Which Conference is Best Represented in the NCAA Tournament?

Was Coach K right? Is the ACC underrated?

Soon after Duke beat North Carolina State in the semi-finals of the ACC tournament on Saturday, head coach Mike Krzyzewski made a controversial remark about the ACC's representatives in this year's NCAA Tournament, noting that the conference should get more respect.

Now that the bracket has been revealed, I'm sure Coach K is singing a different tune. Virginia snagged the final one seed in this year's field, while North Carolina State was able to get in despite a mediocre resume.

Six teams are representing the ACC in this year's bracket, tied for second place among all conferences. In total, seven conferences saw at least four of their teams make it in, while five will have at least six teams representing.

There's a discussion each year as to which conference is best in college basketball. While it's easy to point to, for instance, the Big 12 this year - the only conference with seven teams in the NCAA Tournament - and say that they're the best group in the land, sometimes quantity doesn't equal quality. Fortunately, we have our nERD metric that can help determine which conferences are best in terms of actual value, not just volume.

Let's take a look at the seven conferences mentioned with the most teams in the tournament, and see which ones look prepared, collectively, to make a run in this year's Big Dance.

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Atlantic 10 Conference

Number of Teams in the NCAA Tournament: 6
Best Team: Virginia Commonwealth (22nd)
Worst Team: Saint Joseph's (57th)

Despite seeing a few ranked teams in the AP poll throughout the season, the Atlantic 10 is filled with mediocrity when it's compared to the other conferences in the NCAA Tournament. The best squad in the conference is VCU, and by a pretty decent margin. The Rams lost the conference championship to automatic bid winners Saint Joseph's, but boast a nERD of 13.43, which is 22nd-best in the country. The Rams had a good win over Virginia at the beginning of the season, but only played two games against top-25 teams. They also lost to St. Joe's twice.

Saint Louis and Massachusetts, my two favorite teams to pick on in these articles it seems, also find themselves representing the A10 in this year's dance. Saint Louis, after being highly ranked as late as February this year, has struggled down the stretch, and their nERD score sees them more like a nine seed as opposed to a five. UMass, as I've talked about already, is one of the over-seeded teams in the country as well.

The average nERD score of the six teams in the Atlantic 10 that are in the tournament is a middling 10.03. A score like that would comprise about the 40th-best team in the country.

Pac-12 Conference

Number of Teams in the NCAA Tournament: 6
Best Team: Arizona (1st)
Worst Team: Colorado (52nd)

The Pac-12 has numberFire's best team in college basketball, Arizona, but don't mistake that for being a powerhouse of a conference. The conference has six teams in the NCAA Tournament, but only two are top-20 squads (Arizona and UCLA), while Arizona State, Stanford and Colorado rank 32nd or worse according to nERD.

The only defense in the conference that finished in the top 20 in adjusted defensive rating was the Arizona Wildcats, who actually finished with the best defense in college basketball this season. Arizona State was the second-best team on defense, ranking 24th, while UCLA finished 37th, third-best in the conference. In a tournament that typically loves good defense, it'll be interesting to see how the Pac-12 - outside of Arizona, of course - competes.

Admittedly, Colorado's poor nERD score pushes the conference's average down quite a bit. The Buffaloes are just the 52nd-best team in the country according to our metrics, and as I've mentioned plenty of times over the last 24 hours on this site, they're not the same type of team without leading scorer Spencer DinWiddie.

It's great to see the Pac-12 getting six teams in, and it's hard to really argue against any of their tournament resumes. However, the only team that's truly ready to go deep in the tournament is Arizona, while UCLA has an outside shot.

Big 12 Conference

Number of Teams in the NCAA Tournament: 7
Best Team: Kansas (3rd)
Worst Team: Kansas State (47th)

The Big 12 has the most teams in the NCAA Tournament this year, and was arguably the deepest conference in all of college hoops. However, when comparing the teams in the Big 12 to the rest of the field, our numbers aren't overly impressed.

The top three teams - Kansas, Oklahoma State and Iowa State - all rank in the top 14 in terms of nERD in the country, and have players that are capable of dominating in order to make deep tournament runs. Kansas played the toughest schedule this season and are tested, led by superstar Andrew Wiggins. Oklahoma State has a stud of their own in Marcus Smart, and seem to be playing good ball at the right time of the season. And Iowa State has four guys averaging double-digit points, no better than forward Melvin Ejim.

But there's a massive gap between these three schools and the rest of the pack, as Oklahoma is our 27th-best team, Baylor our 30th, Texas our 43rd and Kansas State our 47th. While Kansas and Iowa State, due to their seeding and paths, could make a run to the Final Four, we could see the Big 12 misrepresenting a bit in this year's NCAA Tournament. That's not to say it was a bad year for the conference, because it wasn't - there's a reason they have the most teams playing in the tournament. However, it's a tad top-heavy when you look at the entirety of the teams representing.

