There are still six major conferences

Shockers

A couple years ago, I ventured an opinion to the effect that there were, at that time, six major conferences. Now, with a new season almost upon us and Wichita State following in the footsteps of upwardly mobile predecessors like Creighton and Butler, it’s high time to take another look at the matter.

It turns out that, by my lights, there are still six major conferences. “Power 5” is a football term that should be banished from your basketball vocabulary. Say “major-conference basketball,” and people will know you’re referring to the ACC, Big 12, Big East, Big Ten, Pac-12, and SEC.

Naturally this is a characterization offered in advance of any changes that may be wrought in the American Athletic Conference’s profile this season due to the arrival of the Shockers. Maybe this question will require another look come March. If so, here’s how you’ll find me trying get my arms around the matter at that time….

For my part, I throw three separate yardsticks at the question of whether or not a given group of teams constitutes a “major” conference.

  1. KenPom AdjEM
  2. NCAA tournament seeds
  3. NCAA tournament wins

One thing I like about this particular three-legged stool is its mix of one open-ended sky’s-the-limit numerical measure (KenPom) with two more Hobbesian and ruthless zero-sum metrics (seeds and wins at the big dance).

KenPom

Based on real-time memberships
Four-season average, 2014-17
                          AdjEM
1. Big 12                 17.52
2. ACC                    14.83
3. Big Ten                13.80
4. Big East               13.73
5. SEC                    11.58
6. Pac-12                 11.49
7. AAC                     6.86

Per usual, the svelte 10-team Big 12 gets a nice numerical boost that’s nevertheless denied a 10-team Big East burdened statistically with long-struggling DePaul and one off-the-charts bad season from St. John’s in 2016. For our purposes, however, the significant point is that the multi-season gap between the AAC and the SEC and Pac-12 is not terribly dissimilar to the difference between Nos. 1 and 6. Over the past four seasons, at least, something potentially fundamental and plainly descriptive has lurked in between Nos. 6 and 7.

Naturally, the presence of what projects to be a national championship-contending Wichita State team in the American should nudge these numbers in the right direction. Still, there’s only so much one undeniably outstanding team can do, by itself, to lift an entire league’s statistical strength. Last season, for example, 37-1 Gonzaga reached the national championship game as a No. 1 seed representing a West Coast Conference ranked No. 11 in the nation for AdjEM.

NCAA tournament seeds
I like to measure how a conference fares seed-wise through a fiendishly complex system whereby a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament is worth four points, a No. 4 seed nets you one point, and Nos. 2 and 3 seeds respectively are worth what you’d expect based on the sliding scale thus bracketed.

Based on current memberships
NCAA tournament, 2014-17
                 Raw seed points   Per team-season
1. Big 12              31               0.78
2. ACC                 43               0.72
3. Big East            21               0.53
4. Pac-12              22               0.46             
5. Big Ten             16               0.29
6. SEC                 15               0.27
7. AAC                  4               0.08

Controlling for number of teams, the Big 12 edges out the ACC for top honors here. Meanwhile, the AAC lags by this measure, too, and does so even when we give the league retroactive credit for the No. 1 seed that Wichita State earned in 2014 as a member of the Missouri Valley. (Alas, this “current membership” accounting is a double-edged sword for the conference. Louisville earned a No. 4 seed in 2014 as a member of the AAC.)

In terms of seeding, the American’s actually been outperformed over the past four tournaments by the West Coast Conference. Or, to put it more precisely, over that span the American’s been outperformed by Gonzaga.

NCAA tournament wins

Based on current memberships
NCAA tournament, 2014-17
                      Wins         Per team-season
1. ACC                 55               0.92
2. Big Ten             38               0.68
3. Pac-12              30               0.63
4. Big 12              25               0.63             
5. SEC                 32               0.57
6. Big East            22               0.55
7. AAC                 16               0.33

Those six tournament wins that Shabazz Napier and UConn memorably recorded in 2014 lift the AAC’s standing significantly in this measure. Throw in (again, retroactively) six victories from WSU over the last four tournaments, and you’re looking at a solid performance league-wide.

Indeed, under its current membership, the American’s averaging exactly four tournament wins per year. A while back, I penciled that in as the threshold for a “major” conference, along with four seed points per year and a KenPom number of 10.00 or better. Meaning the American falls well short on two of those measures, and skates through with the bare minimum required on the third.

In summary, here’s how the nation’s top seven conferences have fared on each component of my three-pronged test over the last four seasons:

                             "Major"     "Major"
                KenPom        NCAAT       NCAAT
                10.00+        seeds       wins
ACC               Yes          Yes         Yes  
Big 12            Yes          Yes         Yes
Big East          Yes          Yes         Yes
Big Ten           Yes          Yes         Yes
Pac-12            Yes          Yes         Yes 
SEC               Yes           ?          Yes
American           No           No         Yes

That looks like six major conferences to me, but I’m open to persuasion. I can’t help feeling people still aren’t understanding just how good Wichita State should be in 2017-18, and certainly two national titles for a league in five seasons would be a powerful statement.

I’ll be watching the new-look American closely and with keen interest.