College basketball conference power rankings: ACC leads the pack

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The 2017-18 college basketball is a month old, long enough for us to start to assess who is good and who has a lot of work to do in other to get better.

This doesn’t just apply to players and teams but also conferences, since to this point in the season almost every game played at the Division I level has been outside of league play. Only a handful of games have pitted conference foes against each other, most notably with the Big Ten having every team play two league contests during the first week of December.

That is about to change, though, as by the end of this month nearly every league will have jumped into conference play and that will dominate the schedule the rest of the way. That makes now the best time to evaluate conference strength.

We’ve ranked the top 10 conferences in Division I based on a combination of their overall records, ranked teams and projected NCAA tournament qualifiers as well as a league’s most notable wins. How bad their worst teams are also factors into the formula, so being top-heavy isn’t as important as being balanced.

NOTE: Team records are through games of Tuesday, Dec. 12; Rankings are from Associated Press Top 25; Ratings are from KenPom.com, NCAA tournament projections are per BracketMatrix.com.

 

10. Missouri Valley Conference

Combined record: 68-31

Ranked teams: None

Sub-100 teams: 6

Projected NCAA tournament teams: 1

Best nonconference victims: Florida (by Loyola-Chicago), NC State (Northern Iowa), SMU (Northern Iowa), South Carolina (Illinois State)

The American Athletic Conference stole away the Missouri Valley’s best program, Wichita State, but the cupboard certainly isn’t bare in “the valley.” The league added perennial mid-major power Valparaiso from the Horizon League and the Crusaders started 8-0 before dropping their last two.

The Valley is much deeper than in recent years, with Loyola-Chicago and Northern Iowa making some early splashes against power-conference teams. And the bottom teams have looked much better, with Drake (5-5) already nearing last year’s 7-win performance and nearly won at Minnesota on Monday.

It’s still probably a one-bid league, though, because there isn’t a team like Wichita that’s a shoo-in to make the NCAA tournament regardless of how it does in the conference tourney.

 

9. West Coast Conference

Combined record: 57-40

Ranked teams: 1

Sub-100 teams: 7

Projected NCAA tournament teams: 2

Best nonconference victims: Creighton (by Gonzaga), Ohio State (Gonzaga), Texas (Gonzaga)

In the 1940s the Boston Braves had “Spahn and Sain and pray for rain,” a nod to just how strong that team’s top two pitchers were and also how unremarkable the rest of the rotation was. The West Coast Conference has had to deal with the same thing in recent years in the form of “Gonzaga, St. Mary’s and nothing else of which to be wary.”

Gonzaga made the national title game last year and remains an elite program, and Saint Mary’s is a top mid-major team that no one in the country wants to face. But no one else in the West Coast strikes fear, and it’s not even close.

BYU and San Diego are both 8-2, and the latter has wins over Colorado and San Diego State, but neither of those are tournament teams. BYU’s best victories are against in-state opponents, and it’s yet to face arch rival Utah (that’s on Saturday).

 

8. Mountain West Conference

Combined record: 67-44

Ranked teams: None

Sub-100 teams: 6

Projected NCAA tournament teams: 1

Best nonconference victims: Oregon (by Boise State), Rhode Island (Nevada), Utah (by UNLV)

The Mountain West used to be one of the top non-power conferences in the country on a consistent basis, often sending 2 or more teams into the NCAA tournament. But 2015 was the last time that happened, and in the past 2 tourneys its lone qualifier failed to win a game.

Could we be seeing a resurgence? Early signs indicate this is possible, if only because Nevada might be capable of earning an at-large bid if it wins the regular season title but is tripped up in the conference tournament. The Wolfpack could have really helped their cause by beating either Texas Tech or TCU last week but ended up losing by a combined 10 points.

The key to how this league gets viewed on Selection Sunday is what the other teams in the top half do during the year. So far Boise State and UNLV have done their part with solid starts, and most importantly a lack of bad losses, but San Diego State’s losses to California and Washington State were troubling because both are expected to be in the bottom tier of the Pac-12.

