There's no question that the Big Ten is the dominant conference in college basketball this season. Five Big Ten 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 Ten's strength will translate into tourney success.
The same sort of accolades were bestowed on the Big East the last couple of 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 -- No. 2 seed West Virginia in 2010, No. 11 seed Marquette and No. 3 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 were made for the Big East after their shocking failures in 2010 and 2011. The one I heard most 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 10 have underachieved 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 Ten, 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 Ten sent seven teams to the tournament, but the Big Ten only had 11 schools in their conference while the ACC had 12. In the case of this conflict, I favored the ACC because its teams had an average seed of 5.1, while the Big Ten'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 percent, defied seed projections. In fact, in six of the 10 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 2005 and 2009.
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 percent overachievement rate. Like the dominant conferences, however, the weaklings only beat expectations in four of 10 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 Ten 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.