As we approach March Madness and the NCAA tournament debate rages, it’s time to compare conference resumes – an annual right of March right up there with St. Patrick’s Day and filling out brackets. Which conference is the strongest? What league is set up to flop come tourney time?
Well, this year, the Big East – which has held the unofficial title of best conference for years now – and the Big Ten are the consensus top two leagues in the country. Which one truly is the best this season? We debate.
Big East Still Reigns Supreme: We can do this any way you want, but let’s start by the numbers – or at least those that are provided by the bracketed brain of ESPN’s Joe Lunardi.
Lunardi has nine Big East teams in the NCAA tournament as of Monday, two more than the total for the Big Ten. ESPN.com’s Daily RPI rankings also have nine Big East teams within the Top 50 in those rankings; the Big Ten again has seven.
But I see why many have jumped on the Big Ten bandwagon, including Sports Illustrated, which wrote a piece in its Feb. 20 issue entitled “Best Damn Ball in the Land” that proclaimed the Big Ten as the country’s best league.
ESPN.com, using Lunardi’s projections, also has four Big Ten teams within its Top 10 most likely to win the national title. Michigan State has the best chance of any team in either league, according to those projections, with a 14.6% likelihood of bringing home the hardware.
Before you think I’m arguing against my own point, I’ll tell you why this supports my claim that the Big East is better. The Big Ten is top-heavy – with the combination of heavy-hitters Michigan State and Ohio State, the emergence of Wisconsin and the presence of talented Indiana. That makes it seem as though the league as a whole is superior, but it’s not.
The Big East is deeper. While undermanned Minnesota, down-in-the-mouth Illinois, perennially bad Penn State and laughingstock Nebraska toil at the bottom of the Big Ten standings, there is no easy out in the Big East; even DePaul is improved.
Don’t believe me? Let’s look at Syracuse – the best team in either league, by the way – which played Big East bottom-feeders Villanova, Providence and Pittsburgh in three straight January games. The Orange won them all but needed to hold off the Wildcats for a 13-point win, were tested seriously in the first half against the Friars and beat the Panthers by just eight points at home.
That’s life in the Big East in a nutshell.
Sure, Michigan State has had a few conference tests as well, but let’s refer to the eye test, an increasingly popular practice, to support Lunardi’s numbers. Those who watch the Big East on a regular basis know that any team can beat another on a given night.
Also, consider that the league’s ninth-place team, Connecticut, was a preseason top-five club, which returns key cogs from a national championship team and has two projected lottery picks on its roster.
An example of a Big Ten team more than halfway down the standings? Northwestern, a program that has never made the tourney and one that tries to beat teams with its style rather than substance.
‘Nuff said. – Anthony Olivieri
Big Ten Is Conference Beast: As Vince Vaughn would say, “Erroneous! Erroneous on both counts!”
I know it’s easy to make fun of the Big Ten these days after the annual flop in bowl games and a weak 2011 March Madness in which no team advanced beyond the Sweet 16.
But to say the Big Ten is once again overrated is just ignoring the facts. Yes, the Big Ten currently has two less projected teams in the field of 68 than the Big East. Of course, the Big East also has four more teams, so take that number with a grain of salt.
There is plenty of evidence that the Big Ten is currently basketball’s best conference.
Let’s start with the fact that five teams are ranked in the top 18 (Michigan State, Ohio State, Wisconsin, Michigan, Indiana) – more than any other conference in the country. Purdue is peaking at the right time and Northwestern is a very dangerous team whose Princeton-style offense is always tough to prepare for in the tournament. The Wildcats have never made the Big Dance but they did beat Seton Hall – a tournament team from the Big East – earlier this year.
I wouldn’t be surprised if two Big Ten teams made the Final Four for the first time since 2000 with Michigan State teetering on a No. 1 seed and the other four teams ranked in the top 18 likely to land seeds four or better.
Sure, the Big East has Syracuse and Marquette, but does anyone really see Notre Dame or USF – two of the top five teams in the conference – making a legitimate run in the tournament? I can already picture Charles Barkley ripping the “Big Least” when the Irish and Bulls fizzle out in the second round after both struggled mightily in the nonconference season.
And don’t get me started on Syracuse. Every year we build it up as a team that can win it all only to watch it bomb its way out of the tournament. Despite all their success in the last decade, the Orange haven’t made it past the Elite Eight since winning it all in 2003. And yet somehow we are surprised every time they lose.
This time, I’m not buying ‘Cuse or the Big East. - Jim Weber