WTF is the Power 5?

Photo by Ryan Messier/Paint Touches

Photo by Ryan Messier/Paint Touches

The Big East came one minute (and one Hoya collpase) away from being 18-0 through the first six days of the season, an umblemished mark that would have included home and away wins against ranked opponents. Even with that choke job, the BEast is sitting pretty at 17-1, with the reigning national champ and 7 teams in the KenPom top 40. The conference has proven the last three years it can hang with the big boys, and by any statistical measure (KenPom, Sagarin, RPI) has been a top-5 conference in its recent existence.

Despite all the facts, some prominent national writers keep sticking to befuddling “Power 5” terminology. Case in point from yesterday morning:

On its own, it’s a fairly innocuous Tweet that doesn’t mention the Big East, let alone disparage it. It isn’t meant to demean the conference or its accomplishments. But intent and results aren’t always correlated.

This has nothing to do with Dayton or Alabama, this is a critique of the lazy shorthand writers use when describing the former BCS conferences. It’s fine for football, it makes complete sense. The 5 conferences that make up the “Power 5” truly are separate from the rest of FBS in that sport. There are different rules and different alignments that make it logical to separate them from their not-as-fortunate FBS bretheren.

None of those exist in basketball. Not at the structural level. Not at the postseason level. Heck, not even at the financial level. Yes, the Big Ten and SEC and ACC have monstrous revenue numbers thanks to TV deals, but the Big East’s deal with FOX, while nowhere near as lucrative per team, is two or three times more than what they received before the reformation. Running a 13-person basketball team is a lot less expensive than running a 90+ person football team. So while “Power 5” teams may have a bigger pot to dip in to, they aren’t outspending Big East teams by any significant margin, if at all, taken at the group level.

So, what are the factors that determine the “power” of a conference? I’m always open to suggestions, so feel free to hit me up with thoughts or ideas. But for me, these are the main contributors:


National telecasts are a good barometer for prominence, as networks aren’t going to be investing time or capital on products that won’t get watched. The unique deal with FOX, being the sole basketball conference featured on FS1, means the Big East teams are actually on national TV more than most “Power 5” teams that aren’t Duke, Kentucky, or Kansas. The ratings haven’t been great, yes, but every Big East team is guranteed to have almost 2/3s of its games broadcast nationally. FS1 isn’t as important as ESPN and probably never will be, but the visibility aspect is moot. If you want to watch, you can.


In the 2013-14 academic year, half of the conference reported basketball expenses of at least $10 million. All but Butler reported at least $6 million. That’s a “Power” number as it relates to basketball. It isn’t just an oulier like Gonzaga spending 4 or 5 times as much as its conference competitors. Scroll through the chart at the bottom of this link and compare Big East teams to its NCAA Tourney peers, there is no gap whatsoever. And why focus on spending over revenues or TV contracts? Because spending shows the commitment of an institution. The Big East will match costs of expenses and the other quirks that create separate class levels in football. Private flights, advanced technology, modern training facilities, you name it. Financially speaking, the Big East teams are all in.


This one is more difficult to quantify, as there is no government or publicly reported data to measure. And this is the one place where I would agree that there is a separation amongst the conferences. The “Power 5” have a lot of leverage. If they push the NCAA for changes and autonomy, they have much more say than if the Big East were to do so. But that’s off the court stuff. On the court, the story is different. Being affiliated with a “major” conference may help bubble teams incidently, but it won’t bar the Boise States/Wichita States of the world from competing for the title.


And to date, the Big East has been treated like a major conference on Selection Sunday, averaging 5 selections every year and getting some favorable seeds, particularly when measured against non “Power-5 “peers. As noted, the computers have classified the conference as “Power,” finishing 5, 2, and 3 in the KenPom conference rankings the last 3 years. Oh, and Villanova stomped through “Power 5” teams on its way to the National Title. Winning the ship may be an individual school accomplishment, but it becomes much more difficult to disparage the conference as a whole with a title in tow. And it’s not just one team carrying the full weight. Only Marquette and DePaul have yet to make an NCAA Tournament. The success isn’t isolated to a Wichita State and isn’t a fluke like the MWC, gaming the RPI as a group for one season before falling back to Earth. The Big East has won individually and collectively.