Big East Conference

Number of Teams in the NCAA Tournament: 4
Best Team: Villanova (5th)
Worst Team: Providence (50th)

This year's new-look Big East was able to get four teams in, led by our fifth-nERDiest team, Villanova, and our seventh-ranked squad, Creighton. However, on the opposite end, the Big East will see Providence and Xavier, two teams that are outside of our top 40 teams in the country.

Nova and Creighton are both capable teams, led by their offense. Creighton has the best adjusted offensive rating in the country led by leading scorer Doug McDermott, while Villanova ranks 16th. Creighton, however, is 2-1 against top 25 teams this year (thanks to two wins over 'Nova), while Villanova not only lost those two to Creighton, but dropped one to Syracuse as well. Fortunately, the Wildcats have nice wins over Kansas and Iowa.

Both of the Big East's top teams have an opportunity to do some work in the tournament. Creighton's tough offense won't see a top-ranked defense until the Elite Eight, where they may face off with Arizona - a true clash of offense versus defense. Villanova's first two rounds shouldn't be overly difficult either, but a potential Sweet 16 game against Iowa State would be fantastic to watch.

Overall, the Big East definitely deserves a little love this year given their studs at the top.

American Athletic Conference

Number of Teams in the NCAA Tournament: 4
Best Team: Louisville (2nd)
Worst Team: Memphis (41st)

The AAC only has four teams in the tournament thanks to an arguable snub of Southern Methodist, but the four teams are pretty strong all together. Led by a surging Louisville team, the old Big East also has a tough defensive team in Cincinnati (29th according to nERD), Connecticut (26th) and Memphis (41st).

Louisville should coast to the Sweet 16 in what could be a great matchup against the region's top seed, Wichita State, while the other three teams have very interesting tournament paths. Cincinnati will face 12-seeded Harvard in Round 1, a squad that's solid on defense, just like the Bearcats. Harvard comes in with a 37th-ranked nERD, so don't be surprised if you see a close 5/12 battle.

Connecticut, as a seven seed, should have no problem with St. Joe's in their first game, but will then have to face the Big East's best, Villanova. UConn and 'Nova both play top-15 defense, which could result in a low-scoring battle.

Memphis, the conference's worst team in the tournament, could end up facing the bracket's worst one seed, Virginia, in Round 2. Depending on the Memphis team that shows up, they could give Virginia trouble - Memphis lost by Florida by just two this year, and beat Louisville twice.

There are only four teams from the conference in the tournament, sure, but an average nERD of 13.6 among the four is quite impressive.

Atlantic Coast Conference

Number of Teams in the NCAA Tournament: 6
Best Team: Duke (6th)
Worst Team: North Carolina State (71st)

Maybe Coach K was right after all. Not only is his team the best one in the ACC from a numbers perspective, two spots ahead of one-seeded Virginia, but the ACC's six teams average a nERD of 13.2, and that includes NC State's 71st-ranked score. And, just to note, the Wolfpack are the worst at-large team in the tournament, so the average is being weighed down quite a bit compared to other conferences.

Why is the ACC so strong? Well, it's not to say that it was the best conference from top to bottom this year, but the top looks pretty nice with two top-eight teams in Duke and Virginia. Pitt, too, has been an underrated bunch, losing close games to quality opponents all season long en route to a 19th-ranked nERD score. The Panthers are finally healthy now, and that showed in the ACC Tournament.

In total, the five non-NC State ACC tournament teams rank no worse than 29th in nERD. Only the Big Ten Conference has a better representation than that.

Big Ten Conference

Number of Teams in the NCAA Tournament: 6
Best Team: Michigan State (9th)
Worst Team: Nebraska (58th)

The Big Ten could very well be the best conference in this year's tournament, led by Tom Izzo's Michigan State Spartans.

Sparty will be a trendy pick this year now that they're healthy, have an experienced and proven head coach, and a great backcourt with Keith Appling and Gary Harris. And don't forget about big man in Adreian Payne, either, who averaged almost 16 points and 7.5 rebounds per game this year. They have an adjusted defensive rating that lists in the top 20, and an offensive one that's in the top 10, making for a balanced squad ready to go deep in the tournament.

Though the Big Ten champions are the best team in the conference, there's still Wisconsin (11th in nERD), Michigan (15th), Ohio State (16th) and even Iowa (18th) left out there to make a run. That's five teams with top-20 nERD scores, making the conference the most compelling in the entire country.

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