The first thing that probably comes to mind when you think of a conference is its top teams—Duke and Virginia in the ACC, the Michigan schools in the Big Ten, and so on. Having those kinds of elite teams is important, as it brings a league valuable attention nationally and serves as a built-in résumé-building opportunity for the rest of the conference. But an underrated contributor to conference reputation is its depth. Playing in a league that has dangerous teams from top to bottom can make a world of difference come March, not just for NCAA tournament seeding but also for teams that enter March Madness battle-tested from a schedule that did not allow for nights off.
Some conferences’ depth fluctuates dramatically from year-to-year—just look at the Big Ten—while for others, such as the Big 12, it seems to be consistently strong. We ranked this year’s six power conferences by how good their bottom half has been so far, taking into account its potential for upsets as the season wears on.
1. Big Ten
It’s been a bounce-back year for the Big Ten, which sent only four teams to the NCAA tournament last March after a number of its promising teams disappointed. The Big Ten was so top-heavy in 2017–18 that Nebraska went 13–5 in league play and missed the Big Dance, but the script has been flipped in 2018–19. The conference’s middle tier after the Michigan schools is as crowded as ever, with 12 teams currently ranked within the top 61 on kenpom.com and as many as 11 harboring realistic hope of an at-large NCAA bid. The Big Ten has never sent more than seven teams to the tournament, a record that looks sure to be smashed this season.
Consider this: Nebraska and Iowa, two teams that have already spent multiple weeks in the top-25 this season, have already dropped three games in league play. That’s not even a knock on either—none of those combined six losses have been bad ones—it just speaks to the Big Ten’s level of depth this year. Penn State is off to an 0–4 start yet is ranked 61st on kenpom and has a win over No. 9 Virginia Tech on its résumé; compare that to the ACC, whose No. 12 team is ranked 78th, or SEC, whose No. 12 is at 91st.
Other non-conference wins by the league’s current bottom half on kenpom included Iowa State, Marquette, Louisville, Butler, Miami, Washington and Oregon. Even lowly Illinois has only lost by more than 10 three times this season, while perennial conference doormat Rutgers is improving and just knocked off No. 16 Ohio State at home. For all of those reasons, the B1G takes home our top ranking for league depth. — Molly Geary
2. Big 12
The Big 12 is far from Kansas and a slate of also-rans this season. Iowa State is a legitimate contender for the conference crown and smoked the Jayhawks 77–60 on Saturday. Texas Tech is No. 8 in the nation, sporting the nation’s top defense per kenpom. Don’t expect the Jayhawks to roll to the conference title. Chris Beard may be the conference’s best coach at the moment—impressive considering the competition includes Bill Self, Bob Huggins and Jamie Dixon—paired with a legit top option in Jarrett Culver. As for Iowa State, Ames is never an easy place to play, now a terror for visiting teams against transfer sensation Marial Shayok and standout sophomore Lindell Wigginton. This could be the Big 12’s tightest title race in recent memory.
The conference’s next tier is full of stout defenses. Oklahoma, Kansas State and Texas are all ranked in the top 11 in the nation in defensive efficiency. The Sooners are the safest lock for the tournament, with senior guard Brady James proving there is life in Norman after Trae Young. Texas is devoid of outside shooting to an alarming degree, but there is likely enough athleticism and young talent to manufacture an at-large bid.
There aren’t many easy wins in the Big 12. Even unlikely tournament teams can be difficult to beat in their own arenas. Oklahoma State held the Longhorns to 2 for 22 from three in Stillwater on Tuesday night. Baylor beat the mighty Cyclones the same evening. Morgantown will become an even tougher trip if Sagaba Konate returns to West Virginia in the coming weeks. The Big 12 won’t lead college hoops in tournament teams, but it’s one of the toughest night-to-night battles in the nation. — Michael Shapiro
Two months ago, a defense of the SEC's depth would have advised the audience to gloss over Ole Miss's 2018–19 results because new coach Kermit Davis was expected to need some time to turn things around in Oxford. The Rebels are still off-limits for this conversation, but for a different reason entirely: They are one of the country's best stories, sitting at 12–2 and 2–0 in league play fresh off a wire-to-wire win over No. 11 Auburn on Wednesday night.
