Hope everyone had a great 4th of July holiday… although we gotta say this midweek holiday thing kinda sucks. Give us the three-day (or four!) day weekend instead.
Anyway, we’re now ready to unveil the conference follow-up to our June analysis of the Top NCAA Performers of the 65 (64) Team Era. Once again, we’re going to take several different views of the world here. Today we’ll just look at the raw statistics and make some
obvious insightful observations. In the next post, we’ll take a look at how conferences have performed versus its seeds during this era, and whether we can draw any broad conclusions from the data about overachieving and underachieving conferences.
What Kind of Conference is This?
A couple of notes before rolling out the data. First, with only one notable exception, we counted a team’s performance in a given year toward the totals of its conference at the time. For example, Louisville’s 1986 national title counts toward the Metro Conference totals (the Metro disbanded in 1995), not the Big East totals. The notable exception is that all Big 8 totals were subsumed into the new Big 12 conference, since every member of the Big 8 ultimately became Big 12 members. See Table A below.
Table A. NCAA Tournament Success by Conference (1985-2007)
Notes: this table is sorted by winning percentage. The conferences whose names are in red are conferences that no longer exist.
BCS Conferences. This won’t surprise anyone, but we wanted to show the numbers in context. The following represents the percentage of each category achieved by the six BCS conferences from 1985-2007.
- 46.4% of all NCAA Appearances
- 60.9% Winning Percentage
- 72.5% of all Wins
- 76.6% of all Sweet 16s
- 87.0% of all Final 4s
- 90.2% of all #1 Seeds
- 91.3% of all Titles
If you’re writing a paper on the correlation between resources, exposure, talent and success in NCAA basketball, the above numbers should be included in your first paragraph. It matters.
Best in Show?
Best in Show. Over this 23-year period, there can be no question that the ACC has been the strongest performer in the NCAA Tournament. This conference leads in every objective category except for appearances, which actually makes their hard numbers with respect to S16s, F4s and Titles look even more impressive. The most shocking finding for us regarding the ACC’s success was that more than half (52.5%) of its participants during this era won at least two games (i.e., made the Sweet 16). This is phenomenal, especially considering that the next-best major conference is the Big East at 42.6%. Of course, when you’re winning greater than two-thirds of your games as a conference, then it shouldn’t be that surprising.
Next Best. From our view, the next tier of conferences include the Big East, SEC and Big Ten – you can pretty much throw them all in a pot and pick any of the three as second behind the ACC. The Big East leads in S16s and winning percentage; the SEC leads in titles and mostly has middle-of-the-pack numbers otherwise; and the Big Ten leads in appearances and F4s. We rate the Big 12 slightly below this group because there seems to be a drop in most categories from the above three, most notably in winning percentage and titles (ouch – only one). But the Pac-10 clearly performs worst over this era, earning the fewest bids, having the worst winning percentage and owning by far the least wins, S16s and F4s.
Mid-Majors. From the numbers, we only recognize four true mid-major conferences during this period – the Metro/Great Midwest/CUSA and WAC/Mountain West hybrids, the Atlantic 10 and the Missouri Valley. What’s interesting is that only the Metro/GM/CUSA teams have a winning record during this period, while of course all of the BCS conferences easily have winning records. This shows once again just how large of a disparity there is between the three levels of college basketball. Remember when during the mid-90s, the A10 was supposedly overtaking the Big East in talent and performance? – the lesson here is to not believe the hype. Within that group, Metro/GM/CUSA has had the most success, led by Louisville, Cincinnati and Memphis. Now that two of those three are in the Big East, we don’t expect CUSA’s success to continue. We were also a little surprised at how low both The Valley and the Mountain West performed here – they have poor winning percentages and the Mountain West in particular has only put two teams (of 18 bids) into the Sweet Sixteen since its inception in 2000 – pathetic for an annual multi-bid league.
Tark Has This Effect on Everyone
UNLV and Gonzaga Effect. The Big West and West Coast Conference exhibit how one very successful school can make a league look better than it actually is. By the numbers, the Big West looks like a mid-major league, but when broken down further, you quickly realize that the Rebels account for 21 of the conference’s 28 wins over this period. Excluding UNLV, the Big West is only 7-23 (.233) in the NCAA Tournament, which would put it on par with the Sun Belt and the Mid-Continent. The same is true with the WCC – when Gonzaga is excluded, the league is 7-21 (.250) during this period.
Stay Away from the NEC if you Want to Win in the NCAA Tournament
Low Majors. Picking a best conference among the low majors is a little like picking the prettiest ugly girl in the bar (not that we know anything about that, mind you), but if we have to choose, we’ll take the Southland Conference (note: we consider the conferences on the list above between the Great Midwest and the Sun Belt mid-majors, although the Sun Belt’s one S16 appearance with 32 bids is strong evidence that we might be giving that league too much credit). We choose the Southland because it’s one of only two of these conferences to put a team into the Sweet 16 (Karl Malone’s Louisiana Tech in 1985), and it has a better winning percentage than the others. We realize, of course, that all of these low majors are virtually equal in their NCAA ineptitude – only the Ohio Valley and the MAAC have ever received at-large bids (1987 – Middle Tennessee St.; 1995 – Manhattan) – but that’s our pick here. Our vote for the worst conference in D1 is a tie – the SWAC and the Northeast Conference. Each has the unenviable distinction of only winning one game in the NCAA Tournament during this period. Of course, maybe we’re looking at this the wrong way, and instead we should be celebrating the fact that every single conference has managed to win a game in the Dance during this period.
Final Thoughts. Can anyone catch the ACC? The Big East has a chance to tally significant gains if it continues to put eight teams into the NCAAs, as it did in 2006. But numbers alone probably isn’t enough – after all, the Big 10 has put the most teams in the Tournament since 1985. Rather, the ACC gives the obvious recipe for success by having two dominant programs that over the long haul consistently go deep into the NCAA Tournament (Duke and Carolina). Looking ahead, the Big East has an aging Calhoun at UConn and Boeheim at Syracuse so we’re not sure about its prospects. The Big 10 has Thad Matta the Recruiting Machine at OSU, but Michigan St. has regressed in recent years, and who else can rise up (Weber at Illinois? Beilein at Michigan? Tubby at Minnesota?). We’ll keep looking. The Pac-10 has an obvious supernova developing in Westwood at UCLA, but where else? Arizona will be in what kind of shape after Lute retires? Our choice for the conference to challenge the ACC in the next decade is the SEC. Billy Donovan at Florida has already proved his mettle; and with Billy Gillispie at Kentucky and Bruce Pearl at Tennessee challenging anyone to outwork them, it almost makes up for the coaching lightweights over in the SEC West (you know who we’re talking about). The youthful exuberance of these coaches at several programs willing to put forth the resources for success may give the SEC the best shot at catching the ACC, but the truth will ultimately lie in what happens to Duke after Coach K retires. If Duke manages to keep its dominance intact with their next coach, then it won’t much matter what happens with the other conferences – they’re not going to catch the ACC.
Coming Next: a look at how conferences overachieve and/or underachieve relative to their seeds over the years. Should be interesting stuff. Check back early next week.