The Double Bonus: Is the Big East’s Size Detrimental to Its Teams?

The Double Bonus brings together two of our great traditions here at NPI: The intrepid sports analysis of Tim’s Unabated to the Quarterback joins forces with the weekly Thursday slot of John’s Real World/Road Rules Ruins Rankings posts. Luckily for you, both writers are on board. Tim’s comments are in black while John’s are in a condemnatory red.

On Monday, DePaul fired head coach Jerry Wainwright, a likable basketball lifer who generally seems to have been in over his head in Chicago and in the Big East. As of Wainwright’s firing, DePaul had lost 22 consecutive Big East regular-season games (the Blue Demons did snag one as the 16-seed in the conference Tourney last season) and remained mired at the bottom of the bloated conference. In the wake of the coaching move, the Chicago Tribune asked whether or not the University was truly committed to the basketball program, and whether long-term success in the Big East were really a sustainable goal:

Finances and resources “are not a deterrent to DePaul’s success” according to Ponsetto — and yet swaths of seats go unfilled at Allstate Arena while data shows that men’s basketball expenditures lag behind even fellow urban Catholic schools.

Then there’s the matter of competing in a Big East that’s deeper than an ocean trench and bewilderingly competitive, with six teams ranked in the top 16 in the latest Associated Press poll. Resuscitating the program is not necessarily mission impossible, but that also depends on the definition of the mission.

The decline of DePaul Basketball—a decades-proud institution under Ray Meyer that twice seemed on the verge of rejuvenation in the last decade as a member of Conference-USA—isn’t an isolated phenomenon, even among big-city schools in the Big East. In the New York area, St. John’s and Seton Hall—one a perennial power in the ‘80s, the other a one-time Finalist and many-time contender—have been dormant for much of the decade. They’ve combined for three Tournament berths and one win since 2000—the year the second-seeded Johnnies were upset by Gonzaga and Tommy Amaker and No. 7 Seton Hall rode reserve Ty Shine to the Sweet Sixteen.

The problems at places like DePaul, St. John’s, and Seton Hall raise the question of whether the Big East’s size is detrimental to some of its institutions. With 16 teams—several of whom are year-in and year-out powers—the task for the Big East’s bottom-feeders is particularly daunting. Only five major-conference teams haven’t made the Tournament this decade—and two of them reside in the Big East in Rutgers and South Florida. Only 17 major-conference teams haven’t made the Tournament since 2006, and seven of them (RU, USF, SJU, SHU, DePaul, Cincinnati, and Providence) are in the Big East. The flux apparent even in traditionally top-heavy conferences such as the ACC and Big XII has not existed in the Big East; it’s inconceivable that a team could go winless in the Big East and contend for the conference crown three years later like Texas A&M did earlier this decade in the Big XII.* The Big East is essentially broken into two strata: There’s the strong top half of nine consistent contenders (Pittsburgh, Connecticut, Louisville, Villanova, West Virginia, Marquette, Georgetown, Notre Dame, and Syracuse), and the bottom half of seven every-once-in-a-while bubble teams (Cincinnati, Seton Hall, St. John’s, Providence, Rutgers, DePaul, and South Florida). Inevitably it seems, one team in the first group has a bad year and one team from the bottom group replaces them as a bubble team. But only Seton Hall has actually made the NCAA Tournament in that time from the second estate.

*Hmm…Billy Gillispie is looking for work, DePaul.

It’s gotten to the point where it’s worth asking whether the task has become too overwhelming. For instance, what up-and-coming coach would take the DePaul job, where even in the recruiting bastion of Chicago, you have to deal with a limited budget and the arduous idea of hopping eight teams just to contend in conference? In their fifth year in the Big East, it seems like the Blue Demons may have been better suited remaining in Conference-USA, where they would have been near the top of the conference—a notch below John Calipari’s Memphis teams but equal to NIT teams like UAB and Houston.*

*The question of whether a school really belongs in the Big East works best for DePaul because it doesn’t have a revenue stream from Big East football (Rutgers, USF), and it isn’t a long-time quasi-foundational member (SHU, SJU, PC).

And this isn’t even going into the situation at Rugers’ and J.R. Inman’s Facebook note—the most scathing diatribe that site has ever seen that wasn’t directed at Mark Zuckerberg.

Well, I think you need to be clear about exactly what you mean. After all, how many teams consistently compete in a major conference? Every conference has its top dogs and its bottom feeders; the Big East is just bigger, so it has more of both.

Actually, I think a lot of the issues you touch on can be traced back to the Big East’s mammoth size. Of the seven teams in your bottom “half” of the Big East, three just joined the conference five years ago. And of those three, Cincinnati looks Tourney-bound this year. In other words, it may be early to pronounce the move a failure.

