The Big East produced the national champion, the ACC had the best collective NCAA tournament performance and the Big 12 dominated the regular season. So which league the best in college basketball this year?
Get all of David Gardner’s columns as soon as they’re published. Download the new Sports Illustrated app (iOS or Android) and personalize your experience by following your favorite teams and SI writers.
What’s the best conference in the country? That question is asked repeatedly during the regular season, hotly debated during Selection Sunday and then often still unresolved at the conclusion of the NCAA tournament. This season, four leagues got seven bids apiece to the NCAA tournament and five others sent multiple teams dancing. With the full season and postseason in view, here is SI.com’s ranking of the five toughest conferences in college basketball in 2015–16.
RPI rank: No. 2
NCAA bids (7): No. 1 seed Oregon; No. 3 Utah; No. 4 California; No. 6 Arizona; No. 7 Oregon State; No. 8 Colorado; No. 8 USC
NCAA tournament record: 19–7
The Pac-12 was an enigmatic league for much of the regular season. The conference always seemed certain to send plenty of teams to the tournament, but it didn’t look like it had a national title contender until Oregon’s late-season emergence. The Ducks won their final five games of the regular season to clinch that title and then rolled past Washington, Arizona and Utah to claim the Pac-12 tournament championship. They were rewarded for that strong finish with the West Regional's No. 1 seed in the Big Dance.
Just one week later, they were the only Pac-12 team left standing. Five of the league's seven teams that got bids were bounced in the first round, and a sixth, Midwest Regional No. 3 seed Utah, was sent home by No. 11 Gonzaga in the second round. Oregon eventually made it to the Elite Eight after a convincing win over Duke in the Sweet 16, but the Ducks missed out on their first Final Four trip since winning the inaugural national championship in 1939 by falling to Oklahoma. The Pac-12 still hasn’t put a team in the Final Four since UCLA made it three times in a row in 2006, ’07 and ’08 under former coach Ben Howland.
4. Big Ten
RPI rank: No. 5
NCAA bids (7): No. 2 seed Michigan State; No. 5 Maryland; No. 5 Indiana; No. 5 Purdue; No. 7 Iowa; No. 7 Wisconsin; No. 11 Michigan (First Four)
NCAA tournament record: 8–7
Before the New Year, the Big Ten had all the pieces in place to be considered one of the best conference in the country. Maryland was a national title favorite, ranking No. 3 in the preseason AP poll, and they were still No. 6 by December, when Michigan State began a four-week run at the top of the polls and Purdue also moved into the top 10. But then Spartans star Denzel Valentine, who had established himself as the player of the year frontrunner, suffered a minor knee injury that knocked him out of four games, and the Boilermakers' defense—anchored by two 7-footers in A.J. Hammons and Isaac Haas—regressed. The Terrapins, meanwhile, followed a 22-3 start by losing five of eight to close the regular season. Those slip-ups allowed Indiana, which ended the season on a five-game winning streak, to emerge as the somewhat surprising regular-season champion.
The Spartans, though, won the conference tournament title and entered the the NCAA tournament having won eight of nine, making them a popular pick to win the national championship. Instead, they lost in the first round to No. 15 Middle Tennessee State in what will go down as one of the biggest upsets ever in the Big Dance. Purdue was also knocked out early, falling to No. 12 Little Rock in double overtime in the Midwest Regional. Michigan survived the First Four but then lost to Notre Dame. Iowa beat Temple on a buzzer-beating putback from center Adam Woodbury but then was embarrassed by eventual national champion Villanova.
Three Big Ten teams reached the Sweet 16, but that's as far as they got. Wisconsin’s Bronson Koenig became an NCAA tournament hero with a buzzer-beating, game-winning three against Xavier but then was one of the goats of the Badgers' loss to the Fighting Irish when he committed a late turnover that sealed a 61-56 defeat. Maryland couldn't hang with top-seed Kansas in the South Regional. And Indiana was unable to follow up its satisfying win over No. 4 Kentucky in the East Regional by knocking out another blueblood, instead getting run out of the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia by top-seeded North Carolina in a 101-86 rout.
