2016 ACC a new Big East? Not Quite.

accIt’s about that time in March when your favorite team is eliminated and your bracket is long since busted. The Masters is two weeks away, but the tournament is heating up as the general public loses interest. That’s when you look up and see 4 ACC teams (North Carolina, Notre Dame, Syracuse, Virginia) in the Elite 8 and wonder how this could be? Only 7 times in the last 20 years has a single conference sent 3 or more teams to the Elite 8, only 2 of which managed 4 teams (2009 Big East and 2016 ACC). People are quick to call this the greatest conference performance in recent history, if not all time, but I’m here to remind you that it’s not even the most impressive output in the last 5 years.

The hype surrounding the ACC is certainly legitimate as they have consistently produced title contenders year after year for a while now. However, calling this one of the greatest conference performances ever is a bit of an overreaction. Notre Dame coach Mike Brey claimed, “I just remember the grind of the Big East and this is the same grind with the depth of this league now”. This is not completely untrue, but I am remissed to make the comparison to the dominant Big East seasons. I mentioned the 2009 Big East sending 4 teams to the Elite 8 (UConn, Louisville, Pittsburgh, Villanova), but that’s not even the most impressive season in the last 20 years. I contend that the 2011 Big East season was far more dominant than this 2016 ACC season.

Previous_Big_East_Conference_logoThe 2011 Big East sent a record 11 teams to the NCAA tournament, which equates to 68.75% of the entire conference (11 of 16). These teams include Cincinnati, Connecticut, Georgetown, Louisville, Marquette, Notre Dame, Pittsburgh, St. Johns, Syracuse, Villanova, and West Virginia. This years ACC sent an impressive 7, which was 50% of the conference including Duke, Miami, North Carolina, Notre Dame, Pittsburgh, Syracuse, and Virginia. Beyond just the tournament, the entire Big East Conference fared very well based on an overall season ranking system known as RPI. RPI (Rating Percentage Index) is essentially a ranking of all 300+ Division I college teams based on their own wins and losses, the wins and losses of their opponents, and the wins and losses of their opponents’ opponents. In other words, it’s confusing and nobody quite understands it without an advanced analytics degree, but it does a pretty good job of sorting teams on various factors that judge quality.

From top to bottom, The 2011 Big East outperforms the 2016 ACC in average RPI. The average RPI of all 16 Big East teams was 59, as opposed to this year’s ACC 76. Now obviously each conference has outliers that inflate this number so for the sake of this metric let’s eliminate teams that fall outside 100 ranks of the aforementioned mean. In the Big East, these teams include 2011 DePaul (RPI rank 217), 2011 South Florida (RPI rank 160). In the ACC, only Boston College (RPI rank 250) is removed. With these teams omitted, The Big East’s average RPI over its remaining 14 teams is 40.6 as opposed to The ACC’s 62.6. Thus, major outliers aside, the average Big East team ranks over 20 positions higher on the RPI ranking index. In terms of this year’s RPI, that is the difference between Wisconsin and the University of Georgia. That’s a fairly significant difference.

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Uconn Legend, Kemba Walker

This year’s ACC has higher ranked teams at the top end of the RPI, but experiences a noticeable drop off. The ACC has 4 teams in the top 25 RPI rank, 2 of which are in the top 5 overall (Virginia and North Carolina). The Big East on the other hand had 9 teams in the top 25 rank with 0 in the top 5. This is certainly impressive, but often misleads people into overrating the conference as a whole, without considering the incredible depth of the Big East.

Another important factor to consider about this current ACC Elite 8 run is the tournament competition they have beaten. UNC opponents have an average RPI of 93, Virginia’s have an average RPI of 79, Syracuse’s have an average RPI of 48, and Notre Dame’s have an average RPI of 56. This compares to 2011 UConn, the only Big East Elite 8 team that year, who beat an average RPI of 42. Also, UConn’s most impressive win came against #3 San Diego State, whereas the most impressive RPI win for an ACC team this year was against #23 Iowa State. The ACC team’s this year have been solid all tournament, but in only one game have they been the worse seed (10 seed Syracuse vs. 7 seed Dayton).

