Ranking All 31 CBB Conference Tournaments
The phrase “March Madness” is typically synonymous with the NCAA tournament, but the madness truly begins in the two weeks beforehand. It’s in that period that every conference in Division I with the exception of the Ivy League stages a conference tournament to determine the league’s automatic bid to the Big Dance.
The drama from these often match or exceed that of the NCAA tournament itself. Disappointing seasons can be salvaged; programs that finished the regular season below .500 are just a couple victories away from the NCAA tournament; plucky underdogs can emerge and capture America’s affection; and of course, there are game-winners and buzzer-beaters galore.
With that in mind, we rank each of the sport’s 31 conference tournaments from worst to first on an overall basis taking into account the teams, location, venue, atmosphere and history.
31. Great West
Started in 2010, the Great West tournament that consists of five teams this year is like a tree falling in a forest, as it is the only conference tournament that doesn’t have an automatic bid to the Big Dance; the winner instead gets an invite to the CollegeInsider.com Tournament. Um, no thanks.
Frequently, the 16-seed that the Big Dance’s top overall seed gets to feast on comes from this league. One of the teams not making the trip to the Dallas suburb of Garland this year is regular season champ Texas Southern — 16–2 in conference play yet just 17–14 overall — due to NCAA violations. The only drama left here is if Grambling State can avoid an 0–28 season.
29. Atlantic Sun
Yes, this is in fact the name of a college athletic conference and not a Carnival cruise ship. This year’s edition of the conference tournament was staged in Macon, GA - home of regular season champion Mercer - and was won by Florida Gulf Coast, a school you’ve probably never heard of.
28. Summit League
The nicknames of the participating teams — Leathernecks, Jackrabbits, Mastadons, Kangaroos — are significantly more interesting than the teams themselves or the conference tournament’s location in middle-of-nowhere Sioux Falls, SD. In the Big Dance, no current member has done better than a victory in the play-in game.
Like the SWAC, the MEAC perennially serves as the conference that generates the NCAA tournament’s 16- and 15-seeds. Every now and then, the MEAC tourney champion can pull off a shocker, like Norfolk State over Missouri last year (photo below) or Hampton over Iowa State in 2001. More often than not, however, they’re on the wrong end of a rout.
26. Big South
There’s certainly nothing big about the Big South tournament’s host city of Conway, SC (population: 16,317). The fourth-lowest rated conference in the country, according to TeamRankings.com, perhaps it’s good that so few people were on hand to watch subpar basketball last weekend - which saw a 20-loss team (Liberty) reach the Big Dance.
Katy, TX, (population: 14,102) is an even sleepier conference tournament site than Conway, SC. But at the very least, the Southland conference can boast better teams than the Big South, including regular season champion Stephen F. Austin (24–3). Nipping on the Lumberjacks’ heels this season was Northwestern State, who you may remember from its 2006 Big Dance upset of Iowa.
Stephen Curry isn’t walking through that door a la 2008, yet Davidson (26–7) remains the class of this conference - once the home of Maryland, Duke, North Carolina and NC State - after capturing its second straight SoCon tournament title on Monday. Whoever draws the Wildcats in the second round of the Big Dance best be on their guard, as Davidson will enter the tournament on a 17-game winning streak.
23. Big West
Long Beach State and Pacific provide this tourney with quality programs, and we like the fact that it is being held in the neutral but easily-accessible spot of Anaheim. (Every participating team but Hawaii is located in California.)
Often times the winner of the MAAC tourney does damage in the Big Dance, as evidenced by Manhattan (2004) and Sienna (2009 and 2010). Can high-scoring Iona (third in the nation at 80.7 PPG) do the same in 2013? At the very least, the Gaels will be grateful to play in front of a bigger and livelier crowd than they did at the MassMutual Center in Springfield, MA.
21. Big Sky
Be wary of the tournament champion from this conference if it’s either regular season champ Montana (21–6) or Weber State (22–5), both of whom have NCAA tournament upsets to their name. Having the games held at schools’ home arenas definitely provides a charged environment - albeit a very one-sided one.
