The NCAA Tournament is once again testing the way we view conference strength.
At the end of the regular season, the Atlantic Coast Conference appeared to be the nation’s top league based on the near-record nine teams it placed on the bracket. The Big 12 and its favorable metrics weren’t far behind. The Big East seemed like the clear No. 3, followed distantly by the Big Ten, Southeastern and Pac-12.
But things already feel different.
The ACC crashed and burned, with only North Carolina advancing to the Sweet 16. The Big East didn’t do so hot either, advancing just Butler and Xavier.
Meanwhile, the Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC have all flexed their muscles and all have three teams still standing.
What conference will end up with bragging rights? The Midwest Regional at the Sprint Center, which features Kansas, Michigan, Oregon and Purdue, could go a long way toward determining the answer.
“Last year our league was so much better than what we performed in the tournament,” KU coach Bill Self said. “I do think it’s nice to see our league having some postseason success that’s consistent with the success that the league had throughout the regular season.”
Three Big 12 teams in the Final Four would be even nicer.
Baylor basketball coach Scott Drew is already rooting for that scenario. He morphed into a Big 12 cheerleader over the weekend, popping into the KU locker room in Tulsa and wishing the Jayhawks luck before they moved on to the Sweet 16.
A few hours later, Baylor did the same by beating USC. West Virginia had already advanced on its side of the bracket.
“We would love to see everybody at the Final Four together,” Drew said in Tulsa. “Then we won’t cheer for each other.”
No. 2 seed Baylor and No. 1 Kansas are the favored teams in their regions, while West Virginia next faces No. 1 seed Gonzaga.
“I’m happy for Scott and Baylor and certainly happy for (Bob) Huggins and West Virginia,” Self said,” but I’m a little selfish. I’m happiest for us. It is great to see teams that we compete against on a nightly basis have success.”
Other leagues are thinking the same way.
The Big Ten has two teams in Kansas City this week. No. 4 seed Purdue will try to knock off Kansas after downing No. 5 seed Iowa State in the round of 32. No. 7 seed Michigan will try to take down No. 3 seed Oregon.
For Kansas, this week could feel like a Big 12/Big Ten challenge.
For Michigan and Purdue, it feels like a shot at conference redemption.
“The Big Ten got so much downplay this year,” Purdue forward Vincent Edwards said. “Everyone was saying how the conference fell off and we weren’t good anymore. To have two Big Ten teams here speaks volumes.”
Or maybe Oregon will wreck the party. The Pac-12 has been on quite the tear, going 8-1 in the opening rounds. Only Southern Cal has been eliminated.
The Pac-12 could send three teams to the Final Four, too. Not that Oregon coach Dana Altman has noticed.
“I don’t have time to root for anybody,” Altman said.
Nor does he have time to debate conference strength. But regular season vs. NCAA Tournament will always be a fascinating topic.
“Is SEC football down because their bowl record wasn’t as good this year?” Self said. “To me, here is the reality: the Big Ten is a great league. The Big 12 is a great league. A lot of times in a small sample size format like the NCAA Tournament doesn’t really project what that league is sometimes.”
Still, it’s the best measuring tool we have. The next two weeks could determine the best team and conference in college basketball.
Kellis Robinett: @kellisrobinett