Similarly, the fact that the conference is so big means that a team needs to hop more teams to get to the top. This actually makes the standard of “consistently competing” in a conference a little misleading. Is Providence, for example, really ever going to be a consistent threat to win the Big East? Probably not. But they may become a consistent threat to crack the top six, which is actually quite an achievement in the Big East. And is the position of a team like that in the Big East much worse than the position of a team like Miami in the ACC, or Baylor in the Big 12? These teams are rarely, if ever, going to consistently out-perform the UNCs and Kansases of their conference, but they can make noise every so often and make a run in the NCAA Tournament.

The fact that there is a different standard for teams like Georgetown, Villanova, or Connecticut than there is for St. John’s and DePaul is a fact throughout college basketball. It’s only more obvious in the Big East, where doing “well” can mean finishing below .500.

Generally, I think people are aware of the depth of the Big East. The Big East consistently gets more teams into the NCCA Tournament than any other conference, and they finally expanded their conference tournament to include every team in 2009. This grants schools that can’t compete with the top “half” during the regular season with the opportunity to make the tournament despite the greater deck stacked against them.

Do schools like St. John’s, Rutgers, and DePaul have systemic problems? Yes, but I’m not convinced these problems are caused by being in the Big East. You wonder what coach would take the job at DePaul, but a smaller conference isn’t going to help a “limited budget.” And doesn’t the promise of games against nationally ranked teams, and therefore on national television, every year help recruiting? Would it be easier for schools like DePaul, South Florida, and the rest of the bottom half to contend if they were in weaker conferences? Of course, but that is true of every school.

The advantages of being the Big East are the same advantages every team gets from being in a major-conference: More money, more exposure, more credibility. The teams are not all on the same level—DePaul, Rutgers, et. al., are small fish in a big pond, but they still get the benefits of the big pond.

I also think you may overestimate the difficulty of getting out of the bottom half. After all, Pitt missed the tournament in eight consecutive years before 2002, and haven’t missed it once since. Villanova only made it once between 1998 and 2004. West Virginia made it twice in its first 14 years in the Big East. Who’s to say that Providence, Cincinnati, or Seton Hall can’t turn it around like these schools did?

Obviously, I’m not pronouncing that fans of those teams can forget ever making a 65-team NCAA Tournament. But, Pittsburgh, West Virginia, and Villanova all made their moves in the old Big East (and not coincidentally, with great coaches). DePaul could make a splash hire or find a hidden gem that helps it crack that top tier, but to do so it’s going to have to risk some money on a coach. It just seems to me that the barriers of entry for the Big East (in terms of competition) are much higher than any other conference; a single stud recruit (like Lance Stephenson at Cincinnati) isn’t going to have the same kind of impact he might have at a school in the SEC or Pac-10.

To repeat: a fractured back!

Only in the Big Ten: Robbie Hummel scored 29 points in the first half for Purdue Tuesday night against Ohio State, which was the same amount of points the Buckeyes had in the first 20 minutes. Not only did Purdue still manage to lose the game at home, but even with a player scoring 29 points in a half, the Boilermakers couldn’t crack 70. They lost 70-66.

Can Evan Turner get a little credit for this game? He was barely a month removed from a suffering a fracture in his back and he scored 32 points to lead the Buckeyes to the upset. That’s how they overcame Hummel’s performance, which Steve Lavin called “the best shooting performance in the Big Ten this season,” which is like calling something “the most original line of dialogue in Avatar.”

Early signs indicate that this could be a big year for mid-majors. Outside of the aforementioned Big East and possibly the Big Ten, none of the major conferences are as deep as usual. In fact, the Pac-10 and SEC are especially shallow: It’s entirely possible the Pac-10 will only get two bids into the Tournament (and if you picked the Tourney field today, I doubt the league would get a single at-large). The only two teams from out west in the Top 25 are from mid-majors: Gonzaga and BYU. Furthermore, New Mexico and UNLV have already spent time in the rankings. In Northern Iowa, the Missouri Valley has its best team since it placed two teams in the Sweet 16 in 2006 while the Atlantic-10 is enjoying a bit of a resurgence behind Temple, Rhode Island, and Dayton. Even the Ivy League can dream of landing an at-large bid, with Harvard’s performances at BC and UConn and Cornell’s near-upset at Phog Allen. It wouldn’t be surprising to see mid-majors earn closer to the nine at-large bids they got in 2005 than the four last season.*

*When citing mid-major statistics, a lot of people point to the 12 at-large berths handed to mid-majors in 2004; this is somewhat disingenuous because 2004 is the year Conference-USA got six teams into the NCAA Tournament. Three of those six (Cincinnati, Louisville, and DePaul) are now in the Big East. When mid-majors received 10 at-larges in 2003, again, three came from teams currently in the Big East. Point: Mid-majors ain’t getting 10 or 12 at-larges anymore.

I said it back in the opening live blog and I’ll keep saying it all year: The best thing about this college basketball season has been the rational ratio of blocks to charges. It’s not a 1:1 or, as it was often the last few seasons, 2:3 call anymore. You don’t deserve a charge just for falling down, and referees are starting to realize that.

