Rise & Fall: Low-Major Conference Review

August 4th, 2008

In recent weeks, the Rise & Fall series has chronicled the progress (or regress) of college basketball's major conference teams. But if I equated each team to a civilization, I was mistaken. It is really the NCAA conference that equates to a burgeoning civilization or nation, each with its sometimes stable and sometimes rotating member states. Like civilizations, the prestige and power of conferences wax and wane..


Today, I'll start with the status of the low-major conferences before moving up to the big boys.





For whatever reason, the AE's RPI rating swings wildly compared to most leagues.. anywhere between 16th and 29th in the last seven years. When teams like Delaware, Drexel, and Hofstra bolted for the CAA after 2001, it seemed like an iminent disaster (and was for a moment in 2002 with that 29th RPI). But Tom Brennan's great Vermont teams really saved the league's prestige. However, now that Vermont is still trying to regain form under Mike Lonegran and Albany's Jamar Wilson era is over, the league is retreating back into the mid-twenties RPI range where I expect them to finish in 2009.



While Belmont was solid last year, it was an abysmal year for the ASun. The league's decline has mainly been do the negative effects of a changing league membership. Central Florida, FAU, and Georgia State have all left in recent seasons for "bigger" leagues, replaced by D1 newcomers like Kennessaw State and North Florida. Last year, 6 teams in the league finished with an RPI below 290th. This led to an overall RPI of 29th, one of the worst seasons in the league's history, and a stark change from the usual range of 20th to 23rd that the ASun enjoyed just a handful of seasons ago.



Basically, this is all about the emergence of Winthrop in recent years. In the last 90's and early 00's, the Big south was right there with the MEAC and SWAC as the last rung on college basketball's ladder. But Greg Marshall's amazing success at Winthrop has the been the main catalyst for the league's overall improvement. While its unclear whether Randy Peele can continue Marshall's success, and UNCA might slip after last year's solid run, those worries can't overturn the league's positive momentum.



This is one of the few low-major leagues to have finished above 15th in overall RPI (ie, the top half) in the last two decades. The league isn't quite as strong as it was just a few years back though, as the subtle switch of losing Northridge to the Big West, in place of horrid Northern Colorado has hurt. For the first half of the decade, it seemed like one Big Sky team always was a serious mid-major contender, highlighted by Montana's 2006 Tournament win (and Weber's big upset back in 99). But such an upset seems highly unlikely right now.



The Ivy has had better success over the last decade than any low-major league, and its arguable that they should really count in the "mid-major" category. Regardless, the glory days of Penn/Princeton dominance has come to an end, and now the conference isn't really any better than geographical rivals like the Patriot or America East. Cornell is the league's main hope in the present (perhaps to be joined by Amaker's Harvard?) as Penn and Princeton try to resurrect past glory. A repeat of the Ivy's 2002 RPI finish of 13th won't come around for awhile.



It wasn't always a given that the SWAC and the MEAC would finish dead last in the RPI. While never good, they were just one of a handful of low-level leagues like the Big South and Southland conferences. But over the last handful of years, its become a certainty that either the MEAC and SWAC will be the bottom of the barrel. Despite being 30th out of 31 conferences last year, it was actually the MEAC's most successful season of the century. Todd Bozeman has turned a dismal Morgan State program (4-26 in 2006) into a winner (over 20 wins last year) while Hampton knocked off legit programs like Tulsa and VCU. Due to these wins, the league's non-conference RPI of 28 tied their high-water mark of the last decade.



The league is slightly better than it was a handful of years back, but a repeat of last year's success is unlikely. With an RPI of 20th, it was one of the NEC's better performances due to quality seasons from Robert Morris and Wagner. But the win totals put up by those schools and others was really more due to smoke and mirrors, as the NEC's non-conference SOS was one of the worst in the nation. A usual finish around 26th in the RPI should be expected this time around.



Last year's RPI of 28th and .227 non-conference winning %, were some of the worst in league history. Though a small bounce back should be expected in 08-09, the OVC has been in a steady downwards trend. Not to long ago, it seemed like two teams in the league (usually Murray State or APSU) were legitimate Top 100-120 programs that could compete with the big boys. While APSU is still decent, Murray has lost the luster of a few seasons back due to coaching changes.



The Patriot is coming off of two of their best seasons in recent history, with RPI finishes of 16th and 17th. The great non-conference winning % is a bit misleading though, because they played the worst schedule of anybody in the country (even the independents somehow managed to find better competition.) Thus while American's win over Maryland was cute, and Navy's continual improvement is nice to see, there's still serious room for (more legitimate) improvement.



Last year was the SLC's best season in recent memory.. and two of its best RPI seasons in the last decade have come in the past three years. SFA knocked off Oklahoma and NCAA Tournament team San Diego. Sam Houston beat higher-level programs like Texas Tech, Saint Louis, and Fresno. And those teams didn't even win the conference, as Texas-Arlington took the honors. While an overall conference RPI of 19 might not seem amazing, it represents a major improvement for a league that has barely outperformed the independents in the past ten years.



Despite the new name, the Summit is no better than it was as the Mid-Con. Never the worst conference out there, it also never seems to have a break out year and hasn't finished above 20th in the RPI in quite some time. Oral Roberts has obviously been the leader in recent years, while Oakland and IUPUI have shown some positive momentum. But there's too many duds in the league membership (Centenary, WIU, etc) to expect a serious break from form any time soon.



The SWAC's .085 winning percentage against non-conference teams is the worst of any team in the twelve seasons that I have stats for. In fact, previous marks of futility set by the SWAC are the only near competitors (.096 in 2000 for example.) But futility is nothing new for the SWAC, which has been the lowest ranked conference the last four years (by a large margin).. thus it deserves the Status Quo.


- Note that league power isn't quite as fluid as team power, so seemingly small baby steps end up counting more..

- Up Next: Mid-Majors




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