It only takes a cursory look at the historical records of the RPI to understand the cyclicality of college basketball conference supremacy. The SEC had a four-year run as the best conference in America from 2000-2003. The ACC followed that with a two-year run. Then the Big Ten took the reign for a year before the ACC regained supremacy for three more years. The Big XII was tops in 2010. Of course, when conferences have rough patches—especially the Big Ten—you can bet that the alarmists will be quick to pronounce the demise and irrelevance of a struggling conference. Perspective is not a valued or commonly held trait in the sports world. However, overreaction doesn’t change the fact that conferences fluctuate. The year before the Big Ten was the #1 rated conference in the RPI in 2006, it was the #6 rated conference. Clearly, what conferences do from year-to-year can be pretty random.
However, what they do over time is not. For as much criticism as Big Ten basketball has received over the years, the conference sure seems to show up with authority in March. This March has been no different. Three Big Ten teams are in the sweet 16 and the conference has compiled a 7-2 record with at least three more wins likely to come this weekend. Despite its consistent success in the NCAA Tournament, the media has hammered Big Ten basketball so much so that its reputation of “slow and ugly” has usurped anything it has done on the court. The comparative “flash” of the ACC, Big East, and Big XII has left the Big Ten as the clear loser of the public relations battle. Coaches and players within the conference (not to mention the fans) are constantly forced to defend its value because the jabs have been lathered on so thick for so long.
The media thrives on building things up and then destroying them and vice versa. So, it pays to pretend last year never happened and next year never will. Obviously, that yields some pretty heavy distortions on reality. In the case of the Big Ten, it has ended in one of the most successful basketball conferences being the most maligned. Fortunately, there is another option other than living in the narrow-mindedness of year-to-year overreaction. A thorough look at the whole college basketball picture reveals something that looking at one pixel at a time won’t: Big Ten basketball is a beast.
By nearly every measure, the Big Ten has been extremely successful in the NCAA Tournament. Since 1998, only the ACC has produced a better winning percentage. The Big East—with all of its 16-team might—has been outperformed in every equalizing measure by the Big Ten as have the rest of the big six conferences. It’s hard to argue against the ACC’s success. The Big Ten has received more bids and produced more wins while the ACC has compiled the best winning percentage. However, the ACC’s advantage in winning percentage isn’t exactly “case closed.” It’s important to note that since 1998, the ACC has been awarded 15 #1 seeds in the NCAA Tournament. Conversely, the Big Ten has received just six. That’s not all that unexpected considering North Carolina and Duke are two of the five best college basketball programs of all-time. Not surprisingly, they account for the vast majority of those #1 seeds. The Big Ten—even with Michigan State’s run of success—hasn’t had an equivalent at the top. The result has been nine additional 1 vs. 16 matchups in the NCAA tournament for the ACC over the Big Ten. That means nine guaranteed wins that considerably bolster the ACC’s tournament winning percentage. It’s not the ACC’s fault that it has performed well enough in the regular season to receive so many #1 seeds. However, when looking at which conference has actually performed the best in the NCAA Tournament taking Strength of Schedule into consideration, the Big Ten has been more impressive than the ACC.
Since 1998, the average seed of an ACC team in the NCAA Tournament is 4.53. The average seed of a Big Ten team is 5.62. That means that, on average, ACC teams that have made the big dance over that time have been considered to be “better” than the average Big Ten teams. However, since 1998, the average seed of the teams the ACC has defeated in the NCAA Tournament is 9.12. The average seed of the teams the Big Ten has defeated is 8.72. That means that despite having “worse” teams in the tournament, the Big Ten has compiled “better” wins. For example, the Big Ten has beaten 28 teams seeded 1-4 since ’98. The ACC has beaten just 23. This is to take nothing away from the ACC. Even though the Big Ten has received more bids than the ACC and has received more bids per team from its conference, the ACC has answered the call in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge. I’m not interested in arguing that the Big Ten is better than the ACC. I’m merely interesting in pointing to the fact that the Big Ten has been every bit as successful as the ACC in the NCAA Tournament which speaks heavily about its place in the college basketball world.
The Big Ten and the ACC have easily been the most productive conferences in the NCAA Tournament over the past 13 seasons. They are tops in winning % and Final Fours. The fact that the ACC has performed so well in the NCAA Tournament should surprise nobody. It’s what the Big Ten has accomplished that should be an eye-opener especially to the folks outside of the Midwest who enjoy ripping the Big Ten at every opportunity (and subsequently enjoy being wrong about it). Interestingly, I wrote a similarly themed post about Big Ten Football during the bowl season that revealed nearly an identical result. Apparently, the sports world is littered with people who refuse to let facts get in the way of ignorant stereotyping when it comes to the Big Ten.