The Big 12 is struggling in March again… and Big 12 fans are already sick and tired of commentators pointing it out.
The fatigue (like the disappointment at the source of it) is more than understandable from fans.
Moreover, plenty of commentators can’t stand it when other commentators bring up the conference-strength debate in basketball based on March developments. This pattern emerges in college football as well.
I understand it. More precisely, there’s often a very good reason for commentators to get upset at all this conference-based size-measuring: The quality of the debate typically suffers, because it descends into the familiar batch of narratives quite quickly.
I will admit that when I blurt out on Twitter, “#Big12InMarch,” I am pressing a button, and little else:
— The Student Section (@TheStudentSect) March 19, 2016
That’s a limitation of Twitter, but let it be said that a conversation is always waiting on the back end of a cute hashtag or a single tweet. If anyone wants to have a conversation, I’m always available and make it a point of hearing people out. If you know me, you know I’ll always take the time.
In this commentary, I am precisely trying to take the time to establish what readers (especially in Big 12 country) can identify as a reasonable conversation about a sore subject. Let’s begin that conversation now.
First and foremost, the conference-strength debate — in any sport — becomes impoverished in a hurry because the easy reaction is to say, “Conference X is trash,” or “Conference X isn’t very good.”
Notice, Big 12 tweeps/readers, that I never said either of those things over the past few days… and don’t think either one of those statements is true. The Big 12 is a very good basketball conference, no matter what happens in this March, last March, or any March under the current conditions in college hoops. The league has established itself as an upper-tier league.
When many pundits harrumph, “BAH! The Big 12 just isn’t good. Another smoke-and-mirrors league!”, I would not agree with such a statement on balance. If some commentators are upset at me and others for raising the conference-strength debate at this time of year, every year, let it be known: I don’t try to make the extreme, overly sweeping statement(s) about a conference, the kinds of statements which turn conference-strength debates into pointless, value-free exercises bereft of real intellectual illumination.
The Big 12 is a very good conference, no matter what. Fin. Period. That won’t change.
What this kind of debate is relevant for, however, is measuring the extent of greatness in a conference.
Isn’t that what sportswriters were (in part) put on this Earth to do? We discuss just how good competitors are — coaches, players, and in college sports, conferences as well.
Remember: Conferences exist on their own islands in college sports. They unfold over the course of two months in both football and basketball. When college football shifts to the bowl games, and when college hoops moves to the NCAA tournament, we are all wondering: “So, what did two months of conference play show us or not show us about the higher-end teams in these respective conferences?” That’s a question always worth asking.
The delicate and difficult part is to offer an answer which meshes with facts and doesn’t take too many liberties with the truth. Saying the Big 12 is garbage? Yes, that’s a PATENTLY RIDICULOUS statement to make.
Saying the Big 12 was once again overrated? Well, how could one not make that statement right now? How could one NOT say that the Big 12 and the Pac 12 — both with seven teams in the tournament, both with all seven teams given higher seeds in the round of 64, both with a majority of teams eliminated in said round of 64 — were overrated?
I don’t know about you, but when conferences receive conspicuously high seeds across the board — notice I didn’t say “inappropriately high seeds”; I’m not making that claim — and a majority of them lose in the round of 64, that’s a pretty newsworthy development.
Big 12 fans told me Friday night, “Every conference blows it” in the NCAA tournament. True enough. The distinction, though? Not all conferences blow it in the first round the way the Big 12 and Pac-12 did this year, with higher seeds in 7 of 7 games. It’s a matter of degrees and measures. All conferences blow opportunities in the Dance, yes, but some more than others. This year, both the Big 12 and Pac-12 share that distinction to a certain degree; if their remaining teams don’t get to the Elite Eight, the reality will exist to an even greater degree.
Should that kind of reality not matter? These are random results, in the NCAA tournament, but when randomness keeps striking in the same spots, with similarly damaging results, should we insist that it has no bearing on how we judge a conference?
This is competition. We want to see how teams, conferences, coaches, players, everyone responds against the other. If it’s all random, why do we spend time praising Coach X for reaching seven Final Fours, or Player Y for establishing a higher standard of all-time NCAA tournament excellence? Why do we spend any time on sports if we’re not assessing various aspects of competition?
