One working definition of a major conference

Was this a major-conference game? Good question.

Can we do better than a Potter Stewart definition?

Last week I posted a piece at ESPN Insider where I pointed out that the new-look no-football Big East has recorded a pretty nice collective KenPom rating the past two seasons, while the newborn American — even with a national title in its pocket — has not. Little did I know that this piece would win the title for “largest response to anything I’ve ever written about college basketball in September.” Perhaps a further word is therefore in order. Just what is a major conference?

I’ll grant at the top that this might be an untenable dichotomy to begin with, and that maybe this whole “major vs. mid-major” thing is a doomed attempt to put static categorical toothpaste back into a more fluid and dynamic postmodern college hoops tube. It could be the case that old boundaries and vocabularies no longer serve our purposes all that well. Duly noted.

And the other prefatory point to be made here is, quite simply, who cares. If you’re a fan of Cincinnati or UConn, history suggests your team will continue to be very good wherever you land in terms of conference affiliation. Indeed the Bearcats might fairly be said to comprise a movable conference-realignment feast all their own. UC has played consistently strong basketball spanning a quarter-century that’s seen the program cycle through the Metro, Great Midwest, Conference USA, the Big East, and now the American. Who needs snooty architecture? Cincinnati’s claim to fame is unceasing and unparalleled mobility and adaptability.

That being said, people may continue to throw around terms like “major” and “mid-major” this season. If they do, I have a definition ready. I’ve set forth my thinking below, but for today’s time-stressed readers I’ll give away the ending and offer my definition of a major conference right here and now:

A major conference: 1) tends to be comprised of teams with an average KenPom rating of .7000 or better; 2) averages at least four NCAA tournament wins per season; and 3) earns four seed points or more per tournament.

Here’s how I’ve arrived at this working definition….

1. Conference-wide strength
I get the impulse to discount the bottom of a given conference when discussing the relative merits of a league. This “never mind Virginia Tech, just look at Duke” instinct is healthy enough as far as it goes. Virginia Tech’s current struggles don’t harm Duke in the slightest.

But at the end of the day, how well the teams in a conference play basketball has to be one element in answering the question of how well a conference plays basketball. And over the past five years, that top-to-bottom answer looks like this:

Average team KenPom ratings, 2011-15
Based on current memberships

1.  Big Ten    .7748
2.  ACC        .7582
3.  Big 12     .7455
4.  Big East   .7383
5.  Pac-12     .7066
6.  SEC        .7014
7.  A-10       .6303
8.  American   .6131
9.  MWC        .6055
10. WCC        .5656
11. MVC        .5565

These are five-year averages, mind you, and if .7000 strikes you as an arbitrary round number just remember additionally that it’s an arbitrary round number that does not constitute an especially fearsome standard. Last season the teams clustered around that mark were the non-NCAA tournament likes of George Washington, Michigan, Colorado State and Saint Mary’s.

2. NCAA tournament success
Connecticut will be forgiven for not fretting too much over whether it’s currently playing in a major conference, because the Huskies have this uncanny knack for individually outperforming the entire Big Ten where national championships are concerned. Success in March Madness is everything.

NCAA tournament wins since 2000
Based on current memberships

1.  ACC         195
2.  Big Ten     163
3.  SEC         128
4.  Big 12      123
5.  Pac-12      104
6.  Big East     82   
7.  American     71
8.  A-10         35
9.  WCC          29
10. MVC          20
11. MWC          19

Seen in this light the American and the Big East are much more similar to the Pac-12 than they are to the A-10 or the West Coast. This is merely another way of stating what our eyes have already registered — the top of the American (UConn, Cincinnati, Memphis, Temple, and, perhaps, SMU) looks very much like a major conference even if the bottom of the league does not.

3. NCAA tournament seeding
In addition to looking at conference-wide strength and tournament success, I also like to evaluate leagues based on the seeds they earn. Like tournament wins, seeding’s a zero-sum game — there are only four No. 1 seeds available in any given season, no matter how many great teams are out there. On the other hand unlike tournament wins (but like KenPom ratings), seeds are based on your body of work and not just on whether that game-winner in late March fell or rimmed out.

I give a conference four points for every NCAA tournament No. 1 seed it earns, three points for each No. 2 seed, two for each No. 3, and one for each No. 4. Call these seed points. The tournament’s “modern” era has given us a 31-tournament sample size to work with, and, controlling for conference size (the Big East circa 2009 was both unusually mighty and unusually populous), here’s what we find….

Seed points per team-season
NCAA tournament, 1985-2015
Based on contemporaneous memberships

1. ACC         0.76
2. Big 12      0.57
3. Big Ten     0.56
4. Big East    0.54
5. SEC         0.38
6. Pac-12      0.37

After the Pac-12 there’s a yawning chasm, so much so that seventh place actually belongs to Conference USA (0.15) despite the fact that the league hasn’t earned a single seed point since Calipari-era Memphis was given a No. 2 seed in 2009.

So if you’re the 10-team Big East or the 11-member American in 2015-16 and you want to claim major-conference status, I expect you to go out and reliably earn four seed points per tournament (10 or 11 x 0.37 or 0.38). Naturally there will be down years (ask the SEC about 2009 sometime, or for that matter ask the Pac-12-slash-10 about 2010 through 2013), so I’ll be looking at the multi-season big picture here, promise. I’m open to persuasion. Have at it.

Meantime in the fiendishly small sample size furnished by the past two tournaments only, here is what we find:

Seed points per team-season
NCAA tournament, 2014 and 2015
Based on contemporaneous memberships

1. Big 12      0.70
2. ACC         0.63
3. Big East    0.50
4. Big Ten     0.46
5. Pac-12      0.33
6. SEC         0.29
7. MVC         0.20
8. WCC         0.15
9. American    0.05  

The American earned its one career seed point, in the 2014 tournament, courtesy of former member Louisville. For its part the Big East, I need hardly add, has failed rather spectacularly to capitalize on the good seeds it has earned over the past two tournaments.

Membership in the “major” club is fluid
Looking at all three elements of this particular working definition of a “major” conference, here’s how the nation’s conferences currently align:

                             "Major"     "Major"
                KenPom        NCAAT       NCAAT
                .7000+        wins        seeds
ACC               Yes          Yes         Yes  
Big Ten           Yes          Yes         Yes
Big 12            Yes          Yes         Yes
Pac-12            Yes          Yes         Yes
SEC               Yes          Yes         Yes 
Big East          Yes          Yes         Yes
American           No          Yes          ?
Rest of D-I        No           No          No

In a way the major/mid-major boundary line for Division I in 2015 cuts right through the American. And, as the consequences of The Great Realignment of 2013 continue to sort themselves out, that boundary may be shifting.

Two national top-35 recruits are joining the American this season in the form of Jalen Adams (Connecticut) and Dedric Lawson (Memphis), and there’s a fair chance — say, a three-in-five probability — that both SMU and Cincinnati will be ranked in the preseason AP top 25. Is the American a major or a mid-major? Put me down as a firm wait and see. At least I know which criteria I’ll be using.