Being the best conference ever is really hard to pull off

Some ACC guy in 2004 -- was this The Greatest Conference Ever?

Some ACC guy in 2004 — was this The Best Conference Ever?

Today I have a piece at Insider considering the new-look ACC’s claim to being “the best conference in the history of the game,” as Mike Krzyzewski memorably put it. Specifically I look at just how good the league can reasonably expect to be starting next season when Louisville arrives (and Maryland leaves for the Big Ten).

I’m not at liberty to divulge any conclusions I reached as a result of that particular effort, but as part of my daylong festival of Greatest Conferences, I thought I’d cover some of the other candidates for this particular title from years gone by. 

One takeaway I can share at the top is that, while everyone of course loves to focus on a league’s national championship contenders, being a statistically strong conference from top to bottom depends in significant measure on just how bad your worst teams are. Last year, for example, no ACC team was as bad as Boston College or Wake Forest had been in 2011-12, but with precisely half the conference not playing basketball particularly well (BC, Wake, Clemson, Florida State, Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech), the ACC’s overall statistical strength was still nothing to write home about.

That’s highly instructive, because of course we’re talking about a year where Miami had the best season in program history and Duke and North Carolina were more (the Blue Devils) or less (UNC) Duke and North Carolina. As we trot out these candidates, then, remember the name of the game here is overall heft. Any discussion of the Big East any year will eventually get around to “Yes, but what about DePaul?”

(I’ll also add the same disclaimer to this exercise that I appended to my Insider piece: I hereby admit that the Big Ten in the mid-1970s, the Jordan-Worthy-era ACC, the Big East in 1984-85, and any and all other conferences that I either didn’t see myself or can no longer remember all that well were in fact a million times better than any of the 2000s-era leagues discussed here.)

In a moment I’ll count down the top five conferences of the tempo-free era by KenPom rank, but first I want to consider two rather familiar candidates who were left off that list.

Big East 2009
Certainly the league that comes to mind first when I think of great conferences. You had your three No. 1 seeds: Louisville, the overall No. 1 and regular-season champion, led by Earl Clark, Samardo Samuels and Terrence Williams; Pitt with Sam Young, Levance Fields, and The Greatest Offensive Rebounder of All-Time himself, DeJuan Blair; and of course Connecticut with Hasheem Thabeet, A.J. Price, Jeff Adrien, and freshman-year Kemba Walker. That is some rich Big East goodness right there, and we haven’t even talked about eventual Final Four participant Villanova yet (Dante Cunningham, Scottie Reynolds, and the Coreys: Fisher and Stokes).

So how can the 2009 Big East not be in the top five? Well, no 16-team league is. When it comes to overall statistical strength, size is the enemy, and in the 2009 Big East Nos. 14 (South Florida), 15 (Rutgers), and 16 (DePaul) were about what you’d expect.

Be that as it may, this league pleased me. In particular Blair flipping Thabeet effortlessly over his shoulder is surely one of the most Big East-y moments of all time. If the 2009 Big East has been denied a portion of the regard it rightly earned, that may be because even with all this heft the league couldn’t get a team through to the national championship game. Louisville was ambushed in the Elite Eight by Michigan State (the Cardinals would return that favor and surprise an outstanding Spartan team in the 2012 Sweet 16) and, alas, the best team in the country that particular year turned out to be North Carolina.

Big East 2011
You remember these guys, right? The 11-bid crew. Big East pride peaked on Selection Sunday, began to crumble a bit when Louisville fell in the round of 64 to Morehead State, and then went crashing through the floor when the league put just two of those 11 teams through to the Sweet 16. Part of the problem was sheer overpopulation: Syracuse, after all, was sent home by league rival Marquette in the round of 32. Part if it was March being March: Pitt, once again a No. 1 seed, lost to Butler in the most implausible and memorable fashion imaginable. Lastly, part of it was simply teams not playing all that well, and when No. 2 seed Notre Dame was pasted 71-57 by 10-seed Florida State, the overrated chant started up in earnest.

Good thing Connecticut salvaged some conference pride by winning the whole deal. In statistical terms the 2011 Big East rates out as superior to its predecessor in 2009, with no fewer than 11 teams (not a coincidence) in Ken’s top 40 at the end of the season.

