My vote goes to the Mountain West, with the Big East coming in a close second.
According to the NCAA’s revered Rating Percentage Index (RPI), the Mountain West was the toughest in the country. At least it had the highest rating.
And so it got five teams into the tournament, three of which lost in the first round. None survived to the Sweet 16, and, of those five teams, four were ousted by opponents seeded 12th or lower.
New Mexico, which won both the regular season and tournament titles in the Mountain West, was a No. 3 seed, but was upset by Ivy League champion Harvard, which was seeded 14th.
Also out early were fifth-seeded UNLV, which lost to No. 12 California, and Boise State, which lost to La Salle in a first-round game for the 13th seed in the West Regional.
San Diego State, a No. 7 seed, got past Oklahoma, but then lost to everybody’s new favorite team, 15th-seeded Florida Gulf Coast. Colorado State, seeded eighth in the Midwest Regional, beat Missouri, then lost to top-seeded Louisville.
All of which goes to show you just how meaningful the RPI is. All five Mountain West teams in the tourney were rated among the top 44 in the country in RPI.
There are those who argue that, with three teams in the Sweet 16, the Big East once again has proven itself as one of the most powerful conferences in the land.
But I would point to the conference’s five first-round losses – three of them to lower-seeded teams – as evidence that, while the Big East obviously is strong at the top, it is not as deep as, say, the A-10, which went 6-0 in the opening rounds, including that first-round win by La Salle.
Particularly embarrassing for the Big East was the loss by regular season co-champ, and No. 2 seed, Georgetown at the hands of FGCU.
The A-10 stumbled badly in the second round. Oddly, only La Salle, which was the last team in the conference to get a bid, is the lone survivor, advancing by knocking off No. 4 seed Kansas State and then SEC tournament champion Mississippi.
As for the country’s strongest conference, it clearly is the Big 10, which went 6-1 in the opening round – including victories by Illinois and Minnesota, both of which finished under .500 in league play – and has four teams in the Sweet 16.
The SEC and Big 12 each has only one team still playing, while the ACC and Pac-12 have two apiece.