Previously, we looked at the number one seeds in the NCAA Tournament from non power conferences (See link: Gonzaga a Potential Number 1 Seed). However, Gonzaga's continued winning has vaulted the discussion even further -- focusing on whether Monday's major polls may show the Zags as the number one team in the country. As we discussed with regard to the number one seed what makes this interesting is Gonzaga's status as being a major conference outsider.
Since 1966, which I always classify as the start of "major college basketball" we have seen a few non power conference teams reach number one in the Associated Press poll. Here is the list with the year:
1971: Marquette (January 26 and February 2) -- Marquette didn't lose, but UCLA took over #1
1974: Notre Dame (January 22) -- Notre Dame was an independent.
1977: San Francisco (January 4 through March 1) -- has come up a lot as this was the last time
a West Coast Conference team reached number one.
1978: Marquette (February 1)
1979: Notre Dame (January 16 through Feb. 6); Indiana State (Feb 13, Feb. 27, and March 6)
1980: DePaul (January 15 through February 26th)
1981: DePaul (December 2 through January 6 and March 10)
1983: Memphis (January 11); UNLV (Feb. 15 and Feb. 22)
1987: UNLV (December 9 through January 13 and February 3 through March 3)
1988: Temple (February 16 through March 8)
1990: UNLV (preseason #1)
1991: UNLV (November 20 through March 5th) -- UNLV season long #1, lost in NCAA Semi
1995: UMass (January 9th through January 30th)
1996: UMass (December 26th through February 19th and March 12)
1997: Cincinnati (November 12 through November 26th)
2000: Cincinnati (November 16 through December 14 and January 18th through February 15 and
2004: St. Joseph's (March 9)
2008: Memphis (January 21 through February 18)
Essentially, we can see how hard and how special the season has to be for any team outside of one of the power conference to reach the top ranking. In more recent seasons, as the number of schools at the division I level has increased arguably, the odds of one of them reaching the top spot should be greater as the number of power conference teams has not increased proportionately.
So in 1966 there were 53 schools in the AAWU (present Pac 12), ACC, Big Eight, Big Ten, SEC and SWC (present Big 12), what I would classify as "power conferences", but only 194 total schools playing at the division I level, this leaves 141/194 = 72% of the schools not in power conferences. Current ratio is 272/347 = 78% of the schools are not in power conferences. This is including the Big East, ACC, Pac 12, Big East, Big 12, SEC and Big 10 as the modern "power conferences".
Yet, as the numbers show above, it has gotten more difficult for non power conference team to reach the top ranking as essentially, in the last decade, we have only seen Memphis and St. Joseph's reach the top spot. Prior to that, Cincinnati, UMass and UNLV accomplished the task from 1990 to 2000.
The late 70's and early 80's were probably the heyday of non power conference basketball as San Francisco, DePaul, Marquette, Indiana State, Notre Dame, UNLV and Memphis all made some sort of run to the top spot.
In 1979, 210 of the 264 total division I teams were from non power conferences (79%). Very similar to today's ratio and this also likely contributed to the run of success by non power conference programs during this period. More importantly during that time period and in the 1979 season in particular, without the the politics of the BCS and college football running college basketball 69 teams played as independents including much of what became the Big East only a season later -- such as major power programs like Georgetown, Syracuse, DePaul, Notre Dame, UNLV, Boston College, Georgia Tech, Marquette, and South Carolina. With these type of programs it's obvious why non power conference teams made major poll ascents in the late 1970's. However, as college football television dollars have begun to control college basketball it has become even more difficult for a run similar to what St. Joseph's and UMass made in the recent past and Gonzaga is now making.