Sunday, April 05, 2009

Where's the Big East?

After a season full of talk about the dominance of the Big East Conference, the final is set for the NCAA Basketball Championship and there is not a single Big East team playing. I have no doubt that the Big East was fat with talent this year. However, I do think it was ridiculous east coast media bias that got the conference it's unprecedented three #1 seeds.

In fact, if total conference wins and losses in the Big Dance are considered, then the Big East fared slightly better than any other conference. The Big East had a combined record in the tournament of 16 wins and 8 losses, for a winning percentage of (.667). This record clinches the best overall tournament record, no matter which team (Michigan State (Big Ten) or North Carolina (ACC)) wins the final game.

But the Big East didn't dominate the tournament like many of the pundits predicted. In fact, a case could be made that it was, in reality, merely the second best tournament conference behind the Big XII. While the Big XII failed to get any teams into the Final Four, it had a combined record of 11-6 (.647) and saw all six of its entrants make it to the Round of 32.

The Big East got six of its eight teams into the Round of 32, the PAC 10 all five teams, the Big 10 four of its seven teams, the ACC three of six, and the SEC none of its two.

All the experts were talking was how this was a down year in the Big XII, which I believe was a misconception that led to many of the conferences members being under-seeded. Mizzou stunned many with its deep run into the Elite-8. Kansas, with it's Freshman heavy lineup, went much further than many thought possible at the beginning of the season. In fact, Kansas' surprising strength led to Bill Self winning the award as National Coach of the Year.

And then there is Oklahoma State. A team which upset Oklahoma in the Big XII tournament and scared the bejeebers out of #1 seeded Pittsburgh in the second round. Throw in the fifth most difficult schedule of any Division 1 program, coupled with the fact that seven of their eleven losses on the year came against teams that made it to this year's Sweet 16, and a very compelling case can be made that the Cowboys were vastly underseeded.

In fact, the entire Big XII was underseeded. Even Baylor, which was sent to the NIT despite making it to the finals of the Big XII tournament, made a run to the NIT Finals despite having to play two of it's first three games on the road due to poor seeding. Baylor defied the odds and won away from home to make it to Madison Square Garden.

It is a pretty powerful statement of fact to say that the best way to advance in the tournament is to get seeded high. Sure upsets happen in every round, but it is far easier to win coming in as the favorite. It's far easier to beat a team that you are slightly better than, than to beat a team that is equally as good as you are. That's the purpose of seeding in the first place.

How much better might the Big XII have done if it hadn't run into the misconception (fed by East Coast bias) that it was down this year.?

Collectively, with the final still to play, the six "power conferences'" records in the tournament stack up as follows:

1: Big East 16 - 8 (.667)
2: Big XII 11 - 6 (.647)
3: ACC 8 - 5 (.615)
4: Big 10 (11) 9 - 6 (.600)
5: PAC 10 6 - 5 (.545)
6: SEC 1 - 2 (.333)

Should North Carolina win the final game, the ACC's overall winning percentage would move to .642, so mathematically the ACC can't do better than third. If Michigan State upsets UNC, then the Big 10 would move to .622, which would move the Big 10 past the ACC into third.

Finally, what do the computers have to say?

Mike Sagarin, who runs computer ranking models on many sports, including NCAA basketball, has added in the tournament games to his model which compares teams throughout the entire season, not just March. Here's how Sagarin ranks the conferences:

1: Big 10 (84.10)
2: Big 12 (83.71)
3: PAC 10 (83.68)
4: Big East (83.41)
5: ACC (83.27)
6: SEC (79.97)

In this model, the Big East and the ACC, the "two premier" conferences in college basketball according to the national press, are only fourth and fifth. Yet they received all four #1 seeds and the bulk of the top sixteen seeds in the tournament.

Just once, it would be interesting to let the computers, not a committee, seed the tournament and select the participants. Then let's see how the Big East and the ACC do.

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