 

7. American Athletic Conference

Combined record: 79-34

Ranked teams: 2

Sub-100 teams: 5

Projected NCAA tournament teams: 4

Best nonconference victims: Alabama (by UCF), Baylor (by Wichita State), Arizona (by SMU), Clemson (Temple), South Carolina (Temple)

Adding Wichita State from the Missouri Valley has been a major boom to a league that wants to be considered a full-fledged “power” conference. The Shockers pair well with Cincinnati and SMU to keep the balance of strength toward the western half, but it’s all the struggling teams on the eastern side that keeps the AAC from getting the recognition it craves.

Connecticut needs to be good for the AAC to get noticed, same with Memphis, but neither has beaten a top-50 RPI team yet. East Carolina has already changed coaches and South Florida is one of a handful of teams from leagues on this list with a losing record, despite having played no one.

There are some potential upstarts worth monitoring like Temple and UCF, both of whom have played rather tough schedules. If one or both can parlay that into consistent play in the conference, without bad losses to the bottom teams, this league could move up in the rankings.

 

6. Pac-12 Conference

Combined record: 76-37

Ranked teams: 2

Sub-100 teams: 5

Projected NCAA tournament teams: 4

Best nonconference victims: Alabama (Arizona), Kansas (Arizona State and Washington), Missouri (Utah), Texas A&M (Arizona), Xavier (Arizona State)

The Pac-12 has had 3 different schools in the Top 10 of the Associated Press rankings, and the only one in there know wasn’t in the preseason poll. That says all you need to know about how up-and-down things have been for this conference to start the 2017-18 season.

Arizona went from No. 2 to unranked after going 0-3 in the Battle 4 Atlantis, yet since then it has won 4 straight including over previously unbeaten Texas A&M. USC was No. 10 for 3 straight weeks but hasn’t won since before Thanksgiving.

And Arizona State, which was picked to finish sixth in the league, is off to its best start in 43 years and ranked No. 5 for the first time since 1981.

Also hurting the Pac-12’s reputation is that strong teams from a year ago, Oregon and UCLA, are still trying to recover from major personnel losses. Nor does it help to have 20 losses to teams that aren’t among the top 100 in the latest RPI rankings.

 

5. Big Ten Conference

Combined record: 106-51

Ranked teams: 2

Sub-100 teams: 1

Projected NCAA tournament teams: 4

Best nonconference victims: Alabama (by Minnesota), Arizona (Purdue), North Carolina (Michigan State), Notre Dame (Michigan State)

If the Big Ten were a mid- or low-major conference it’s current hierarchy wouldn’t be that big a deal. But as one of the biggest and most prestigious leagues in the country, it’s somewhat troubling how few quality teams there are at this point.

There’s Michigan State, which despite a narrow loss to Duke at the Champions Classic is one of the best teams in the country, having taken out two of the ACC’s best in North Carolina and Notre Dame. There’s also Purdue, which stumbled to a seventh-place finish at the Battle 4 Atlantis but throttled Arizona in the Bahamas and has since looked much better.

And then? Well …

There’s a large pack of middle-of-the-road teams such as Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Northwestern, Ohio State and Penn State who between them don’t have many significant nonconference victories. Yes, Minnesota beat Alabama but how valuable is a victory over a team that finished the game with three teams?

 

4. Big East Conference

Combined record: 79-18

Ranked teams: 3

Sub-100 teams: 1

Projected NCAA tournament teams: 6

Best nonconference victims: Gonzaga (by Villanova), Tennessee (Villanova), Texas Tech (Seton Hall)

Twenty percent of the Big East has yet to lose a game, but there’s a big difference between the accomplishments of Villanova and Georgetown. One has taken out the likes of Gonzaga and Tennessee, the other hasn’t played a team with more than three victories against Division I schools.

Fortunately for the conference, there are more teams like Villanova than Georgetown in that they’ve tested themselves early and done fairly well. Creighton, Marquette, Seton Hall and Xavier have gone a combined 32-7 against solid nonconference slates.

