Sunday, October 16, 2011

Joey Brackets' "Best Conference": Is Big 12 Just Top-Heavy?

Last month, Joe "Joey Brackets" Lunardi made an argument that the Big 12 was, in fact, college basketball's best conference. It's an Insider piece, so if you're not slipping the WWL some money, just take my word for it.

Lunardi based his arguments on five-year RPI averages, 10-year averages of NCAA bids by conference, and NCAA win averages and winning percentages.

While the ACC had the best five-year RPI average, the Big 12 topped the charts in NCAA bids, NCAA wins, NCAA winning percentage, and percentage of possible NCAA bids. However, there are a few caveats.

Joey went ahead and applied the results of Conference Roulette 2011, such as Texas A&M to the SEC, Pitt and Syracuse to the ACC, and Colorado and Utah shipping out to make the Pac-10 into the Pac-12. I'll go one step further and add TCU to the Big 12, although they make absolutely no difference in the numbers, having not been to the tourney since the Billy Tubbs era. (However, the Big East's latest round of invitations are not included in my data.)

For me, though, the biggest red flag came when Lunardi named the six schools that have been in each of the last 10 NCAA tournaments: Duke, Pitt, Wisconsin, Michigan State, Kansas, and Texas. Two from the Big Ten, two from the Big 12, and two from the "new" ACC.

So, here's the question: is the Big 12 really tops in college basketball, or is it simply being propped up by the consistent success of the Jayhawks and the Longhorns?

This experiment will cut the heads off the snakes, so to speak. Take out each conference's top two NCAA Tournament performers and examine which conferences spread out the production, and which ones are dominated by two powerhouse programs.

Read the figures after the jump.

Schools are divided into two groups: the Top 2 and the Remainders. Each conference's Top 2's:

ACC: Duke and North Carolina
Big East: UConn and Villanova
Big Ten: Michigan State and Wisconsin
Big 12: Kansas and Texas
Pac-12: Arizona and UCLA
SEC: Kentucky and Florida

The Top 2's and the Remainders in each league are compared to determine how much of each league's success has been achieved by their top two teams. The leagues are ranked in the following categories:

Bids: How many bids the Remainders in each conference earned over the last 10 years.
Wins: How many tournament games the Remainders won in that span.
Wins per Bid: How many games each Remainder team wins each time they get into the NCAA Tournament.
Winning Percentage: Duh.
Top-2 Bid Percentage: How many of a league's total bids over 10 years were earned by the Top 2.
Top-2 Win Percentage: How many of a league's wins were earned by the Top 2.

The ACC's resume (remember, this is including Pitt and Syracuse and counting Big East exes like Miami and Boston College):
--55 Remainder bids (1st)
--68 Remainder wins (1st)
--1.236 Wins per Bid (3rd)
--.562 Win % (2nd)
--.236 Top-2 Bid % (1st)
--.409 Top-2 Win % (1st)

The ACC and SEC are the only conferences that have sent all of their "current" members to the NCAA Tournament in the last decade. The ACC is the only league with Remainder teams that claimed a national title (Maryland in 2002 and Syracuse in 2003). So, they have those going for them. Which is nice.

The surprising aspect lies in the percentages. When you have a Top 2 that accounts for 47 wins over 17 Tournament trips, one would expect a serious chunk of the pie between those two schools. Of course, if Pitt and the Cuse weren't joining, the Heels and Devils would truly assert their dominance.

Subtract the two Big East refugees, and the Top-2 percentages jump to .309 bids, which would place fourth, and a whopping .540 wins, which would place dead last. So, while the Big 12 may have passed the ACC in terms of depth over the past few seasons, the new additions do little but cement the ACC's place as the pre-eminent hoops conference going forward. (Lord knows neither of them do a damn thing for the football product.)

The Big East's resume:
--44 Remainder bids (2nd)
--51 Remainder wins (2nd)
--1.159 Wins per Bid (4th)
--.537 Win % (4th)
--.254 Top-2 Bid % (2nd)
--.420 Top-2 Win % (2nd)

UConn's two national titles are the primary asset the Big East can still claim without Pitt and Syracuse. The Huskies' 25 tourney wins rank them second in America, behind only Kansas's 27 (not the 28 that Lunardi credited to them).