This is going to be devastating for Duke.

Jon Scheyer's not a point guard; he's just a player who performs many of the duties traditionally associated with point guards pretty well.

pSpeaking of, it’s probably time to mention our alma mater. John, you know that one of the things that has always interested me is how dumb and forgetful sportswriters are. I’m sorry to go after our buddy and fellow alum, Seth Davis, but come on Seth, this story’s been written in the month of January like each of the last three seasons! (To Seth’s credit, he does mention that it does seem like the same old story. To his discredit, it is impossible for Duke to “fly under the radar” when all but three of its games are nationally televised every year.) So John, you buying in?

Am I buying into what, exactly? The fact that Duke is having a surprisingly good regular season? Yes, I’ll buy into that. This is the third year in a row that I’ve entered a college basketball season Duke would be “slightly worse than we were last year,” and once again the early regular season has been impressive. The Blue Devils blew UConn out in a game many fans (including myself) thought we’d lose handily, and Nolan Smith has made “the Jump” more successfully than I could have hoped.

But am I buying into the fact that this Duke team is going to be different from the last however many that have peaked early and lost before the Elite Eight? No, and I’m particularly not doing so because they are “bigger, stronger, and tougher” as Davis says. We are bigger—that’s about it. Despite the added size, we don’t have a real threat to score inside (although Miles Plumlee looked good last night against BC): Most of our points still come from perimeter players Jon Scheyer, Nolan Smith, Kyle Singler (at his new position), and Andre Dawkins. Until Brian Zoubek can get an offensive rebound without me immediately thinking Pass! Pass! For the love of God, PASS!, I’m not buying into this team.

Yeah, here’s the reason some people think Duke is a title contender this season when it wasn’t last: Umm, UNC isn’t awesome. There’s some flux and some uncertainty at the top of the rankings—especially with Kansas’ last three performances and Kentucky’s myriad close calls—that there wasn’t last year, when the Blue Devils were better than they are this year because they had a guy who could get them out of offensive droughts and stagnation in Gerald Henderson. This year, their best off-the-dribble guy is Nolan Smith, which is a nice way of saying they don’t have an off-the-dribble guy. We saw it against Georgia Tech, when Duke couldn’t make the Yellow Jackets pay for their aggressive defense on the perimeter precisely because nobody could take their guy. And the Blue Devils’ options in the post are the epitome of quantity over quality.

That said, Duke has a good chance to win the ACC (and maybe beat Carolina in Cameron!!!) en route to a third consecutive 2-seed and a Sweet Sixteen exit in my mind.

As for those rival Tar Heels, they got mauled by Clemson at Littlejohn last night in a performance eerily reminiscent to what the Tigers did to Duke last February. It’s amazing how intimidated last year’s Blue Devils and this year’s Tar Heels looked when Clemson got on a little roll early: Both teams had the scared look of a sixth-grade team that didn’t want to play.

And oh, this wins our “Sherlock Holmes Observation of the Week.”

The 3-on-2 Break:

Tim’s Three Biggest Disappointments So Far:

1. Hey Butler! Wha’ happened? I talk you up in the preseason as a team with a chance to enter the Tourney with only a loss or two—hell, maybe even undefeated—and you’ve already lost four games! Butler as a Final Four team? I don’t think so!

2. Hey ESPN, what’s the deal with pulling Ron Franklin from Big Monday? Nothing says Big XII Basketball like Franklin’s smooth southern delivery. He’s not the best the network has, but he and Fran Fraschilla were definitely better than Brent Musburger (who hasn’t cared about college basketball in decades) and Bob Knight (who’s better the less you hear him because he [SHOT FAKE] repeats things too [SHOT FAKE] much).

3. Hey John Wall, wanna go easy on us Duke fans and pretend like you aren’t the best player in the country for a little while? K thanks.

John’s Two Most Pleasant Surprises:

1. (Do all of these have to start with “Hey”? Or was that just luck?) Even though he’s not doing it at Duke, it’s great to see Elliot Williams flourishing at Memphis. He’s averaging over 19 points a game, and recently scored 33 (out of 59) points against Southern Miss. Given the circumstances surrounding his departure, plus the fact that John Calipari isn’t at Memphis anymore, it’s easy to root for that guy.

2.  A year after UNC spent the whole season as the presumptive favorite before ultimately winning the national championship, it’s nice to have some uncertainty up top. Kansas proved itself to be very vulnerable against Cornell and an undermanned Tennessee team. Texas remains undefeated, but hasn’t yet beaten a ranked opponent. Kentucky, as Tim pointed out, has suffered a bunch of close calls. It’s unclear as of now who the best team in the Big East is (Villanova, Syracuse or West Virginia?), and that conference will, as usual, beat itself up all season.

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