Conference Comparison: Is The Big Ten Really The Best Basketball Conference?

Just one of the Big 10-Big 12 showdowns this year. Who was better? - Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

There are always massive breakdowns about which conference was the best. We do a full length breakdown of all the important stats to decide once and for all: who was the best?

One of the most popular debates around college basketball is about the nation's best conference.  Everybody has an opinion.  Biased or not, many in the Big Ten country have boasted that the Big Ten is the nation's best basketball conference and BTN has even gotten into the mix with their recent commercials.  The question for today is whether this is true.  Can the Big Ten really back up the claims?

Using The Past As A Guide

Last year, the Big Ten was the nation's best conference.  Anybody who questions this is just crazy.  This is where we will start our discussion.  Last year, despite being the nation's best conference, the Big Ten had just 1 Final Four team, 2 Elite Eight teams, and failed to win the national championship.  Meanwhile, the Big East won the title and had 2 Final Four teams.  So how could we argue the Big Ten was the best last season?

The important thing to remember that no single game or handful of games can determine the best conference.  Many have criticized the Big Ten for failing to win the national title since 2002, but is this fair?  Should the entire Big Ten suffer because Michigan couldn't hold their 1st Half lead against Louisville last year?  Is it right to tear down the Big Ten because MSU couldn't close the deal against a great UNC team in 2009?  The obvious answer is no.  The other 11 Big Ten teams don't somehow get hurt just because Michigan or MSU (actually only 10 Big Ten teams in 2009) could not win a single game against a really good team.  Remember that a conference is composed of many teams, not just a single team or even a handful of teams.

So how do we evaluate a conference if we don't just look to NCAA Tournament success?  Well, the first thing to clarify is that NCAA Tournament success is relevant, just only to an extent.  Think of it like a bowl game appearance.  Notre Dame made the title game a few years ago and were promptly blown out by Alabama.  That doesn't somehow mean that Notre Dame's undefeated regular season didn't happen.  It just has to be taken as 1 game out of 13.  Certainly a big game, but ultimately 1 game out of 13.  The reason the Big Ten was so great in 2013 was not because certain teams did well, but because it was so strong from top to bottom during the course of the entire season.  Once this is your mindset, you can start tackling the question of which conference was the best.

Setting The Table

But still, how do we evaluate conference strength?  Record?  RPI?  Computers?  Certainly, everybody has their preference.  In fact, people argue for days about which category is the best to measure teams.  For this, we are going to try and use a broad approach.  We are going to look at overall non-conference record, head-to-head conference record, KenPom ratings, RPI ratings, and postseason success.  Those are 5 categories that address many of the relevant issues in determining conference strength.  It also helps us factor in the relevance of championships and performances in March, but making sure to keep it in check.

The Contenders

Simply for ease, we are only looking at a set number of conferences.  All the BCS conferences have been included and I added a few more than I felt were deserving.  Maybe my evaluations are wrong, but here are the conferences I am going to be looking at today:

  • American
  • ACC
  • A10
  • Big East
  • Big Ten
  • Big 12
  • Pac 12
  • SEC

If your conference made the cut, congrats.  If not, better luck next year, or in a few years when all the conferences decide to realign again.  With our field now set, let's start with our first category.

Record

The first category we're going to be looking at today are the basic records for each conference.  Obviously, there are some major problems to simply looking at conference record, such as schedule strength, but we are going to ignore them for now.  Overall record won't really tell us a ton of detailed information, but it will at least give us some raw notions about the conferences.  Here are your conference records:

Conference

Non-Conference Record

Non-Conference Pct

American

112-47

.704

ACC

165-75

.688

A10

146-71

.673

Big East

108-46

.701

Big Ten

149-50

.746

Big 12

117-43

.731

Pac 12

140-52

.729

SEC

154-71

.684

(Stats via StatSheet.com)

Obviously, there's no doubt that there are massive flaws in preparing a conference strength argument simply based on record.  In reality, a lot more of it may be due to luck than anything else.  For instance, maybe the Maui Invitational looked challenging on paper, but due to offseason losses, the field really wasn't that stacked.  Maybe you just happen to get your best non-conference opponent at home as Wisconsin did against Florida this year.  These things may seem small, but most teams only play a handful of really challenging non-conference games in a single season.  These little breaks can add up quite a bit.

