ACC is still king of the Tourney hill
But before we declare the great conference debate settled, it's worth investigating a couple of issues:
• How have the Big Six conferences (ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-10 and SEC) performed more recently in the tourney -- the last decade as opposed to the full 21 years of the 64-team era?
• What kind of impact might the realignment of the Big East have on its tourney performance?
Finally, the prevailing wisdom holds that mid-major conferences are beginning to emerge as stronger performers in the tourney. We'll analyze which of the mid-majors has been the best March Madness conference over the last decade.
One thing is for sure: Mid-majors aren't any immediate threat to challenge the overall record of the Big Six conferences since 1985 (when the tourney expanded to 64 teams), considering that the Big Six teams have made up 46 percent of the tourney entrants since 1985 and have done 72 percent of the winning. They've fielded 73 of the 84 Final Four teams and won 19 of the 21 championships (Louisville in 1986 and UNLV in 1990 are the only mid-major squads to break the Big Six stranglehold).
It's also pretty clear that the ACC has been the class of the Big Six conferences -- at least over the entire 21 years of the 64-team era.The ACC holds a commanding lead over the other conferences in terms of its overall tournament record -- and that lead grew over the Big East, its nearest competitor, by .010 -- or 5.5 games -- in 2005. While the ACC posted a 12-4 record in last year's tourney, the Big East struggled to 7-6. In fact, the Big Ten (12-5 in 2005) was the only other Big Six conference to stay close to the ACC. The Pac-10 at least was over .500, at 5-4, and the SEC (5-5) and the Big 12 (6-6) wound up with even records.
As we pointed out last year, however, overall records aren't exactly the best metric for determining the top performing conference in the tourney. Records don't factor in relative seeding positions. ACC schools that get into the tourney tend to be seeded higher than teams from the other Big Six conferences.These are the average seed positions of tourney teams from each conference. Based on the seed differences, you would expect the ACC to post a better record than the other conferences. The question is: How much better? The answer goes a long way toward determining which conference is really the best tourney performer. After all, if a top-seeded ACC team went 3-1 while an eighth-seeded Big Ten team went 2-1, could you really conclude that the ACC team is a better tourney team? Even though its winning percentage is better, the ACC squad actually performs worse than you would expect of a top seed because 1-seeds win 3.3 games on average. On the other hand, the eighth-seeded Big East squad goes deeper into the tourney than the typical No. 8 seed, which only wins 0.7 games on average.
We can quantify each conference's performance against seed expectations by comparing the number of games they've won at each seed position with the number of games the average team at that seed has won. By tallying up the differences -- some of which will be positive and others negative -- we can determine the total number of games each conference has performed above or below its seed expectations. Here's how the numbers break down after the 2005 tourney:
Before last year's tourney, the performances of the ACC and the Big East against seed expectations were nearly the same, with both winning almost a quarter game more per team than seeding dictated. But the ACC's strong showing in 2005 boosted its performance against seed expectation (PASE) to +0.257, while the Big East's PASE dropped to +0.201. So although the ACC is saddled with the expectation of winning more games in the tourney than any other Big Six conference, it also exceeds those lofty demands by more than its rivals do.
Besides the ACC and Big East, the only other conference that wins more than its collective seed position would dictate is the SEC. Its teams have squeezed out about five more wins than expected in their 104 appearances for a nearly break-even +0.045 PASE. The Big Ten plays almost exactly to seed expectations, with its 117 teams falling short of its seed-predicted win total by less than a game.
The biggest underachievers are the Big 12 (-0.115 PASE) and the Pac-10 (-0.252 PASE). The Pac-10 has been particularly disappointing. Its 82 teams have lost 21 games more than their seed positions would warrant. As you'll learn in a moment, however, most of this underachievement happened in the early years of the 64-team Tourney era.
The last decade tells a different story
Over the last decade of the tourney, the battle for conference supremacy has been much tighter. While the ACC still sports the best overall record at 90-45 -- 4.5 games better than the Big East -- its 48 teams have won only two games more than its collective seeding warrants. That works out to a scant 0.041 games above expectations, third to the Big East (+0.242 PASE) and the Big Ten (+0.165 PASE).
The other conference that has a lower PASE for the last decade than its total for the 64-team era is the SEC. The conference actually has lost about eight games more than it should have on its way to a -0.143 PASE. That's the lowest of all the Big Six conferences -- lower even than the Pac-10, which fell short of its expected win total by only about two games. The Big 12 played even closer to seed expectations, losing just over one game more than the seeding would predict.
