Ranking and classifying 2019-2020 basketball conferences

April 17, 2020 - 4 minutes

Classifying programs based on performance

When classifying conferences I generally abstain from pre-assigning monikers such as “Major” or “Mid-Major” as it is much more useful to consider raw rankings. However, it is still useful to get a general of idea of where conferences rank in the basketball hierarchy. With conference, as with everything I like to consider quality based on relative points per trip. The figure below shows offensive relative points per trip on the x-axis and defensive relative points per trip on the y-axis. In short, good teams should have high offensive points per trip and low defensive points per trip.

The majors

I have marked four classifications on the figure (High major, mid-major +, mid-major -, low-major). High majors consist of the expected conferences (Pac-12, SEC, ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12). In terms of quality, the Big Ten stands out as the strongest offensive conference with the Big 12 being the best defensive conference. Interestingly, the average AAC team performed better than SEC and Pac-12 but offensive inefficiency made the conference more suited for the mid-major + category. The SEC and Pac 12 trailed behind other majors with only 3 ranked teams combined.

Mid-major +

The conferences that bridge majors with mid-majors are the Atlantic-10 (A-10) and American Athletic Conference (AAC). Along with the Mountain West Conference (MWC) and the West Coast Conference (WCC), these 4 conferences make up the mid-major + conferences. The AAC and A-10 stand out for their depth relative to the other mid-major + conferences. Teams like SMU (AAC, Relative Ranking 79) and Davidson (A-10, RR 54) rank highly overall despite both finishing 7th in their respective divisions. The MWC and WCC were particularly top heavy compared to the A-10 and AAC, generally containing 2-3 elite teams and multiple teams with relative rankings in the 100s. Despite these differences, mid-major + conferences generally contain elite teams with solid mid-ranked teams but not to the extent of major conferences.

Mid-major -

The conference bridging the gap between Mid-major + and mid-major - conferences is the Missouri Valley Conference (MVC). Like the AAC relative to high majors, the MVC collectively performed similarly to Mid-major + conferences defensively but relatively poorly on defense. They did not have an elite level team like mid-major +’s with Northern Iowa (RR 47) and Loyola-IL (RR 73) being the closest thing. However, they were still leagues ahead of other mid-major - teams. Mid-major - conferences are characterized by a lack of high-level teams and a lack of depth in quality. The table below shows the difference in team quality between divisions. As you can see, the higher-level teams are concentrated in the MVC, C-USA, MAC and Southern conference (SOCON). However, compared to mid-major + and high major conferences these numbers are small.

Conference Top 50 Top 75 Top 100
ACC 5 10 13
Big Ten 12 12 12
Big 12 4 7 10
Big East 5 8 10
Pac-12 5 7 9
SEC 7 9 9
AAC 3 6 8
A-10 3 5 6
MWC 2 2 5
WCC 3 3 4
MVC 1 2 3
Southern 0 1 3
CUSA 0 2 2
MAC 0 1 2
A-Sun 0 0 1
AEC 0 0 1
Big Sky 0 0 1
Sun Belt 0 0 1

The above table shows all of the conferences with at least one team in the top 100 overall rankings. It is obvious that the major conferences are a step ahead of all other conferences in terms of high-quality teams. It also highlights how border conferences (AAC and MVC) differ from Majors and Mid-Major + conferences, respectively. We can see how the AAC has comparable depth to Majors but without the elite teams and how the MVC has a similar relationship to mid-major + conferences. To further illustrate how depth separates each tier of conference we can look at the median team.

In this example we can see how the mid-tier MVC team begins to look more like Mid-Major - teams. We can also see just how deep the AAC was on defense but weak on offense. Interestingly, the median Mountain West team was actually comparable to the lower tier major conferences.

Low majors

The Mideastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) and Southwestern Athletic Conferences (SWAC) stand out as the lone mid-majors. For reference, the top ranked low major team (Prairie View A&M, SWAC, RR 248) is still in the top 100 worst teams in the nation. As a consolation prize, outside of the Southland conference both conferences play the fastest basketball in the nation.