Top of the conference crop

By Gordon Mann

Each season our friends at rank the NCAA Division III football conferences by strength. They rank them once in the preseason Kickoff publication and a second time during the season after most regular season non-conference games are done. 

Ranking all the conferences in Division III men’s basketball would be a really tall order. We’ve got more conferences (43 versus 28), way more teams (424 versus 248) and way, WAY more non-conference games (I’m not counting that one – just take my word for it).  

But we’ve been tracking each conference’s performance relative to the others in our annual Conference Guidebooks long enough now that we have some basis to compare them. The Massey Ratings have a conference ranking that accounts for factors like strength of schedule. And events like the Hoopsville Invitational and D3hoops Classic provide interregional cooperation so we have actual game results to gauge questions like, "How would the last place team in the WIAC do against the first place team in the Liberty League on a neutral court?"

Since this is our first try, let’s focus on which conferences are the best. Ranking the top 10 will cover about a quarter of the 43 conferences. Note that I’m ranking conferences here, not individual programs.

In my mind, the best conferences have external strength (their teams beat teams from other conferences) and internal strength (parity between programs, or at least turnover in the teams at the top). So the strong performance of the best team gets balanced against the weak performance of other teams within that same conference. Sorry, Benedictine and Lancaster Bible. 

I’m also looking at performance over the last four seasons, or the playing career of most Division III basketball players. If we just look at the results from last season, we’ll overvalue the performance of some conferences and undervalue the performance of others, like the WIAC. So we’re looking at performance from the start of the 2012-2013 season through the end of the 2015-2016 season. Again, sorry Benedictine and Lancaster Bible. 

If you really want to nerd out on how I define conference strength, there’s more information here.  If you just want to see where I picked your team’s conference and tell me how wrong I am, let’s do it. 

The Four Tops

Each of these conferences has a good case for No. 1, depending on which criteria you favor 

Do you judge a conference’s strength by whether its best teams beat the best teams from other conferences? Then you'll pick the WIAC. Do you prefer the Massy Ratings? Then the CCIW is for you. Want to use the number of NCAA tournament wins? Then go with the NESCAC. Or how about the non-conference winning percentage against the rest of Division III? Then the UAA is top dog. 

I blended those factors, added input from some other members of the D3hoops brain trust and then made my own pick so you have something to laugh at.

Again remember that all measures look back at the past four seasons.

1. College Conference of Illinois & Wisconsin (CCIW)

Average non-conference winning percentage vs D3 for last four seasons: 0.680 (3rd) 
Record in last four NCAA tournaments: 24-12 (.666 – 5th) 
Programs qualifying for at least one of last four NCAA tournaments: 5 of 8  
Average in-conference winning percentage of last four regular season champions: 0.875 
Average Massey ranking: 1 

The CCIW is the only conference with three different national semifinalists in the last four seasons, including North Central in 2013.

Those who feel we give the CCIW too much credit should avert their eyes. I’m giving the Conference a very slight advantage over the NESCAC. They were the only conferences with more than half of their members qualifying for at least one of the last four NCAA tournaments, not counting Carroll which joins the CCIW this season. The NESCAC and CCIW were also first and second by number of NCAA tournament wins. The CCIW has reached those heights with a stronger strength-of-schedule index, and its members play each other twice during the conference eason.  Plus the CCIW has to battle with the WIAC on the court during the regular season, off of it in the regional rankings that shape postseason opportunities, and then back on it during the early rounds of the NCAA tournament.  

2. New England Small College Athletic Conference (NESCAC)

Average non-conference winning percentage vs D3: 0.704 (2nd)
Record in last four NCAA tournaments: 33-13 (.717 – 2nd)
Programs qualifying for NCAA tournament: 8 of 11
Average in-conference winning percentage of regular season champions: 0.925
Average Massey ranking: 5 

Amherst has three national semifinal appearances and a championship in the past four seasons.

There’s a lot to like about the NESCAC’s resume. No other conference comes close to having as many of its members reach the NCAA tournament, and all but one of those programs (Wesleyan) has won at least one game since 2013. NESCAC and CCIW teams seldom cross paths in the NCAA tournament because of regional bracketing. They split their only two games four seasons ago when North Central beat Middlebury in the Elite 8 and then lost to Amherst in the national semifinals. 

My only knock on the NESCAC is their teams only play each other once during the conference's regular season, not including the second games between Little Three and CBB rivals that don't count in the NESCAC standings. That minimizes the risk that NESCAC teams will beat up on each other during the regular season. It also gives NESCAC teams have more opportunities to play good opponents from weaker conferences during the regular season, which helps NESCAC teams in the regional rankings. Both factors, plus the large number of Northeast region teams, help the NESCAC routinely put at least three teams in the regional rankings that are the gateway to at-large bids to the NCAA tournament. That’s a factor in why the NESCAC has had 30 bids in the last 10 NCAA tournaments, five more than the CCIW and UAA and ten more than the WIAC. For example, I wonder if my alma mater Trinity (Conn.) makes the NCAA tournament last season if the Bantams had to play Amherst, Middlebury and Tufts one more time each in the regular season.

3. Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (WIAC)

Average non-conference winning percentage vs D3: 0.652 (5th)
Record in last four NCAA tournaments: 16-5 (.762 – 1st) 
Programs qualifying for NCAA tournament: 3 of 9 
Average in-conference winning percentage of regular season champions: 0.866 
Average Massey ranking: 3 

Whitewater and Stevens Point went 16-4 in the NCAA tournament during this period.

When the WIAC teams are great, no one is better. This is the only conference with two national champions during this four year period.  Just look at 2014 when UW-Whitewater beat teams from the UAA, CCIW and NESCAC in consecutive games to win the title. The WIAC conference season is a real grind with road favorites regularly falling to home underdogs. But that doesn’t translate into much turnover at the top. Only three WIAC programs have reached the NCAA tournament since 2013The conference as a whole was down last season with a .582 winning percentage. Conference champion La Crosse had a pedestrian 5-5 non-conference record against Division III foes and no chance at an at-large bid late in the season. Oshkosh was the only WIAC squad to make the NCAA tournament and the Titans lost in the first round. Was last year an aberration? I think so. But it makes a difference when you’re trying to differentiate between these conferences 

4. University Athletic Association (UAA)

Average non-conference winning percentage vs D30.714 (1st)
Record in last four NCAA tournaments: 11-9 (.550 – 10th) 
Programs qualifying for NCAA tournaments: 4 of 8 
Average in-conference winning percentage of last four champions: 0.804 
Average Massey ranking: 3 

Emory is the only UAA team with a winning record in the NCAA tournament since 2012-2013, including its upset win at Stevens Point in 2014. 

The UAA had the best non-conference record against Division III foes over this four-year span. It was also the only conference with a +.700 non-conference winning percentage each of those seasons. Like the WIAC, road favorites in the UAA often get bit by home underdogs, and no conference has a tougher travel schedule. But conference strength is defined in part by strength at the top relative to other conferences, and the UAA lacked that during this period. Its winning percentage in the last four NCAA tournaments was far below the CCIW, NESCAC and WIAC and its record against those conferences in the NCAA tournament was 1-4. The UAA is also the only conference spanning multiple regions. That helps the conference get at-large bids to the NCAA tournament since teams like Emory and New York University don’t have to compete with all their conference mates in the regional rankings for NCAA tournament at-large bids. 

Click here to see which conferences round out the Top 10.