Apr. 15, 2017
[Fill in the blank] Conference is Overrated
As I write this, half of the Final Four has been locked in and two West Coast teams occupy two of the four slots so far. An SEC team is guaranteed to occupy a third slot and could take the other half of the bracket, while the ACC is clinging to the hope that North Carolina will carry their flag to a championship.
The single elimination format of March Madness and the massive news coverage it generates inevitably results in talking heads issuing edicts about specific conferences or teams being "overrated," based sometimes on a sample size as small as just a handful of first-round games. The terms "power conference" and "power five conferences" are tossed around and the mid-major label is thrown about, typically identifying individual teams (although never from a "power conference), but sometimes conferences as well.
At the same time coaches, analysts and others will wax on about which conference is the best or most-deserving of bids and which conferences and/or teams were undeserving over-seeded, under-seeded or entirely ripped off by the selection committee. The reality is, the selection committee actually does a really good job of letting everyone know exactly what the landscape of college basketball looks like when they compile their bracket. How do we know this? Because a bazillion bracket experts (actually more than 100) have popped up since Joe Lunardi started popularizing Bracketology and the vast majority of them are in nearly universal agreement with the selection committee on who should be in the tournament.
What happens once the field is filled is just fun to watch, but the sample size of March Madness is so small in any given year, it really doesn't prove one team or conference was any more or less deserving than another. It's March, it's madness and anything can (and often does) happen. That won't stop the talking heads from complaining for a few hours about how Illinois State got shafted, because they know no one will call them out for over-hyping that team, when they lose to Central Florida in the second round of the NIT.
Xavier was a popular punching bag on Selection Sunday for the way they limped into the post-season, having only beaten one team not named DePaul since February 2nd. The fact that they were one of the last teams into the dance was all but forgotten by the time they made it to the Sweet 16. By that point, a million false opinions had been put forward about how the Big East & ACC were overrated, the SEC and Pac-12 were underrated the Big 12 was the toughest conference...or vice versa for all of the above. Without trying to spin the numbers too much, I'd like to throw my opinions about college hoops into the mix, starting with one that will upset a lot of folks.
The Big East is the best basketball conference in the country. That may seem debatable on the surface, but the way things have evolved in college sports in recent years, it is clear that the Big 10, SEC, ACC, Big-12 and Pac-12 are all football conferences with basketball teams. The ACC may have the best collection of those teams, but they're still playing in a football conference. Players have started to understand and appreciate the difference and teams like Villanova are showing the rest of the country how powerful the draw can be to be kings of the campus. They have all of the focus and resources at their disposal and the potential to make it to the Final Four and win a national championship.
While Villanova does have football, so does Towson and no one really cares much about either one. It's not like football had any impact on their decision to stay in the Big East and focus on hoops. I think an increasing number of high-major recruits will be lured in by the idea of never having to play second-fiddle to a sucky power conference football team.
The Big East put seven of ten teams into the tournament this season and DePaul was really the only school that didn't have a chance as late as February. Likewise, every arena in this conference is now brimming with fans, except for DePaul and even they get some decent crowds (of opposing fans) against Marquette and Butler. They also have a new arena coming online that will be much closer to campus and should help revitalize their program.
Bill Walton's "Conference of Champions" has been anything but that lately. If Oregon is able to win the championship this season, it will be just the third NCAA title won by a Pac-12 school since Coach Wooden retired from UCLA in 1975. During that same span (and I'm only counting current teams in current conferences), the ACC has won 13 titles, the SEC & Big 10 have both won seven titles and the Big East and American have both won four titles. Of the conferences with the best basketball programs, the Pac-12 has only managed to equal the Big-12 in winning championships (two) and they have yet to bring one home in the 21st century.
It can be argued that the Conference of Champions moniker can refer to all the collective championships won by the Pac-12 over the years, but that argument should be made where it is relevant, which would not include the basketball court or the football field. If we really want to bring championships that pre-date the Carter administration into the mix, then we have to concede that Princeton's 26 football championships from 1869-1935 (they were an absolute juggernaut during the 1870s) would make them a relevant football powerhouse.
Due to their timezone and the emergence of ESPN and televised games, the Pac-12 has probably been hit harder than any other conference in their ability to recruit nationally. Fewer kids are willing to head out West to play, knowing their families back East will have to stay up until all hours of the night, watching them play games. TV didn't matter as much when games were hardly ever on, but now they all are and kids want friends & family to be able to watch them.
While all of the Pac-12 teams have made the tournament since 2000, their success once there has been less than stellar. Four of the 12 teams haven't made it past the first weekend in this century, including Oregon State, who hasn't won a game in the post-season since 1982. While UCLA and Arizona have made plenty of deep runs over the years and Oregon has come on strong as of this year, it's slim picking for the rest of the league. Half of the schools have never won a championship, five have never made it to the finals, ASU has never made it to the Final Four (they did make the Elite 8 in a 32-team field in 1975) and only the "Big 3" have made the Final Four since 2000.
The Big Ten isn't as tough as everyone thinks it is. It seems every conference has a bottom-feeder school that has fallen on hard times or has never really found the good times and the Big Ten is no exception. Until Northwestern finally made it to the dance and won a game this season, the Big 10 had two such schools. The other being Rutgers, who hasn't been to the tournament since 1991 & hasn't won a game since 1983. However, Nebraska is also deceptively bad. While they made the tournament as recently as 2014, Northwestern's win has moved the spotlight to Nebraska as the last school from any of the major conferences, to have never won an NCAA tournament game.
While the rest of the schools have all won games in the 21st century, Penn State's last win came in 2001 and they haven't made the dance since 2011. There are certainly some very tough teams at the top of the conference every year, but there also seems to be a pack of schools that migrate between being really good and having meh seasons, helping pad conference records.
Even though the Big Ten couldn't get any teams into the Final Four this year, the larger sample size of the regular season shows a 6-17 record against ACC schools and a 1-4 record versus the Pac-12 (they did have winning records against the Big-12, SEC & Big East). Good, but not the best.
If the SEC gets two teams in the Final Four, let's not jump to conclusions about how good the whole conference was this season. Kentucky is really good most of the time and not bad in the years when they're not contending for a national championship. However, beyond the Wildcats, things get a little sketchier. South Carolina has made a nice run in the tournament this year, but even if they make the Final Four, it doesn't erase what happened in the larger sample size of the regular season- 6-10 vs the ACC, 1-6 vs the Big East, 2-5 vs the Big Ten, 2-7 vs the Pac-12. They did manage an 8-7 record vs the Big-12, but overall, they seemed to be weaker versus the top competition.
So enjoy March Madness for what it is and don't read too far into what it isn't.