20. Sun Belt
Hot Springs, AR, is more well known as a destination for spa lovers, not college hoops fans. This marks the fifth consecutive year that the central Arkansas town has hosted the Sun Belt tournament, out of which Western Kentucky emerged in 2008 en route to a surprise Sweet Sixteen run. Can this year’s Hilltoppers squad do the same after its 2013 Sun Belt tourney win?
19. America East
Oddly enough, this tournament starts out at a neutral site (the SEFCU Center in Albany, NY) before moving to the home court of the highest remaining seed for the title game. We’ll always be grateful to the America East — even if it does sound like the name of a low-budget airline — for giving us the Vermont team that shocked Syracuse in 2005.
Another conference where campus sites serves as the hosts of tournament games, the NEC’s postseason atmosphere is intimate but charged. And often times these teams thrive when the action takes them up and down the floor, as high-flying LIU Brooklyn demonstrated in style en route to two straight titles (with a possible third tonight). The conference is small in recognition but boasts historically successful programs with the likes of Fairleigh Dickinson, Mount St. Mary’s and Robert Morris.
17. Ohio Valley
Nashville is typically the home of many underexposed but talented musicians. It’s additionally been the home of underexposed but talented Ohio Valley teams every March but one since 1994. Each of the past three conference tournament champions — Murray State in 2010 and 2012, Morehead State in 2011 — have won their opening NCAA tournament game. After a dramatic victory over Murray State in the OVC title game on Sunday, can conference newcomer Belmont (26-6) make it four in a row?
The WAC tournament has seen better days, namely when the likes of Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico and Tulsa were in the league years ago. While a lot of defections have hurt the conference, there’s still some good basketball being played here - most notably by Louisiana Tech (26-5) this season. And big ups to holding it in Las Vegas since 2011.
15. Patriot League
Now we’re getting to the good stuff. There’s something so charming about this conference, which just recently started awarding athletic scholarships and is the subject of a famous book, “The Last Amateurs.” If you’re a big-conference, first round NCAA tournament opponent, you’ll be wise not to confuse the Patriot League with lack of skill. Both Kansas (vs. Bucknell in 2005) and Duke (Lehigh in 2012) made that mistake.
This was once a great tournament, but what Richmond Coliseum played host to over the previous three days - capped off on Monday by James Madison earning its first Big Dance bid since 1994 - had the feel of a last hurrah. Former member VCU departed for the A-10 prior to this season, and Old Dominion and Georgia State are following the Rams out the door in advance of 2013. The unlikely Final Four runs of George Mason (2006) and VCU (2011) never felt so long ago.
13. Horizon League
Butler’s defection to the A-10 hurt this conference’s present standing but doesn’t diminish its proud postseason history. In addition to the Bulldogs’ back-to-back national title game appearances in 2010 and 2011, UW-Milwaukee reached the ’05 Sweet Sixteen, and the league currently holds the best Big Dance winning percentage among non-BCS conferences (39–41, .488). Either of Tuesday’s title game participants, Valparaiso (25-7) or Wright State (21-11), could do real damage in the NCAAs.
For the prototypical mid-major conference, there’s something to be had about playing its tournament championship game in an NBA arena (Cleveland’s Quicken Loans Arena to be precise). And as Ohio’s upset of Michigan last March (and rout of Georgetown in 2010) demonstrated, watch out if you get paired against a MAC team in the Big Dance. Either Akron or Ohio look like they could continue that trend this season.
11. Conference USA
Back when the likes of Marquette, Louisville, Cincinnati and others called C-USA home, this tournament was as good as those in BCS conference. All those teams’ departures, mostly for the Big East, hurt the quality of play tremendously. Watching Memphis alone this week will be worth the price of admission. Once the Tigers are off to the Big East next season? Yikes.
