The world of NCAA Division I basketball is expansive, diverse, and highly competitive. While the “Power Five” conferences are often considered the pinnacle of collegiate basketball, many other conferences operate at the Division I level, offering prospective student-athletes a variety of opportunities to play the sport they love at a high level. While each conference boasts talented athletes and quality competition, some are perceived as less competitive due to a variety of factors such as the historical success of their teams, financial resources, exposure, and ability to attract top recruits.
Among these conferences are the Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC), the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC), the Northeast Conference (NEC), the America East Conference, and the Big South Conference. The reasons for this perception vary and are worth exploring in depth.
1. The Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC): Comprising ten historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), the SWAC has often struggled in NCAA tournament play. As of the end of the 2020-21 season, no SWAC team has ever advanced past the first round of the NCAA tournament. Limited financial resources and exposure often make it harder for these schools to recruit the same level of talent seen in bigger conferences.
2. The Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC): The MEAC, another conference primarily made up of HBCUs, faces similar challenges to the SWAC. As of my last training data in September 2021, only one MEAC team (Coppin State in 1997) has ever won a game in the main draw of the NCAA tournament.
3. The Northeast Conference (NEC): The NEC has also had a hard time breaking through in the NCAA tournament. As of 2021, an NEC team has only won a game in the tournament’s main draw once (Robert Morris in 1983).
4. The America East Conference: The teams in this conference have sporadically found success in the NCAA tournament. As of 2021, America East teams have won only nine games in the main draw, with UMBC’s historic upset as a No.16 seed over No.1 seed Virginia in 2018 being the most notable.
5. The Big South Conference: The Big South also typically struggles in the NCAA tournament. As of 2021, Big South teams have won only four games in the tournament’s main draw.
It’s important to note that these historical records are not necessarily indicative of the individual talent levels found within these conferences. These athletes still compete at a high level, requiring a significant level of skill, dedication, and hard work. However, they face challenges such as smaller athletic budgets and less media exposure, which can affect recruiting, coaching, facilities, and other factors important for building successful basketball programs.
According to the NCAA, over 550,000 students participate in high school basketball across the United States, but only about 3.4% of male and 3.8% of female players will compete at the NCAA Division I level. The level of competition in these conferences, while perhaps not as fierce as the Power Five, is still extremely high.
While these conferences are perceived as “easier” to join, student-athletes should consider a variety of factors when choosing a school. These include academic programs, the coaching staff, opportunities for player development, team culture, location, and overall fit. Schools in these conferences can offer unique opportunities that may not be available in larger, more competitive conferences.
For instance, student-athletes in these conferences might get more playing time early in their collegiate careers, providing them with valuable experience. They may also benefit from a more close-knit team culture or a school that places a higher emphasis on academic success.
A smaller athletic budget does not equate to a lesser education or collegiate experience. Each conference and school within the NCAA has its unique strengths and opportunities, and what may seem “easier” or “harder” in terms of athletic competition does not encapsulate the complete picture of a student-athlete’s college journey.
In conclusion, while certain NCAA Division I conferences like the SWAC, MEAC, NEC, America East, and Big South may not have the same level of historical success or resources as the Power Five, they still offer student-athletes the opportunity to compete at a high level, receive quality education, and enjoy a fulfilling college experience.