Butler, Providence and St. John’s create a quality middle of the pack, and Georgetown might actually be good but we don’t really know yet. Only DePaul is a sub-100 team, and the Blue Demons have won 5 in a row since a 1-4 start.

 

3. Southeastern Conference

Combined record: 94-30

Ranked teams: 4

Sub-100 teams: None

Projected NCAA tournament teams: 7

Best nonconference victims: Gonzaga (by Florida), Michigan (LSU), Oklahoma (by Arkansas), Purdue (Tennessee), USC (by Texas A&M), West Virginia (Texas A&M)

Kentucky remains the gold standard of the SEC, but it’s not going to be a cakewalk for the Wildcats with several potential challengers capable of taking their crown. They’re still the highest-ranked team in the league, at No. 8, but right behind them is a Texas A&M team that has started 8-1 while bouncing from Germany to Brooklyn to Los Angeles to Phoenix to play quality competition.

The Aggies are one of several SEC teams to have tested themselves often in non-league play, along with Alabama, Arkansas, Florida and Tennessee. Tennessee, ranked No. 20, can further boost the conference’s stature on Sunday when it hosts No. 7 North Carolina.

Mississippi State was one of the last seven unbeaten teams in the country before losing at Cincinnati, the first game it played on the road, so the jury is still out on if the Bulldogs are improved in Ben Howland’s second season.

No SEC teams are rated lower than No. 87 (LSU), per KenPom.com, but what holds the conference back overall is that there are too many teams outside of the top 50 to overtake the leagues ranked above it.

 

2. Big 12 Conference

Combined record: 75-16

Ranked teams: 5

Sub-100 teams: None

Projected NCAA tournament teams: 7

Best nonconference victims: Creighton (by Baylor), Kentucky (Kansas), Missouri (West Virginia), Nevada (TCU and Texas Tech), Syracuse (Kansas), Virginia (West Virginia)

Texas’ 59-52 home loss to Michigan typifies the Big 12’s nonconference performance to this point. Had the Longhorns been able to pull that one off it would have been a good win, but not anything great. That’s how most of the league’s best victories can be viewed, outside of maybe West Virginia’s takedown of Virginia last weekend and Kansas’ win over Kentucky during the Champions Classic.

But Kansas negated that positive with last week’s negatives, first losing to unheralded Washington in Kansas City and then falling at home to upstart Arizona State.

It’s mostly been “holding serve” results for the Big 12, with no really bad losses—Kansas State falling to Tulsa in Wichita is the closest thing to that—but just not enough standout wins to draw attention. But when all is said and done more than half of the conference will make the NCAA tourney but most of them will end up seeded 6th through 12th than 1st through 5th.

 

1. Atlantic Coast Conference

Combined record: 116-28

Ranked teams: 6

Sub-100 teams: 1

Projected NCAA tournament teams: 10

Best nonconference victims: Arkansas (by North Carolina), Arizona (NC State), Florida (Duke and Florida State), Michigan State (Duke), Wichita State (Notre Dame)

It shouldn’t be a surprise that the ACC is No. 1 in our power rankings, and it’s really not even close. The league is looking as strong as ever, and all that’s keeping the 2017-18 version from being considered possibly the best conference ever is Pittsburgh.

The Panthers are the only team in the league not rated by KenPom.com in the top 100, and understandably so. Though 5-5 now they began 1-4 with a home loss to Montana along the way.

There have been a few other hiccups, like Georgia Tech falling at home to Grambling, Virginia Tech’s brain cramp against Saint Louis at the 2K Classic and Notre Dame’s shocking loss to Ball State. But the good wins have been much more positive, with WarrenNolan.com crediting the ACC with 10 wins over top-50 RPI schools.

To put that in perspective, the top 50 only have a combined 79 losses.

Florida State and Miami (Florida) have yet to lose, and that would have been the case with Duke as well if it hadn’t already jumped into league play. And that’s maybe the most telling thing about how strong the ACC is, since the only team that’s managed to beat Duke is Boston College, which looks much improved after being 9-23 overall and 2-16 in the league last season.

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