On the irredeemably doomed nature of (most) preseason conference hype


This man is excited about the SEC’s future.

The SEC held its spring meetings last week, and the most noteworthy product of this year’s conclave was arguably the solemn and earnest talk of a potential Division IV in college athletics. Nevertheless, there was also, of course, the requisite chatter promising that the conference will henceforth be good at basketball. This time the SEC means it. Truly.

“This is as focused as I’ve seen this league and these coaches and the programs and the ADs in how do we move this ball forward,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “We had three teams in the Elite Eight, two teams in the Final Four, a team in the national championship game and still … come on now. Our goal is let’s get half of our teams in within the next three years and two of us playing for a national championship.”

I share Calipari’s preferred measure of conference strength. How many teams you put into the NCAA tournament and, more specifically, where those members are seeded is to my mind the best gauge of just how good your league really is. 

And if you’ve been reading along for a while you know that I like to measure this quantity with a handy little item I call “seed points.”  Envision a sliding scale where a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament gets your conference four points, a slot on the 2-line gets you three points, a No. 3 seed fetches you two points, and a No. 4 seed earns you one point.

I’ve used this jpeg before, and, well, here it is again….


I declare 30 years a good sample size. In this nifty tour de force of conditional formatting, green means your conference had a really, really good season. By this standard, at least, no conference had a really, really good season in 2013-14 (which is why I’m not sure there really was a proverbial “best conference in the nation” last season).

But for our present purposes what’s interesting is that the SEC has never had a really, really good season in the game’s quote-unquote modern era. For the conference to start performing — consistently, across multiple seasons — at a level equivalent to, say, the Big Ten would represent a rather historic departure.

Rather historic departures are, to be sure, possible. The aforementioned Big Ten was notably mediocre at basketball for much of the late 90s and early aughts before snapping out of its funk with a vengeance. That being said, rather historic departures are not only possible, they’re also fairly rare.

And, no, the table shown above does not reflect the old-format Big East simply throwing sheer masses of programs at the question. When we adjust for conference size over the past three decades (basically, seed points per team-season), here’s how the leagues shake out:

ACC        0.77
Big Ten    0.57
Big 12     0.56
Big East   0.54
SEC        0.38
Pac-12     0.37

The ACC rates out as best by far, meaning, quite simply, Duke and North Carolina have both been remarkably successful at securing high NCAA tournament seeds for a remarkably long while. Meanwhile the Big Ten, Big 12 and Big East form a distinct second tier, one which the SEC and Pac-12 are, as yet, nowhere near joining. Lastly, to put one more nail in our “Wait! What’s a mid-major?” coffin, no other league is anywhere close to the SEC and Pac-12. (The A-10’s number here is 0.11. And — even with a 2014 national championship banner hanging in Storrs, Connecticut — we’ll have to wait and see how the post-Louisville American shapes up.)

Granted, there’s more to a successful season than simply earning a glitzy seed. Kentucky came within 40 minutes of a national title as a No. 8 seed. Meanwhile Wichita State watched the Sweet 16 sitting at home as a No. 1 seed.

Still, the vagaries of a single-elimination tournament are, well, vagaries. No conference commissioner can afford to enter a season saying “Let’s have our teams get middle seeds and then do surprisingly well in the tournament.”

Kentucky and Florida will continue to be Kentucky and Florida for the foreseeable future. But improving the league beyond the Wildcats and the Gators may prove to be just as challenging for the SEC as improving the league beyond Duke and North Carolina was for the pre-expansion ACC.