-6 against the other three teams, things could get hairy for the Gaels. But avoiding losses to the bottom 60 percent of the league is the main goal.

    And, again, that bottom 60 percentand especially the bottom 30 percentis why the WCC wasn't quite able to land ahead of any of the six major conferences. The ACC, Big 12, Big East, Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC have a combined total of one team ranked outside the composite top 200. (Shout out, Georgia!) The "P" trio of Portland, Pepperdine and Pacific is a significant millstone pulling this league back to earth.

6. Atlantic Coast

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    North Carolina's Caleb Love
    North Carolina's Caleb LoveRobert Franklin/Associated Press

    Title Contenders: N/A

    Final Four Threats: Duke

    Tournament Teams: North Carolina, Wake Forest, Clemson, Virginia Tech

    Could Sneak In: Louisville, Florida State, Miami, Virginia, Notre Dame, Syracuse

    Not Completely Terrible: N.C. State, Georgia Tech, Boston College, Pittsburgh

    Dead Weight: N/A

    Score: 1.267

    Before you scream at me about Duke appearing as a Final Four Threat instead of as a Title Contender, A) The ACC would have been in sixth place either way, and B) Don't shoot the messenger. When I pulled the data, the Blue Devils weren't ranked better than 10th in any of the six metrics, let alone in the average top 10. (They were actually in 17th place.)

    Speaking of individual team rankings, though, the ACC has one heck of a logjam in the Nos. 45-70 range. This might help explain why so many bracketologists (myself included) still have at least four ACC teams projected to dance, even though we seem to be in a permanent state of trying to identify a single non-Duke team that deserves to make the tournament.

    That logjam consists of No. 45 Wake Forest, No. 47 Clemson, No. 49 Virginia Tech, No. 55 Louisville, No. 59 Florida State, No. 63 Miami, No. 65 Virginia and No. 69 Notre Dame. That's three teams just barely in the "Tournament Teams" range, but also a quintet of "Could Sneak In" teams that are close to the top 50. But that's more than half the ACC hovering in the "must at least consider them for a bid" range.

    It's not unusual for a league to have a bunch of teams on the bubble, but what makes it unusual is that Duke and North Carolina are the only teams above that tier. For the Power Six conferences, if there are five teams on the bubble, it's typically something like the 5th-9th best teams in the league; not the 3rd-7th best teams. Thus, the ACC is well behind the other five leagues.

5. Pac-12

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    Arizona's Bennedict Mathurin
    Arizona's Bennedict MathurinIcon Sportswire/Getty Images

    Title Contenders: Arizona, UCLA

    Final Four Threats: USC

    Tournament Teams: N/A

    Could Sneak In: Washington State, Oregon, Colorado, Stanford

    Not Completely Terrible: California, Arizona State, Utah, Washington, Oregon State

    Dead Weight: N/A

    Score: 2.000

    That quartet of "Could Sneak In" teams is getting a pretty generous label. The just-discussed ACC has 10 teams ranked higher than the Pac-12's fourth-best team, Washington State.

    But the Pac-12 also has three teams ranked ahead of the ACC's best team, which begs the question of what actually makes one conference better than another.

    The ACC is probably going to deliver entertaining games between borderline tournament-caliber teams on a much more regular basis than the Pac-12, but the Pac-12 has three Final Four candidates compared to the ACC's one. And in our formula, the latter is better, even though the Pac-12's basement is more crowded.

    Whether USC is actually a Final Four Threat, though, is yet to be determined.

    Outside of a neutral-site victory over San Diego State, the Trojans don't have any wins of note, and their quest for an undefeated season came to an end at the hands of Stanford this past Tuesday. If they don't win at least one game against Arizona or UCLA, there are going to be major question marks about this team heading into the NCAA tournament—even though the metrics paint USC as a second-weekend team.

    But Arizona and UCLA sure feel legit. They were supposed to face each other in late December, but that matchup was postponed. Here's hoping they're able to reschedule that game so we can watch (at least) two matchups between the teams vying with Gonzaga for the No. 1 seed in the West Region.

4. Big East

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    Villanova's Jermaine Samuels
    Villanova's Jermaine SamuelsLaurence Kesterson/Associated Press

    Title Contenders: Villanova

    Final Four Threats: Xavier, Seton Hall, Connecticut

    Tournament Teams: Providence, Marquette

    Could Sneak In: Creighton, St. John's

    Not Completely Terrible: DePaul, Butler, Georgetown

    Dead Weight: N/A

    Score: 2.727

    The race among conference Nos. 2-4 is pretty much a dead heat between the Big East, Big Ten and SEC, with the order largely depending on which day you refresh the data.

    Case in point: No. 26 Providence is just barely on the lesser side of the Final Four Threats / Tournament Teams cut line, and No. 104 DePaul is in a similar boat at the split between Could Sneak In and Not Completely Terrible. Move each of those teams into the higher bucket and the Big East's score improves enough to jump from No. 4 to No. 2.

    Even at No. 4, what an impressive year this has been for the Big East as a whole.

    We expected Villanova and Connecticut to be contenders, but Seton Hall, Providence and Marquette each picking up multiple big wins in nonconference play was an unexpected shot in the arm. Xavier has also made quite the leap after opening the year unranked, giving the Big East five teams with serious second-weekend potential.

