To the delight of sports fans across the nation, it’s finally time to start filling out March Madness brackets after a long hiatus. Maybe this is the year the coworker in the Zoom call actually picks the outcome of all 63 games correctly. Odds are, neither you nor your coworkers will have a scot-free bracket. Even with some knowledge of college basketball, mathematicians give a startling 1 in 120.2 billion chance of making a perfect bracket.
Nevertheless, filling out a March Madness bracket is a longstanding tradition for many Americans. This season felt different than most, notably thanks to the reduced number of non-conference matchups. Knowing which conference reigns supreme this year could make or break your bracket.
1. Big 12
The Big 12 is far and away the strongest and deepest conference in the country heading into the tournament. The conference boasts a stunning total of six teams in the Associated Press top-25 rankings — including the No. 2 Baylor Bears. This conference is no cakewalk and features the most battle-tested teams in the entire NCAA heading into the tournament.
Vegas considers Baylor one of the favorites to win the tournament, behind only Gonzaga. The Bears have an electric offense — winning the battle in the paint and shooting a lights-out 42% from three this season. The team went 22-2 while playing in the best conference in the country, making them the team to beat going into the tournament.
Blue-blood program Kansas sits at second in the conference, posing an intimidating threat to any team it steps on the hardwood with. West Virginia boasts a staggering offense that averages 77.3 points per game. The Mountaineers gave Baylor a run for their money, taking them to OT earlier this season, and came just a few turnovers short from taking down one of the best teams in the nation.
Not to mention that Cade Cunningham, the projected number one overall pick in the NBA Draft, calls the Big 12 home as a member of the Oklahoma State Cowboys — who stunned the college basketball world with an upset of the Bears in the conference tournament last week.
The Big 12 has a plethora of teams that coaches around the country fear. The odds of a team from the Big 12 making a deep run into the tournament remain high — many having a real shot at the national title.
2. Big Ten
Although the Big Ten boasts four teams in the AP’s top 10, the fall off after these teams becomes much more drastic than Big 12’s. The elite tier of the Big Ten has the liberty of beating up on the lesser competition in the basement of their own conference — half of the league boasts a record under the .500 mark. Ohio State and Purdue have proven themselves legitimate contenders to make the Sweet Sixteen or Elite Eight, but haven’t earned the reputation of programs with a chance to take down Gonzaga or Baylor.
Despite the lack of parity in the Big Ten, it still boasts some of the strongest teams and players in the country, including the back-to-back conference player of the year, senior center Luka Garza, and the AP No. 8 Iowa Hawkeyes. The top three Big Ten teams have become known as teams that could make serious runs in the tournament — the Michigan Wolverines, Illinois Fighting Illini and Iowa. The Big Ten may not be as deep as the Big 12, but the top teams of the conference can certainly hold their own against any opponent.
The fall-off from the first two conferences listed and the others is quite steep, but the SEC leads the rest of the pack. Kentucky, the annual SEC powerhouse, had a horrific year and will miss the tournament for the first time since 2013. But multiple teams have stepped up in the Wildcats’ wake.
The Associated Press poll has two teams from this conference in its latest ranking — the Arkansas Razorbacks and Alabama Crimson Tide. The Crimson Tide have an excellent offense that can pose a threat to any team in the nation when it gets in a rhythm — posting nearly 80 points a game. Alabama doesn’t take its foot off of the gas either, winning by an average of 9.8 points. Sophomore guard Jahvon Quinerly looks to lead the Crimson Tide to a deep run in the tournament with a team-leading 44.3% 3-point percentage.
Once again, the weakness in the SEC lies in its lack of depth. After the top two teams, no true contenders emerge. Tennessee and LSU have talent but remain several pieces away from contending for a national title. The SEC is certainly the best of the rest, having two contenders, but these teams have yet to play teams at the level of the Big Ten and Big 12 and will face tough tests as the tournament progresses.
The historically feared ACC endured one of the conference’s worst collective efforts in recent history with just three teams ranked in the top 25 at the end of the season — none in the top 10. Blue-bloods Duke and North Carolina spent the majority of the season looking up at Virginia, Florida State and Virginia Tech, and the Blue Devils endured one of their worst seasons under head coach Mike Krzyzewski to miss the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1995.
Some regard the Florida State Seminoles as potential contenders, but Vegas still lists them as 20-1 odds to win the title — the best odds of any team in the ACC. The Seminoles beat up on the ACC’s weak competition in the regular season, but we will see how the team matches up with the nation’s best.
The ACC lacked its usual competitiveness and failed to produce a national title contender. The conference may see a few teams make deep runs into the tournament, but the odds of these teams competing against the top dogs in the Big Ten and Big 12 are slim to none.
5. Big East
The Big East has several programs that many regard as sleeper teams to make Cinderella runs in the tournament, but much like the ACC, lack a true powerhouse this year. Villanova is the number one ranked team in the conference, but the team’s top player, senior guard Collin Gillespie, tore his MCL and will not return for the tournament — significantly diminishing the Wildcats’ chances to make a run in the tournament. Creighton is another team that people view as a potential sleeper team — but still have yet to play the nation’s best outside of one contest with Kansas in which Creighton lost 73-72.
But the Patrick Ewing-coached Georgetown Hoyas have caught fire at the right time. The Hoyas drubbed Creighton in the Big East Championship 73-48, securing an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. Whether this energy and success carry into the tournament will reveal itself in due time, but the Hoyas are certainly a team to watch after an impressive showing in the conference tournament. The major question surrounding this conference surrounds its ability to compete with higher ranked programs in other conferences.
The Pac-12 will send five teams to the tournament with lofty hopes of upsetting some of the nation’s best. Colorado is the conference’s highest ranked team in the tournament as a No. 5 seed — facing an uphill battle after the round of 64. The team certainly has shown flashes of excellence this year with McKinley Wright leading the way scoring 15.5 points per game. But Colorado, like most teams this season, remains unproven due to a lack of non-conference wins.
The selection committee awarded the Pac-12 champion Oregon State the No. 12 seed in the Midwest region, facing SEC-tested Tennessee in its first matchup. The odds of the team’s underdog mentality translating to wins against the bigger conferences, though, are slim — yet never zero.
The Pac-12 has a few teams that could pull off some surprising upsets in the first two rounds, but don’t expect many Pac-12 teams to stay alive into the Sweet Sixteen.
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