What we talk about when we talk about “major” conferences


Major-conference status is subject to change, but not merely on the basis of one really good, or really bad, tournament. (AP/Otto Kitsinger)

If you see someone say or write “power 5” in a basketball context, it means they’re not actually talking or writing in a basketball context. Excluding one of the six major conferences — the one that’s won two of the last three national titles, no less — just because it doesn’t play FBS football is, in basketball terms, problematic.

In other nomenclature news, there are still, by my lights, six major conferences.

Let’s look at the contenders for this label starting with the 2014 season, when conference memberships assumed more or less their current form.

1. Tournament wins
Congratulations, ACC. It’s been an impressive five years in the tournament, even allowing for the fact that you have 15 teams with which to flood that zone while other majors have just 10.

NCAA tournament wins, 2014-18

Based on current memberships
              Total wins    Per team-season
1. ACC            69             0.92
2. Big 12         41             0.82
3. Big Ten        47             0.69
4. Big East       31             0.62
5. SEC            40             0.57
6. Pac-12         31             0.52
7. American       18             0.33       

“Based on current memberships” meaning the six tournament wins Wichita State recorded as a member of the Missouri Valley between 2014 and 2017 have been generously loaded into the American’s retrospective total. And, yes, the two games Louisville won in the 2014 tournament as a member of the American have been taken away and given to the ACC. It still nets out as adding four wins to the American’s bottom line.

One rule of thumb I like to use for a “major” conference is that in any given year you should be able to record half a tournament win for each team you have in the league. In other words, the Big East or Big 12 should be able to pick up five tournament wins, the Pac-12 should get six, the Big Ten or SEC should be able to get seven, and I guess the ACC should somehow be able to record exactly 7.5, whatever that would look like.

It’s an arbitrary boundary, sure, but, when stretched out over a period of years (and not used merely to dance in the wreckage of any single disastrous Pac-12-in-2018-type event), it seems to carry the descriptive freight well enough.

Then again the tournament itself is tres wacky and we shouldn’t stratify the sport based on the results of a single-elimination bracket alone. Surely tournament seeds are a good additional reflection of the entire body of work put together by a conference’s best teams.

2. Tournament seeds
So let’s hand out seed points. A No. 1 seed is worth four points, a No. 2 gets you three points, a No. 3 fetches you two points, and a No. 4 seed credits you with one point.

NCAA tournament seeds, 2014-18

Based on real-time memberships
              Total seed points    Per team-season
1. Big 12            37                 0.74
2. ACC               53                 0.71
3. Big East          29                 0.58
4. Pac-12            23                 0.38
5. Big Ten           23                 0.34
6. SEC               18                 0.26
7. American           5                 0.09       

Similarities to the first table are to be expected. Naturally the American punches far above its seeding weight in terms of tournament wins thanks to the 2014 national title brought home by No. 7 seed Connecticut. Well done, Huskies.

Speaking of similarities, with the two tables trotted out so far we can now peer into the deep recesses of the tournament itself. The correlation between a conference’s success at securing top four seeds and said league’s track record at producing tournament wins is actually stronger than the one between shooting from the field (i.e., effective FG percentage) and points. Virginia fans will be forgiven for believing otherwise, but seeds are highly predictive of wins.

Then again we can’t judge conferences based solely on their tournament teams. Surely the entirety of their respective memberships must be considered as well.

3. Top to bottom strength
Assessing an entire conference is something we always say we do but that no one who wasn’t closely tracking both California and Pittsburgh last year ever really does. Doing so statistically weights the worst teams equally with the best ones, and, well, here’s what you get….

KenPom adjusted efficiency margins, 2014-18

Based on real-time memberships
                   Avg. AdjEM
1. Big 12            17.37
2. ACC               15.00
3. Big East          14.05
4. Big Ten           13.79
5. SEC               12.14
6. Pac-12            10.99
7. American           6.61       

Slightly off-topic, but there are perhaps two bouquets to be handed out based on what we see here. It’s danged impressive that the 15-team ACC can muscle its way into contention with the smaller, slimmer, “fewer chances to be blighted with a really bad team” likes of the Big 12 and Big East. But it’s also praiseworthy, surely, that the average (average!) Big 12 team over a period of five entire seasons has been about as good as a No. 7 seed like Texas A&M was last year. Salutes all around.

Now then, this top-to-bottom thing is the test that does the American the least good, because, again, it takes in the whole American, including and especially teams that even the professionals rarely talk about or watch.

Naturally the term “major-conference basketball” embraces more teams, qualitatively speaking, than simply those which reside in the big six. Gonzaga’s been playing at a major-conference level, of course, since before Zion Williamson was born. And, barring unforeseen events, Nevada will be a major-conference-level actor on the national stage in 2019.

It might therefore be best to think of major-conference basketball not as something that stops at the border right below last season’s worst team in last season’s worst major conference (hello, Berkeley). Rather, major-conference basketball is something that very clearly extends into the top of the American and sweeps up Cincinnati, Wichita State, Houston, and perhaps another team or two and then, just as plainly, evaporates entirely and emphatically within the AAC’s qualitatively diverse and highly variegated midsection.

From my chair there are six major conferences, but not every team outside those six leagues is most productively described as a mid-major. We need a new term for teams at the top of the American, for Gonzaga every year, and for Nevada this year. I’m taking suggestions.