Throughout Bracketology season, the number of teams each conference is projected to have in the NCAA men's basketball tournament field is discussed rather often. Then, when Selection Sunday finally arrives -- can you tell I'm getting excited and impatient? -- the conference that receives the most bids is held up in discussions as being the strongest.
In reality, having more teams in the field is a reflection only of which league might be the deepest from top to bottom, but not necessarily the strongest, at least when it comes to the number of teams that are threats to win the national championship. The goal isn't to win a game or two but rather to win the whole thing, right?
In case it's not obvious why it's better to get quality (higher seeds) over quantity (more bids) when the bracket is revealed, here are a few quick facts:
• No. 1 seeds have won 10 of the past 13 championships, and no other seed has more than one title in that span.
• The conference with the most bids has produced the champion just once in the past six years (ACC in 2017 with North Carolina).
• Each of the past three times a conference received multiple No. 1 seeds, one of its teams has reached the championship game (winning each of the past two years).
Now that we are less than a month from the start of the Big Dance, let's look at which conferences have fared the best (and worst) in recent years, in terms of number of bids, quality of bids, and, of course, advancement in the tournament.
We will profile the nine conferences that have averaged at least two bids per year, dating back to 2011, which is when the field expanded to 68 teams with the introduction of the First Four. Yes, that means the West Coast Conference will not be specifically profiled, despite Gonzaga's general tournament success (the Zags have made more Elite Eights than the American, Atlantic 10 and Mountain West combined in this span).
NOTE: Conferences are listed in order of average NCAA tournament bids per year since 2011.
Big East (6.7 bids per year, 12 top-two seeds)
In the spirit of fairness, we need to break the discussion of the Big East into two parts: pre-2014 and since then, as that's when the league split, which spawned the American Athletic Conference.
2011-13: The average bids per year listed above is significantly boosted by these three seasons. The league received an impressive 28 bids (five of which were No. 1 or 2 seeds) in those three years, two of which culminated in championships (UConn in 2011 and Louisville in 2013). The old Big East had a solid advancement rate in this short span, as nearly one-third of teams reached the Sweet 16 and four teams made the Final Four.
The volume of bids helped, as three of the five teams that received No. 1 or 2 seeds lost during the first weekend. Those top seeds who faltered were picked up by UConn in 2011, which won the title as a 3-seed, and a pair of No. 4 seeds that reached the Final Four in 2012 (Louisville) and 2013 (Syracuse). Lower-seeded teams made very little noise in this three-year span, as the only team seeded worse than sixth to survive the first weekend was 11th-seeded Marquette in 2011.
2014-19: While some things have changed since the conference split, two things have remained somewhat the same: The Big East is still a threat to win a national title (as Villanova proved in 2016 and 2018), and lower-seeded conference teams still struggle to reach the second week of tourney play.
The average seed predictably has dropped since 2011-13 (from 5.54 to 6.50), and it's been all or nothing in terms of tournament success. Other than Jay Wright's Wildcats winning two titles, as a No. 1 and a No. 2 seed, only two other times in the past six years has a Big East team advanced past the second round. That's particularly alarming when you consider the conference has had 10 teams seeded fourth or better in this span.
There are a handful of teams competing for top-four seeds this year, so it will be interesting to see if the Big East as a conference can get the monkey off its back.
Big Ten (6.6 bids per year, 12 top-two seeds)
That's how long it's been since a Big Ten team won a national championship. It's been well-documented, but other than its failure to seal the deal, the conference has experienced plenty of success.
No conference has seen more teams reach the Final Four than the Big Ten in the 68-team era (the SEC also has seven), and its 44-14 record in first-round games (.759 win percentage) is second to only the Missouri Valley Conference (10-3, .769). Big Ten teams seeded seventh or worse are 7-0 in the first round in the past three years. There's something to be said for that, since "survive and advance" is the unofficial mantra of the NCAA tournament.
However, because the conference has struggled to earn a No. 1 seed in recent years, deep advancement has been a problem. The most recent time a Big Ten team got a top seed was 2015 (Wisconsin), and in the four years since, the conference has had just three teams get as far as the Elite Eight (two of which were last year).
The Big Ten is sure to get a ton of bids this year, so time will tell whether the incredible depth of the league will lead to any deep runs.
ACC (6.3 bids per year, 20 top-two seeds)
The ACC has had the most overall success of any league in this span in terms of sheer numbers. It has the most teams to reach the Sweet 16 (30) and Elite Eight (15), and is second only to the Big East in championships (three).
It helps to have elite teams year in and year out, as no conference has more No. 1 or No. 2 seeds in the current tournament format. An impressive 35% of ACC bids have been top-two seeds, easily the highest percentage of any conference. That has contributed to nearly 53% of ACC entries reaching the Sweet 16, also best of any conference.
But it hasn't been all roses in terms of advancement. That's especially true for the Nos. 2 and 3 seeds. Five of the nine No. 2 seeds were eliminated in the first or second round, and half of the six No. 3 seeds suffered the same fate. And of course we all remember Virginia two years ago becoming the first No. 1 seed to lose in the first round. The most recent No. 2 seed from the ACC to reach the Final Four was North Carolina in 1995 ... yes, 25 years ago. And there have been 17 ACC 2-seeds since then.
So volume doesn't solve everything when it comes to producing Final Four teams, even in an accomplished league such as the ACC. That said, the top of the conference is strong again this season. Will someone get a chance to break the Curse of the No. 2?
Big 12 (6.2 bids per year, 10 top-two seeds)
Despite the second-best average seed over the past nine years, the Big 12 has had its share of disappointing results in the tourney. In its 23-year history, the conference has had just one champion (Kansas in 2008).
