Virginia won the first men’s basketball national championship in school history Monday night, which means three different ACC teams have won a national title in the last five years. The Cavaliers’ title goes a long way as we examine how college basketball’s best conferences stacked up against each other last season.
NCAA Tournament participation and success – meaning how many teams qualified for it and how far a conference’s teams advanced – obviously plays a critical role in evaluating the strength of a conference, but so do metrics and rankings like the AP Top 25 Poll, NET rankings and kenpom.com.
The Pac-12 was ranked seventh in kenpom.com’s conference rankings, pretty clearly behind the AAC in terms of per-possession performance and ahead of the WCC, and it’s pretty amazing the conference ended up getting three teams in the NCAA Tournament, when there was a legitimate possibility it would be a one-bid league.
Regular season champion Washington earned a No. 9 seed, which is pretty amazing for a power conference champ that won its conference by three games. The Huskies knocked off Utah State in the first round before falling to No. 1 seed North Carolina.
Arizona State snuck into the NCAA Tournament as a No. 11 seed that was sent to Dayton for the First Four and Pac-12 Tournament champion Oregon stole a bid en route to a No. 12 seed and a Sweet 16 appearance.
The bid-stealing Ducks and their pair of NCAA Tournament wins mitigated just how bad the Pac-12 was last season, but nine teams from the conference failed to make the field of 68 and only one of those nine made the NIT.
UCLA, USC and Arizona – three schools that should be competing for the conference crown – finished in the bottom half of the conference standings.
Not a single Pac-12 team finished in the top 25 on kenpom.com and only two teams – No. 28 Oregon and No. 48 Washington – cracked the top 50.
The AAC sent four teams to the NCAA Tournament and one of its teams was nearly responsible for the biggest upset in the tournament as No. 9 seed UCF pushed No. 1 seed Duke to the brink of elimination in the second round.
AAC regular season champion Houston earned a No. 3 seed and lost 62-58 in a competitive game against No. 2 seed Kentucky. AAC Tournament champion Cincinnati was perhaps under-seeded as a No. 7 seed and the Bearcats were on the wrong side of a 79-72 loss to No. 10 seed Iowa.
The conference put two teams – Memphis and Wichita State – in the NIT and the Shockers made it to Madison Square Garden for the semifinals.
Houston finished at No. 12 on kenpom.com, while No. 29 Cincinnati and No. 34 UCF were just outside the top 25.
5. Big East
There’s a sizable drop-off from the top four conferences last season and numbers five, six and seven. I guess we’ll go with the Big East fifth, but as you can tell, I don’t feel particularly strongly about praising the conference’s play last season. Four teams made the NCAA Tournament – barely.
St. John’s, which parted ways with Coach Chris Mullin on Tuesday, made the First Four, where it lost to Arizona State, whose coach, Bobby Hurley, is ironically among the favorites to replace Mullin.
Villanova, which swept the Big East regular season and tournament titles, earned a No. 6 seed and got throttled by Purdue in the second round to the tune of 87-61, which speaks to how much of a down year it was for the conference.
Marquette received the highest seed of any team in the Big East as a No. 5 seed, but it was matched up against Ja Morant and Murray State in the first round, which meant the Golden Eagles were eliminated on the first day of the first round of the tournament.
Marquette’s Markus Howard was a consensus Second Team All-American.
Seton Hall received a No. 10 seed and lost an exciting game to Wofford, while Creighton, Xavier, Georgetown, Providence and Butler were sent to the NIT.
The conference should have a bounce-back year in 2020 with Marquette and Villanova potentially earning preseason top-10 rankings, while Seton Hall, Creighton and Xavier could be top-25 teams, too.
But 2019 was far from a banner year for the Big East, one year removed from Villanova’s second national championship in three years.
The SEC might be the toughest power conference to evaluate. Its top three teams earned a top-three seed in the NCAA Tournament. Auburn, which tied for fourth in the regular season and earned the No. 5 seed in the SEC Tournament, made the Final Four.
So you could argue it had the second-best group of top four teams in a conference after the ACC and that the conference deserves to be ranked higher on this list.
But South Carolina, which finished with a .500 record at 16-16, earned the No. 4 seed in the conference tournament.
No. 5 seed Mississippi State was upset by No. 12 seed Liberty in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
Ole Miss lost to Oklahoma by 23 points in an 8 vs. 9 game.
Florida beat No. 7 seed Nevada in the first round, which was a nice win for the Gators, then they couldn’t break the 50-point mark in a loss to Michigan.
