The Big East conference has been popularly derided for the failure of its record 11 NCAA Tournament teams to advance to the second weekend. Charles Barkley (who apparently made a guest appearance this week at Kelly's) notably, and repeatedly, referred to the Big East as overrated on the air, and to many that seemed like a reasonable conclusion.
This is the second year in a row that the conference has suffered from a rash of early exits, but this downturn may be the exception rather than the rule. Since 2003, the Big East has produced eight Final Four teams, while the ACC produced six and the Big Ten 5. In addition to having the most Final Four teams in that span, the Big East is second in national championships with two, just one behind the leading ACC.
What happened the last two years, then? Did the Big East beat itself out of contention? Maybe. Even that sounds like a cop-out when you read it out loud, however.
Was the conference never that good to begin with?
The Big East went 29-16 against teams from BCS leagues and the eleven NCAA tournament entrants were 24-10 against the rest of the field. In fact, even with the early exits, the Big East may still end the season with more out of conference wins than any other conference.
What the Big East had this year was a lot of "good" teams -- teams that could beat out-of-conference foes and scrap among themselves -- but no truly "great" teams. It seems disingenuous to proclaim that because the conference received 11 bids to the dance, that all 11 schools ought to advance to the Final Four. That record number of entrants was not a sign of invulnerability, but rather it was a sign of depth.
While each of the Big East tournament entrants was given a tremendous amount of hype, the teams individually were not necessarily stronger than their opponent. While the depth of the conference was on display, individual match-ups are what ultimately determines who does and does not advance, and those match-ups were unfavorable for 9 of 11 last weekend.
Meanwhile, fans of the ACC claiming superiority over their three teams in the Sweet Sixteen have ultimately failed the lesson in logic. Almost every power conference has at least two teams remaining in the Sweet 16 -- the ACC takes the prize by a single team -- but only one conference saw 68% of its teams play at least one NCAA game.
While the top of the ACC is strong, it is (at this point) not significantly stronger than the other power conferences. Meanwhile, the Big East's record number of bids shows that the middle and bottom of that conference is stronger than the others.
So while the Big East's record number of NCAA bids was not followed by a record number of NCAA tournament wins, the conference is no fraud. It still lives up to it's billing as the deepest conference in America, but without elite teams the conference will continue to struggle in March.