Because Kansas has accounted for eight of the 10 top-two seeds in the past nine years, the Big 12's tournament success has largely been measured by how the Jayhawks have performed. Bill Self's team has reached the Final Four just once in five trips as a No. 1 seed during this span, which tells you everything you need to know.
Last year marked the first time in 20 years the Big 12 failed to have at least one team seeded on the top two lines, but the conference's top seed, No. 3 Texas Tech, came up big by reaching the championship game.
In a five-year stretch between 2012 and 2016, eight Big 12 teams seeded fifth or better were bounced in the first round (including a No. 2 and a trio of No. 3s), which is a big reason only roughly one-third of its NCAA tournament qualifiers have reached the Sweet 16 in the 68-team era (only the Big East has been worse among Power 6 conferences). But it's happened just once, so at least the league's top teams are on a better path in terms of avoiding the way-too-early upset bug.
Baylor and Kansas are currently on the top line in the latest Bracketology.
SEC (4.8 bids per year, seven top-two seeds)
While the total number of bids doesn't match up with the previous conferences, the rate of advancement has been arguably the best in this nine-year span. Despite the second-lowest rate of top-two seeds among Power 6 conferences, the SEC has the best rate of teams to reach the Elite Eight (30%) and Final Four (16.3%).
As with most successful conferences, it starts with great perennial pillars. In this case, that's been Kentucky and Florida, who have combined for 11 of the league's 13 Elite Eight appearances. Last year, though, it was fifth-seeded Auburn that shined bright by reaching the Final Four. And in 2017, seventh-seeded South Carolina surprised everyone with its Final Four trip.
Like the Big Ten, it's been five years since the most recent time the SEC had a team seeded No. 1 -- heck, Gonzaga has as many No. 1 seeds as the SEC in the 68-team era -- but it had never received more than six bids until the past two years (eight in 2018, seven in 2019). Sure, it's great when the stars align as they did in 2014, when the conference got just three bids but each team made the Sweet 16 (and two made the Final Four), despite only one team being seeded better than eighth. But getting more bids -- and more quality bids -- can only help. We'll see if the resurgence the SEC has been experiencing will continue to lead to fun into late March, and maybe early April.
Pac-12 (4.2 bids per year, four top-two seeds)
The past two years have been especially tough for the Pac-12, and not just because the league has a total of four NCAA tournament wins. The conference has received only six bids in those two years, only one of which was better than a No. 9 seed. That's not exactly a recipe for success for any league.
It's tough to make a ton of noise when the average seed of your NCAA tourney teams is just 7.3, so it shouldn't surprise anyone that the Pac-12 has just five Elite Eight appearances in this nine-year span (all by Arizona and Oregon).
However, whenever the conference has received a high seed, its teams have fared reasonably well ... or at least generally avoided early exits. Seven times in the past nine years, Pac-12 teams have earned a top-three seed. Six of those seven teams reached the Sweet 16 and four got to the Elite Eight. No. 3-seeded Oregon in 2017 represents the only Final Four team from the Pac-12 in the 68-team era.
Colorado resides on the 4 line in the latest Bracketology, and Arizona and Oregon are both 5-seeds, so there's time to improve those seeds and, in turn, their chances at a more favorable path in the Big Dance.
Atlantic 10 (3.6 bids per year, zero top-two seeds)
The A-10 might be the ultimate "tweener" conference, in that it has received multiple NCAA bids 14 consecutive years but hasn't had a team seeded better than fourth in 12 years.
The most recent time the conference saw a team advance to the second weekend was 2014, which is also the most recent time the league had a team seeded better than seventh. But if there's one thing that's interesting about the A-10 in the tournament, it's that lower seeds have proved to be the most dangerous.
Eighteen A-10 teams have been single-digit seeds in the 68-team era. None of them won more than one game in a single NCAA tournament. In fairness, 10 of those 18 teams had the unenviable task of being a 7, 8 or 9 seed, meaning they would have to face a top-two seed in the second round. Still, not one of them broke through to reach the second weekend.
The only four conference teams to reach the Sweet 16 in this span have been double-digit seeds, and they happened once a year for four consecutive years (2011 to 2014).
This much is for sure: The best hope for the conference ending the struggles for single-digit seeds will lie with Dayton, which is a 2-seed in the latest Bracketology. The A-10 last had a top-two seed in 2004, when Saint Joseph's was a No. 1.
American (3.2 bids per year, one top-two seed)
Aside from UConn's amazing championship run as a No. 7 seed in the conference's first season in 2014, the results just haven't been there for the American. Only three of the 19 teams to make the NCAAs have advanced to the second weekend, two of which came in that first season.
Conference teams have generally received middling seeds, as there has been one No. 2 seed, one No. 3 and a pair of No. 4s in the American's six-year history. Similar to the A-10, a good number of AAC teams (37% to be exact) have received 7, 8 or 9 seeds, so the path hasn't been ideal to start with. It didn't stop UConn in 2014, but this is a league that has yet to receive more than four bids. That's not likely to change this year either, and no team will face the expectation to win more than one game entering the tournament.
Mountain West (2.6 bids per year, one top-two seed)
The fact that no Mountain West team has ever advanced past the Sweet 16 in the league's 20-year existence speaks volumes. The struggle has been very real.
Almost no conference team has exceeded expectations that come with the seed it has received. In this nine-year span, only seventh-seeded Nevada in 2018 defeated a higher seed.
There's no doubt seeding plays a role, as the league hasn't had a team seeded better than seventh since 2014. Of the four MWC teams to receive a top-four seed in the past nine years, three of them reached the Sweet 16, as their seeds would suggest. But nothing more, obviously.
That is the kind of history that undefeated San Diego State will be trying to change when it embarks on its tourney journey a month from now. The Aztecs are hoping to become the first No. 1 seed in conference history ... and then do something with it.