To put the impact of the last decade in perspective, consider how dramatically the fortunes of the Big Six conferences have changed since the first 11 years of the tourney. The ACC, for instance, built up most of its seed overachievement from 1985 to 1995, a period when its PASE was a whopping +0.343 -- a third of a game per team better than seed expectations. Since then, ACC squads are more than three-tenths of a game (-0.302 PASE) worse. At least the ACC is still overachieving. The SEC went from overperforming in the early years of the tourney (+0.236 PASE) to underachieving since 1995 (-0.143); that's a drop against seed expectations of 0.379 games.
Which conference improved the most? Surprise, surprise: It's the Pac-10. After its teams lost nearly half a game more than seed projections from '85 to '95 (-0.464 PASE), the Pac-10 improved 0.413 games over the last decade. The other conference that made a big turnaround is the Big Ten. An underperformer in the early years of the tourney, the Big Ten improved 0.342 games per team against seed expectations to become a solid overachiever.
Ranking the mid-majors
Over the last decade, eight conferences outside the Big Six have sent more than 10 teams to the tourney. Conference USA has sent the most -- 38 -- followed by the Atlantic 10 at 32. Surprisingly, neither of these conferences has posted the best overall mid-major record. That distinction belongs to the Western Athletic Conference; the league's 23 tourney teams have gone 26-23. In fact, the WAC is the only mid-major to win more than it lost. C-USA comes close, at 37-38, but it also has an average seed position (6.32) that's better than the WAC's (7.83), so you'd expect it to win more.
The win-loss record doesn't tell the full story of how disappointing C-USA has been in the tourney. It has underachieved against seed expectations more than any mid-major except the Mountain West Conference. C-USA's 37 wins fall more than six games below where seeding should have gotten it. That works out to a woeful -0.168 PASE. The A-10 also underachieves, but not as dramatically. Its teams have lost one more game than they should have.
The WAC has built its solid tourney record on overachievement. It should be a sub-.500 conference, but its teams have pulled out nearly four more wins than expected for a +0.163 PASE. As impressive as that is, it doesn't come close to the overachievement of the Mid-American Conference.
The dozen MAC schools that have made it to the dance over the last decade should've won only about five games, but instead they've notched nine victories. From Miami University's Sweet 16 run in 1999 to Kent State's Elite Eight showing in 2002, the MAC has made a habit of springing upsets. A trio of Michigan schools -- Eastern, Western and most recently Central in 2003 -- have contributed to the conference's habit of playing over its head. Consider this: The MAC's gaudy +0.325 PASE means one out of every three teams wins a game more than it should, and with an 11.33 average seed, that's saying something. Not even the overachieving Big East, with its +0.242 PASE, comes close to the MAC's stunning decadelong performance.
The impact of the Big East/Conference USA shake-up
After the Big East ransacked Conference USA of its better teams, most college basketball experts proclaimed that the Beast from the East had overtaken the ACC as the country's dominant conference. The ultimate test of that assertion will come in the tournament. If history is any indication, the Big East might be in for a big comeuppance.
The collective performance of the new Big East schools in the 64-team era is significantly weaker than that of the traditional Big East. The old Big East's 177-win total was nearly 22 wins more than seed expectations, for a +0.201 PASE. The newly aligned Big East has won 229 Tourney games, only 18 games more than seeding dictates. That works out to a less impressive +0.128 PASE.
Meanwhile, the fortunes of the plundered Conference USA might not be as dire as the pundits think. Sure, old C-USA had a better tourney record (37-38) than the new one has compiled (38-56), but it also had a higher average seed position (6.32 to 9.54), so it should have won more. As it turns out, the new crop of C-USA squads performs almost to seed expectations, winning only half a game less than expected for an infinitesimal -0.009 PASE. That's a big improvement over the old conference's disappointing six-game performance deficit and -0.186 PASE.
The real loser in the conference realignment? The WAC. Over the 21 years of the 64-team era, the old WAC performed almost exactly to seed expectations, winning 41 games -- a fraction less than seed projections for a -0.005 PASE. The new crop of WAC teams is nearly three seeds lower on average (11.39 to 8.58), has fallen 2.5 games short of the 13.5 it should have won and has a -0.088 PASE.
What a difference a year makes
Before last year's tourney, the Big East and ACC were neck and neck for conference supremacy in the 64-team era. Then the ACC outperformed the Big East by two games and the ACC had reasserted its overall dominance. Heck, last year, the Big East was the Big East and Conference USA was Conference USA. The point is, a lot can change in one tourney -- and this year's dance promises to be more volatile than usual.
Will the newly aligned Big East challenge the ACC again for conference dominance? Will the weakened Conference USA reverse its string of disappointing tourneys? Will the Big Ten make up its narrow deficit to overtake the Big East as the top overachiever of the last decade? One or two unlikely runs from surprise seeds and a year from now we'll be talking about a very different balance of power among both the Big Six and mid-major conferences.
Freelance writer Pete Tiernan has been studying the NCAA Tournament for 16 years. E-mail him here.
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