Eas(t)y Targets

Much has been alleged of the Big (L)East's demise as a postseason basketball power. With 11 teams selected to the NCAA tournament, bracket-pickers expected impressive results, only to find that the conference may not be what Dennis Green thought they were. But was this a legendary case of choking, or a bit of regression to reality?

First, let's state truths and assumptions:

  1. The Big East was over-hyped the day before the tournament started. That wasn't its fault. Big East teams just played the games on their schedule, and sports media and fans in the Northeast took it from there.
  2. Too much emphasis is placed on conference strength instead of team strength. Team strength and individual match-ups affect game outcomes. Conference strength is necessarily correlated, but not directly involved in who wins.
  3. One team (Villanova) made the tournament because it's in the Big East. The Wildcats' body of work was solid, but let's be honest enough to admit that an Atlantic 10 team with a similar record and the same end-of-season fall from glory would be in the NIT. Villanova faceplanted against Big East teams down the stretch, so how could it be representative of the conference's power? Villanova was dancing because of conference hype, which added to irrationally high expectations.
  4. At least 2 Big East teams weren't going to make the Sweet 16, because they were in bracket sections where only one could advance (see the Marquette-Syracuse and Cincinnati-UConn games).

That leaves us with 8 (or 9, depending on your opinion of Villanova) potential Sweet 16 teams from the Big East. The first two rounds eliminate 3/4 of the field, and if we assume complete parity as a method of ignoring conference hype, then the Big East would get 2 teams into the Sweet 16...which happened.

Are you already drafting a comment about my idiotic assumption of parity? Okay, fine - the Big East is 50% better than the average NCAA basketball conference. Read that again - it's an outlandish figure that isn't even close to being true, but for the sake of counterargument, that means the Big East should have gotten 3 teams into the Sweet 16 instead of they were 1 team short. Postseason disaster, really?

Of course, the astute reader could argue in reverse and say that the Big East placed 2 teams in the Sweet 16 precisely because they got 2 second round games where a Big East team was guaranteed to advance, and otherwise could have placed no teams at all. That, unfortunately, will forever be an arguable point because we rarely get to see counterfactuals in sports.

The Big East was the best conference in basketball, but that doesn't mean each of its teams are better than each team they could play in the NCAA tournament. Match-ups are crucial, and a strong team from a stout conference can get stomped by a hot hand it can't defend (Georgetown will tell you about that).

Bet against the Big East next March. I'm not afraid to win your money.


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