Friday, January 23, 2009

The Big Ten's Magic Act

Big Ten basketball has been the object of ridicule over the last few years. The conference has been light on quality teams (only four NCAA Tournament bids in ‘08) and even lighter on talent (only three draft picks in ‘08). Last season was certainly a disappointment but the ridicule has been overstated substantially considering the cyclical nature of conference supremacy. I’m sure most would be surprised to be reminded that just three years ago, the Big Ten was the #1 conference in the RPI. The overstating of the Big Ten’s plight has given way to the inevitable overstating of the Big Ten’s return to dominance. Columnists, fans, and computers alike are screaming that the Big Ten is back. Statistically speaking, I’m not sure there’s much to argue with. The Big Ten is in a near-dead-heat with the ACC as the top college basketball conference according to the RPI. The RPI has its shortcomings but the Selection Committee loves them some RPI so it too thinks Big Ten basketball is back.

As much as I would enjoy agreeing with all of that, I think the Big Ten’s RPI prowess is more of an illusion mixed with good fortune than it is an indication that the conference “is back.” For instance, the Big Ten is rated ahead of the Big East in the RPI; yet, the Big Ten has only one team ranked in the top 18 of the RPI while the Big East has six. The Big East is on pace to place nine teams in the NCAA Tournament. It is loaded with elite teams and players. The Big Ten has one elite team and very few elite players, if any. The smoke and mirrors going on in this example comes from the Big East’s bottom five teams. A conference with 16 teams is bound to have its share of bad teams and the Big East is no exception. St. John’s, DePaul, Rutgers, South Florida, and Seton Hall are all at least 40 spots lower in the RPI than the 10th place Big Ten team. As a result, the Big Ten finds itself rated ahead of the Big East despite clearly being the inferior conference.

The Big Ten has also seen its status artificially increased by the freefall of the SEC and Pac 10, respectively. The SEC is having one of the worst seasons by a major college basketball conference in recent memory. It would take a miracle for the winner of its West Division to even get a bid to the NCAA Tournament. The Pac 10 hasn’t been quite as bad but it finds itself with only two teams in the RPI 35. Arizona, Oregon, Washington St., and USC have fallen off substantially. The result is the Big Ten looking a whole lot better than it did last season without really improving that much. Sure, Minnesota and Illinois are much better. Conversely, Indiana is much, much worse and Wisconsin is weaker. Michigan, Penn St., and Northwestern have improved but probably not enough to garner a tournament bid.

While peculiarities in other conferences have helped the Big Ten look better than it is, the main reason for the inflation lies in the RPI formula. The RPI formula is: (¼ Team Winning Percentage) + (½ Opponent’s Winning Percentage) + (¼ Opponent’s Opponent’s Winning Percentage). The Big Ten’s rapid ascent up the RPI has been fueled by the combination of its non-conference strength of schedule and its success against bad teams. Looking closely at the RPI formula reveals that conferences don’t actually have to boast a lot of impressive wins to have impressive RPIs. The Big Ten has proved that. The Big Ten has the #1 strength of schedule in college basketball. Half of the RPI is simply SOS. The Big Ten has also been insanely good against teams outside of the RPI 100 leading to an amazing non-conference record of 83-2 record. Most major conferences have stellar records against teams outside of the RPI 100 but not that stellar. The ACC, for instance, has gone 103-9 against non-conference teams outside of the RPI. The Big Ten’s ability to consistently beat weaker teams has meant a tremendous boost in “Team Winning Percentage” which is worth ¼ of the RPI score. Most conferences have slip-ups against weaker teams. The Big Ten’s near perfect record against such teams has made the need for quality wins mostly irrelevant. The Big Ten’s resurgence has been fueled almost completely by the fact that it merely played difficult opponents and was nearly flawless in beating weak opponents. Notice that “beating good opponents” isn’t even a requirement in this scenario. That’s great for the Big Ten and Selection Sunday, but that doesn’t necessarily tell us how good the Big Ten is.

I’m not suggesting that the Big Ten is terrible. The conference has picked up some solid wins. Michigan beat UCLA and Duke. Michigan St. beat Kansas and Texas. Minnesota beat Louisville. Ohio St. beat Butler. Northwestern beat Florida St. There have been impressive wins. There just haven’t been that many of them. The Big Ten is only 21-22 against the RPI 100 and 12-14 against the RPI 50. Indiana, at 179, is the only Big Ten team rated outside of the RPI 80. Even when the Hoosiers are removed from the equation, the results are still underwhelming. Minus Indiana, the Big Ten is only 20-16 against the RPI 100 and 12-12 against the RPI 50. Aside from Michigan St., there isn’t a team even remotely close to being considered an elite team. In fact, the top two teams in the conference as of last week lost to Northwestern in back to back games.

The Big Ten has received a lot of positive pub for its climb up the RPI and deservedly so. Conferences that play difficult schedules and play near-perfect basketball against weaker competition deserve to be credited. It's great for Big Ten fans and if it gets an extra bid or two come Selection Sunday, then all the better. I’m just not buying the conference as the best in college basketball and neither is Ken Pomeroy.

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