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College basketball rankings: Which conferences will reign supreme?

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T-Rank projects the Big Ten's reign of terror may be coming to an end in 2014-15. Blame Rutgers.

Harry How

Conference strength is a great topic for a sports debate because there are so many ways of looking at it, and no obviously correct perspective. Which is better: a conference with two great teams and a bunch of terrible ones, or a conference with a bunch of really good teams and several mediocre ones? We could argue about this all season. And we will.

Let us begin now. Because T-Rank provides a projected Pythagorean winning percentage for every team, it also projects an average rating for every conference. This mimics the Kenpom.com ratings, which give a measure of conference strength by averaging the Pythagorean winning percentage of every team in the conference. This doesn't end the debate, but it at least provides an objective measure.

Although I concede there will be huge outliers (my fancy word for "embarrassing errors") in the T-Rank for individual teams, I'm hopeful the conference ratings will be quite a bit less noisy (my fancy word for "wrong"). Last year, for example, I used T-Rank Beta to project the Big Ten, and the projected conference rating was .8118. The actual result was .8115, almost on the nose. That will probably be the closest T-Rank ever gets to nailing something, and it is undoubtedly a lucky result. But it is encouraging at least.

So, here are the T-Rank projected ratings for each conference, along with effective returning minutes:

Conference Proj Pyth 2014 Pyth Diff Ret Min
Big Ten 0.785 0.8115 -0.03 60%
Big 12 0.7824 0.7961 -0.01 65%
ACC 0.7748 0.7722 0 59%
Big East 0.7067 0.737 -0.03 56%
SEC 0.6889 0.7353 -0.05 57%
Pac-12 0.6883 0.759 -0.07 54%
Atlantic 10 0.6587 0.6989 -0.04 59%
American 0.6087 0.7339 -0.13 55%
West Coast 0.589 0.6234 -0.03 56%
Mountain West 0.5867 0.6006 -0.01 55%
Missouri Valley 0.5837 0.5488 0.03 67%
Ivy League 0.5306 0.4638 0.07 72%
Patriot League 0.4766 0.394 0.08 76%
MAAC 0.4468 0.4647 -0.02 64%
Big West 0.445 0.419 0.03 70%
MAC 0.4406 0.436 0 65%
Horizon League 0.436 0.4964 -0.06 56%
Conference USA 0.4303 0.4564 -0.03 55%
Summit League 0.4092 0.4214 -0.01 57%
Colonial Athletic Association 0.3776 0.4299 -0.05 53%
Ohio Valley 0.3402 0.3416 0 59%
Atlantic Sun 0.3246 0.2942 0.03 66%
Big South 0.3219 0.2634 0.06 68%
Big Sky 0.2959 0.2701 0.03 65%
Sun Belt 0.294 0.4146 -0.12 50%
Northeast 0.2928 0.3083 -0.02 60%
Southern 0.2748 0.2584 0.02 59%
WAC 0.2622 0.1775 0.08 50%
Southland 0.2613 0.3492 -0.09 56%
America East 0.2555 0.2525 0 57%
MEAC 0.1824 0.2384 -0.06 55%
SWAC 0.1452 0.2109 -0.07 56%

Assuming (as one must) a very healthy margin of error, T-Rank is projecting a three-way race for best conference between the Big Ten, ACC and Big 12, and then a significant drop-off to the next tier which includes the SEC, Big East and Pac-12.

The Big Ten is in the running to be the best conference (by average Kenpom rating) for the fifth straight year. Here are the top five conferences, according to average Kenpom rating, for each season since 2011:

Conference Rating
2014
Big Ten 0.8115
Big 12 0.7961
ACC 0.7722
Pac-12 0.759
Big East 0.737
2013
Big Ten 0.8459
Big East 0.8035
Pac-12 0.7673
ACC 0.7582
Mountain West 0.7507
2012
Big Ten 0.8263
Big 12 0.7998
Big East 0.7878
SEC 0.7701
ACC 0.7107
2011
Big Ten 0.8527
Big East 0.8313
Big 12 0.7861
ACC 0.769
Pac-10 0.7369

Over this period, the Big Ten has consistently had a number of high-quality teams and very few total stinkers. This reached its zenith last year, when the conference featured four very high-quality teams (Wisconsin, Michigan State, Michigan and Ohio State) and yet every team won at least five conference games and only one team (Northwestern) finished outside the Kenpom top 100.

The Big Ten's Kenpom rating will almost certainly take a step down this year, for one simple reason: Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights would've been the worst team in the conference last year, and almost certainly will be in the running for that designation this year, so they weigh down the conference average. Indeed, without them, the projected rating would be a healthy .8040.

The other big change this year is Louisville's replacement of Maryland in the ACC. That's a boost for the ACC, a slight drag on the Big Ten (as T-Rank projects Maryland to regress), but most importantly a drastic blow to the American Athletic Conference, which T-Rank projects to plummet. The AAC still has the defending national champs, though -- and the most patriotic name, which no one can take away. Except, perhaps, the U.S. government, but that's very unlikely.

There you have it! Snipe away, conference partisans.