What drags the Big East down is a ridiculous disparity between the haves and have-nots. Six of the 14 remaining members (St. John's, Seton Hall, Providence, DePaul, Rutgers, and South Florida) accounted for a grand total of six tourney bids, with a record of 3-6 once they got there.

Still, the Big East isn't insanely top-heavy, thanks to the consistent success of West Virginia, Louisville, and to a lesser extent, Georgetown. Even once Pitt and Syracuse are gone for good, this conference will still be good for anywhere from five to eight bids every season, if only through the force of will of coaches like Pitino, Huggins, Wright, Thompson, and Calhoun. And Steve Lavin, health willing, appears more than able to bring St. John's back to Carnesecca-era prominence.

The Big Ten's resume (including Nebraska, although they don't make a bit of difference):
--33 Remainder bids (5th)
--41 Remainder wins (3rd)
--1.242 Wins per Bid (2nd)
--.554 Win % (3rd)
--.377 Top-2 Bid % (5th)
--.446 Top-2 Win % (3rd)

With two schools that haven't missed the Tournament since the 1990's, Sparty and Bucky were easy to install as the Big Ten's Top 2. This is despite three other schools that have made national finals (Indiana, Illinois and Ohio State).

Those deep runs, plus Purdue's steadfast refusal to bow out before beating SOMEBODY (still no NCAA first-round losses since 1993), bolster the Big Ten's averages, but there's a dark side, and it's on that top line above.

The Big Ten's top half (the aforementioned six schools) is as solid as any. The other six? Eight bids, 2-8 record, thanks for asking. Michigan and Minnesota are showing signs of life the last couple of years, but still, the Big Ten can't seriously claim best-in-the-nation credentials until those schools become consistent threats and Indiana steps back up to prominence.

The Big 12's resume:
--27 Remainder bids (6th)
--40 Remainder wins (4th)
--1.481 Wins per Bid (1st)
--.597 Win % (1st)
--.426 Top-2 Bid % (6th)
--.524 Top-2 Win % (6th)

Lunardi's thesis is not completely off-base. Big 12 teams perform well when they get into the dance. How well? Texas Tech is the only school with a losing tournament record the last 10 years. Still, the consistent success of Kansas and Texas tends to polish over the cratering of Oklahoma's program in the post-Sampson era or the black hole that existed in Manhattan, Kansas before Frank Martin arrived.

Consistency is something that a lot of the Big 12's programs have struggled to attain. Oklahoma and K-State are obvious ones, but Oklahoma State closed out the Sutton dynasty with three straight NIT trips and has only won one NCAA Tournament game in the last six years.

Missouri had a similar cold spell after Quin Snyder took them to the Elite Eight in 2002. Then, the departure of Mike Anderson for Arkansas cost the Tigers the man who brought the program back, leaving them with Frank Haith, who obviously didn't get much bang for Nevin Shapiro's buck at Miami.

The "best conference in America" doesn't have its coaches bail for the SEC, like Anderson, or the Big Ten, like Sampson. The Wildcats keeping Martin from bolting to be Haith's replacement in Miami is probably the best thing that could have happened to the Big 12 this offseason. Well, aside from the states of Oklahoma and Texas not seceding to join the Pac-12, that is.

The Pac-12's resume (including Colorado and Utah):
--36 Remainder bids (4th)
--33 Remainder wins (6th)
--0.917 Wins per Bid (5th)
--.478 Win % (5th)
--.308 Top-2 Bid % (4th)
--.484 Top-2 Win % (4th)

In the Pac-12, you never know who you can count on from year to year, and lately, that even includes UCLA. The Bruins have won two tourney games in three years since their run of three straight Final Fours. Their success and the consistency of Arizona make up for the fact that only three of the 10 Remainders have winning tournament records in the decade.

Lorenzo Romar has Washington knocking on the door of national prominence. In his six tournament bids, only once have the Huskies been knocked out in the first round. Still, the conference needs to keep him around, which may be the hardest part.

