College Basketball conference power rankings: Big 12 grabs No. 1, Pac-12 edges Big Ten after NCAA Tournament


Entering the 2021 NCAA Tournament, there were only two logical choices for which conference was the best in college basketball during the 2020-21 season. The Big Ten and Big 12 were the only conferences sending more than half their teams to the Big Dance, and the two leagues accounted for a staggering eight of the top-12 seeds in the event.

But by the time the Sweet 16 rolled around, just two of the combined 16 teams from the Big Ten and Big 12 were still alive. Instead, a host of surprise teams emerged, including several from the Pac-12, to help reshape the narrative on conference supremacy. With the COVID-19 pandemic reducing the number of nonconference games played, the NCAA Tournament was our best read on where things stood nationally.

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So as we reflect on the craziness of the 2020-21 college basketball season, which conference truly was the best? There are plenty of ways to debate it, but here is a breakdown using the following criteria: average NET ranking of each team in a league, average NET ranking without the worst two teams included, number of NCAA Tournament bids, NCAA Tournament records and number of NBA prospects.

The conferences included in the ranking are those that have been considered the sport’s major seven leagues in recent years by CBS Sports.

Draft prospects were taken from the latest CBS Sports NBA Big Board, which features the top 75 prospects for the 2021 NBA Draft. Here is last year’s final conference power ranking, which used a combination of data and eye-test evaluation due to the unique circumstances of the postseason cancelation.

1. Big 12

Thank goodness for Baylor, because without the Bears, the Big 12 would have ended up in the same boat as the Big Ten. Baylor was the league’s only Sweet 16 team, and the Bears went the distance for the national title. The league’s top seven teams were all talented squads, and though many of them underperformed in the postseason, the rigors of the regular season clearly prepared Baylor to cut down the nets in Indianapolis. It ended up being closer than expected, but because of Baylor’s perfect NCAA Tournament performance, the Big 12 sneaks out a victory in the final conference power rankings.

BY THE NUMBERS

1st in NCAA Tournament bid percentage: 7 of 10 (70%) 3rd in NCAA Tournament record: 11-6 (64.7%) 1st in top 75 NBA Draft prospects: 12 (1.2 per team) 4th in average NET ranking: 66.7 (51.4 last year) 1st in average NET ranking excluding bottom two teams: 33.4 (39.9 last year)

2. Pac-12

The Pac-12 earned our designation as the nation’s most-improved conference last season, and it easily repeats in that regard following a memorable NCAA Tournament performance. Three of the league’s five NCAA Tournament teams made the Elite Eight, and all five won at least one game. Considering that Arizona could have been the league’s sixth NCAA Tournament team if not for a self-imposed postseason ban, it’s easy to see that this conference is on the rise.

BY THE NUMBERS

5th in NCAA Tournament bid percentage: 5 of 12 (41.7%) 1st in NCAA Tournament record: 13-5 (72.2%) 4th in top 75 NBA Draft prospects: 7 (0.58 per team) 2nd in average NET ranking: 52.9 (60.6 last year) 3rd in average NET ranking excluding bottom two teams: 44.1 (39.4 last year)

3. Big Ten

The Big Ten looked like the runaway favorite to repeat as the top conference when it landed nine squads in the Big Dance, including a pair of No. 1 seeds and a pair of No. 2 seeds. However, a dismal showing in the NCAA Tournament saw the league’s last remaining team (No. 1 seed Michigan) get bounced by No. 11 seed UCLA in the Elite Eight.

BY THE NUMBERS

2nd in NCAA Tournament bid percentage: 9 of 14 (64.3%) 6th in NCAA Tournament record: 8-9 (47.1%) 5th in top 75 NBA Draft prospects: 8, 0.57 per team 1st in average NET ranking: 46.4 (51.4 last year) 2nd in average NET ranking excluding bottom two teams: 35.4 (29.7 last year)

4. SEC

Even with Kentucky down and Auburn enduring a self-imposed postseason ban, the SEC had a better season on the whole than it did in 2019-20. The league’s six NCAA Tournament bids were two more than it was projected to receive in 2020. That success can be attributed to a pair of second-year coaches in Nate Oats at Alabama and Eric Musselman at Arkansas, who have injected fresh life into the league.

BY THE NUMBERS

4th in NCAA Tournament bid percentage: 6 of 14 (42.9%)  4th in NCAA Tournament record: 7-6 (53.8%) 2nd in top 75 NBA Draft prospects: 12 (0.86 per team) 3rd in average NET ranking: 64.6 (64.9 last year) 4th in average NET ranking excluding bottom two teams: 51.3 (54.5 last year)

5. ACC

With Duke on the struggle bus, North Carolina just mediocre and Louisville narrowly missing the NCAA Tournament, it was another down season for this historically rich conference. Syracuse’s surprise Sweet 16 run helped salvage some dignity for the ACC, but consecutive fifth-place finishes in the conference power rankings constitute a noteworthy dip in the league’s hoops prestige.

BY THE NUMBERS

3rd in NCAA Tournament bid percentage: 7 of 15 (46.7%) 7th in NCAA Tournament record: 4-7 (36.4%) 3rd in Top 75 NBA Draft prospects: 12 (0.8 per team) 6th in average NET ranking: 78 (69.3 last year) 6th in Average NET ranking excluding bottom two teams: 60.8 (50.2 last year)

6. Big East

The Big East fell the furthest of any conference in this year’s ranking amid a forgettable season that saw its top contenders — Villanova and Creighton — fizzle in the Sweet 16. Georgetown made a good story by winning the Big East Tournament, but the Hoyas ended Seton Hall’s NCAA Tournament bid in the process. Overall, it was a bad year for the conference’s middle class and the upper-tier didn’t carry the banner very far in the Big Dance.

BY THE NUMBERS

6th in NCAA Tournament bid percentage: 4 of 11 (36.4%) 5th in NCAA Tournament record: 4-4 (50%) 6th in top 75 NBA Draft prospects: 5, 0.45 per team 5th in average NET ranking: 72.9 (38.1 last year) 5th in average NET ranking excluding bottom two teams: 56.8 (26.3 last year)

7. AAC

At this point, the AAC probably needs to be grouped in with the Atlantic 10, Missouri Valley, Mountain West and West Coast conferences when it comes to the hoops discussion. That’s a shame, because with a little polishing, the potential is there for this league to regularly send four teams to the NCAA Tournament. Even with UConn departed for the Big East, brand names like Cincinnati, Houston, Memphis, Wichita State should be able to take this conference higher than its gone in recent years. Schools like Temple, SMU and UCF have also shown flashes of the potential needed to raise this league’s basketball profile but have struggled to generate consistency. Put simply, the AAC is underperforming, even with Houston making a Final Four run in 2021.

BY THE NUMBERS

7th in NCAA Tournament bid percentage: 2 of 11 (18.2%) 2nd in NCAA Tournament record: 4-2 (66.7%) 7th in top 75 NBA Draft prospects: 1 (0.09 per team)  7th in average NET ranking: 110.3 (94.8 last year) 7th in average NET ranking excluding bottom two teams: 93.1 (76.2 last year)



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