With the bottom of the preseason SEC ranking ripped out from under the projections, we're left with a lower tier of teams that each have the potential to scare a top team at minimum. South Carolina is the only SEC team currently ranked outside the top 100 in kenpom.com's adjusted efficiency, but after edging Florida in Gainesville and knocking off Mississippi State, the Gamecocks appear to have put December's four-game skid that included losses to Michigan, Virginia and Clemson behind them. Elsewhere in the first week of league play, Missouri and Texas A&M spooked Tennessee and Kentucky with hot starts that fizzled out once the more talented team took over. Arkansas has already lost more home games (three) than it did all of last year, but sophomore Daniel Gafford remains a monster on the interior. That group of four—plus Alabama, which has already knocked off Kentucky—should spring enough surprises this winter to make up for the depths Georgia (who lost by 46 to Tennessee) and Vanderbilt (who lost by 19 to Georgia right after Georgia lost by 46 to Tennessee) seem to be exploring. — Eric Single
The ACC has always been stacked—considered to be a bit top-heavy with the likes of Duke, North Carolina and now Virginia consistently leading the conference—but is also filled with an entire middle pack of perennial upsetters and upward trenders. Then there is a clear bottom tier. It is in the middle group, however, where the ACC’s depth is truly determined—and this year, it’s both deeper and shallower than expected.
The three-tiered conference consists of the undeniably elite, the continual cusp teams (the aforementioned perennial upsetters), and those struggling to find a foothold in a conference that is consistently home to some of the nation’s toughest teams. This season, Duke, Virginia and UNC all remain perched atop the conference, passing the torch amongst themselves as the leaders’ of the ACC oligopoly.
But the middle is why the ACC’s depth is hard to quantify: it’s deeper this season in the sense that teams like Virginia Tech and Florida State, typically solid second tier teams, are steadily chipping away at the space between their place and the conference’s trio of true elites. Louisville is also off to a stronger 10–4 start than expected during what was considered to be likely a rebuilding year, but then you come to where shallower can also be argued: Syracuse is playing its historically hot-and-cold style that perpetually places the Orange on the NCAA tournament bubble, despite the return of Tyus Battle and a relatively talented and experienced roster around him.
NC State and Clemson are both also playing solid basketball, but it’s unlikely to stand up against the full slate of the conference’s better competitors and nothing has stood out as insurmountably challenging for opponents to overcome, as can be said for Notre Dame and Miami. Yet none of these teams can be discounted either—a good upset or two tends to be in store seasonally for each, which keeps the conference relatively deep in a certain sense.
Boston College sits atop the bottom tier of ACC basketball alongside Pittsburgh, another improving-but-still-not-comparable team to the elite caliber of the conference’s best, while Georgia Tech and Wake Forest round out the ACC.
While the conference remains a mixed bag of mostly middle tier teams, all talented in their own respects, especially when considered on a national scale, it also remains ultimately defined by a top tier out of reach for most and a bottom group far from ready to take on the rest. The middle is deep in the sense that it is home to teams good for a few upsets, but shallow in the sense that those teams each have holes easy to expose. — Emily Caron
5. Big East
Villanova bowed out of the top-10 conversation during non-conference play, but the defending national champions still seem to be easily the Big East's most consistent team. At the other end of the standings, Georgetown and DePaul seem to have closed the gap, looking much more competitive in the first two months of 2018–19 than they did down the home stretch of last season, but there's a good case to be made that the league has stooped down to meet them in the middle. Xavier and Butler had double-digit road losses in the past month—Xavier lost by 15 at both Cincinnati and Missouri, while Butler was boatraced by Florida—that cast doubt on their seasonlong viability, and Providence's league-worst shooting numbers should hold the Friars back from scaring too many tournament teams. The Big East's uneven non-conference showings indicate we could see the wrong kind of parity rear its head as league play heats up. — Eric Single
The Pac-12 has zero ranked teams and doesn’t have anyone ranked inside the top 40 on kenpom.com. In 31 games against top-50 teams in non-conference play, the Pac-12 as a conference won just five games and lost by double digits in 20 of them. And when comparing the depth of the Pac-12 to other major conferences, it falls short in that department as well. Just one team in the five other major conferences is ranked below 120 on kenpom.com (Wake Forest at 162). One-third of the Pac-12 is residing there—Utah at 127, Stanford at 138, Washington State at 178 and, wait for it, Cal at 211.
It’s crazy that 33% of the league would be considered bad losses on a résumé, especially since there are very few opportunities in the conference for quality wins. That’s one reason why among many that the Pac-12 will likely have just one representative in the NCAA tournament this year. — Max Meyer