Half of the teams in the conference didn’t make the NCAA Tournament, including winless-in-the-SEC Vanderbilt, and Georgia — whose conference record was only two games better than the Commodores.
Overall, there was a lot of good at the top of the SEC, but also a lot of mediocrity.
3. Big 12
From an efficiency standpoint, the Big 12 finished as the best conference in the country for the sixth straight season, according to kenpom.com, so we understand if this ranking ruffles some feathers in Kansas, Texas and Oklahoma.
But that ranking benefits from a 10-school conference with eight respectable teams last season.
Texas Tech was great and its historically elite defense finally got its due in the NCAA Tournament when the Red Raiders stifled Michigan, Gonzaga and Michigan State to less than 1.00 point per possession in consecutive tournament games.
But beyond the Red Raiders, were there any other Final Four contenders in the conference?
Yes, preseason No. 1 Kansas would’ve been if it was at full strength. Dean Wade’s injury certainly hurt Kansas State.
But the conference seemed to be full of good – but not great – teams.
Kansas State and Iowa State were upset in the first round as a No. 4 and No. 6 seed, respectively.
Kansas lost by 14 to No. 5 seed Auburn in the second round in a game that didn’t feel that close, while No. 9 seeds Baylor and Oklahoma met a predictable fate against No. 1 seeds Gonzaga and Virginia, respectively.
Texas Tech’s Jarrett Culver received Second Team AP All-America honors with Kansas forward Dedric Lawson on the Third Team.
The Big 12 was a high-level conference in 2019 and it may have been responsible for the most exciting regular season conference title race as Texas Tech and Kansas State ended Kansas’ streak, but it lacked some firepower at the top.
2. Big Ten
The Big Ten put eight teams in the 2019 NCAA Tournament with Indiana falling among the First Four Out as the conference came close to sending nine of its 14 teams to the tournament. You could make the case that Indiana and Nebraska could’ve made the field of 68 were it not for injuries.
Both Michigan and Michigan State earned a No. 2 seed, along with co-Big Ten regular season champion Purdue receiving a No. 3 seed. All three schools finished in the top nine of kenpom.com with the Spartans advancing to the Final Four, Boilermakers to the Elite Eight (and seconds/inches away from a Final Four berth themselves) and Wolverines to the Sweet 16.
All three of those schools lost to the national champion or national runner-up, which isn’t consolation but speaks to the caliber of teams it took to knock off the Big Ten’s best.
As No. 10 or No. 11 seeds, Iowa, Minnesota and Ohio State all won their first-round games against lower-seeded teams, knocking off respectable opponents to start off the NCAA Tournament.
While the overall records of the teams at the bottom of the Big Ten standings weren’t great, the conference was fairly strong from top to bottom. Every team ranked in the top 85 of kenpom.com.
Penn State beat Michigan, Virginia Tech and Maryland.
Rutgers beat Iowa, Minnesota and Ohio State.
Illinois beat Michigan State, Maryland, Minnesota and Ohio State.
The conference had three Final Four contenders and the bottom of a very deep conference took a huge step forward in 2019. From an individual talent standpoint, the Big Ten had three consensus Second Team All-Americans in Michigan State’s Cassius Winston, Purdue’s Carsen Edwards and Wisconsin’s Ethan Happ.
Sure, the bottom six teams in the 15-team ACC weren’t great, but that’s more of a numbers game than anything. Seven teams from the conference earned a bid to the NCAA Tournament, including a record-tying three No. 1 seeds – Duke, Virginia and North Carolina.
Florida State and Virginia Tech received No. 4 seeds, while Louisville (No. 7 seed) and Syracuse (No. 8 seed) were also single-digit seeds.
The ACC was responsible for nearly a third of the teams in the Sweet 16 with five teams making the second weekend, including two in the Elite Eight and the national champion ‘Hoos.
The conference had five of the 16 best teams in the country, not just according to the NCAA Tournament bracket, but also the AP Top 25, NET rankings and kenpom.com. The final AP poll featured three ACC teams in the first three spots, so even if we’re being conservative, the conference had three of the best seven teams in the country this season.
Yes, the ACC was top-heavy, but isn’t that what matters most? That’s more important than which conference’s bottom tier of teams is the strongest, like the cannibalized Big 12 that didn’t have a great NCAA Tournament showing outside of Texas Tech.
Duke had two consensus First Team All-Americans in Naismith Men’s Player of the Year Zion Williamson and RJ Barrett, while Virginia’s De’Andre Hunter and Kyle Guy also received All-American recognition.