Impending Madness: Which Conference Has Emerged as the Best in College Basketball?
With just two months to go before Selection Sunday, we’re getting into the meat and potatoes of conference play in Division I.
Now is the time for teams to prove to the college basketball world that they can compete in the NCAA Tournament.
With over 350 teams to cover, it is difficult to track every single team in the country. That is where TRACR comes in. TRACR (Team Rating Adjusted for Conference and Roster) is a net efficiency metric that measures a team’s points per possession on both sides of the ball, adjusted by the team it plays. The model rewards teams that do well against good teams and punishes those that do poorly against weaker squads.
TRACR lines up somewhat with the AP Top 25. Houston is ranked No. 1 overall in the AP Poll and second in TRACR. Tennessee, TRACR’s top team, is ranked fifth in the AP. Still, there are some contrasts between the two, such as Wisconsin (18th in AP, 55th in TRACR) and Charleston (22nd in AP, 83rd in TRACR).
Just because a team has a good record does not mean that TRACR ranks them highly – it is all about the quality of wins.
This brings me to Iowa State, which just beat Texas Tech (58th in TRACR) by 34 points! The Cyclones are 13-2, with recent road wins over Oklahoma (17th) and TCU (20th). They are 4-0 in Big 12 play.
The defense has been stellar for Iowa State, but it’s the offense that has set them up as third in TRACR. T.J. Otzelberger showed his defensive mind while guiding the Cyclones to the Sweet 16 last season, but he’s since brought in transfers to bolster the offense. Osun Osunniyi and Jaren Holmes, both transfers from my beloved Bonnies of St. Bonaventure, have combined for over 20 points per game. Holmes has been the team’s leading scorer.
Osunniyi and Holmes are not the only two with experience – Iowa State’s top-five scorers are seniors. Freshman Tamin Lipsey from Ames is the only player with a start that is not a senior. This is a talented and experienced roster that could win the Big 12.
The Big 12 rates as the best conference in the nation with an average TRACR of 27.2, which means that an average Big 12 team would be projected to beat an overall average team by about 27 points. That is ridiculous. It just goes to show how talented this conference is.
Right behind them is the Big Ten with an average TRACR of 21.4. What is interesting about the Big Ten, however, is that the teams that have recently been the best in the conference have struggled and teams usually rated at the bottom are moving up. Iowa (39th) has declined. Indiana (54th) was a preseason favorite, but injuries to Race Thompson and Xavier Johnson have the Hoosiers fading.
Wisconsin (55th) is ranked in the AP Top 25, but the Badgers have played so many close games that it has been tough to measure their true talent. Michigan (46th) has been all over the place, while Purdue (No. 9) remains the one consistent Big Ten team.
There have been two surprises out of the Big Ten. Rutgers (14th) is ranked as the fifth-best defensive team. Steve Pikiell has carried the Scarlet Knights to back-to-back tournament appearances, but the defense could put them into the Sweet 16. When Caleb McConnell and Paul Mulcahy are healthy, the Scarlet Knights are one of the most talented teams in the Big Ten. They are 4-2 in the conference, but already have wins over Purdue and Indiana.
You might also ask: Wait, if Rutgers is so good, why did they only beat Northwestern by three points yesterday? Not so fast on the Wildcats slander, my friend! Northwestern is a competitor this season.
Northwestern (24th) has already beaten Michigan State and Indiana on the road, and Illinois at home. While the Wildcats are not perfect, TRACR still views them as a top-25 team because of their defense. They’re holding opponents to just 59.3 points per game – fifth among major conference teams – and their defensive TRACR ranks 12th.
The offense can still improve – Northwestern ranks 62nd in offensive TRACR – and the team is shooting just 38.7% from the field. The Wildcats have shot under 30.0% from the field in three different games this season and have shot under 30.0% from beyond the arc six times. However, they do not turn the ball over much (10.8 turnovers per game) and they get to the free-throw line (19.9 attempts per game). They went 32 of 40 from the line against Illinois earlier this month!
Northwestern is an experienced team as all six players who have at least one start this season are upperclassmen. Credit to Chris Collins for developing and sticking with them, rather than having to constantly pick up players from the transfer portal. This could be the year when Northwestern makes it back to the NCAA Tournament for just the second time in school history.
The Big Ten is once again one of the strongest conferences in college basketball, but there has been a shakeup. Only two teams are ranked in the AP Top 25: Purdue and Wisconsin. This could be a year when a team like Rutgers, Northwestern, or Penn State (48th) finishes in the top three in the conference.
While the Big Ten continues to stay strong, the SEC continues to rise. After an impressive 2021-22 season, the conference has started off in dominant fashion with five teams in the AP Top 25. TRACR ranks Tennessee as the best team in the country, with Alabama closely behind at No. 4. Arkansas (22nd) has yet another impressive team under Eric Musselman and could reach the Elite Eight once again. Auburn (27th) might not be as good as it was last year, but it still has Sweet 16 potential. Missouri (49th) and Georgia (65th) are also on the rise.
While the rest of the conference improves, one team is collapsing: Kentucky. The Wildcats were ranked No. 3 in TRACR in the preseason. They are now 77th.
This might be the worse Kentucky team under John Calipari. While the offense ranks in the TRACR top 25, the spacing on the floor that this offense creates can be subpar – especially from beyond the arc. The Wildcats shot 39.4% from 3 in nonconference play, but they’ve struggled at 32.4% from deep in SEC play.
Kentucky had a chance to tie the game against visiting South Carolina on Tuesday, but missed three attempts from beyond the arc in the 71-68 loss. By the way, the Gamecocks are by far the worst team in the SEC at 173rd and this came three days after the Wildcats lost to Alabama by 26.
The loss to the Crimson Tide showed the team’s flaws. Kentucky shot 28.8% from the field while Alabama had a 51.6 field-goal percentage in the second half. It was not the only game that showed how weak Kentucky’s defense is as SEC opponents have shot 43.5% from 3. Kentucky is ranked 179th in defensive TRACR, which is the fifth-worst mark among major conference teams.
The SEC could have six, maybe seven teams make the NCAA Tournament. The way it looks right now, Kentucky would not be one of them. It would be the second time in the last three years that the Wildcats have missed the tourney and they haven’t won a tournament game since 2019.
While John Calipari likely has a lifetime contract at Kentucky, fans are not happy with how this team has performed.