    Villanova remains the cream of the crop, though. The Wildcats picked up four losses within their first 11 games, but that's because they put together a ridiculously difficult schedule. That aggressive approach might pay dividends in March.

2. (tie) Southeastern

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    Auburn's Walker Kessler
    Auburn's Walker KesslerButch Dill/Associated Press

    Title Contenders: Auburn, LSU

    Final Four Threats: Tennessee, Alabama, Kentucky

    Tournament Teams: Mississippi State, Florida

    Could Sneak In: Texas A&M, Arkansas, Vanderbilt, South Carolina, Ole Miss

    Not Completely Terrible: Missouri

    Dead Weight: Georgia

    Score: 3.071

    It is officially too close to call between the SEC and the Big Ten, each of which has five teams in the composite top 25, as well as five teams in the "Could Sneak In" bucket.

    At the top of the SEC is Auburn, which improved to 15-1 with a Tuesday night road win over Alabama. And the Tigers just recently got Allen Flanigan back after he missed the first 11 games with an Achilles injury. That means there's still room for improvement, even though the nucleus of Jabari Smith, Walker Kessler, KD Johnson and Wendell Green has already been doggone good. Don't be surprised if this is the No. 1 overall seed in two months.

    LSU is also in that No. 1 seed mix at 14-1 with sensational defense. The Tigers are only No. 12 in the AP poll, but they rank in the top 10 of all six metrics used by the NCAA selection committee. The only other team in that club is Baylor.

    And, you know, don't forget about Kentucky. The Wildcats only have one noteworthy win thus far (North Carolina), but the transfer trio of Sahvir Wheeler, Kellan Grady and Oscar Tshiebwe has been outstanding, as has freshman TyTy Washington. Depth is a legitimate concern for the Wildcats, but if they enter the NCAA tournament healthy, they'll rank among the top candidates to win it all.

2. (tie) Big Ten

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    Wisconsin's Johnny Davis
    Wisconsin's Johnny DavisGail Burton/Associated Press

    Title Contenders: Purdue

    Final Four Threats: Michigan State, Illinois, Wisconsin, Ohio State

    Tournament Teams: Indiana, Iowa, Michigan

    Could Sneak In: Minnesota, Northwestern, Penn State, Maryland, Rutgers

    Not Completely Terrible: Nebraska

    Dead Weight: N/A

    Score: 3.071

    It might not be the best conference, but if you wanted to make a hypothetical 32-team tournament in which each league sends its all-conference team to compete, the Big Ten would be the runaway No. 1 seed in that exercise.

    In the backcourt, give me Wisconsin's Johnny Davis and Purdue's Jaden Ivey at tip off with Minnesota's Payton Willis and Rutgers' Ron Harper as the reserves. And in the even more loaded frontcourt, let's go with Iowa's Keegan Murray, Ohio State's E.J. Liddell and Illinois' Kofi Cockburn as the starters with Indiana's Trayce Jackson-Davis, Michigan's Hunter Dickinson and Purdue's Trevion Williams and Zach Edey off the bench.

    As far as the teams are concerned, we're still figuring out the pecking order among the top seven. Purdue felt like the best team in the country in mid-December, but it might end up only being the fifth-best team in the Big Ten. Illinois has come on strong in recent weeks and may still get back point guard Andre Curbelo (neck) at some point. Michigan State's only losses were on neutral courts to Baylor and Kansas. And Thursday night's showdown between Ohio State and Wisconsin should be a great one.

    Don't sleep on Iowa, either. The Hawkeyes are 1-3 thus far in league play, but the losses were by single digits to Purdue, Illinois and Wisconsin. Per usual, they need to improve on the defensive end, but Murray is every bit the wrecking ball on offense that Luka Garza had been for the past two seasons. They're a Final Four Threat masquerading as just a Tournament Team.

1. Big 12

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    Baylor's Matthew Mayer and Texas Tech's Adonis Arms
    Baylor's Matthew Mayer and Texas Tech's Adonis ArmsJerry Larson/Associated Press

    Title Contenders: Baylor, Kansas

    Final Four Threats: Texas, Texas Tech

    Tournament Teams: Iowa State, West Virginia, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State*

    Could Sneak In: TCU, Kansas State

    Not Completely Terrible: N/A

    Dead Weight: N/A

    Score: 4.400

    *Ineligible for the NCAA tournament, but still rated as a top 50 team.

    While the difference between No. 2 and No. 4 is razor thin, the Big 12 is lapping the field for the top spot.

    Seventy percent of this conference ranks in the top 10 percent of the nation, with Baylor leading the way at No. 1 overall. Tuesday's home loss to Texas Tech brought the Bears back to within shouting distance of the field, but they are still likely to repeat as national champions. And if they don't, it may only be because Kansas, Texas or Texas Tech rises to the occasion instead.

    What's really ridiculous about the Big 12, though, is nine of the 10 teams rank in the top 55 overall, and 10th-place Kansas State is no slouch in 98th place in the composite rankings. Even home games against the worst team in the league aren't a gimme, as Oklahoma and West Virginia found out in their 71-69 and 71-68 victories over the Wildcats earlier this month.

    With this type of "no nights off" league, there's always the question of whether it prepares the teams for March or wears them out instead. But I suspect that as long as we don't get to a point with COVID-19 postponements where they're needing to cram a large number of games into a short period of time toward the end of the season, the best teams in the Big 12 will be refined and ready for a deep run.