I hope Big 12 fans can understand this and not feel insulted. More precisely, I hope Big 12 fans can realize that even among the teams which fell short in the round of 64, different weights and measures can be applied.
For example, Texas lost on a lucky play. West Virginia, though, imploded against Stephen F. Austin. wouldn’t assign nearly the same weight to those two results. Texas’s loss in no way reflects negatively on the Big 12. West Virginia’s, however, does. I would like to think those are reasonable claims. Perhaps that won’t satisfy everyone, but hopefully some… which leads me to a fundamental concluding point about conference strength in college basketball, in relationship to the NCAA tournament.
This was the most salient big-picture tweet about all of Friday’s chaos in the Big Dance:
Every year the tournament underlines the point that the power schools' "power" is mostly the power to play at home all the time.
— Joe Sheehan (@joe_sheehan) March 18, 2016
You might think this is a commentary (and it might well be) on the fact that the RPI system rewards teams that “don’t lose at home.” Two excellent college basketball analysts unpacked that reality in this piece and this other piece — they’re required reading for anyone who wants to understand the selection and seeding processes to a greater degree.
From reading those pieces, you might come away with the concluding thought that Power 5 conference schools can manipulate the RPI to greater effect than non-Power 5 schools, because they can schedule more home games. All that is true, but it’s not the zenith or center of the argument behind why the Big 12 struggles in March. That’s merely the explanation for why the Power 5 schools can get more teams in the field and with generally higher seeds.
Why does the Big 12 (and this year, the Pac-12 as well) stumble in March, relative to the cognoscenti’s season-long evaluations? It’s not so much the inflated RPI numbers flowing from a home-heavy schedule; it’s that the accumulations of non-conference home games, combined with ample chances to win home games against top teams (bearing supreme RPI rewards), enable league schools to make the tournament with a reasonably high seed on the basis of what they do at home.
Can you see where this is going?
If you can build most — if not all — of your resume on the strength of four to six really good home wins, and you can shore up that resume with several more modest home wins, you don’t really have to achieve that much on the road to get a relatively high seed and a decent placement in the bracket. This might not apply to every Big 12 team — certainly not all in equal measure — but the general outline of the dynamic contains a fair amount of truth, let’s put it that way.
Iowa State (still alive in the Dance) can use Hilton Magic, though that was dented a little this season. Kansas plays at The Phog. West Virginia attained its No. 3 seed because it made the Big 12 final, but also because it beat Kansas at home in a two-game season series. Big 12 and other Power 5 schools get so many bites at the apple against each other that they can split season series — or even go 1-2 (as WVU did against Oklahoma) — and still benefit without having done most of their important work on the road.
I have seen commentary that Texas Tech wouldn’t have even made the tournament had it played in another conference. Well, had it played in the Pac-12, which the Selection Committee also loved (in terms of seeding and bracketing), the Red Raiders probably would have been able to get the same basic RPI boost they received from the Big 12. Yet, as it stands, it’s certainly the case that Texas Tech built virtually all of its profile at home, a win at Baylor being the exception which proved the rule. Texas Tech was seventh in the Big 12, so the Red Raiders were not in the same league as West Virginia or Oklahoma, but they did (and do) represent a classic case of how a full season resume can be NCAA tournament-worthy (against a weak bubble)… and yet not prepare a team for neutral-court success in March.
In the Big 12 and the Pac-12, teams shared and distributed (read: balanced) wins in ways that would make Bernie Sanders proud. All seven NCAA tournament teams won enough against each other to lift everyone’s fortunes. Most of this win-sharing occurred on home floors. When the NCAA tournament arrives, though, home floors can no longer be used as a crutch. Results change.
Is this a perfect explanation for what goes on with the Big 12 in March these days… and for what the Pac-12 endured in round one? No.
Is there a fair amount of truth in all this? Yes.
Does any of this mean the Big 12 isn’t very good? No.
Does it mean the Big 12 isn’t as great as many people said it was during the regular season? Yes.
Will these statements make Big 12 fans less angry — especially at me?
I’m betting no… but I hope the conversation will continue.