Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Big East: Great NCAA Tournament Disappointment, or Greatest Disappointment?

There's been a lot of noise in the sports media about the Big East and their record number of bids to the NCAA tournament. A week ago, the chatter was all about how dominant the Big East was this year and how they truly deserved the unprecedented eleven bids earned by teams from Division I-A's largest conference. There were some naysayers, of course, but they were generally at the margins of the discussion. Each of the teams have proven themselves during the grueling Big East schedule. It used to be that if you finished at or above .500 in the ACC, you had a guaranteed bid to the tournament; this year, if you broke even or better in the Big East, you were in.

On paper, the Big East looked dominant: nine of the top 24 seeds were Big East teams. Going by the chalk these teams would make it to the round of 32, with 9-seed Villanova likely to pull an upset over 8-seed George Mason. Even 11-seed Marquette -- pitted against 6-seed Xavier, and having just defeated eventual 5-seed West Virginia in the Big East tournament -- was an upset candidate. Big East supporters dreamed big. Eleven teams in the round of 32! An all-Big-East Final Four!

Then, the games started. Villanova just missed the upset over George Mason, while Marquette defeated Xavier to advance and face Syracuse. Cincinnati and UConn each won, making it two all-Big-East matchups in the round of 32. But then ... disaster. Louisville lost to 13-seed Morehead State, guaranteeing Coach Pitino's chair at the CBS studio desk for the next three weeks. Georgetown -- a 6-seed that had faltered down the stretch, had their bell rung in an 18-point drubbing by 12-seed and First-Four winner VCU. And perennial Cinderella Gonzaga upset 6-seed St. John's by 15.

Still, no cause for alarm, right? Seven of the 11 teams advanced, only two shy of chalk predictions. And with two all-Big-East matchups in the round of 32, that guaranteed at least two teams would advance to the Sweet Sixteen (conversely, it meant that at most 5 would advance).

Over the weekend the spiral continued. West Virginia couldn't pull off the upset over 4-seek Kentucky. UConn continued their domination of their conference-mates, handily defeating Cincinnati. But the other all-Big-East game didn't go according to chalk, as the Golden Eagles snuck by Syracuse. And in the two biggest setbacks to the Big East reputation 2-seed Notre Dame struggled and fell to a middling ACC team -- 10-seed Florida State -- while top-seeded Pittsburgh became the latest big-name victim to last year's runner-up, Butler.

Eleven teams enter. Four days pass. Only two teams remain.

The fallout began. Defiant justifications. Smug I-told-you-so's. Introspection. Excuses. An admission that Charles Barkley might actually be right.

But how far away is perception from reality? In order to answer that question we'll turn to Ken Pomeroy's log5 projections for the tournament. Of the 63 games in the main portion of the tournament (we'll ignore the "First Four" games) how many should teams from each conference have won? It's not just about seeding; it's about who you play. If you look at the projections before the tournament began and who each team had to play, it was a bit of an uphill battle for the Big East as a whole. Top-seeded Pitt, for example, could be expected to win 2.75 games. That is, if you played this tournament thousands of times the average Panthers squad would advance to the Elite Eight. By comparison, front-runner and overall top seed Ohio State would be expected to win 3.44 games for an average showing of being just shy of making the Final Four.

In order to visualize this data, we'll turn to treemaps, in which the area of the sub-boxes represents the total number of expected wins for a conference or a team. The larger the box, the more projected wins.

Before the tournament started, here's how the wins were expected to shake out:

Click on a box to zoom in; right-click to zoom back out.

Collectively the 11 Big East teams were expected to pick up 15.71 of the 63 wins. Had even the first two rounds gone according to chalk, the conference would have picked up 12 of those wins in the first weekend alone. A full chalk tournament had Pitt advancing to the Final Four and would have produced 15 wins. All the conference needed was to hold to seeding expectations and to snag a single upset in their favor in order to exceed the projections. Behind the Big East was the Big 10 (10.33 expected wins), with tourney favorites Ohio State leading the way (3.44) followed by 3-seed Purdue (2.40) and 4-seed Wisconsin (1.41). The Big XII was third, collectively expected to snag 7.21 wins, followed by the ACC (6.24), the SEC (5.65), the Mountain West (5.20), and the Pac-10 (3.64). The remaining 9.02 wins were essentially first-round scraps left for the remaining mid-majors and small conferences.

But that didn't happen.

Let's look at the state of the tournament field now, using the latest log5 projections.

This chart still covers all 63 games, but by now 48 of them have been played, with 32 teams that won one game and another 16 who have won 2 (and counting). Thus the area of the boxes for each team is a combination of games won to date, plus the number of wins projected by the latest log5 data. Thus Pittsburgh -- a one-and-done team -- contributes one win to the Big East box, while Marquette contributes 2.45: the two they've already won, plus another 0.45 they're expected to win.

The bottom line? After just whittling the field down to the Sweet Sixteen the Big East has slipped from expecting to pick up 15.71 wins to a mere 10.05 wins. Pitt, Notre Dame, and Louisville alone combined for a staggering 4.94 wins under expectations. Meanwhile, the Big Ten looks to pick up 9.69 to the ACC's 9.63 wins (interestingly enough, Pomeroy's numbers project both UNC and Florida State to pick up 2.88 wins in total).

I don't have data for previous years, but the sheer scale by which the Big East has come up empty so far -- 5.66 wins short of initial projections, or 36% off their target -- may stand as a record in recent tournaments. I suspect this is a combination of bad luck, a pair of coaches who under-perform come tournament time, and over-hyped expectations (were St. John's and Georgetown really deserving of 6-seeds?). Big East defenders may point to Marquette's advance through the bracket as a sign that even mid-level Big East teams are powerhouses, but defeating a probably-over-seeded Xavier team and a Syracuse team they'd already beaten once this year doesn't necessarily make a compelling case. But by that measure, doesn't Florida State (and the ACC) deserve some love, too?

We'll check in again in a week when we've narrowed it down to the Final Four.