10. Missouri Valley
Hands down, the MVC has the best conference tournament nickname in the land: Arch Madness. (Because they play in St. Louis. Get it?) That’s just an added bonus, as the conference’s real calling card is sending multiple talented teams to the Big Dance year after year. The atmosphere is always great at this event that’s been held since 1977 and was especially strong last weekend with Creighton (the tourney champ) and Wichita State (runners-up) having great seasons.
9. Mountain West
Just as the MWC hits its stride as a conference, so too does its 13-year-old conference tournament hit its stride as an event. Playing at Las Vegas’ Thomas & Mack Center gives the whole thing added pizzazz, as does a field that feels deeper and deeper each year. If this conference can fend off defections in the years ahead, the MWC tournament could easily be the best outside the major conferences.
8. West Coast Conference
The subtitle for this tournament is no longer “Gonzaga’s Unstoppable March to the NCAA Tournament” (the top-ranked Zags’ title this year notwithstanding), and that’s a good thing. Saint Mary’s has become a perennial mid-major darling in its own right, and the arrival of always dangerous BYU this season gave the league even more of a boost. There’s also great history WCC tourney history outside of those teams, as fans of Bo Kimble and Hank Gathers at Loyola Marymount and Doug Christie at Pepperdine will be quick to point out.
7. Atlantic 10
Since 1977, the A-10 tournament has been a great event for future NBA stars like Mark Macon, Marcus Camby, Lamar Odom and David West. Now it’s better than ever and headed to Brooklyn. The gleaming new Barclays Center plays host to the conference tourney after five straight years in Atlantic City (which always felt a little shady). The presence of Butler and VCU presence has given new life to the league, which boasts additional good teams in St. Louis, La Salle and Temple. Enjoy it now A-10 fans, because the Catholic 7 looks ready to gobble up the Bulldogs as well as Xavier.
After 11 years of playing in front of painfully small crowds at the Staples Center, the Pac-12 tourney is now setting up shop in Sin City, at the MGM Grand Garden Arena — the fourth and final team to hold its postseason tournament in Vegas. While the tournament has enjoyed some great teams and memorable moments like Isaiah Thomas’ title-winning shot in 2011, the tournament as a whole has been a big disappointment since restarting in 2002.
5. Big 12
Kansas’ stranglehold on the tournament (five wins in the last seven years) can turn it into a ho-hum affair. The tournament could also use a new location, as this will be the 13th time it’s held in Kansas City since its inception in 1997 - making it a de facto home court for the Jayhawks.
When the tournament is held in Atlanta’s George Dome, it has a Final Four atmosphere with Kentucky fans everywhere. Why it’s being placed in Nashville this year is anyone’s guess. The tournament is usually an entertaining series of “David vs. Goliath” games (with Kentucky always playing the role of the latter). Florida has also been exceptional over the last decade, which has really helped the event. Alas, with the Wildcats in a rebound year, it won’t be the tournament’s finest hour.
3. Big Ten
It’s fitting that the postseason tournament for this season’s best conference will be called by the same CBS crew (Jim Nantz and Clark Kellogg) assigned to the Final Four. While the tournament has only been held since 1998, the title game has become a staple of Selection Sunday, with the winner normally among the favorites to reach the Final Four.
The ACC tournament has the greatest history of all, being played annually since 1954. The only way you can be an ACC champion is by winning the tournament — a rule that the conference enacted in 1961, making things crazy back when conferences used to receive only one NCAA tournament bid each. Therefore it is no coincidence that so many of the games in this tournament, dominated primarily by Duke and North Carolina, have gone down in the annals as some of the best in college hoops history.
1. Big East
This was a no-brainer. Played in the World’s Most Famous Arena in the middle of Manhattan, this Tuesday-through-Saturday extravaganza broadcasted live on ESPN has the best teams and atmosphere of any conference tournament – not to mention the most enduring memories (Gerry McNamara in 2006 or Kemba Walker in 2011, anyone?). Sadly, with the Big East disintegrating before our eyes, this will be the last year of the best conference tournament college basketball has ever known.
Photo Credit: Anthony Gruppuso/USA Today Sports