In a recent interview with Cox, Rhode Island head coach Dan Hurley expressed his opinion that the Rams' conference -- the Atlantic 10 -- had surpassed the Big East on the college basketball scene. Surely, without Louisville, Syracuse and the other FBS schools who added basketball strength to the Big East, the two leagues are closer in strength than they've been since the 1980s.
In fact, the 2014 NCAA Tournament would seem to back up the coach's claim, with six teams from the A10 receiving bids while just four from the Big East were included. Last season was one of the best and strongest in a while for the Atlantic 10, with Dayton making it's way back to the Tournament after a long time on the outs, and Saint Louis and UMass adding big seasons to the mix as well.
Six bids constituted just a little less than half of the 13-member league (46%), while the Big East's haul was just a little behind their counterpart at 40% of their membership.
Beyond NCAA Tournament bid numbers and percentages, however, the case for an A10 ascendance is a little weaker. In head-to-head competition last season, the Big East was 8-2 against Atlantic 10 competition. The two losses came when George Washington knocked off Creighton by 7 points on a neutral court, and when Providence lost by 2 in overtime at UMass. Three Big East schools played multiple contests against the Atlantic 10, while four played none this season.
Ken Pomeroy's model ranked the Big East as the 5th-best conference last season, while the Atlantic 10 was rated 8th, behind all five of the "power" football conferences and the AAC as well. In conference RPI, the A10 ranked 6th, two slots behind the 4th-ranked Big East in 2013-14.
The Atlantic 10 can tout the fact that their member, Dayton went further in the NCAA tournament than any team from the Big East, however.
In the bigger picture of college sports metrics, the fact is that dollars-spent is the major determining factor of long-term success. Schools who are able to spend more money on their programs are more likely to achieve more NCAA bids and greater overall success over a period of time. Great and well-funded schools have fallen on hard-times (Duke, UNC, UCLA and Syracuse have all missed the NCAA tournament recently), but the ability to spend helps to shorten the length of those hard times.
Look to the Pac-12 as an example; in 2009 the league placed six teams in the tournament field. In 2010 and 2012, however, the league placed just two teams (20%) in the field. In those years, it would have seemed that the Atlantic 10 (3 bids) and Mountain West (4 bids) had both surpassed the FBS power conference. In 2013, the Pac-12 had bounced back up to 5 bids (42%) and they had 6 bids (50%) this past season.
In the end, the Pac-12 has massive spending power generated by big-time television payouts that leagues like the Atlantic 10 haven't been afforded. That league is splitting $5 million per season, making last season's payout about $385 thousand per school, an amount that will decrease when Davidson joins and takes a share. The Big East, on the other hand, is splitting about $500 million between 10 schools over their 12-year rights deal with Fox Sports 1 -- or about $4.2 million per school, per year.
With those numbers, the Big East may still lag behind the Big Ten and Big 12 in revenue, but they're also clearly and distantly separated from the Atlantic 10 and other leagues outside of the big football powers. The Atlantic 10 passed the Big East ever so slightly this season in some areas, but they hardly distanced themselves in the process. Over the long-term, that money difference will likely keep the Big East ahead of most of the Atlantic 10.
Note that I did say 'most' of the Atlantic 10.
The West Coast Conference also isn't rolling in television money, but certain programs within that league (Gonzaga, mainly) have managed to rise to a much higher level. Gonzaga found a formula for success within the WCC and in the NCAA tournament that has also allowed them to compete nationally for revenue outside of their television contract. The Zags have revenue and expenditure figures well ahead of their conference peers, numbers that more-closely resemble the western power programs -- and it won't be impossible for an A10 school to replicate that feat.
On the conference level, however, it is the Big East that will remain ahead in any reasonable scenario.