I’ve had this thought for a while, but haven’t been sure enough to write about it anywhere.
Now that I’ve had the chance to dive into some numbers and see a few more games, I think I’m ready to uncork this certain-to-be-unpopular opinion.
I think the Big East is bad.
Now, before you freak out, let me clarify. Villanova and Xavier are not bad. Villanova, when healthy, is a legitimate title contender and one of the five best college basketball teams in America. Xavier is probably one tier behind Villanova and other championship favorites, but has the tools and the horses to make a run in March and cut down some nets.
The other eight teams in the Big East, however, have not been exceptionally impressive. Because the rest of the conference has floundered, the resumes of Villanova and Xavier are diminished. You may have noticed that in the sentence above, when I called Villanova a top five team (rather than top two or three) and didn’t count Xavier among the championship favorites.
The Big East has cannibalized itself all season long, with teams both good and bad knocking each other off at home and on the road. For a deep league with competitive teams from top to bottom, you’d expect some chaos and understand how hard it can be to hold serve while marching through a tough league schedule. Play enough good teams, and you’re sure to drop one, even to a bad opponent in a trap game.
It’s more difficult to tell whether the teams in a competitive conference are beating one another because they are all tough wins or if because they are all full of flaws. The easiest way to evaluate the conference is by looking at games played against the rest of Division I.
I went through and found every Big East team’s three best nonconference wins, based on KenPom ranking.
The table shows not only the team beaten, but where the game occurred and includes the KenPom classification. Put simply, an “A” game is against a top 50 level team, adjusted for location, and a “B” game is against a top 100 team, with the same adjustment. Basically, beating the 50th best team at home is less impressive than beating the 60th best team on the road.
There are obviously some impressive wins on that list. Villanova embarrassed Gonzaga at Madison Square Garden. Seton Hall outlasted Texas Tech. St. John’s cracked an 11-game losing streak by beating Duke. At first glance, there is plenty to be impressed by (except for you, DePaul and Georgetown).
Let’s then compare the same list to that of the Big XII. Despite its name, that conference has ten teams, just like the Big East. Here’s each Big XII team’s three best nonconference wins:
When you compare the two, the Big XII’s resume is clearly more impressive. There’s little doubt that the Big XII is the best conference in college basketball this season, yet when you break those lists down to the nitty gritty, it’s stark how clear how far behind the Big East is.
While the 14 to 7 advantage in “A” quality wins stands out for the Big XII, notice also where these wins were happening. The Big East has just 14 road or neutral wins listed, with the Big XII posting 19 such wins.
Aside from just the wins, Big East teams haven’t been as impressive on the court. The table below shows where teams these two conferences rank in offensive efficiency.
It’s fairly comparable, though the bottom of the Big East has some sub-par scoring teams. Defensively, however, there’s a sharp difference.
Playing in the Big XII means meeting a top 25 ranked defense (out of 351 Division I teams) in 40 percent of your conference games and a top 35 defense half the time. The only Big East team in the top 35 is St. John’s, ranked exactly 35th. Even the conference’s best teams have been questionable defensively. Villanova ranks 36th, which would be the Wildcats lowest ranking since missing the NCAA Tournament in 2012. Xavier has been even worst, at 70th nationally on defense. Last season, just one team ranked lower than 24th defensively reached the Elite Eight…and it was Xavier.
In the end, what am I trying to say here?
Is the Big East going to limp into the NCAA Tournament and have no team advance to the second weekend? Of course not. There are good teams in the Big East, capable of doing great things in March.
Looking backward at how the season has unfolded though, there is certainly reason to question some of what we’ve seen, and will see, from Big East schools. When comparing teams on the bubble, maybe favor those from another conference first. When searching for a team capable of pulling of an upset, it might not be a Big East team. In this context, some things look a little more clear.
Creighton is just 2-8 versus the KenPom top 50, with both wins coming against Big East foes. Since losing starter Martin Krampelj, the Bluejays have gone just 3-5 against Division I foes, all within the Big East.
Marquette lost 6 of 8 conference games over a stretch earlier this season and still sits below .500 in league play.
Since shooting the lights out and shocking Villanova in late December, Butler’s best wins are versus Creighton and Marquette (twice). They also lost to Georgetown in that period.
With at least a piece of your brain thinking, “Maybe none of these teams are all that good,” all of this starts to make a little more sense. I fully understand how dangerous it is to disparage an entire conference, and I fully expect the Big East to make a liar out of me this March. Bring it on!
Shane McNichol is the founder, editor, and senior writer at PalestraBack.com. He has also contributed to ESPN.com, Rush The Court, SALTMoney.org, Larry Brown Sports, and USA Today Sports Weekly. Follow him on Twitter @OnTheShaneTrain.