Tuesday, April 07, 2009

The Big Least

This is kind of a sequel to “The Bigger Ten” and may have been implied in that post but I think it’s worth a post of its own. I have nothing against the Big East all things being equal. I love watching Big East basketball. I love the traditions of the programs. I have “going to New York for the Big East Tournament” on my short list of “things to do.” My problem with the Big East is that all things aren’t equal—namely the media coverage. The Pac 10 has long been the victim of the West Coast bias. The idea there is that most Pac 10 games finish well after half of the country has gone to bed. USC’s recent success in football has made it difficult to tell just how much of a West Coast bias exists but it certainly seems like a reasonable concept. Similarly, the Big Ten has fallen victim to a bias of its own except it has nothing to do with bed times. The Big Ten is viewed as a second-rate conference because of its style of play. Analyst after analyst ripped apart the Big Ten before and after Selection Sunday. “Low scoring” and “sloppy play” were often at the center of the criticism.

Meanwhile, the Big East has been anointed the pinnacle of college basketball because its games are high scoring and more exciting. Anyone who knows anything about sports is firmly aware that “style of play” and “level of excitement” have nothing to do with success. The Golden State Warriors were among the leaders in “excitement” this season. They stunk. The San Antonio Spurs lead the league in “boring” every year and have four NBA Championships to show for it. Digger Phelps, Bob Knight, Billy Packer, Dick Vitale and many others of the same ilk took a giant shortcut on analysis by confusing excitement with superiority. As a result, the image of Big Ten basketball took a major hit.

The Big East had a number of teams that had very good resumes. I can’t and won’t argue too much about its seeds. West Virginia was probably too high. Connecticut probably deserved a 2-seed. Syracuse might have been too high. Still, the conference clearly had a number of good teams as did the ACC and the Big Ten. The RPI ordered the conferences: 1) ACC, 2) Big Ten, 3) Big East. The Big Ten had more top 50 wins than any other conference. The Big East had more top teams while the ACC owned the computers. It’s clearly debatable as to which conference was the best. What’s not debatable is that the Big Ten was certainly among the best and deserved to be in the discussion. Yet, the Big Ten was heavily criticized for receiving seven bids—same as the ACC and Big East—while the Big East garnered so much adulation that some wondered if it was the greatest conference of all-time. The fact that it received three #1’s, two #3's, and two #6's only fueled the hyperbole. Before I go any further, it’s important to note just how easy of a draw the Big East had. Since the current format began (1985), a 16-seed has never beaten a one-seed. An 8 or a 9-seed has only beaten a one-seed in the second round 12.5% of the time. #1 seeds have only lost 18% of the time in the third round. #1 seeds make it to the Elite Eight 70% of the time. Simply having multiple teams reach the Final Four should not be the Big East’s barometer for success. Nearly half of all #1 seeds make the Final Four. Furthermore, 24% of 3-seeds make the Elite Eight. From its seeds alone, the Big East was virtually guaranteed to threaten the mark for wins by a conference in a single NCAA Tournament (the Big East won 18 in 1985). Simply piling up wins proved nothing. For example, based on historical data on the success of #1, #3, and #6 seeds, a conference with seven bids correlating with those specific seeds would—on average—win 16 games. The Big East ended up winning 17 games. On the other hand, seven bids correlating with the Big Ten’s specific seeds would—on average—win six games. The Big Ten won nine games.

Although the numbers indicate that the Big East had an “average” showing in terms of overall wins, it’s tough to imagine a conference with such a bevy of good seeds performing worse than the Big East did this year. Louisville—the #1 seed in the entire tournament—failed to make it to the Final Four. Pittsburgh—arguably the #2 seed in the entire tournament—failed to make it to the Final Four. Two of the Big East’s three #1 seeds failed to make it to the Final Four. Even the one #1 seed from the Big East to get to the Final Four—Connecticut—got manhandled by a Big Ten team. None of its three #1 seeds made it to the Championship game. That alone has to be viewed as disappointing—if not a failure—but if we look deeper into the performances of the Big East’s seven teams, we’ll find it was surprisingly rough. Here’s a recap:

West Virginia

The Mountaineers earned a controversial six-seed (IMO) and a first round matchup with 11-seed, Dayton. Dayton led for most of the game and sent WVU packing with an 8-point victory. Six seeds beat 11-seeds 68% of the time. This was clearly a weak performance by a Big East team.


