How Impressive Are KU's 14-Straight Conference Titles?

With its recent 74-72 win over Texas Tech, the University of Kansas continued one of the more remarkable streaks in college basketball history. KU has now won 14-straight Big 12 conference regular season titles (outright 10 times and shared 4 times). Some people will argue that only the tournament champion is the “true” champion in any conference, but this argument is hogwash. Getting hot over a 3-4 day stretch is not nearly as impressive as asserting your dominance over a full conference season.

Where does this rank among the all-time great college basketball streaks? No team will ever top UCLA’s 7-straight national titles (1967-1976, part of a streak of 10-straight Final Fours), or their 88-game winning streak (1971-1974). But it’s probably on or above the level of UNC’s streak of 13-straight Sweet Sixteens under Dean Smith (1981-1993).

But, how impressive is KU’s streak, really? To determine that, we would have to determine how good of a conference the Big 12 has been. For this blog post, I’ve used numbers from Ken Pomeroy. He has, in my opinion, the best mathematical rankings of college basketball and has for many years. The rest of the data comes from Wikipedia, other than where I’ve determined it’s inaccurate.

From 2005-2011, the Big 12 had an average KenPom ranking among other conferences of about 3.6. For comparison, that was tied for 3rd among all conferences. But that has skyrocketed in recent years. From 2012-2018, the Big 12 has an average ranking of 1.4 and has been the top-ranked conference each of the last five years. Very impressive.

In some ways, however, that’s a curious number. In the final KenPom team rankings from 2005-2017, KU is one of only two teams in the Big 12 to average a top-40 ranking (KU at 6.5 and Texas at 31.5). Meaning? KU has been consistently excellent. Texas has been pretty good (a top-25 team more often than not). The rest of the conference has been, on average, pretty mediocre, even if some teams have had some really good years.

KenPom Rankings.png

But what of those good years? KU has finished in the top 10 of the final KenPom rankings ten times during the last 13 seasons (they’re currently 9th). The rest of the Big 12? Only thirteen times total. That’s… not a lot, especially when spread over about 140 total seasons. (To be fair, Texas Tech is currently ranked 11th and West Virginia 12th, which shows how the statistic can be somewhat arbitrary.)

Perhaps the Big 12 has had significant NCAA tournament success over the time? Well, it all depends on how you define that. KU has been a top-4 seed in each of the last 13 tournaments (this season is obviously to be determined). Seven of those seasons it’s been a 1 seed, and three times a 2 seed. The rest of the Big 12 has not faired as well, combining for only 23 top-4 seeds among those about 140 seasons. But those numbers are a bit misleading, as no other Big 12 team has been a 1 seed in the past 13 tournaments, and only seven have been 2 seeds.

But perhaps once they got to the tournament they’ve played well? Actually… not so much. While KU won the national title in 2008, made the Final Four in 2012, has four other Elite Eights and two other Sweet Sixteens, the rest of the conference has made only a single trip to the Final Four in that time (Oklahoma in 2016). They’ve combined for 63 total NCAA tournament appearances, but, outside of OU’s 2016 run, only seven Elite Eights and nine other Sweet Sixteens. 

That means that, if you’re not KU, you only make the NCAA tournament about 45% of the time, only make it to the Sweet Sixteen 12% of the time (27% of tournament appearances), the Elite Eight only 5% of the time (11% of tournament appearances), and the Final Four less than 1% of the time (1.5% of tournament appearances).

That seems odd from the conference that KenPom has ranked as its number one conference for five years running.

There’s a chance, if these numbers were crunched for other conferences, that the Big 12 would still compare favorably, but I doubt it. Just going by Final Four appearances over the last thirteen tournaments, the ACC has eight appearances by three teams, the Big East has 9 appearances by six teams, the Big 10 has ten appearances by five teams, and the Southeastern Conference has 9 appearances by four teams. Shit, even the Colonial League has had two teams make the Final Four (George Mason in 2006 and VCU in 2011), which is only one fewer Final Four than the Big 12 has over that time period (even including KU).

Look, I’m not saying… I’m just saying. Maybe the Big 12 actually hasn’t been that strong a conference over the past 14 seasons, KenPom conference rankings be damned.

I probably got some of the numbers a bit off in this post (I’m just sitting on my couch compiling them), but they don’t paint the picture of a particularly strong conference over time, at least not at the top. Sure, the Big 12 has been a competitive conference, but no team outside of Lawrence has even been a one seed in the NCAA tournament.

If you wanted to say that NCAA tournament success is poor indicator of actual team strength since it’s a one-and-done format (especially salient considering we’re talking about regular season titles for KU), you could. But, if any other real challengers existed to KU in the Big 12, you would think they would have been more competitive nationally. KU’s supremacy in the Big 12 is probably as much or more of an indictment of the rest of the conference than it is a measure of KU’s excellence.

KU deserves a great deal of credit for winning 14 straight league titles, but it seems unlikely the Jayhawks would’ve had such dominance had they played in a different conference with more strength at the top. Hell, if you go by Final Four results, KU may not have won 14 straight regular season titles if they played in the Colonial.