March Madness Handicapping: Conference Breakdowns
by Nicholas Tolomeo - 3/22/2010
The Big East was the dominant conference in college basketball, the Pac-10 was having perhaps the worst year of any major college basketball conference ever and this was a week year for the mid-majors overall.
Or at least that was the thinking heading into the NCAA Tournament on Thursday. Four days later and 48 games of basketball later, things have certainly changed. Two rounds of basketball have been enough to convince most of America maybe the Big East was highly overrated, maybe the Pac-10 was having depth issues but was strong up top and maybe we could have a few mid-majors good enough to reach the Final Four.
With three teams the Big Ten actually has more teams left than the Big East (two). The Pac-10, who many thought would be just a one-bid league, has one team in the Sweet 16. The SEC, who was written off as Kentucky and a bunch of mediocre teams, has two teams left. The Big 12 entered with seven teams but only has two left and Duke remains the lone team left from the ACC. That leaves five teams left from the mid-major conferences: Butler, Northern Iowa, Cornell, St. Mary’s and Xavier.
Judging by the first four days of the tournament it’s about time to stop underestimating the mid-majors. Cornell, Northern Iowa, St. Mary’s and Xavier have all won both their games as outright underdogs. And no surprise heading into the Sweet 16, all the mid-majors are underdogs again.
Using a single elimination tournament to rate conference strength is not the best way to go about it but the results from this past week could mean a lot in trying to handicap the rest of the tournament. Here is a breakdown of the conferences that still have a horse or horses in the race.
The Big East actually looks like a good bet the rest of the way. The conference proved slightly overrated but throughout the entire season the only consistent teams had been Syracuse, Villanova and West Virginia. The Wildcats had a horrendous tournament but Syracuse and West Virginia have proven themselves and it would be unfair to avoid them because they are guilty by association of the rest of the Big East schools.
People may be surprised to see Michigan State, Ohio State and Purdue all still standing from the Big Ten but these were the same three teams who all shared Top 10 rankings for most of the season. After a late season slide by Michigan State and Purdue losing Robbie Hummel, many people simply forgot about the conference. All three teams in the Big Ten remain strong Final Four contenders.
Historically the mid-majors have struggled once they reach the sweet 16. There has not been an NCAA champion from a mid-major conference since UNLV in 1990. But if we have learned anything from the first four days of March Madness, it is that this is not your typical year. Team’s like Xavier and Butler have played strong schedules and were consistently ranked in the Top 25. Northern Iowa could be hottest team in American right now, Cornell is maybe the most experienced and St. Mary’s creates matchup nightmares for most teams.
The ACC and SEC look to be the weakest of the big conferences right now. There were doubts about them before the tournament and many people overlooking those conferences were justified after Sunday. Kentucky and Tennessee remain from the SEC but neither team has truly been challenged. Considering their regular season conference schedule neither team has been tested during the regular season either.
Only Duke remains from a weak ACC field. The Blue Devils fit into the category with West Virginia and Syracuse, just because the rest of the ACC field is weak does not mean Duke cannot make a run. The competition in the ACC was much stronger than the SEC this year plus Duke challenged itself throughout its non-conference schedule.
Washington is easily the surprise team from a big conference. They got past a Big East team and No. 3 seed New Mexico to set up a date with West Virginia in the Sweet 16. The Pac-10 was down this year and Washington was one of the last
If you are looking for true value, it looks like the mid-majors are the best bet. Northern Iowa showed America what can happen when a cohesive veteran team gets overlooked. They, along with Cornell and St. Mary’s, have probably busted your bracket but it is not too late to hop on the bandwagon and pickup excellent value with them at the betting window.
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