So much for the preliminaries. Here are the top five conferences of the tempo-free era, according to KenPom rank:

5. ACC 2005
Eventual national champion North Carolina was a No. 1 seed, of course, but so was Duke, and Wake Forest entered the tournament on the 2-line. Just on those three teams alone you’re looking at Chris Paul, Raymond Felton, Rashad McCants, Sean May, Marvin Williams, J.J. Redick, and Shelden Williams. That’ll do. In the tournament the Tar Heels prevailed against three consecutive Big Ten opponents — Wisconsin, Michigan State, and Illinois — to win it all for Roy Williams in just his second season in Chapel Hill.

4. Big Ten 2013
Hey, look at that, recent history! That was a really good conference you saw last year, meaning when the regular-season title came down to one bounce of the ball on the rim what was being decided there was the championship of one of the best leagues Ever. No wonder I picked Indiana, the beneficiary of said bounce, to survive long enough to lose to Louisville in Atlanta. Instead, Michigan, the traduced victim of said bounce, had the honor of losing to the Cards. Of course, Michigan State, Ohio State, and Wisconsin were, as always, Michigan State, Ohio State, and Wisconsin. Since 2006 those three programs have gone 23-for-24 on NCAA tournament bid opportunities. Jim Delany, I salute you!

3. Big 12 2010
“The 2010 Big 12” may not roll naturally off the tongue quite like “the 2009 Big East,” but that season the league had three of the best teams in the nation in Kansas, Kansas State, and Baylor, as well as a sneaky-good fourth wheel in Texas A&M. The Bears did what they do in even-numbered years, namely, lose respectably to the eventual national champion in the Elite Eight. The Wildcats survived two overtimes against Xavier to make it through to a regional final, only to run up against a force of nature named Brad Stevens.  And as for the Jayhawks, well, this is what the NCAA tournament can do. It can take the best team (15-1 that season) from one of the best conferences in recent years and send that team home in the round of 32. Fear not, KU fans. I won’t say the name.

2. Big Ten 2011
There were really good teams at the top of the Big Ten that year — Ohio State with freshman-year Jared Sullinger, Purdue with JaJuan Johnson and E’Twaun Moore, and Wisconsin with Jordan Taylor — but once you climb this high on the list of best conference rankings you begin to see the ways this contest can be rigged. And in 2011 the Big Ten rigged it by not having any bad teams. (In real time I termed it “the year no one sucked.”) In 2011 the weakest team in the league, Iowa, played at a level that indicated the Hawkeyes would have had little trouble taking care of any two conference cupcakes from most other years. Alas, heavy-duty statistical chops were no help for the Big Ten come tournament time. The Boilermakers helped make Shaka Smart and “havoc” coins of the discursive hoops realm, the Badgers picked a really bad era to be in the same bracket as Butler, and the top-seeded Buckeyes ran afoul of a criminally under-seeded Kentucky team in the Sweet 16, losing 62-60.

1. ACC 2004
I hesitate to term the Atlantic Coast’s statistical excellence from this particular season a circumstantial quirk, but look at it this way. This was still a nine-team league in 2004. Football-equipped members Miami and Virginia Tech joined the conference the following season, and promptly brought the ACC’s overall statistical strength in basketball down a peg (see No. 5, above) even though the top of the league was just as strong if not stronger in 2005, starting with eventual national champion North Carolina. Moreover the 2004 ACC didn’t monopolize the high seeds in the NCAA tournament the way the Big East did in 2009, and that will usually put a ceiling on just how much awe fans are willing to expend. That being said, this particular nine-team league was very good at basketball, with seven of its members finishing the 2004 season in Ken’s top 25. Led by Redick and Luol Deng, No. 1 seed Duke made it to the Final Four in San Antonio and seemed to have things well in hand against Connecticut until Emeka Okafor led a late 12-0 charge to win it for the Huskies 79-78. In the title game Jim Calhoun’s men prevailed against No. 3 seed Georgia Tech, led by Jarrett Jack and B.J. Elder.

Estimable conference seasons all, and yet I can’t help wondering whether there may be additional ways we can hash out this whole “best ever” thing. I address that in my Insider piece. Make haste.

BONUS note on recent history! While we may never again see a major conference as weak as the Pac-10 was in 2004, the SEC last year managed to finish second in that particular category, making it one of the least imposing major conferences since the dawn of tempo-free time. So, fine, ritual complaints about the darn kids nowadays and their historically terrible quality of play may actually have been justified in this one specific instance. Duly noted.