The definition of a “power conference” is a little more fluid in college basketball than in college football thanks to incessant reshuffling. This year, the ACC, Big 12, Big East, Big Ten, Pac-12, and SEC get the “power” label, but that doesn’t mean they’re created equal.
The ACC is clearly the class of the nation. It has six teams in the AP’s top-25 and could be sending as many as 12 teams to the tourney, surpassing the record of 11 set by the old version of the Big East back in 2011. Florida State, Louisville, Virginia, and North Carolina are all legitimate Final Four contenders. So is Duke, despite all the injuries and early struggles. (The team’s ceiling is still sky high.) I’m also starting to buy into Notre Dame as a team that can make a deep run.
At the other end of the spectrum, you have the SEC, which is Kentucky and everyone else. Florida and South Carolina are both solid squads deserving of their top-25 rankings, but if you had the … what’s the opposite of “pleasure?” … of watching their head-to-head matchup (which was scoreless at the first TV timeout), you won’t be high on either as a Final Four hopeful. While defense might win championships, a little offense is a pre-req for getting you to the title game.
As we blaze past the midway point of the season, it’s time to take a look at how many teams each power conference will be putting into the 68-team bracket. Even though the Big Ten and SEC are having down years, don’t expect a drop off in power teams in this year’s tournament. Few mid-majors are making viable cases for at-large bids.
2017 March Madness Odds: Bids by Conference
ACC: Over/Under 10.5
I know I just said the ACC could send as many as 12, but that’s not likely. These teams are going to feast on each other, and the committee will be left staring at more than a few carcasses.
Nine teams are pretty much locks (FSU, UNC, Louisville, Notre Dame, Virginia, Va. Tech, Duke, Miami, NC State). Georgia Tech, Wake Forest, and even Syracuse all have a shot. So does Clemson, but they’re season is going in the tank after a hot start. I’m really only comfortable ruling out Boston College and Pitt at this point.
Big 12: Over/Under 6.5
Seven Big 12 teams have a claim on a tourney berth at the moment: Kansas, Baylor, West Virginia, Kansas State, TCU, Texas Tech, and Iowa State. Oklahoma just picked up a huge win over West Virginia, but they’ll need more of that to overcome an 8-9 start (2-4 in conference play).
It’s more likely that a surprise team like TCU falls off than the Sooners make a run, even though all Jamie Dixon does is take teams to the tournament. (Ain’t that right, rueful Pitt fans?)
Big East: Over/Under 4.5
Villanova is headed for a one-seed. Creighton, despite losing Maurice Watson, is going to have a small number next to it’s name, as will Butler. Despite not living up to pre-season hype, Xavier will get in. This will all come down to Marquette.
The Golden Eagles are 12-6 with mostly quality losses (Wisconsin at home; Villanova, Butler, and Seton Hall on the road). Neutral site setbacks to Michigan and Pitt don’t look great at this stage, though, and they haven’t beaten a top-25 team (either in the polls or RPI). The good news is that they still have ample opportunity for a signature win facing Xavier (twice), Creighton, Villanova, and Butler in the back half. They’ll need at least one or two of those to crack the field.
Big Ten: Over/Under 5.5
Like the Big 12, the Big Ten currently has seven teams that would probably crack the field if the tournament started today: Wisconsin, Maryland, Purdue, Northwestern, Michigan State, Minnesota, and Indiana.
That’s not a testament to the strength of the conference; it’s an indictment of the rest of college basketball. The mid-majors aren’t holding their own this year. Instead of getting e.g. multiple A10 bids, we’re probably going to see more middling, bubbly power teams make the field. Syracuse’s surprise run to the Final Four last year didn’t help things on that front.
That said, a lot of the aforementioned teams are hovering around the bubble and I see one or two missing out (cough cough Indiana and Minnesota). On top of that, I don’t like the chances of an Illinois, Nebraska, or Michigan making a tournament-worthy run in conference play or the Big Ten tourney.
Pac-12: Over/Under 5.5
The Pac-12 is as powerful at the top as any conference in the country: UCLA might be the best team in the nation, and might own the best win at the end of the year (97-92 over Kentucky at Rupp). Depending on the health of Dillon Brooks, Oregon is a Final Four contender. And Sean Miller has kept Arizona in the mix despite ample roster tumult.
After that, you’ve got a bunch of incomplete teams filled with potential.
USC has put together a tournament-worthy resume to date, and I see them sticking around. Utah was banged hard for its laughable non-conference schedule, but they’re proving to be a tough out in conference play. I see them getting in, too. But that’s about it.
Cal has a shot if they finish Pac-12 play strong. Home games with Utah and Stanford are must-wins. They’d also be wise to knock off Oregon when the Ducks head to Berkeley.
SEC: Over/Under 4.5
Pencil in Kentucky, Florida, and South Carolina. Now g’head and take a sharpie to Kentucky.
Arkansas is probably a tournament team at the moment, but they don’t have any RPI top-50 wins. Their best W so far came against UT-Arlington. They’ll need something stronger to stay in the field.
Georgia has a decent case, as well. It does have a top-50 win (over Ole Miss), and most of its losses are of the quality variety. A loss to no. 137 Oakland stands out like a sore thumb, though, and Ole Miss probably won’t stay a top-50 team come March.
With so many so-so teams in the conference (see Alabama, Miss. State, Tennessee, Ole Miss), one could very well make a run. I wouldn’t single out any of them as likely to make said run, but it’s a numbers game, and the SEC has a lot of numbers.
Photo credit: Adam Glanzman (Flickr) (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)].