Monday, March 21, 2011

Defending The Big East

I know that there are some people who view me as the biggest Big East hater out there. I spend a lot of time talking about how and why the Big East is so overrated in college basketball every year. Here is an example of one of my rants, but you can find many others by going through my archives. And I talked all season long about how the Big East was again overrated. I had several people tell me that this was the dumbest thing I said all year, that "everybody knows the Big East is by far the best conference".

And now the Big East has gone out and had a debacle of historic proportions in the NCAA Tournament. Louisville losing to Morehead State, Pitt to Butler, Notre Dame to Florida State... they need two more wins to avoid having the single worst performance ever by any conference relative to seed expectation (PASE) since the Tournament expanded in 1985.

So with those last two paragraphs in mind I'm going to defend the Big East. Of course. But first...

Don't try to defend Big East play like Digger Phelps:
Before I defend the Big East, I want to differentiate myself from the "homer" argument, best exemplified by Digger Phelps, the single most useless college basketball analyst on television. He constantly argues that the year-after-year failure of the Big East in the NCAA Tournament is proof of its strength, because the teams play tough non-conference opponents and then "beat up on each other" for 18 games. This is beyond stupid. First of all, the Big Ten also plays 18 games, and all of the top Big Ten teams also play tough non-conference opponents, and the Big Ten has (since 1985) been the top performing conference (relative to seed expectation) in the NCAA Tournament. And if one team should be "beat up" it's UConn (having played five straight Big East tournament games), and they're doing the best of any Big East team. The Big East schedule isn't any more physical or demanding than the Big Ten, Big 12 or ACC. So enough of that.

Moving to my defense:

The NCAA Tournament is not a judge of team quality or conference quality:
If we wanted the best teams to win in the NCAA Tournament we'd have a best-of-five series between the top teams, and we wouldn't invite any of the teams from smaller conferences. The larger the sample size the more likely the best team is to win. In a one-and-done situation, anybody can beat anybody. Does somebody honestly think Morehead State could beat Louisville in a best-of-five series? Of course not. And even individual results are often impacted more by luck and randomness than anything else. If Gilbert Brown (a 79% free throw shooter for the season) hits that last free throw against Butler then Pitt wins and Nasir Robinson doesn't even get the chance to commit that foul.

The Big East is who I thought they were:
Heading into the NCAA Tournament, both Pomeroy and the Sagarin PREDICTOR (the two best computer measures of team quality) had the Big Ten narrowly ahead of the Big East, and then a long way back to the third place Big 12 Conference. I thought that the gap between the Big Ten and Big East was really bigger because the Big Ten had been improving through the conference season and the Big East had been regressing, and it's impossible for the computers to measure that when the conferences aren't playing each other. Michigan, Penn State, Indiana and Iowa had all shown major improvement since non-conference play, with only Michigan State regressing in the Big Ten. Meanwhile, Villanova and Georgetown had really regressed, with only St. John's improving since non-conference play. With the NCAA Tournament results in the books, the gap between the Big Ten and Big East has grown. We still have the Big Ten first, Big East second and Big 12 third in the computers, but now the Big East is actually a little closer to the Big 12 than Big Ten. And I think that's about right. Even if Pitt had beaten Butler by one, or Louisville had beaten Morehead State by two, those would still be unimpressive performances, and the computers would have punished them.

Final thoughts:
I've talked extensively about rating conferences, and you can read my best post on the subject here. It's always important to remember that a single game between two teams is not the be-all and end-all. There is a lot of randomness in sports, particularly in basketball. But, of course, that's why we love the Tournament. If the 1 seeds all had a free pass to the Final Four (like they do in women's college basketball most years), nobody cares to watch the early rounds. In Pomeroy's preview of the Sweet 16, he sees Duke, Ohio State, Kansas and Wisconsin as all heavy favorites to win their region, but if you do the math he only gives an 11% chance of all four making it in. And that's good. Because it means we'll watch every game, knowing that all 16 teams have a legitimate chance to get to Houston.

The Big East is over-hyped by the media every year, with ESPN driving that message more than anybody. And as long as it continues we can expect the Big East to, on average, under-perform their seed expectation in the Tournament. But the conference is still very good, and is still the second best conference in the land this season, and a few bad results this past week don't erase how good that conference was all year long.

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