Still though, overall record can at least help set the stage of the argument.  The Big Ten has a pretty sizable lead in raw non-conference record, but other conferences like the Pac 12 and SEC also performed pretty well.  Before we move on to our next category, let's take a look at how this record splits up.  Also, please note that the chart below does not take the postseason into account:

Conference

Non-Con Record vs. Top 25

Non-Con Record vs. 26-50

Non-Con Record vs. 51-100

Non-Con Record vs. 101-200

Non-Con Record vs. 201+

American

2-5

6-7

10-7

21-8

49-8

ACC

8-18

6-13

18-10

34-10

72-2

A10

4-10

3-9

23-12

35-17

63-5

Big East

4-13

7-8

8-4

31-3

45-3

Big Ten

4-12

5-6

20-4

38-9

54-1

Big 12

5-9

9-7

15-4

34-3

36-3

Pac 12

5-9

4-7

11-3

47-10

48-3

SEC

4-12

4-14

21-3

34-11

60-2

(Stats via CBSSports.com)

Though the Big Ten had a decent lead in overall non-conference winning percentage, they really did not perform quite as well against the top competition as cited above.  A 9-18 combined record against Top 50 opponents is not exactly outstanding, even if many of those games came against top competition away from home.  In the same standard, the Big 12 went 14-16.  Once again, none of these record stats are without flaws, but it at least does show some divide between the pack and the Big Ten, Big 12, and Pac 12.

Head-To-Head

The raw records help us get an idea of the conference strength, but it certainly does not shed the full story.  As we continue to get more specific in terms of success, let's take a look at how the conferences performed against one another.  Since we have an idea of which concerns performed the best in raw record (B1G, B12, P12), this should help show who did the best against those.  Here is how the conferences performed against one another:

Conference

H2H vs. AAC

H2H

vs. ACC

H2H vs. A10

H2H vs. Big E.

H2H vs. B1G

H2H vs. Big 12

H2H vs. P12

H2H vs. SEC

American

N/A 5-4 3-2 0-3 2-0 2-4 1-2 5-5

ACC

3-0 N/A 8-8 3-4 8-9 3-3 6-3 5-9

A10

2-3 8-8 N/A 2-8 1-4 0-5 2-3 5-2

Big East

3-0 4-3 8-2 N/A 5-5 2-4 5-4 4-3

Big Ten

0-2 9-8 4-1 5-5 N/A 4-3 2-5 5-3

Big 12

4-2 3-3 5-0 4-2 3-4 N/A 3-3 9-4

Pac 12

2-1 3-6 3-2 4-5 5-2 3-3 N/A 4-1

SEC

5-5 9-5 2-5 3-4 3-5 4-9 1-4 N/A

(Stats via CBSSports)

Well, that's a lot of numbers.  What do they mean?  I have taken the liberty of highlighting our top group from the overall record (Big Ten, Big 12, Pac 12) from the overall record category to compare their head-to-head records.  The Big Ten "beat" the Big 12, but fell pretty badly to the Pac 12.  The Big 12 and Pac 12 finished at 3-3 with one another.  Overall, it's hard to pull very much of these performances as more of it was due to matchup luck than anything else.  For instance, the Big Ten got "lucky" by getting a team like Oklahoma from the Big 12 to face Michigan State, but ended up on the raw end by getting Arizona from the Pac 12 to face Michigan.  Sending teams like Illinois to play Oregon didn't help either.

Head-to-head is worth acknowledging and it worth looking at to see if something pops off the chart, but there wasn't anything super convincing here.  The Pac 12 arguably "won" the head-to-head category, but so much of these comparisons in this category are flawed.  One could argue I should have never brought it up, but these kind of stats get a lot of attention from the media.  No, that doesn't mean they are all that telling, but if they get that much widespread attention, they at least deserve acknowledgement.  After reviewing the head-to-head record, we are largely back at square one with our top group from the overall record: Big Ten, Big 12, Pac 12.

