Heavyweights like Michigan
and Michigan State
made deep NCAA tournament runs having after impressive regular seasons. (Leon Halip/Getty Images)
When it comes to determining which conferences were best in 2013-14, the four months of play from November through February were certainly very significant, but it was what happened in March that tilted the scales and wound up determining which league stood tallest this past season.
1. Big Ten
The league trailed the Big 12 most of the season in the conference RPI rankings, but the performance by its best teams in the NCAAs -- Wisconsin advanced to the Final Four while both Michigan and Michigan State made it to the Elite Eight -- pushes it to the top. That trio combined for an 87-26 overall record, and its success in the Big Dance helped compensate for the first-game flubs by Iowa, Ohio State and Nebraska. And for what it's worth, the best Big Ten team left out of the tournament, Minnesota, won the NIT.
2. Big 12
Don't let the name fool you. This is now a 10-team league, and seven of those schools won 20-pus games and made the NCAA tournament, making this the deepest conference during the regular season. However just two teams (Baylor and Iowa State) reached the Sweet 16 and none went farther than that. Had Joel Embiid's back held up, Kansas might have been primed for a Final Four run, which would have changed the discussion. Instead, the Jayhawks were upset in the round of 32, joining Kansas State, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Texas as Big 12 teams that headed home after the first weekend.
Arizona, the No. 1 team for much of the winter, lost by one point in overtime in the Elite Eight, while Stanford and UCLA reached the Sweet 16. That helped. Colorado and Arizona State not even escaping the round of 64 did not. The league was well-balanced all season, as eight teams won 20 or more games while only two (Washington State and USC) finished below .500 overall. There should be even better depth in 2014-15, when the Pac-12 will likely challenge for being the nation's top conference.
The ACC was fifth in conference RPI before the NCAA tournament began, barely ahead of the Atlantic 10, but four teams won 26 or more games, and another four won between 22 and 24. Six teams made the NCAA tournament but they combined for just six wins, and all of them were home before the Elite Eight. N.C. State, Pittsburgh and North Carolina lost to higher-seeded clubs, but Duke, Syracuse and Virginia were upset victims. The Blue Devils were a No. 3 seed and looked like they had a deep run in them but couldn't get by No. 14 Mercer in the round of 64. The Orange, also a No. 3 seed, spent several weeks as the nation's top-ranked team but lost to No. 11 Dayton in the round of 32. Only No. 1 seed Virginia, the league's regular season and tournament champion, survived into the Sweet 16, and that's where the Cavaliers' season came to an end.
Florida cut a swath through the league en route to an 18-0 record in conference play and, eventually, the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament and a trip to the Final Four. But, surprisingly, the Gators weren't alone by the time they reached North Texas. Kentucky emerged from the year's deepest region to reach the title game. Tennessee also went from the First Four to the Sweet 16. Those were the league's only three entrants in the Big Dance. Is that enough to ignore the host of mediocre clubs (Arkansas, Georgia, LSU, Missouri, Ole Miss) or the five teams that finished below .500 overall? We'll give some extra credit for the Wildcats finally becoming as formidable as everyone expected.
6. American Athletic
Connecticut's national championship gave the first-year league serious bragging rights, and Louisville reached the Sweet 16 in its only season as a member of the AAC before it bolted for the ACC. Memphis lost in the round of 32 and Cincinnati was a round of 64 flame-out, while SMU reached the NIT final before losing to Minnesota. It's impossible to ignore the Huskies' title run, but it's not enough to send the league soaring up the rankings, especially given how bad the bottom half of the league was all season. Houston finished 17-16 while Rutgers, Central Florida, Temple and South Florida wound up a combined 45 games below .500.
7. Atlantic 10
Six of the league's 13 teams posted 24 or more wins and the A-10 entered the NCAA tournament with the nation's sixth-best conference RPI. But VCU (a No. 5 seed) and Massachusetts (a No. 6) were upset victims in their first games and St. Joseph's and George Washington also lost in the round of 64. Even the conference's regular season champ, St. Louis, was unimpressive, needing to pull off a furious rally in the final minutes to force overtime and escape No. 12 seed N.C. State in its opener before failing to put up much of a fight in a loss to Louisville. Dayton's unexpected run to the Elite Eight as a No. 11 seed -- which featured upsets of Ohio State and Syracuse -- helped save the conference from a total disaster in the Big Dance.
8. Big East
In its debut season, the new 10-team Big East had the fourth-best conference RPI before the NCAA tournament but put only four teams into the field of 68. None of them survived the opening weekend. Xavier
's loss in the First Four and Providence
's in the round of 64 were hardly unexpected. But Villanova
, a No. 2 seed, and Creighton
, a No. 3, both surprisingly failed to escape the round of 32. That might have been a matter of bad matchups against Connecticut and Baylor, respectively. But it didn't help the perception that the league was never that strong to begin with.