Rise & Fall: Mid-Major Conference Review

August 11th, 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 mid-major conferences before moving up to the big boys. (See the Rise & Fall: Data article to see how the league groupings were made).





The BW rides the fence between the "mid-major" and "low-major" categories. It hasn't finished in the top-half of the RPI in at least the last dozen years, but yet it tends to avoid any major embarrassments. Following the departure of Utah State in 2005, the league RPI plummeted to a low of 23rd but has since rebounded. However, this has been due to a bit of smoke and mirrors, as the BW's non-conference schedule is one of the worst out there. In 2007 for example, the BW managed to play an easier schedule than the independents (a rare accomplishment) and last season's was only marginally better. Its highly possible that just on BW team will finish in the Top 100 RPI this time around.



While things have returned to normal following the banner 2006 year (two tourney teams including the George Mason run), that success was really just an aberration. The CAA usually finishes around 13-14th in the RPI, and its teams manage to win about 50% of their non-league games. While VCU has a chance to be one of the year's big mid-major success stories, the CAA should hover around its norm.



The last two years have been as good as it gets in the Horizon. Led by Butler's amazing success, league teams not only played challenging schedules, but they actually won a fair share of games against top teams.. leading to Top 10 non-conference RPI's each year. Cleveland State beat an ACC & Big East team, while Wright State & Valpo each knocked off multiple Top-100 non-con opponents. Butler will inevitably fall back this year following the big senior losses, but there's enough positive momentum in place to prevent a relapse to the low of 2005 (19th RPI and only one team over 16 wins).



If I hadn't looked the numbers, I probably would have guessed the MAC is in a slight decline. It just seems like the member teams aren't as relevant on the national scene as they once were. But last year's numbers were in line with the usual MAC season (RPI of 12 compared to a 12.7 average over the last decade). Kent State's Top 25 ranking in the computers was the best by a MAC team since the banner year of 1999 when both Miami and Kent made the big dance. If the league finishes 14th or worse (for the 4th time in 6 years), it would constitute a decline, but for now it hangs on the "status quo" edge.



The MAAC tends to do better than its low profile suggests.. its also one of the most volatile leagues. Its best seasons are akin to or better than the Big West and Sun Belt, but its worst seasons are low-major quality (for example, a non-conference RPI of 25 in 2007). Thus while Siena is coming off a nice season (66th overall) thanks in large part to the huge Stanford win and Rider was solid thanks to Jason Thompson, its hard to know what to expect in 2009. In general, league form has remained the same for quite some time.. hence the "status quo."



From 2007 to 2008, the Sun Belt made serious strides coming off one of its worst ever seasons. The league's non-conference winning % jumped from .386 to .480. Before last year's mini-renaissance I would have said the league was in a bit of a decline. 2006 & 2007 weren't nearly as good as 2003-2005. Part of this is due to league membership changes.. low quality teams like Troy and Louisiana-Monroe joining in, while New Mexico State moved out. As WKU and USA lose top talent in the off-season, I expect the RPI to return to the 18 to 20 range this year which would constitute the continuance of a very slight decline.



While Gonzaga raises the profile of the West Coast Conference, its really just a middling league. In fact, its fallen between 12th and 15th in the RPI in 8 of the last 10 years. But I give the WCC credit for always playing one of the toughest non-conference schedules in the country. Its been one of the two hardest in the country each of the last three years. This means that most seasons, the WCC's non-conference RPI (which is probably a better indicator of league power) is usually a little better than its overall RPI. Despite the glory of three tournament teams last season, the numbers suggest the WCC wasn't any better than usual.. the bad teams were just so bad that they made the good teams look good.


- 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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