Once Trent Johnson had Stanford back up to their Mike Montgomery-era level, he bolted for the reclamation project at LSU. Tony Bennett put Washington State into their first NCAA Tournaments since 1994, then bailed for Virginia. Tim Floyd rallied USC back from the remains of the Henry Bibby era, but landed the program in the NCAA doghouse.

The current crop of Pac-12 coaches all seem to have something to prove. Johnny Dawkins wants to prove himself deserving of such a high-profile job for his first head coaching position. Montgomery wants to prove he can win at Cal just like he won at arch-rival Stanford. Dana Altman wants to prove that his Oregon teams can perform as well as his Creighton teams did (and with Nike's money behind the program, it's not an unreasonable expectation).

If the Pac-12 is going to reassert its place near the top of college basketball, it's essential that these guys accomplish those missions. Hell, a couple of them need to get it done just to move the league back ahead of the CAA and the Valley.

In the meantime, Sean Miller will keep humming away at Arizona and Ben Howland is starting to recruit nationwide at UCLA.

The SEC's resume (including Texas A&M):

--41 Remainder bids (3rd)
--37 Remainder wins (5th)
--0.902 Wins per Bid (6th)
--.474 Win % (6th)
--.293 Top-2 Bid % (3rd)
--.486 Top-2 Win % (5th)

Kentucky is Kentucky, and apparently will continue to be until John Calipari goes senile from the hair grease seeping into his frontal lobe. Florida's feast-or-famine, with their two national titles being somewhat offset by five bids ending in the first or second round. But, at least they've got some deep runs to be proud of. The rest of the SEC can't even say that.

If we leave out LSU's surprising run to the Final Four in 2006, only Tennessee (2010) and Alabama (2004) have made it farther than the Sweet 16 in the past decade. 2009 was especially embarrassing, with only three bids and one win, that by LSU over Butler (a result that seems downright unthinkable now).

Too often, the conference has struggled to escape oddball results like Vanderbilt's three first-round flameouts, second-seeded Tennessee falling in Round 2 in 2006, or Bruce Pearl's previous employer UW-Milwaukee dropping fifth-seeded Bama in 2005. Otherwise, SEC teams frequently make the dance as 7-through-11 seeds, drawing unfavorable matchups.

Either way, the SEC is almost completely rescued from last among these major leagues by the overpowering presence of Kentucky and the explosive potential of Billy Donovan's Florida teams. Now, who can help them carry the weight?

Vanderbilt's got the talent this year, but last year's team was almost completely identical to this one, and how'd that work out? Anthony Grant's got Alabama heading the right way, but will he get them into the Big Dance this season? Will Billy Gillispie succeed at A&M the way he did at Tech? He always seems to have it going on when he's at football schools, but Kentucky was way too much of a pressure cooker for him. And can Cuonzo Martin keep Tennessee at the level Pearl made them accustomed to?

Working at an SEC school means being perfectly fine with disappearing behind the football team, except at Kentucky or Vanderbilt. If the SEC is going to climb back to the elite in hoops, they need a conference full of Bruce Pearls, guys who could sell horse manure to politicians. Grant seems to have that kind of ability, but who else is there? Rick Stansbury? Mark Fox? Mike Anderson, back home again in Fayetteville and fresh off big things poppin' at Missouri?

The SEC does a better job of getting multiple bids than the Big 12 does, but then they do jack-all with them. Of course, the fan base could care less unless the athletes are wearing helmets.

To sum it all up, does the Big 12 have a legit claim to "best conference in America"? Kind of, but not a truly serious one until the likes of Baylor, Kansas State, or Mizzou can threaten KU and Bevo every season.

What about the Big East? Strength in numbers will only get you so far.

The Big Ten? The top half of the league is like a sprinter trying to run in the Olympic 100-meter final with a tire strapped to his waist. As a lifelong Big Ten fan, I'd love to be able to say otherwise, but the reality is hard to argue with.

The additions of Pitt and Syracuse just reinforced the fact that college basketball is still the ACC's world. These other leagues simply live in it.

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