But these are all facts that I’m sure most will nod with and dispense with. If you are reading this blog, you are more than likely a Marquette fan and more than likely a big Big East backer. Of course you agree. The real issue comes as to the question of if it matters how outside groups/the media sees the conference.

I’ve seen a little pushback from people saying it’s not a big deal or it doesn’t affect the Big East on or off the court. Heck, all these writers would readily say that the conference is not even close to a mid-major. They love watching Nova and usually have 3-4 Big East teams in their top-25. What’s the issue?

The issue is that perception can become the new reality. If you are a general college basketball fan, you don’t follow the intricacies like die-hards do. If all you see and hear is “Power 5 this and Power 5 that,” you will assume that it’s an agreed upon term with a basis in reality. I wrote extensively on it last year, following John Gasway’s lead, and still stand by every word. If you want to know how simple miscommunications can have a lasting effect on the court, take a look at that link.

For this analysis, I’m more worried about an improper normalization across the media realm. I did a Twitter search of some prominent national writers’ Twitter accounts and found that Power 5 is still only being used sparingly, which is heartening. Here are the biggest offenders when it comes to using the term for basketball, not football:

Gary Parrish: 16 (10 in 2016)
Jay Bilas: 19 (7 in 2016)
Travis Hines: 6 (2 in 2016)
Seth Davis: 4 (2 in 2016)
Russel Steinberg: 4 (2 in 2016)
Rob Dauster: 6 (1 in 2016)
Seth Greenberg: 4 (1 in 2016)
Myron Medcalf: 3 (1 in 2016)
Jeff Borzello: 3 (1 in 2016)
Mike Rutheford: 1 (1 in 2016)
Andy Glockner: 1 (1 in 2016)
Dick Vitale: 1 (1 in 2016)
Jon Rothstein: 4 (0 in 2016)
Jeff Goodman: 2 (0 in 2016)
Matt Norlander: 3 (0 in 2016)
John Gasaway: 1 (0 in 2016)
Michael DeCourcy: 20 (all mocking the phrase)
Joe Lunardi: 1 (0 in 2016)
Andy Katz: 1 (0 in 2016)
Luke Winn: 0
Rece Davis: 0
Dana O’Neil: 0
Pat Forde: 0

Of these 21 writers, discounting Decourcy’s mocking use of the phrase, “Power 5” has been used 80 times in the last 3 years. About 36% of those came in 2016, with more than half coming from just Bilas and Parrish. 

So while it is clear the term hasn’t caught on at the highest level, it is imperative that it doesn’t going forward. Journalists are people and people listen to reasoned feedback. You don’t have to be rude or spiteful, just point out to the author how ridiculous the term is. You wouldn’t use the word square to describe the shape of an orange, why use a number like five to describe six items?

Michigan coach Jon Belein responded to a scheduling question from Jon Rothstein by saying they try to play 23-24 “BCS-level” games (at the 18:20 mark of the podcast). Basketball is not football. The “Power 5” doesn’t have the monopoly on quality caliber opponents in this sport. If coaches can see the difference, why can’t writers and analysts?

To close things out, we’ll quote the godfather of the advanced metrics movement in college basketball. 

Using the term is misleading and lazy. Don’t do it. If you see something, say something.  

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One Comment on “WTF is the Power 5?”

  1. Bill MacPherson
    November 22, 2016 at 5:46 pm #

    Great article. I would argue the term “Power 5” is a term that ESPN created (or has at least championed) to emphasize the conferences they care about (i.e. the ones they make the most money on) and de-emphasize the ones they do not. ESPN has nothing to gain by Marquette, or any other Big East team being a national power.

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