The ACC has one team inside this week’s AP Top 25 poll, tied for the fewest among all leagues considered to be inside the major seven conferences in college hoops. The Big 12, Big Ten and SEC lead the way with five each. One could use this simple metric to argue that, based on the poll, the ACC is the worst power conference and the Big 12, Big Ten and SEC — in some order — are the best.
And maybe if you used that argument you’d be right.
But there’s more than meets the eye if you want to really roll up your sleeves and rank conferences. Context is needed – like who teams in the league have played, efficiency margins, injuries and more.
I’m here to deliver exactly that. So, behold, a comprehensive ranking of the top seven college hoops leagues lies below. This ranking takes into account the eye test to some extent but it was mostly compiled based on efficiency data from KenPom.com and BartTorvik.com, as well as an extensive dive into how each team in every conference fared during nonconference play.
OK. Enough talk. Let’s hop in.
1. Big 12
- Big 12 teams in AP Top 25: 5 (No. 1 Baylor, No. 9 Kansas, No. 15 Iowa State, No. 19 Texas Tech, No. 21 Texas)
- Record vs. ranked teams in nonconference play: 7-6
- Key Big 12 wins in nonconference play: Baylor over Michigan State (Nov. 26) and Villanova (Dec. 12); Oklahoma over Florida (Dec. 1) and Arkansas (Dec. 11); Kansas over Michigan State (Nov. 9); Texas Tech over Tennessee (Dec. 7); West Virginia over UConn (Dec. 8); Iowa State over Xavier (Nov. 24), Memphis (Nov. 26) and Creighton (Dec. 4)
Breakdown: The Big 12 is No. 1 with a bullet and I’m standing on a pretty solid limb with this proclamation — both BartTorvik.com tempo-free stats and KenPom.com rate the league as the best based on their own efficiency data. In nonconference play it has shown itself worthy of wearing the crown, too, with seven wins over ranked opponents and two of its league members — Baylor and Iowa State — claiming two of those wins over top-10 teams. What’s more impressive is that while No. 1 Baylor and No. 9 Kansas really help carry the respect of the conference on the whole, the depth of the league has held well with unranked teams like West Virginia and Oklahoma notching wins over quality power opponents as well.
2. Big Ten
- Big Ten teams in AP Top 25: 5 (No. 7 Purdue, No. 10 Michigan State, No. 13 Wisconsin, No. 16 Ohio State, No. 25 Illinois)
- Record vs. ranked teams in nonconference play: 7-7
- Key Big Ten wins in nonconference play: Michigan State over Loyola Chicago (Nov. 24) and UConn (Nov. 25); Ohio State over Duke (Nov. 30); Wisconsin over Houston (Nov. 23); Purdue over North Carolina (Nov. 20) and Villanova (Nov. 21); Maryland over Florida (Dec. 12)
Breakdown: There’s an unfair perception out there that Big Ten basketball, perhaps because of Wisconsin and Michigan football, is predicated on playing tough defense and grinding it out on offense. But let’s call it out now: that’s a misconception that needs to be booted to the moon. This league rates No. 1 among all major conferences in adjusted offensive efficiency this season with a 109.6 rating according to BartTorvik.com and its seven wins over ranked opponents in nonconference play ties for the most among all seven listed. It’s a clear No. 2 on this list for me and anchored by a quartet of of Final Four contenders in Purdue, Michigan State, Wisconsin and Ohio State.
- SEC teams in AP Top 25: 5 (No. 4 Auburn, No. 12 LSU, No. 18 Kentucky, No. 22 Tennessee, No. 24 Alabama)
- Record vs. ranked teams in nonconference play: 6-4
- Key SEC wins in nonconference play: Alabama over Gonzaga (Dec. 4) and Houston (Dec. 11); Auburn over Loyola Chicago (Nov. 25); Kentucky over North Carolina (Dec. 18); Tennessee over North Carolina (Nov. 21) and Arizona (Dec. 22); Georgia over Memphis (Dec. 1)
Breakdown: Six wins over ranked teams in nonconference play for the SEC is pretty misleading — one was a Georgia win over a once-dead Memphis team and two others were Kentucky and Tennessee side-swiping a slightly overrated UNC team — but the league still deserves its ranking at No. 3. For one, Auburn (which I told you in the preseason to bet at 60-1!!) suddenly looks like a real title contender circa Alabama last year, led by a top-10 defense and a potential No. 1 pick in Jabari Smith. So that’s good. And when you factor in that LSU and Kentucky appear to be top-15 mainstays, the top of this league warrants this standing just behind the Big Ten.
