- Joe Lunardi, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
A few days back, UConn coach Jim Calhoun said his Huskies should play in the nation's best basketball conference. The implication was that the "best conference" would either be what's left of the Big East or the new-look ACC. But that got us thinking: Is either of those conferences really college hoops' best?
So, in this don't-blink period of conference realignment, today we're going to evaluate something we know instead of something we don't. Let's look at the new national landscape, place ourselves at the start of a college basketball season with the current alignments as we know them and determine the best conferences in our heretofore forgotten sport.
We start by assuming the following:
• Nebraska has already played in the Big Ten.
• Colorado and Utah are up and running in the Pac-12.
• Pitt and Syracuse are beginning play in the ACC.
• Same for Texas A&M in the SEC.
• The Big East has added TCU and is limping along with "only" 15 schools.
• The Big 12 has not moved to replace A&M and sits at nine members.
Here are the essential numbers:
• Only six power conference schools -- Duke, Pitt, Kansas, Texas, Wisconsin and Michigan State -- have been to the NCAA tournament in each of the past 10 seasons. Interestingly, this group does not include any of the decade's two-time national champions (Connecticut, Florida and North Carolina).
• Kansas (28) has won the most NCAA tournament games in the past 10 years, followed by Connecticut (25), North Carolina (24), Duke (23) and Michigan State (19). Florida has been the most "efficient" team in March, turning 17 NCAA victories into a pair of titles.
• Schools absent from the NCAA tournament for at least 10 years: Rutgers, South Florida, TCU, Nebraska, Northwestern and Oregon State. So that's three members of the "new" Big East and two from the expanded Big Ten. The ACC, Big 12 and SEC have no donuts among them.
Now comes the ultimate irony: It's America's erstwhile orphan, the Big 12, which emerges from the rubble as the best surviving basketball conference. Take a closer look at the numbers and you'll see again that, in basketball, less is usually more.
Specifically, the Big 12 has lost schools that contributed little or nothing from a basketball perspective. This gives it a head-and-shoulders advantage over the recently and frequently anointed ACC. To wit:
• The nine surviving Big 12 schools have averaged an aggregate 5.22 NCAA tournament bids over the last 10 years. The ACC is close at 5.14 bids, but it needs 14 members to reach that number.
• This is a critical distinction. The Big 12 has sent 58.0 percent of its remaining members to the NCAAs over the past 10 years. The ACC is at 36.7 percent, and that's with the Pitt-Syracuse bump.
• On the performance side, the surviving Big 12 also wins the most NCAA tournament games. It's 9.44 wins per year for the Big 12 and 8.14 for the ACC, with the repeated proviso that the Big 12 is getting to that aggregate total with far fewer teams.
• The only advantage of the ACC statistically is in the five-year RPI average of its new membership (59.81), a slight edge over the Big 12 (63.40). But the Big 12 makes up for this by winning a slightly higher number of its NCAA games (.649) than the ACC (.630).
So, when Calhoun talks about UConn's desire to land in the very best basketball conference, he is looking in the wrong direction. The new ACC is a great basketball league but, by virtually every measure, the Big 12 is better.
Calhoun's current backyard is in rough shape, though. The post-Cuse/Pitt Big East, with just 26.2 percent of its new membership making the NCAAs in the last decade, may be taking a bigger hit on the hardwood than the gridiron. The basketball-only schools may be wise to break away right now.
But that's another story for another day. Today, the Big 12 is the new hoops king.
Joe Lunardi is the resident Bracketologist for ESPN, ESPN.com and ESPN Radio. He also teaches "Fundamentals of Bracketology" online at Saint Joseph's University. Comments may be sent to email@example.com.
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