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The Big East's Very Bad Day

The glory and the curse of the NCAA tournament, particularly the first weekend, is that it all happens so quickly.  So by the time I get a chance to post my thoughts on the first day of the tournament, the second day is already done.  But I can't resist a dig at the Big East, even if they get a little redemption on Friday.

The Big East conference may have had the worst single day for any conference in the history of the NCAA tournament on Thursday.  Had Villanova not been able to rally to beat Robert Morris in overtime, it would most certainly have been the worst. 

Considering that only four times in the history of the NCAA tournament has a 15 seed beaten a 2 seed, the very fact that Nova was forced to go to overtime is bad enough.  Then add in the fact that Georgetown (a 3 seed), Notre Dame and Marquette (both 6 seeds) all lost to double digit seeds and you see a pattern emerging of a conference that was wildly overrated, at least by the tournament committee.

I've never understood why in the world we would need so many tournament teams from a single conference.  Are we seriously suggesting that a team that finishes EIGHTH in their own conference is going to win the national title?  Or perhaps more to the point, that they deserve the chance to win the national title?  I understand that Robert Morris probably isn't going to win the national title either, but they've earned the right to be there.  And I'd much rather see some respectable second place teams from small conferences than Notre Dame or Marquette (or Minnesota or Florida State or any number of other big conference also rans for that matter). 

As it happens, there are few schools from smaller conferences that  were snubbed this year - most of the deserving regular season champs like Siena and Murray State and Cornell won their conference tournaments to get the automatic bid.  But we all know what would have happened had they had a bad game in their conference tournament - they'd have missed out on the NCAA's in favor of a Big East team that went 8-6 in conference.  So Kent St. goes 13-3 in a very solid MAC conference, but loses to Ohio in the tournament and has to settle for the NIT.  Is Ohio any good?  Well, they were 7-9 in the MAC - and they beat Georgetown by 14 on Thursday.

I'm not suggesting that Kent St. or Coastal Carolina or some other small conference school not dancing could have won the national title.  I'm not even suggesting that they're necessarily better than Notre Dame or Louisville.  What I am suggesting is that they DESERVE to be in the tournament more than those privileged Big East schools, who had every chance to prove themselves throughout the season and frankly didn't.

As a Clipper fan, you might expect that I'd be rooting for the underdogs and would prefer that the little guys get a bit more of a chance.  That is certainly true, and it applies more or less to all of the smaller conference schools against all of the BCS conference schools.  BUT, I have a special level of disdain for the Big East.  Why?  Because I've seen through their ploy, and it stinks.

As even a casual college hoops fan knows, there is a rating known as the RPI (Ratings Percentage Index) that is used to try to measure teams against one another given the fact that they play very different schedules.  So Coastal Carolina can win 28 games, tied for the 9th most in the nation, but even a softie like me doesn't believe they're one of the best 10 teams in the nation.  Most of those wins came against a bunch of nobodies.  The RPI is devised to account for that, and by RPI the Chanticleers are rated 160 (seriously though, they should be in the tournament if only because they're called the Chanticleers - I truly love that). 

Here's how the RPI works - 50% of your score is based on your winning percentage, 25% is based on your opponents' cumulative winning percentage, and 25% is based on your opponents' opponents' cumulative winning percentage.  (There are other adjustments that are made, but that's the starting position of the formula.)  The intent is clear - it doesn't just matter that you win, it matters who you beat, and it matters who they beat.

The Big East games the RPI system in two ways.  Until just a few years ago, the RPI failed to take home court into account at all, a ridiculous omission in a sport that features a massive home court advantage.  The RPI added some recognition of home/away in recent years - but not nearly enough.  Big East schools, all basketball powers with huge home courts and a lot of money tied up in ticket revenues, play almost exclusively home schedules in their non-conference schedule.  Syracuse, Notre Dame and Pitt played zero true road games this season.  Villanova, West Virginia, UConn and Marquette played one true road game each.  Georgetown, to their infinite credit, played two.  I didn't look up all 16 teams, but I think you see a pattern emerging here.  But as they say, there are no home games in the NCAA tournament.

In addition to playing ridiculously home heavy pre-season schedules, their pre-season schedules tend to be simply ridiculous.  Pitt's best non-conference win was against Wichita St.  Louisville's best non-conference win was against Arkansas. Notre Dame's best non-conference win was against St. Louis.  That's three Big East team's that made the NCAA tournament that do not have a single quality victory outside of conference among them. 

So what you say?  They beat good Big East teams during the conference season, and in that way they proved that they were among the best 64 teams in the nation.  But what if the emperor has no clothes?  What if the Big East isn't really that good, so that a victory in conference isn't worth as much as we thought?  Oh and, isn't that what these first couple of days have shown us - that the Big East isn't really that good?

Let's get back to the RPI, because I brought it up for a reason.  If you're still with me, you're saying that the cupcakes on these teams' schedules should be hurting their RPIs since they don't have great records, and you're right.  When Pitt beats Binghamton and Eastern Kentucky and Youngstown St. and New Hampshire in non-conference games it does nothing to help their RPI - it may even hurt it.  But when Pitt builds up a ton of pre-season wins, it helps every other Big East team's RPI.  Because with more than half of a Big East team's schedule coming against other Big East teams, their opponents, AND especially their opponents' opponents are dominated by Big East schools.  And this is the genius of their approach - it wouldn't work if only Pitt played a schedule of patsies.  But since the vast majority of Big East schools run off a bunch of pre-season home wins against cupcakes, the effect of all those wins compounds in the RPI formula.  Think about it - during the Big East conference schedule, someone has to win all those games and someone has to lose them.  It's the non-conference wins that differentiate the league.  And they all win their non-conference games, primarily at home against terrible teams.

To be sure, the Big East is a top notch basketball conference.  Schools like Syracuse and Pitt are perennial powers who recruit great players and they may end up doing very well in this tournament.  But it doesn't change the fact that the conference is gaming the system. 

Returning to this year's tournament, the Big East got those record eight bids.  Their seeds were a 1, two 2's, two 3's, two 6's and a 9.  Looking at the conference standings, the teams that finished first through fourth in the regular season all won their first round games.  The teams that finished fifth through eighth all lost, despite the fact that three of them were playing against double digit seeds.  Is a 4-4 first round a respectable showing for a conference?  Not at all; not when they were the lower seed in 7 of their 8 games, and their four wins came against a 14 seed, two 15s and a 16.  Essentially, they only won the games the committee giftwrapped for them - and they even lost one of those. 

I'd like to think that the committee would look at these results and maybe think about how they use the RPI, and maybe give a little more consideration to the smaller conferences in the future.  But I know they won't.  It will be business as usual on the 2011 Selection Sunday.

But for now, I can revel in the Big East very bad day.