The Big Ten Is Better Than You Thought And It’s Okay To Admit That

I’m wrong. A lot. I was wrong on a lot of different things that happened in the first weekend of the tournament.

I loved SMU. Didn’t make it out of the first round.

It didn’t cross my mind that Duke would lose in the first weekend, regardless of the fact that their second round opponent had a home crowd. They did and it wasn’t all that close.

I doubted Butler. They didn’t trail once in the first two rounds. Not even for a second.

But I was wrong. That’s just a sampling of the things I missed.

And I don’t have any problem saying it. College basketball is maybe the most unpredictable of the American sports. That’s partially why I obsess over it. I write these power ranking blogs trying to hone in on what to expect knowing full well that they’re largely meaningless once the 18-23 year-olds under the most intense pressure of their young lives become involved.

With that said, not much that happened this weekend is all that surprising. The only thing that really stands out is that South Carolina is suddenly awesome at scoring a lot of points. That’s it. That’s the list.

Some might point to Xavier. They beat a Maryland team that’s been scuffling for a while now and a Florida State team that is led by one of college basketball’s greatest underachievers, Leonard Hamilton. The Muskies also have Chris Mack and Trevon Bluiett.

This brings me to the Big Ten, which became a big topic over the weekend due to five of their seven participants winning their first round game and three of those making the Sweet 16.

This led to the inevitable: Big Ten fans puffing their collective chest out and those who trashed the Big Ten basically chalking it up to randomness. The more intelligent, but still stubborn will put it this way:

Also an annual tradition, the “one-off” argument. I won’t even dispute it. It’s actually sensible! A single 40-minute game doesn’t change everything, provided that one or both of the teams in said game played at a level above or below their relatively recent norm.

But a series of these 40-minute results isn’t an accident.

The Big Ten wasn’t all that great in November and December. They didn’t register many groundbreaking wins.

However, the team that ended up finished in a tie for 10th in the league beat two of the #1 seeds this year. One of their NIT teams beat the Big 12 tournament champions…by a lot. Their #13 seed Nebraska team beat Dayton.

But they lost the ACC-Big Ten challenge, tied the Gavitt Games with the Big East, and otherwise had a ho-hum non-conference season.

The Big Ten was not one of the best conferences in November and December.

But what was that built off? One might say a series of “one-off” games in those two rather meaningless months.

I’ve never understood how those series of isolated 40-minute games is somehow deemed more important than the ones that occur at the end of the season.

It’s not as if the Power 6 teams are playing an enormous round-robin early in the year. You’re lucky to see some teams play three other Power 6 teams in non-conference play.

But those early games create a whole narrative for the remaining three months of the season. Everyone just seems to get it in their head because one conference looks stronger than the other before the calendar turns it over that it’s just going to stay that way forever. It dismisses the idea that teams grow and evolve as the season goes on.Which is the whole point of a season, to get better so that you can play at your best in March when it all really counts.

Is the NCAA Tournament the perfect way to prove a conference’s strength? No, far from it. But show me a better way, please. If your argument involves games played around Thanksgiving, but not the ones played now, just stop. You’re embarrassing yourself. I love KenPom, but even that system is a bit flawed when it comes to measuring conferences as a whole.

The way the system is set up now with 68 teams making the field and still a tremendous slant against mid-majors receiving at-large bids, you essentially get half of every major conference’s teams in the dance with some exceptions by a team or two. Point being, you see a lot of teams from each league matched up with the others.

And what I didn’t see last weekend was a lot of accidents happening in regards to the Big Ten. Nobody got scorching hot for one game and produced a fluky result. Wisconsin legitimately beat the #1 overall seed and defending national champion. Michigan legitimately beat the second-place ACC team in front of a pro-Louisville crowd. Purdue legitimately beat the Big 12 tournament champions in front of a pro-Iowa State crowd. Michigan State buried a Miami team that had an equal 10-8 conference record in the ACC. Even Northwestern was maybe a terrible no-call away from knocking off the #1 team overall in KenPom.

Exactly zero of them made more than the national average of 35% of their three-point shots and all five of them shot worst than their respective team averages. Nothing fluky about it.

But hey, Minnesota lost to Middle Tennessee, so we get absolutely outrageous tweets like this that have no shred of supporting evidence:

Would it surprise you to know that Terrence had the Big Ten going 1-7 in the tournament with Michigan State getting the lonely first round win?

They are currently 8-4.

I’m not even trying to tell you the Big Ten was the best league this year. I’ve never said that. I have said all year that it’s a league with no truly great teams, but a few really good teams and a few other decent ones. I wasn’t sure how they’d do as a league in the tournament because they didn’t have favorable seeds (which is largely influenced by those pesky November/December games) and would therefore have a tougher road, but most of them largely played how they have since early February.

While they may not be the best, I don’t think the gap between them and the Big 12 or ACC is quite as significant as it was made out to be either. The only real difference I see is that they don’t have a Kansas or a North Carolina.

It gets extremely tiring to see the same recycled takes over and over and even more exhausting to see that it doesn’t even occur to people that they were maybe, possibly, the slightest bit wrong. And the lengths that people will go to avoid it.

 

*Deletes entire section on why Mark Titus is a moron*

The real issue at hand is the constant need to power rank the conferences in a year where there’s a whole lot of teams at the top without many discernible differences.

 

Part of what I do to evaluate how the tournament is going to go is by looking at the tiers through adjusted efficiency margins. The “great” teams are categorized by having a margin of 28+. The “very good” teams are categorized by having a margin between 22 and 28.

Here’s how many teams fit in each category over the years. The numbers for 2017 are current, every other year is post-tourney.

28+ 22-28
2002 4 6
2003 2 8
2004 1 11
2005 2 10
2006 0 9
2007 3 9
2008 4 8
2009 4 11
2010 2 10
2011 2 10
2012 2 9
2013 3 10
2014 3 12
2015 6 8
2016 5 11
2017 3 20

Hmm, what number really jumps out in that list? 21 teams in the “very good” range, an all-time high and not by a little bit.

The breakdown of teams – by conference – in the “very good” range:

ACC 4
Big 12 5
Big East 0
Big Ten 3
SEC 1
Pac 12 3
MVC 1
American 2
WCC 1

It’s a bit of an arbitrary number set, but at the same time the range from 2003 to 2016 was a very consistent five and this year has shown a spike equal to more than double the average. Things could change over the last two weeks, but not enough to skew the numbers in a substantial manner.

My whole point in all of this is to say that every league at the top had some really good teams. And all of them only had one or two really bad teams, except the Pac-12. They had four. There’s not a big difference between the other five.

That isn’t really an opinion. It’s a summation based on cold, hard facts, Jack.

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