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ACC, Big 12 close in best conference debate

1/23/2015

Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Virginia and Duke are two top-five teams that highlight a top-heavy ACC in college basketball this season.One of the hottest topics to debate in this or any college basketball season is which conference is the best.

Most would agree that the argument comes down to the Big 12 and ACC. The Big 12 could potentially place eight of its 10 teams in the NCAA tournament, while the ACC could have four top-three seeds.

So which is the better conference? The answer depends on whether you’re looking for the deeper conference or the one with more potential to win it all.

Deepest Conference

The Big 12 is undoubtedly the deepest conference from top to bottom. Eight of its 10 teams rank in the top 50 of ESPN’s Basketball Power Index, and the conference has the highest average BPI ranking in the nation.

Highest Average BPI - 2014-15 Season

Sixty percent of the Big 12 is currently ranked in the AP poll (the highest percentage of any conference), and by the end of the season, two other teams could have an argument for inclusion. Even TCU, which lost its final 19 games last season, entered conference play undefeated (thanks in large part to a very weak nonconference schedule).

In nonconference games, the Big 12 has the best record in the nation but lacks a marquee nonconference win from a team other than Kansas.

The question surrounding the Big 12 is whether it has an elite team. No team in the Big 12 is ranked in the top eight of the AP poll or BPI.

Strongest At Top

Unlike the Big 12, the ACC has strength at the top, but the bottom of the conference has significant holes.

The ACC has four teams in the top 10 of the latest AP poll; no other conference has more than one.

This imbalance is captured in BPI. The ACC possesses five of the top 13 teams; the average BPI rating of those five teams is four points higher than any other conference’s top five. Put another way, the ACC’s fifth-ranked team in BPI -- Louisville -- ranks 13th overall. No other conference’s fifth-ranked team has a ranking higher than 20.

Even accounting for the fact that the ACC has five more teams than the Big 12, the average ranking of the top third of the conference is significantly higher for the ACC.

A case can be made that Virginia, Duke, North Carolina, Louisville or Notre Dame could win it all; all five of those teams were projected as top-four seeds in Joe Lunardi’s latest Bracketology.

Combining It All

So the question remains: How do you balance conference depth with conference strength at the top?

CBB Conference Power Rankings

ESPN Stats & Information has released weekly conference power ranking for college football the past few years (for a detailed description of the methodology, click here). In short, the system equally weights the ratings from ESPN’s Football Power Index (conference depth) and the AP poll (power at top) to determine the best and worst conferences in the country.

This formula has been adapted for college basketball with one change. Because such a lower percentage of college basketball teams receive AP votes, the weighting for these rankings is 25 percent AP voting and 75 percent BPI.

In a fairly anticlimactic ending, the Big 12 and ACC are tied atop the rankings. For those needing an answer, the Big 12 holds a 0.013 point edge over the ACC. The next three conferences are closely bunched, with the Pac-12 ranking third on the strength of its top two teams -- Arizona and Utah -- ranking in the top 12 of the AP poll.

Though not pictured, the bottom three conferences in the rankings are the SWAC, MEAC and WAC.