College Basketball Handicapping: Ranking the Conferences
by Trevor Whenham - 01/16/2009
We are well into conference play by now. That means that we are starting to get a sense of the strength of the conferences in internal competition. Combine that with what we learned about the teams that make up the conferences in non-conference play and we can formulate a pretty good impression of how the major conferences stack up. That comparison is exactly what I am going to do here. I'm going to loosely evaluate the conferences based on three criteria - the play of the teams in the conference, their play compared to expectations, and their treatment of bettors. Without further ado:
1. ACC. This conference was supposed to be all about North Carolina. In the last little while, though, the Tar Heels have made it hard to love them. Shockingly, though, those stumbles haven't scarred the conferences' perception irreparably. This ACC is much better than people expected. North Carolina will still be fine, Duke is at least as good as they are supposed to be, and Clemson and Wake Forest are overachieving significantly. Miami and Florida State are playing well, and the Seminoles are being very kind to bettors. The conference has three teams in the Top 5, and has the top conference RPI.
2. Big East. It's hard not to put them on top of the pile - they have eight teams in the Top 25, including Pitt at No. 1. They came into the season with very high expectations, and, for the most part, they are living up to them. There are a couple of reasons why they aren't at the top of the heap in these rankings, though. First, several of the elite teams in the conference have had unacceptable losses - Syracuse lost to Cleveland State, Louisville has made a bad habit of losing games they really shouldn't, UConn lost to Georgia Tech, Marquette lost to Dayton, and so on. More significantly, the conference just hasn't been a good bet. There are 12 teams with winning records in the conference. Seven of those teams aren't profitable on the season, and none of the 12 teams are better than one game over .500 ATS.
3. Big Ten - The conference isn't yet getting a ton of love in the polls, and arguably Michigan State is the only elite team, but this conference is far stronger than most people thought it would be coming into the season. Minnesota is very solid. So is Illinois. Ohio State, Purdue, and Wisconsin have all had rough patches, but they all have real tournament potential, and Purdue could do some damage once they get there. Michigan and Penn State are significantly improved over last season, and clearly have brighter futures, even if this year doesn't end in a dance. The conference has been good for bettors as well. Conference play will be particularly interesting in this conference - it will either separate the teams according to quality, or it will further blur an already blurry picture.
4. Big 12. This conference doesn't have a lot of depth, but the top of the conference is strong. Oklahoma is in play for a No. 1 seed, and they have the best player in the country on the court. Texas isn't quite as good, but if they can get consistent point guard play then they can make a run. Kansas is young, but they are coming along quickly and will dance. Baylor seems tournament-worthy as well. Beyond that there is a long list of teams that look better than they should right now - Oklahoma State, Texas A&M, Missouri and Nebraska. Any of those teams could collapse right away, or they could keep it going all year. The only thing really holding this conference back from a higher ranking is their ATS performance - there is no team better than 7-5 ATS.
5. Pac-10. This is not a good year for a good conference. UCLA is playing fine, but they still aren't playing to their potential. Cal has been impressive, but they are clearly overachieving. Arizona State looks like a tournament team now, but there aren't many to go with them. Arizona is talented, but they have lingering coaching issues, and still seem determined to waste their talent. There were seven conference teams in the tournament last year, but they might not get past three this year. As disappointing as the conference may be, there are a few high points - Cal and Stanford have both been betting stars, and Washington State and Oregon State have been very good at going under.
6. SEC. This is, for a major conference, one lousy group. Arkansas has had a couple of big wins, but they are still too young to be consistent. Florida, Tennessee, Kentucky, South Carolina and Florida all have high points, but they also have glaring holes that desperately need to be addressed before tournament time if they want to make a dent. Of that group, only the Wildcats have been a good bet. As a basketball conference, the SEC looks like they are pretty good at football.