The Golden Eagles also earned a controversial six-seed. Marquette played well early in the season but struggled mightily down the stretch without Dominic James. His availability for the NCAA Tournament was shaky at best but it appears that the Selection Committee did not take that into consideration. Marquette barely escaped West Virginia’s fate by squeaking out a one-point win over 11-seed, Utah St. Marquette got bounced in the second round by Missouri.


The Orange was one of the chic teams entering the tournament having just played in one of the most “exciting”—there’s that word again—games in NCAA history while making it to the Finals of the Big East Tournament. Syracuse catapulted from a likely #6 or #7-seed all the way to a #3-seed following its performance in the Big East Tournament. The Orange crushed Stephen F. Austin in the first round and then beat Arizona St. in the second round. That set up a 2v3 matchup against Oklahoma. This would end up being the first of many marquee matchups in which the Big East would be beaten soundly. Oklahoma dominated Syracuse from start to finish en route to a 13-point win.


Villanova was the only team in the Big East that exceeded expectations. The Wildcats reached the Final Four before getting trounced by North Carolina. They were a #3-seed so their appearance in the Final Four was certainly a big score for the Big East.


Pittsburgh was a huge disappointment for the Big East as one of its #1 seeds. The Panthers barely escaped 8th seeded Oklahoma St. in the second round. They barely escaped 4th seeded Xavier in the third round. Then they lost to the #3-seed in the third round.


Louisville—probably the flimsiest #1 overall seed that I can remember—was easily the least impressive of the #1 seeds. At least Pittsburgh beat a top-four seed. Louisville beat Morehead St. in the first round and then barely survived Siena in the second round. The Arizona/Cleveland St. second round matchup guaranteed Louisville no worse than a 12-seed in the Sweet Sixteen. The Cards easily took care of Arizona before getting manhandled by Michigan St in the Elite Eight.


Villanova may have been the only team to exceed expectations but at least Connecticut did what it was supposed to do. The Huskies destroyed Chattanooga in the first round before authoritatively taking down Texas A&M and Purdue. They then beat a red-hot Missouri-team in the Elite Eight. Connecticut followed Louisville’s suit in the Final Four getting manhandled by Michigan St.

One of seven Big East teams exceeded expectations. Four of seven Big Ten teams exceeded expectations. The Big East won 17 games which included wins over Morehead St., Chattanooga, East Tennessee St., Stephen F. Austin, American, Utah St., Siena, Texas A&M, Oklahoma St., Arizona St., Arizona, UCLA, Purdue, Xavier, Duke, Missouri, and Pittsburgh. The Big Ten won nine games which included wins over Robert Morris, Northern Iowa, Clemson, Florida St., USC, Washington, Kansas, Louisville, and Connecticut. Of its 17 wins, the Big East beat seven teams with a #7 seed or better. Of its nine wins, the Big Ten beat six teams with a #7 seed or better. Clearly the Big Ten wasn’t respected entering the tournament but it accomplished nearly the same—and in some respects more—with a much harder path.

I’m not trying to flip the script by putting out a “Big East sucks” post. I don’t think the Big East sucks. I don’t think the Big Ten sucks. However, when one conference gets lauded by various members of the media and another conference gets lambasted, there should be some “mea culpas” when those opinions are shown to be rubbish. Although, I’m starting to wonder if this was just a giant misunderstanding. Connecticut and Louisville play tonight in the Women’s National Championship game.


bkop said...

As much as I agree with your entire post this year, it seems like next year the big ten may finally get some love. Vitale had Purdue at 4 and Michigan 5 on his post tournament rankings for next year.

Jake said...

I didn't see the Vitale-thing. He seriously has Michigan #5 heading into next year? He's crazier than I thought! Seriously, though, I don't know what's worse, getting the love and blowing it or not getting the love and doing well. I just hope the Big Ten doesn't disappoint because we'll never hear the end of it!

Come to think of it, he has to have State ahead of Purdue and Michigan. Does that mean he has three Big Ten teams in the top five?!?!?


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