4. Big East
- Big East teams in AP Top 25: 4 (No. 14 Villanova, No. 17 Xavier, No. 20 Seton Hall, No. 23 Providence)
- Record vs. ranked teams in nonconference play: 7-10
- Key Big East wins in nonconference play: Villanova over Tennessee (Nov. 20); Providence over Wisconsin (Nov. 15) and Texas Tech (Dec. 1); Xavier over Ohio State (Nov. 18) and Virginia Tech (Nov. 26); Seton Hall over Michigan (Nov. 16) and Texas (Dec. 9); Marquette over Illinois (Nov. 15) and West Virginia (Nov. 19); UConn over Auburn (Nov. 24); Butler over Oklahoma (Dec. 7)
Breakdown: BartTorvik.com has a stat called Wins Above Bubble (WAB) that is aimed at quantifying how a bubble team would potentially fare against a comparable schedule. The WAB stat is also applicable to conferences, and the Big East rates second at BartTorvik.com with a 4.7 WAB that sits well behind the Big 12 but ahead of the Big Ten as one of only three leagues not holding a negative WAB. If those fancy numbers don’t convince you of the Big East’s placement here ahead of the Pac-12, ACC and American, well, then here’s just a small list of teams that have been defeated by Big East programs: Tennessee, Wisconsin, Ohio State, Illinois and Auburn — all teams that either have been or are currently ranked inside the top 15 of the AP poll. (Cue David Fizdale voice: take that for data!)
- Pac-12 teams in AP Top 25: 3 (No. 3 UCLA, No. 5 USC, No. 6 Arizona)
- Record vs. ranked teams in nonconference play: 2-10
- Key Pac-12 wins in nonconference play: UCLA over Villanova (Nov. 12); USC over San Diego State (Nov. 26); Arizona over Michigan (Nov. 21) and Illinois (Dec. 11);
Breakdown: The Pac-12 has been adversely impacted by COVID-19 disruptions more than most — and its overall data hasn’t been helped much by top dog UCLA having to miss almost a month earlier this season. So that’s factored into my super-secret formula here. But outside of the top three of UCLA, USC and Arizona, there really isn’t much reason to put the Pac-12 any higher than No. 5 ( even as much as I like some of the pieces from Colorado and Stanford). Could be a three-bid league that has no other teams even on the bubble. Yucky.
- ACC teams in AP Top 25: 1 (No. 8 Duke)
- Record vs. ranked teams in nonconference play: 4-15
- Key ACC wins in nonconference play: Duke over Kentucky (Nov. 9) and Gonzaga (Nov. 26); North Carolina over Michigan (Dec. 1); Notre Dame over Kentucky (Dec. 11); Syracuse over Indiana (Nov. 30)
Breakdown: It’s not quite a “There’s Duke then there’s everyone else” situation in the ACC but as far as how other top dogs in other respective conferences are compared, Duke is definitely carrying a heavier water bucket than anyone else. Certainly right now feels like we’re teetering towards a there’s Duke then everyone else situation — at least when it comes to relevant contenders. It is the only team currently ranked in the polls and the rest of the ACC is down a lot compared with recent years. Maybe Miami’s recent surge could gain back some respect for the league but Virginia has struggled, Louisville’s hot and cold, Florida State’s looked uncharacteristically flawed and I’m still not quite sure what to make of UNC. We’ll see. Overall, verdict is still out — I’m not ready to write the ACC’s eulogy yet — but it’s been a very bad season for the conference thus far. At least there’s Duke.
7. American Athletic Conference
- AAC teams in AP Top 25: 1 (No. 11 Houston)
- Record vs. ranked teams in nonconference play: 2-5
- Key AAC wins in nonconference play: Houston over Oklahoma State (Dec. 18); Memphis over Virginia Tech (Nov. 24) and Alabama (Dec. 14); UCF over Michigan (Dec. 30); Cincinnati over Illinois (Nov. 22); Wichita State over Oklahoma State (Dec. 1);
Breakdown: Houston is the No. 3 team at KenPom.com and at BartTorvik.com despite being ranked outside the top 10 in the latest AP poll. The analytics love them some Cougars. But Kelvin Sampson’s club might really be the crown jewel of a (potential) one-bid American; Jerry Palm has Houston in and Memphis barely in as things stand right now in his latest bracket. The league outside of Houston just really isn’t strong.