Debunking the Myth: Has the Big East Really Been a Dominant Conference Recently?Posted by EJacoby on February 17th, 2012
Evan Jacoby is a regular contributor for RTC. You can find him @evanjacoby on Twitter.
We all know that the future of the Big East conference is going to look much different than as is currently constructed. West Virginia is headed to the Big 12 next season, and Syracuse and Pittsburgh will be on their way out to the ACC within the next two years. This league that in recent years has been known as the most dominant basketball conference will have much more competition for that title in the near future. But even this year, fully intact with the same 16 teams from which 11 qualified for the Big Dance last year, the league is not a shoo-in for the top conference. The Big East only has four NCAA Tournament locks right now, with five or six teams middling on the bubble. Which is more of an aberration – this year’s average play or the past few years of perceived dominance?
There are plenty of metrics to use when attempting to determine the best conference during a season. One could look at conference RPI to determine the strength of the league during the regular season, but that treats every team equally so a couple of bad teams at the bottom of a 16-team league could weight down the conference significantly. Conference RPI also does not reflect postseason success. Amount of future NBA draft picks could tell us a lot, but that doesn’t necessarily reflect anything at the college level equating to program success. For the purpose of measuring a conference’s success from year-to-year, we’re going to look at the number of postseason bids they received and how well those teams performed in the bracket.
The Big East has sent the most teams to the NCAA Tournament of any conference for four consecutive seasons. Of course, their 16-team league has four more teams in it than any other conference, so they always have a greater chance to send the most teams. Still, the Big East has sent at least half of their teams (eight or more) to the Big Dance in three of the past four years, a very strong percentage. Eight qualifying teams remained an all-time best until the conference smashed its own record by sending 11 teams last season. Overall, the Big East has sent 53.1% of its teams to the NCAA Tournament in the past four years, more than any other league.
Things get tricky from there, as both sides can argue about whether or not the Big East’s teams have met expectations in the postseason. Last season, the league sent 11 teams to the Big Dance and Vegas determined their over/under to be 15.5 wins total for those teams. They only won a combined 13 games for a 13-10 record, including just two teams total advancing to the Sweet Sixteen, and those two teams got there by defeating a fellow Big East school in the round of 32. In comparison, the ACC sent four teams to the tournament and had three of them advance to the Sweet Sixteen. However, Connecticut won the National Championship so that alone helped make up for all the early-tourney disappointment.
In 2010, the Big East sent eight teams to the NCAA Tournament that compiled a disappointing 8-8 record. By comparison, the Big Ten, ACC, and Big 12 all won more games, and they sent seven, six, and five teams to the tournament, respectively. Back in 2008, the league sent eight teams to the dance that compiled an 11-8 record with no Final Four bids; the Big 12 sent six teams with a 12-5 record and a National Champion (Kansas). Oddly enough, 2009 was the Big East’s lowest output year with just seven teams in the major postseason event, but those teams compiled a phenomenal 17-7 record. The Big Ten and ACC each had seven teams in that year, and they combined to win 18 games.
So make of all this information what you wish. In attempting to quantify the level of dominance by the league, we would say that the Big East has been slightly overrated in recent history. Getting the most teams into the Big Dance does not equate to being the best league if those teams are unable to win when it matters most: on neutral floors against the best that other conferences have to offer. Perhaps it’s having a larger pool of teams to choose from, a large number of nationally televised games, so many teams ranked in the AP Poll throughout the season, or even just pure East Coast bias, but it does seem like the league has been slightly overrated when described as the “dominant” conference in America. Other analysts have pointed to the idea that perhaps all the quality teams in the league beat up on each other in what is such a physical conference schedule, but that argument fails when you consider that every power conference has just as physically demanding of a schedule, and the point of those games is to build toward the strongest results in March.
In all, the Big East set a high standard in 2009 when it tied the record for most NCAA bids and won a record 17 games, but it has not consistently repeated that kind of success in the Big Dance. The Big East may be “down” this year with a conference RPI tied for second with the Big 12 just barely ahead of the SEC and a long way behind the Big Ten, but it’s more accurate to consider last year’s 11-bid season as an aberration that created the perception of a truly dominant conference.