It’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.
The 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.
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.