Friday, April 03, 2009

The Bigger Ten

Statistically speaking, the Big Ten had a banner basketball season. It finished #2 in Conference RPI and fielded seven teams in the NCAA Tournament. I wrote a post in January suggesting that the Big Ten’s RPI was somewhat of a magic act since it lacked the marquee non-conference wins that would generally accompany such a lofty conference rating. My point wasn’t to argue that the Big Ten sucked. Rather, I wanted to explain why the Big Ten was rated so high without necessarily piling up impressive wins. In short, the Big Ten had an incredible record against weak opponents (winning percentage is ½ of the RPI) and it played one of the strongest schedules in the country (1/4 of the RPI score). The Big Ten was certainly a very good conference but I contended that it wasn’t a great conference. It never occurred to me that there were actually people out there who would actually argue that the Big Ten was vastly overrated until Bob Knight, Digger Phelps, Dick Vitale, Billy Packer and a number of other old people sprang up in unison following the Selection Show. Packer even went as far as to say that Notre Dame and Providence—two teams that had virtually no chance of an at-large bid—should’ve made the tournament over some Big Ten teams. Luckily, this isn’t college football where people can say ridiculous things with the knowledge that there isn’t a playoff to prove them wrong. In college basketball, you eventually pay the price for making stupid arguments.

I have no problem admitting that the Big Ten was short on elite teams this year. Michigan State is the only team that qualifies. The Big Ten had only one team seeded #4 or better in the tournament—and deservedly so. The Big East, on the other hand, managed seven teams all of which got a six-seed or better which is hard to believe. If the Big East really had seven teams worthy of a top-six seed, then how could Providence not be worthy of at least a 12-seed? The answer is that the Big East was grossly overrated by the Selection Committee. Here is a quick recap of the seedings from the top three conferences all of which got seven bids:

Big East:

Louisville #1
Pittsburgh #1
Syracuse #2
Villanova #3
Marquette #6
West Virginia #6


North Carolina #1
Duke #2
Wake Forest #4
Florida State #5
Clemson #7
Boston College #7
Maryland #10

Big Ten:

Michigan State #2
Purdue #5
Illinois #5
Ohio State #8
Michigan #10
Minnesota #10
Wisconsin #12

Clearly, the Big East and ACC were given much more credence than the Big Ten based on the vast discrepancy in seeding. The Big Ten had four teams seeded #8 or worse and the Big East and ACC had one combined. The result was a much tougher slate for the Big Ten. The Big Ten had three teams that were underdogs in the first round. Two of those teams—Michigan and Wisconsin—won and did it against ACC teams on neutral courts. That’s #10 and #12-seeded Big Ten teams beating #7 and #5-seeded ACC teams. If the ACC was the #1 conference in the country, then it’s difficult for anyone to argue that the Big Ten is outmatched. Certainly, there isn’t a deeper conference based on the results of the tournament.

The Big Ten had four wins over teams that were seeded higher. It had just two losses to teams seeded lower. The ACC had one win over teams seeded higher and five losses against teams seeded lower. The Big East had one win over teams seeded higher and three losses to teams seeded lower. The Big Ten—despite its more difficult draw—ended up with the most impressive wins of any conference. The Big Ten beat the Pac 10 regular season champ (Washington), the Big XII regular season champ (Kansas), and the Big East regular season champ (Louisville). In fact, Louisville—the #1 seed in the tournament—played two Big Ten teams this year (Minnesota and Michigan State) and lost both. The latter was a drubbing.

The Big Ten didn’t feature a bevy of elite teams. However, based on how the conferences fared in the tournament, I don’t think any conference did. The ACC was the #1 conference in America according to the RPI. What does it say about the depth of that conference to have two of its tournament teams lose to double-digit seeds from the Big Ten? I think it goes a long way in proving that no conference was deeper than the Big Ten. Critics/really old people love to argue that the Big Ten is a weak conference because its games are often low-scoring and ugly. Well, how did that work out for Louisville? The fact that a conference plays defense should not disqualify it from being a good conference. Don’t forget that in retrospect the best team to not make the NCAA Tournament was very likely Penn St. The Nittany Lions won the NIT beating Florida, Notre Dame, and Baylor along the way. Billy Packer’s suggestion that Notre Dame should’ve made the tournament over Minnesota, Michigan, and Wisconsin—let alone Penn St.—exemplifies the PR problem that the Big Ten faces. The people in charge of influencing public opinion are morons. As long as that’s the case, you’re going to see the Big Ten ridiculed regardless of merit.

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