KenPom Rating

Finally, we're starting to get to the meat of the comparisons.  Agree or not, KenPom is an unbiased system that works to rate teams.  Advanced stats are not perfect, but they are definitely less flawed than the raw overall non-conference record and definitely less flawed than the head-to-head comparison.  Let's take a brief look at where the conferences were rated on KenPom:

Conference

Average Rating

Median Rating

Average Score

Median Score

Highest Rated Team

Lowest Rated Team

American

89.9

81

.68876

.69705

1

186

ACC

66.0

50

.74393

.7781

4

192

A10

85.5

85

.68649

.6848

17

204

Big East

75.0

63

.71841

.74395

14

198

Big Ten

49.3

46

.7878

.78385

6

131

Big 12

58.4

36

.77151

.82115

12

234

Pac 12

71.8

54.5

.72841

.7643

2

183

SEC

81.5

81

.70282

.70000

3

208

(Stats via KenPom.com)

If people were wondering whether the "top to bottom" statements about the Big Ten were true, wonder no more.  The Big Ten not only had the best average team rating, but they also had the best average team score (more accurate than team rating), and had the best "weakest" team.  The Big Ten's lowest rated team in the KenPom ratings was Northwestern at #131.  That is over 100 spots higher than the Big 12's lowest rated team.  That's a pretty telling stat about the depth and strength of the Big Ten.

In fact, the depth is the primary thing that separated the Big Ten and Big 12 in this category.  To illustrate, take a look at the Big 12's numbers.  The Big 12 is narrowly behind the Big Ten in average KenPom score, but is quite a bit higher in median score.  Why is that?  The answer here is TCU.  The Horned Frogs were so awful in advanced stats that they basically tanked the entire conference's numbers.  Think about this.  The Big 12 is 2nd among all conferences in average KenPom rating and just narrowly behind the Big Ten, but did this with the lowest rated team of any of the conferences listed here.  No offense to TCU fans (if anybody cares about basketball there), but they were the sole reason that the Big 12 gets doubt here.  Teams 1-9 in the Big 12 were stacked, but #10 was just so bad that it allows the Big Ten to take the edge in the KenPom rating.

There are some interesting things to note about the other conferences such as that the American has the #1 overall team and that the ACC had the 3rd highest average rating, but the advanced stats here are pretty telling.  The Big Ten and Big 12 were on a different level than the other conferences.  We knew they were in the top group, but after seeing the KenPom scores, it's hard to really put the Pac 12 in that group any longer.  The Big Ten takes the edge here, but it's primarily due to the poor play of the Big 12's worst team.

RPI Rating

Of course, we all know that advanced stats do not decide the day.  As far as we know, the committee ignores them during their selection process and tends to use other (more dated) methods.  The big one that gets all the press is the RPI.  Whatever your opinions of the RPI, the fact is that it matters.  Since it plays such a prominent role in college basketball and in the postseason, we're going to take a look at how the conferences stack up in RPI.  Here are the conference RPI ratings:

Conference

RPI

American

.5449

ACC

.5575

A10

.5565

Big East

.5645

Big Ten

.5737

Big 12

.5812

Pac 12

.5695

SEC

.5494

(Stats via CBSSports)

Unlike on KenPom, the RPI leans toward the Big 12 here.  The RPI features a whole different set of factors and arguably the biggest and most important factor that is not included is scoring margin.  It's interesting to see how taking out a factor such as scoring margin can impact the rating.  The Big Ten was favored by KenPom, but the RPI favors the Big 12.  It's also worth noting that the Big Ten and Big 12 still lead all the conferences.  If you're weren't sensing a trend by now, it should be getting pretty clear.  The Big Ten and Big 12 were really good.

Postseason Performance

The final category that we're using here is postseason success.  The constant bash against the Big Ten is that they haven't won a national title since 2000 (soon to be 2002 - thanks Maryland!).  At the end of the day, March Madness is when all the eyes are on the sport and it's the most important time of the college basketball season.  The fact is that postseason performance does matter.  You can rant all day about how a handful of games shouldn't outweigh the results of an entire season, but the postseason is more important.  It should be taken in context, but at the end of the day, the games are really important.  With that in mind, let's take a look at how the conferences performed:

Conference

Tourney Bids

Round of 64 Teams

Round of 32 Teams

Sweet 16 Teams

Elite 8 Teams

Final 4 Teams

Title Game Teams

American

4

4

2

2

1

1

1

ACC

6

6

4

1

0

0

0

A10

6

6

2

1

1

0

0

Big East

4

3

2

0

0

0

0

Big Ten

6

5

3

3

3

1

0

Big 12

7

7

4

2

0

0

0

Pac 12

6

6

4

3

1

0

0

SEC

3

3

3

3

2

2

1

Conference postseason success is incredibly subjective.  If you think getting teams in the big dance is the most important, then the Big 12 performed the best.  If you think getting teams to the 2nd weekend or into the Elite 8, then the Big Ten is the conference that performed the best.  Finally, if you care about winning it all, then the American is the conference that performed the best.  Essentially, if you have a bias or an agenda, you can make postseason play back up your claim about almost any conference.  The trick here is not to buy too much into a specific category, but try a broader approach that incorporates the different levels of postseason play.

