Fair or not, college basketball conferences are judged by what their teams do in March. A couple of free throws or a chuck from 35-feet can determine a league’s reputation, erasing whatever may have happened throughout the regular season. And this matters for more than just bragging rights, as conference revenues are in part based off their performances in the NCAA Tournament. With this in mind, let’s look at which conferences best weathered the chaos that was the opening day of the tourney.
Given that only one full day of play has passed, I don’t want overreact to what has happened so far. Having said that, the Big East seems at the very least to be safe from the demise to which it was doomed not too long ago. In fact, the basketball-only conference looks poised to put up the best all around performance of any league in this year’s edition of March Madness. It rattled off a string of impressive wins on Thursday, with margins of victory of 10 (Georgetown), 21 (Xavier), 8 (Butler), and 41 (Villanova). The record for most one-point games in a single tournament is seven, and yesterday there were five in one day. But of all the shocking upsets and close calls, none of them came at the expense of the Big East, which won each of its games comfortably.
The Big-12, the conference most pundits agreed was college basketball’s best this season, stumbled out of the gate yesterday. The two most surprising upsets of the day, Georgia St. over Baylor and UAB over Iowa St., both involved No. 3 seeds from the Big-12 losing to No. 14 seeds from mid-major conferences. Texas followed this up by losing to Butler by eight. Kansas may be the standard bearer for the conference, but the Big-12’s greatest strength this year was its depth. Now, with the league going 0-3 to start the tourney, that depth seems to have evaporated.
The Big Ten has six teams in this year’s field, including a title contender in Wisconsin, but only Ohio St. has played so far, winning against VCU. Even though the whole purpose of this column is to make snap judgements with minimal results to go on, I can’t do much with one game. Having said that, the Big Ten has a similar make-up this year as the Big East: lots of good teams that could win a game or two, but only one with a real shot at the title.
The ACC has yet to showcase its two best programs, Duke and Virginia, and results so far have been acceptable but far from dominant. N.C. State pulled out a 56-55 victory over LSU, Notre Dame beat Northeastern by four, and UNC won a nervous 67-65 matchup against Harvard. Winning is more important than how you look doing it, so give the ACC credit for being 3-0 with two virtual locks still to play. But winning three games by a combined seven points will not scare anyone, especially when two of those games were against fourteen seeds.
The Pac-12 also went undefeated in the opening day, but it too needed a little luck to get there. With time running out on UCLA’s hopes for a Tournament run, Bruins guard Bryce Alford threw up an off-balance prayer from behind the arc. Before the shot could clang off the outside of the rim, SMU center Yanick Moreira reached up and deflected the ball. The referees called a goaltend—which was likely the right call—and UCLA survived for another round. Elsewhere, Utah didn’t look pretty in their seven-point win over Stephen F. Austin while Arizona cruised past Texas Southern. As with the ACC, the Pac-12 will point to the zero in the loss column, but while the record may be spotless, the games were far from clean.
In SEC news: Kentucky. And Arkansas, which won its first-round matchup yesterday. But really just Kentucky. From a conference perspective, it might even hurt the SEC that Kentucky has dominated so thoroughly this year. Plenty of fans might see their schedule and think, “there’s no way they go undefeated in the (fill in your team’s conference).” With respect to the Razorbacks, who have a solid team that could easily make the Sweet 16, the SEC begins and ends with Kentucky. That’s great for Calipari and his squad, and less great for the league in which they play.
Again, it’s early. Thankfully, there is still an obscene amount of basketball to be played. But the first results are in, and the Big-12 juggernaut has run aground, the Pac-12 and ACC are keeping their heads above water, and the Big-East seems to have snatched back some of the spotlight which it lost with its reconfiguring two years ago.
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