One of the more hotly debated topics during the season is which conference is best. If you ask five different people how to determine that, you might get five different answers. CBS Sports' Jerry Palm sorts out the best of the best as March Madness approaches.
Fans tend to only care about the top teams, like how many potential Final Four teams or how many tournament teams and consider everything else equal. If you look at some of the more popular metrics, they don't always agree. The RPI just averages the RPIs of the teams, which can be skewed if there is an extreme at the top or the bottom.
I prefer strength top to bottom and believe that leagues determine their strength by what they do in non-conference play. With that in mind, here is a ranking of the top seven conferences this season as we get closer to the conference tournaments.
1. Big 12
Teams in projected field of 68: 6
Highest seeded team: Kansas (No. 1)
Others in field: Kansas State, Oklahoma, TCU, Texas Tech, West Virginia
The Big 12 has strength everywhere you look. There are three teams that could end up with top four seeds in the NCAA tournament, with Kansas in contention for the top line. In the middle, five other teams are in contention for at-large bids. Only Oklahoma State and Iowa State are out of the running for a spot in the tournament, but they each beat Texas Tech once and the Cowboys won at Kansas.
2. Big East
Teams in projected field of 68: 6
Highest seeded teams: Villanova, Xavier (No. 1s)
Others in field: Butler, Creighton, Providence, Seton Hall
This is really 1A. Villanova and Xavier could both end up as No. 1 seeds and the middle is pretty strong also. Five other teams have a chance at an at-large bid, although it seems unlikely any of them will reach a top four seed. Only three teams need to win the automatic bid to get in to the NCAA Tournament, but one of those, St. John's, beat Villanova and Duke back to back.
Teams in projected field of 68: 9
Highest seeded team: Virginia (No. 1)
Others in field: Clemson, Duke, Florida State, Miami (FL), North Carolina, North Carolina State, Syracuse, Virginia Tech
The ACC has had another strong year at the top, and might be better still if not for a couple of key injuries. The league has three teams in the top five of the RPI, including Virginia, which has had a lock on the overall No. 1 seed for a few weeks. Duke could still find itself on the top line as well and North Carolina has an outside shot at a No. 1 as well. Clemson is trying to hold on to a top 4 seed, but is missing its second-leading scorer and top rebounder in Donte Grantham.
Six other teams could find themselves cluttering up the middle of the bracket. Non-conference Notre Dame was a top 15 team with all-American candidate Bonzie Colson. Colson got hurt though, and the Irish have not been the same since. The bottom of the league is reasonably competent except for Pitt, which is easily the worst team in a power conference.
Teams in projected field of 68: 8
Highest seeded team: Auburn (No. 2)
Others in field: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Kentucky, Missouri, Tennessee, Texas A&M
Again, this is really 3A. The SEC is having a resurgent season with some names near the top that we did not expect to see. Auburn has been the top team all season long, despite having the FBI on its doorstep as the season started, which resulted in the arrest of an assistant coach and the loss of their top two recruits. Tennessee is a likely top four seed as well. Where's Kentucky? The Wildcats are comfortably into the top half of the bracket.
There are at least six other teams with a chance to make the NCAA Tournament and the non-contenders have all had big moments this season. The SEC does not have the extremes at the top and bottom of the ACC, but the leagues are pretty much equally strong.
5. Big Ten
Teams in projected field of 68: 4
Highest seeded team: Michigan State (No. 2)
Others in field: Michigan, Ohio State, Purdue
It has been a disappointing year for the Big Ten except at the top. Michigan State ultimately won the league, as predicted and is a national championship contender, even if the Spartans do not get a No. 1 seed. Purdue is a loss at Wisconsin from a co-championship and contending for a No. 1 seed as well. The Boilermakers won a school-record 19 games in a row in the middle of the season. Ohio State is also at the top of the league and a potential top 4 seed after a much better than expected run.
After that? Not so much. Minnesota and Northwestern were preseason top 25 teams that flopped badly. Michigan will get an at-large bid, but anyone else will probably have to win the conference tournament. Nebraska went 13-5 in the league and is a long-shot at best for an at-large bid. That says a lot about the Big Ten and the Huskers' schedule in the league.
Teams in projected field of 68: 5
Highest seeded team: Arizona (No. 5)
Others in field: Arizona State, Southern California, UCLA, Utah
Ugh. Arizona was a preseason No. 1, but the FBI has impacted both ends of its season. In particular, coach Sean Miller is not coaching for now and may be done there. Rawle Alkins missed some time early and Allonzo Trier is suspended now. The Wildcats are one of the most talented teams in the country, but cannot seem to get out of their own way. Arizona State dominated November and December, but has fallen apart in conference play.
The Sun Devils will still make the tournament, but will probably end up in the middle. It is possible that nobody else makes it, but four others still have a chance. Two of them are among my last four in and two others are in the first four out.
Teams in projected field of 68: 3
Highest seeded team: Cincinnati (No. 3)
Others in field: Houston, Wichita State
Adding Wichita State has helped the league, but their strength is not just in the addition of the Shockers. The middle of the league is greatly improved, even if it does not produce an NCAA tournament team this season. Cincinnati is at the top, as usual, and joined by the Shockers. Both teams look like top four seeds in the NCAA tournament. Houston has also had a very good season and looks like a top half of the bracket team.
SMU was on its way to a tournament appearance as well before injuries derailed its season. UCF would probably be in contention too if Tacko Fall was healthy. Templeshould be, but could not find the consistency needed to take advantage of wins over Auburn and Clemson.
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