Dominant conferences often disappoint in the tourney

There’s no question that the Big 10 is the dominant conference in college basketball this season. Five Big 10 teams are in the AP Top 20 and seven are in the KenPom top 30. The conference also leads in TV airtime and pundit fawning. I’m not about to argue that the hype is undeserved, but I am skeptical that the Big 10’s strength will translate into tourney success.

The same sort of accolades were bestowed on the Big East the last couple years. And how did that work out? Nineteen Big East teams went to the 2010 and 2011 tourneys—and a grand total of three beat expectations—two seed West Virginia in 2010, 11 seed Marquette and three seed UConn, the eventual champ, in 2011. Altogether, the 19 Big East schools should’ve won 31.6 games based on seed position. They only won 21, falling a stunning 10.6 games below expectations. That works out to an underachieving PASE of -.558.

A lot of excuses got made for the Big East after their shocking failures in 2010 and 2011. The one I heard most often was that the conference was so tough from top to bottom that the teams wore themselves out in the regular season and Big East tourney. By the time the national dance rolled around, the schools were out of gas. There is some evidence that teams playing tough schedules underperform in the tourney. Since 2003, the 84 teams with SOS ratings in the top ten underachieve at a -.122 PASE rate. Regardless of the season, the results are undeniable: the Big East was the pre-eminent conference in the nation over those two years—and they laid a big March Madness egg.

The plight of the Big East giants got me thinking: how have the dominant Power conferences done over the last decade in the dance—and how have the weakest ones fared? I restricted this analysis to the ACC, Big East, Big 10, Big 12, SEC and Pac-12. Some argue that the Mountain West is overtaking the Pac-12 as a Power conference. I say: prove it to me in the tournament. The Mountain West is the biggest underachieving conference, alive or defunct, that has participated in the 64-team tourney era. Their record is 15-34, they haven’t had a team reach the Elite Eight, and their PASE is a dreadful -.336.

I ranked the best and worst conferences first by the percentage of teams in the conference that made the dance, then by sheer numbers, and finally by the highest seed. Take 2007, for instance: both the ACC and Big 10 sent seven teams to the dance, but the Big 10 only had 11 schools in their conference while the ACC had 12. In the case of this conflict, I favored the ACC because their teams had an average seed of 5.1, while the Big 10’s teams were seeded 7.4 on average.

Once I sorted out the best and worst conferences from 2003 to 2012, I calculated their individual and collective PASE values. Here’s what I found:


There were 72 teams that made the tournament from the dominant conferences. They had an average seed of 4.9 and were projected to win 116.5 games. They actually won only 104, falling 12.5 short of expectations. Their overall PASE, as you can see in the chart, was an underachieving -.174. Only 21 of the 72 teams, a weak 29.2%, defied seed projections. In fact, in six of the ten tourneys, the dominant conference disappointed. To be fair, though, they did send 10 teams to the Final Four and win three titles—the aforementioned Uconn in 2011, and North Carolina in 2009 and 2005.

Contrast these numbers with the performance of the Power conference that did the worst leading up to the tourney. Only 32 teams from these beleaguered conferences made the tourney and they were seeded sixth on average. Their seed-projected win total was 43.1, but they actually won 46 games, for a slight overachieving PASE of +.090. More impressively, 17 of the 32 teams beat expectations, for a 53.1% overachievement rate. Like the dominant conferences, however, the weaklings only beat expectations in four of ten tourneys. And they advanced just two teams to the Final Four. One of those teams was the Carmelo-led Syracuse Orange, which cut down the nets in 2003.

What does all this portend for the 2013 tourney? I’m not going to downgrade the Big 10 just because it’s the dominant conference in the nation, nor am I going to overvalue the SEC because it’s the weakest Power conference. But by the same token, I won’t assume that Big Ten schools have an edge or SEC teams are at a disadvantage just because of how their conferences performed leading up to the dance.

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11 Responses to Dominant conferences often disappoint in the tourney

  1. Jon Hiatt says:

    Does any of this data make you think about the “east coast bias” that gets brought up all the time? High expectations for east coast schools who underperform and lower expectations for west coast schools who overachieve. I know it is just the last three years, but it is beginning to look like a trend.

    • ptiernan says:

      I should have mentioned that. I do think that the hype for these dominant conferences starts to outpace their quality. Certainly for the last three years, all we heard about was how great the Big East was…so they scheduled more games in prime time…so they kept gushing about them. Meanwhile, a lot of high-quality teams flew under the radar. I do think there’s a possibility that could happen with the Big Ten.

      • Jon Hiatt says:

        I have really enjoyed watching the Big Ten this year, but I couldn’t agree more. I expect a healthy negative PASE for the Big Ten this tourney. But maybe Mich St. will fall in the seed rankings and Izzo will once again get them to the Final Four.

        • ptiernan says:

          That’s the Izzo way, isn’t it? He doesn’t want to get too high a seed. He likes to lay in wait. I think MSU will make life hard on any top seed. And I’ll bet they’d like another crack at Indiana.

          • ptiernan says:

            Over the last 12 years, the time period I studied, 61 teams have had the champ credentials–about five per dance. Overall, they are +.427 PASE overachievers (about half a game per tourney). 23 of the 61 reached the F4–and all 12 cut down the nets.

            If we were to do champ stats for the entire 28 years, I’d use slightly different metrics. The fact is, the tourney was much higher scoring before 2000–so PPG and PAPG were higher.

            Here’s another metric to chew on: 24 of 28 champions have scored more than 75 points a game and have an average margin higher than 10. The only champion over the last 23 years NOT to score above 75 was UConn. That said, college basketball keeps getting lower and lower scoring. That’s why I relaxed the 75-point constraint and focused on the last dozen years.

  2. Joe Chamberlain says:

    Was the B1G really the best conference in 2006?

    • ptiernan says:

      Based on RPI (and/or appearances…then seed average), yes. Now, whether they deserved it is another thing.

  3. Cody Nags says:

    Pete, Do you think it is possible that the reason the “best conference” performs below expectaions is that, teams towards the middle of the conference standings make the tournament based on quality conference wins, but still have poor non-conference losses?
    For example, St.Johns (6-seed) in 2011, 4-1 against Top25 conference teams at home, but losses to St. Bonaventure and @Fordham.
    In 2010, Louisville (9-seed) beat Syracuse twice, first as 3rd in the nation and then 1st, but had non-conference losses to Charlotte and Western Carolina.

    • ptiernan says:

      Cody – I don’t know if that’s it. The years that the Big East underachieved so badly, it was their better teams that were falling short of expectations. Besides, when middling seeds fall short of expectations, it has less of an impact on the overall PASE.

      • Cody Nags says:

        That does make sense, hopefully the BIG 10 doesn’t fall short of expectations. Indiana, Ohio State, Michigan State, Wisconsin, and Michigan are all possible Final Four teams, agree?

        • ptiernan says:

          Funny you should ask, Cody. Tomorrow I’ll have a “Champ Week Pulse Check” that slots all these teams into a performance group. Not all these teams have Final Four potential in my opinion. Take Michigan: I don’t think they’re strong enough defensively for a deep run. (And I went to Michigan.)

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