Ranking the six major college basketball conferences heading into league play

ACC, Big 12, Big East, Big Ten, Pac-12, SEC have completed nonconference play

Michigan basketball coach John Beilein (Harry How/Getty Images)
Michigan basketball coach John Beilein (Harry How/Getty Images)

DETROIT – As the final seconds of Georgia Tech's victory over South Carolina Upstate melted off the clock Wednesday night, college basketball season officially waved goodbye to the nonconference slate.

Now, all six major conferences -- the ACC, Big 12, Big East, Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC -- have moved onto conference play for good. It's the perfect time to take a look at all six conferences and where they stand heading into league play.

Conference strength is particularly important in college basketball because every season, there are a dozen or so teams on the NCAA Tournament bubble hoping their resumes are enough to make the field of 68.

Last year, for example, the Big Ten was perceived as such a weak conference that a Nebraska team that went 13-5 and won 22 games overall was left out of the tournament. Conference strength is also an important factor in seeding, which determines matchups and where teams play geographically in the tournament.

Since nonconference play is over, the reputations of the leagues should be more or less set in stone for the rest of the season. Any bad loss for a team going forward is also a great win for the other team. For example, if Duke loses a game to Wake Forest, we can't knock Duke without giving Wake Forest credit.

So, with the nonconference season in the rearview mirror and two months of competitive basketball ahead, here's a look at how the six major conferences stack up.

Overall records

  • Big Ten: 121-32 -- .791
  • Big 12: 94-26 -- .783
  • ACC: 148-41 -- .783
  • Big East: 95-31 -- .754
  • SEC: 127-43 -- .747
  • Pac-12: 92-58 -- .613

In terms of overall winning percentage in out-of-conference games without any context, such as strength of schedule or road games, the Big Ten, Big 12 and ACC are way ahead of the pack this season.

In a 30-game college basketball season, a .780 winning percentage would translate to about 23 or 24 wins. Meanwhile a .750 winning percentage would result in about a 22-win season. By that definition, the top five leagues more or less handled their business the first two months.

The Pac-12 had a disastrous end to 2018, though. A .613 winning percentage would give a team about 18 wins, which isn't typically good enough to get an at-large bid in the NCAA Tournament.

KenPom rankings

Here's a look at how many teams are ranked in the KenPom top 50, which is around the cutoff for teams that typically battle for at-large spots in the NCAA Tournament.

  • Big Ten: 10
  • ACC: 9
  • Big 12: 7
  • SEC: 7
  • Big East: 6
  • Pac-12: 2

Once again, the Big Ten comes out on top, with the ACC, Big 12 and SEC in the same ballpark.

It should be noted that the Big 12 and Big East only have 10 teams, while the Big Ten and SEC have 14 and the ACC has 15.

Not all top 50 teams are created equal, as the ACC has both the top two KenPom teams and four of the top nine.

The Big Ten stands out through its depth, with seven teams ranked in the top 27 and nine in the top 40. That means more than half the conference is made up of worthy NCAA Tournament teams.

The SEC doesn't have any teams ranked in the top 10 but has five ranked between 11 and 20.

Only No. 37 Oregon and No. 49 Arizona State represent the lowly Pac-12.

Sagarin rankings

One of the other top metrics in college basketball is Jeff Sagarin's rankings. They tell a similar story when compared with the KenPom rankings.

  • ACC: 9
  • Big Ten: 9
  • SEC: 8
  • Big 12: 7
  • Big East: 6
  • Pac-12: 3

The ACC is more highly regarded in the Sagarin rankings, with as many teams in the top 50 as the Big Ten and four of the top eight teams.

The metrics show the Big East and Pac-12 lack elite teams. Neither conference has a team ranked higher than No. 24 in KenPom or Sagarin.

Bad losses

This is where the conferences really start to separate themselves.

Here's a look at each conference's number of losses to unranked non-major conference opponents so far this season:

  • Big Ten: 5
  • Big 12: 11
  • Big East: 11
  • ACC: 12
  • SEC: 14
  • Pac-12: 26

It's astounding that the Big Ten has only suffered five ugly losses at this point in the season, especially since it has more teams than the Big 12, Big East and Pac-12 and therefore more opportunities to suffer bad defeats.

The ACC is the only other conference to average fewer than one bad loss per team during the nonconference schedule, though 12 losses by 15 teams is much less impressive than five losses by 14 teams.

The Big 12, Big East and SEC average right around one bad loss per team, which isn't uncommon.

By now, it's clear which conference is the worst of the six; this statistic is perhaps the most revealing. The Pac-12 has lost more than five times as many bad games as the Big Ten this season.

Washington State and Cal alone have six such losses apiece.

Most of the major conferences have at least one elite team without any bad losses, but the best team in the Pac-12, Arizona State, has a home loss to Princeton.

UCLA was considered a favorite in the Pac-12 before losing at home to Belmont, getting crushed by 29 points at Cincinnati and then losing by 15 points at home against Liberty.

This isn't just one of the worst seasons in Pac-12 history, it's one of the worst seasons for any major conference in history.

Quality wins

The nonconference season in college basketball features plenty of heavyweight battles across conferences, whether it's the Big Ten-ACC Challenge, the SEC-Big 12 Challenge or the Gavitt Games.

As a result, it's much easier to compare conferences than in college football, which only has a handful of nonconference games, and very few of them are between good teams from different conferences.

Here's a look at each conference's record against other teams in the six major conferences. Games against ranked teams outside these conferences are also included, as Gonzaga, Nevada, Houston and Buffalo are good enough to be considered quality games.

  • Big 12: 24-15
  • Big Ten: 32-27
  • Big East: 22-20
  • ACC: 30-28
  • SEC: 25-29
  • Pac-12: 7-32

The Big 12 ran away with this category in terms of winning percentage, finishing with wins in 61.5 percent of its big games, compared to 54.2 percent for the Big Ten, which finished in second.

The gap was almost entirely due to Illinois, however. As the only Big Ten team with a losing record, Illinois went an astonishing 0-6 in these games. The rest of the conference won 60.4 percent of these games.

A losing record in big games is a bad look for the SEC, which is pretty weak beyond the top four teams.

That's nothing compared to the ineptitude of the Pac-12. It managed just seven wins in 39 big games, good for a .179 winning percentage.

Ranking the conferences

With all this information taken into account, it's pretty easy to rank the best and worst of these conferences.

The top league this season is the Big Ten. It has the best record overall, the most highly ranked teams in KenPom and very few ugly losses.

The Pac-12 is clearly the worst league by a wide margin. There might even be some other leagues, such as the American or West Coast conferences, that put more teams in the NCAA Tournament than the Pac-12.

It appears the ACC and Big 12 are a step above the SEC and Big East right now, with more elite teams and better resumes after conference play.

All things considered, here's my ranking:

Conference play can be unpredictable, and perceptions can still change during league play. But with the bulk of the data already in front of us, these rankings shouldn't change much over the next two months.


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