So how can we really know which conference season was more impressive? There is no direct science, but claiming that the 2016 ACC is the greatest conference ever is premature and over exaggerated. Their Elite 8 run is certainly impressive, but not indicative of the conference as a whole and not quite as impressive as it looks on paper. Because of the way the bracket is aligned, the ACC is actually guaranteed a spot in the finals since all four remaining teams are matched up with each other from here on out. UConn was able to produce a championship for the 2011 Big East. Will the ACC have the same fate after such a great conference run? We will wait and see.

A Hidden Dynasty

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Uconn head coach, Geno Auriemma

Why is it that women’s basketball gets no attention? Is it that we don’t see high flying dunks, spectacular passes and excessive showboating? Perhaps fundamentals are out of style. But the answer is that it’s predictable. Every year in April we see the usual suspects: UConn, Notre Dame, Baylor, did I mention UConn?

The bottom line is that UConn women’s basketball is the most dominant sports team that has ever stepped on the field of play and nobody wants to admit it.

Since taking over as head coach in 1985, Geno Auriemma has a combined record of 951-134, all at UConn. For those of you grabbing your calculators, that is a win percentage of 87.6%. Let’s see how this unfathomable number compares to some of the other coaching greats of the last 70 years. John Wooden coached 27 seasons (1948-1975) at UCLA and compiled a win percentage of 80.4% (620-147). Urban Meyer has a win percentage of 85.1% over 14 years (2001-2015) at Bowling Green, Utah, Florida, and Ohio State. Mike Krzyzewski boasts a winning percentage of 78.8% over a 36 year span (970-261) at Duke. Heard enough?

The most impressive part of this unprecedented success is that it came out of nowhere for the Huskies’ program. When Auriemma came to campus in 1985, his first team finished at 12-15, which was good for 7th in the Big East and involved no post-season play. It took him a mere 6 seasons to reach his first Final 4 and only 10 seasons before his first NCAA title. That may sound like a while, but is pretty impressive considering he inherited a no-name program in lonely Storrs, CT. Since the beginning of the 1995 championship season the team’s record is 759- 53; a winning percentage of 93.5%. That is no typo. That includes 10 National Championships and 15 Final Fours along the way. Only 5 times in the last 20 years have they failed to make the Final Four. To put this in perspective, the men’s college basketball team with the most Final Fours IN THEIR HISTORY, is North Carolina with 18. North Carolina has had a team since 1910…

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Uconn Star, Breanna Stewart

So what is this success attributed to? Is it coaching? Recruiting? Well UConn does attract great high school prospects, but prior to the 2015/2016 season they only signed on 2 players from the ESPNW top 10 and only 3 from the top 25. To put that into perspective, Duke’s men’s team has 3 top 11 recruits coming to Durham next season, including the top 2 overall, and Kentucky’s men’s team has 4 of the top 15. They are also very dominant programs, but not nearly on UConn’s level. This is partially due to the “One and Done” nature of men’s basketball as well as the talent gap in the women’s sport. However, it is crucial that Auriemma has the opportunity to coach these fantastic athletes for 4 years each, allowing them to mature under his coaching style and buy into a system of winning. The culture he has created at UConn has now become synonymous with championships and banners, which he is able to uphold year after year. His ability to capture and develop talent seems unmatched at the college level and is a huge part of his team’s success.

So the big question still remains why do the Huskies not get the attention they so rightfully deserve? I think it is just a matter of boredom. Fans love parity, they love upsets, they love to root for the underdog. UConn simply doesn’t lose, so most of the country has nothing to look forward to with the women’s game. Even when UConn has lost in the past few seasons it has come at the hand of a worthy adversary. For example, their last 4 losses, which spans 4 full seasons including this year, have come to Stanford, Notre Dame (twice), and Brittany Griner. Excuse me, Baylor. None of these teams finished the season outside of the top 4 by the end of the year. UConn is simply a machine and takes no prisoners when it comes to winning. They are the greatest program in sports, and that’s the bottom line.