3. Big East
RPI rank: No. 4
NCAA bids (5): No. 2 Villanova; No. 2 Xavier; No. 6 Seton Hall; No. 9 Butler; No. 9 Providence
NCAA tournament record: 9–4
In just its third season, the reconstituted Big East produced the national champion in Villanova, which pulled off the most dominant run of any title team during the analytics era (2002 to present). But the Wildcats, which won the regular season race by two games and lost the conference tournament championship by two points to Seton Hall, were the only Big East team to win more than one game in the NCAA tournament, as the other four teams combined to go 3-4. Butler and Providence picked up first-round wins over Texas Tech and USC, respectively, in 8-vs.-9 games before falling to No. 1 seeds in the second round. Seton Hall was dominated by No. 11 Gonzaga in its first round matchup, and Xavier was an upset victim in the East, winding up on the business end of Bronson Koenig's buzzer-beater. Still, all that should matter to this league is that it cut down the nets. It gets undisputed bragging rights for the next six months.
2. Big 12
RPI rank: No. 1
NCAA bids (7): No. 1 overall seed Kansas; No. 2 Oklahoma; No. 3 West Virginia; No. 4 Iowa State; No. 5 Baylor; No. 6 Texas; No. 8 Texas Tech
NCAA tournament record: 9–7
The Big 12 spent most of the season widely considered to be the best conference in the country. The league featured the nation’s top team, Kansas, and its best player, Oklahoma’s Buddy Hield. Along with West Virginia, the Big 12 had three teams in the AP's top 10 in each of the final three weeks of the regular season. Not only did seven of the league’s 10 teams get bids to the Big Dance, the Big 12 was the only conference to produce five top-five seeds.
After an epic NCAA tournament flameout in 2015 (the conference went 0–3 on opening day, including losses by No. 3 seeds Baylor and Iowa State), the Big 12 fared better but still not as well as expected in 2016. The Bears (for the second year in a row), Texas and West Virginia were upset in the first round, and Texas Tech lost an 8-vs.-9 game to Butler. But the Cyclones, Jayhawks and Sooners all advanced to the Sweet 16. Iowa State was stopped there by No. 1 Virginia in the Midwest Regional, and eventual national champ Villanova cleared out the rest of the Big 12. First, the Wildcats upset the Jayhawks in a back-and-forth Elite Eight game to set up a showdown in Houston with the Sooners, whom Villanova then handed the worst loss in Final Four history, 95-51. Still, based on the full season’s body of work, the Big 12 deserves to be second on this list.
RPI rank: No. 3
NCAA bids (7): No. 1 North Carolina; No. 1 Virginia; No. 3 Miami; No. 4 Duke; No. 6 Notre Dame; No. 10 Pittsburgh; No. 10 Syracuse
NCAA tournament record: 19–7 (2-1)
In part because it has 15 teams instead of 10 and thus can’t play a double round-robin schedule like the Big 12, the ACC will often have a hard time matching that league’s regular season strength. What it can do instead is have its top teams dominate the postseason. The ACC began the regular season with North Carolina at No. 1 in the AP poll and finished it with the Tar Heels at No. 3, plus two other teams in the top 10 and a total of five in the top 25. The league received seven bids to the NCAA tournament and could have even gotten eight if Louisville, which finished fourth in the conference standings and was No. 14 in the final AP poll of the regular season, hadn’t self-imposed a postseason ban.
During the NCAAs, the ACC was the best conference in the country, and it wasn’t particularly close. Pitt was the only team from the league that didn’t win at least one game in the Big Dance. Six of the league's teams—North Carolina, Virginia, Miami, Duke, Notre Dame and Syracuse—reached the Sweet 16, and even after the Hurricanes and Blue Devils lost in the regional semifinals, the entire Elite Eight on the right side of the bracket was composed of ACC squads, guaranteeing that the league would make up half of both the Final Four and the title game. The only thing the conference didn't do was win the national championship—and it fell just short of that goal when Villanova's Kris Jenkins made a 25-footer at the buzzer to beat the Tar Heels, 77-74. Still, the ACC's latest impressive March showing demonstrated that it remains the standard-bearer in college hoops.