The conferences that got the most teams in were the ACC, A10, Big Ten, Big 12, and Pac 12.  The Big 12 had the most, but I doubt many are going to put a ton of weight on the fact that the Big 12 happened to get 1 more team in the big dance, especially when you factor in that the Big 12's general seeding wasn't that great (2 teams seeded in the Top 16).  As you go deeper, the A10 really starts to tank.  They had 6 teams in the tournament, but by the Round of 32, had just 2.  The Big Ten was also hit hard with just 3 teams making it to the Round of 32.  The ACC, Big 12, and Pac 12 each had 4 teams make the Round of 32.

As you get to the 2nd weekend, the Big Ten and Pac 12 take the edge among those 5 conferences.  The ACC and A10 are both down to just a single team and the ACC doesn't even get an Elite 8 team.  The Big Ten is the only conference with 3 teams that make the Elite 8 and none of the conferences here even get 2 teams to the Elite 8 and none of the ACC, A10, Big 12, or Pac 12 have a single Final Four team.  This may come off as controversial, but the Big Ten had the best NCAA Tournament this year.  They may have been a tad underwhelming in the 1st and 2nd rounds, but they were right with everyone in qualifying teams and clearly outpaced that group as the postseason continued.  When you balance out the NCAA Tournament overall, they simply performed the best.

(Also, for those riding the SEC bandwagon.  Just no.  Out of all the "major" basketball conferences, the SEC was last in qualifying teams.  Deep runs or not, there's no way you can overcome that deficit.  It's like taking a cab to the 20 mile mark in a marathon and then claiming you were the best.  That's not how the race is run.  If the gap was at least close, they would have had a claim here, but 5 conferences had at least double the number of SEC bids.)

Conclusion

There are a lot of charts and stats here, but what does it all mean?  The first thing that needs to be established is that the Big Ten and the Big 12 were on a different level than everybody else this season.  Conferences like the American and Pac 12 can make their claims, but when you start looking at the overall picture and adding different categories into the formula, the argument against them is pretty convincing.  We may have set the table with several major conferences, but with the more you see, the more convincing it is that the Big Ten and the Big 12 separate themselves.

The challenge is attempting to separate the Big Ten and Big 12.  The truth is that depending on what stats you like or what matters to you most, you can get two different answers to the question regarding which of these two conferences is better.  The Big 12's argument is pretty convincing.  In terms of competitive teams, they were the class of the nation.  In fact, if you took just their top 9 teams, this wouldn't be a debate.  TCU is just so bad that they pull down all of the advanced numbers (big mistake adding TCU, guys) for the Big 12.  For Big 12 fans, this is their argument for why they're the best.  Who cares about the last place team after all?

Look, this is a Big Ten basketball site.  Obviously, we are going to side with the Big Ten in a debate as close as this and where it largely depends on the measure you like, but believe it or not, there is probably a stronger argument in support of the Big Ten here.  Nobody may care about the bottom team in a conference, but that doesn't mean we can just ignore them.  The problem with just picking and choosing which teams count or don't count in a conference comparison is just faulty logic.  First, this logic begs the question about who gets to decide which teams count or don't count.  This year, it's the Top 9 that count.  Next year it's the Top 8.  There's just no consistency there.  Next, it also cripples your argument for the future.  In 2012, Nebraska was the Big Ten's lowest rated team on KenPom.  This year, they were #44 and earned the Big Ten an NCAA Tournament bid.  If the Big Ten had tried to exclude them from the conference then, how can they lay claim to them now?

At the end of the day, it's just better logically to recognize and include every team from the conferences.  The Big 12 was a very good conference, but ultimately, I just don't think they can make up for the hit TCU creates here.  The Big Ten may not have won the title, had the single best team, or even the best top end group, but at the end of the day, their depth and strength throughout makes them the best basketball conference in 2013-14.

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