What happened in New York over the past week, at two separate venues, was instructive, as long as you understand the lessons are only about randomness and unpredictability. Watching conference tournaments and assigning meaning to what you see is a perilous endeavor. It won’t stop bold predictions from rolling out — Minnesota’s going down! Kentucky is vulnerable! But be suspicious if they’re attached to conference strength and conference tournaments. You’re better off getting out a random number generator.
Out in Brooklyn, where the ACC held its tournament north of Washington for the first time ever, coach after coach spewed his belief that this conference was the best in the country or, as Miami’s Jim Larranaga put it, “the best in the history of college basketball.”
Go through the NCAA tournament bracket released Sunday night, and those ACC coaches would say the evidence is right there: nine bids, including regular season champ North Carolina as tops in the South, with both tournament champ Duke and Louisville as second seeds. The ACC has never sent as many in its history, and this year, no other conference has more.
But over the Brooklyn Bridge, back across the island of Manhattan to Madison Square Garden, a certain coach was busy extolling the virtues of his conference, which wrapped up its tournament hours before Duke beat Notre Dame in Brooklyn.
“Then the conference changed, and we got into a great conference with home-and-home [scheduling] and real basketball,” said Jay Wright, tracing the development of his Villanova program to what others might see as a depressing moment: the breakup of the old Big East. “I think it just exhilarated everybody. Everywhere we played, you don’t have any games where you go, ‘This place is half-full. Nobody really cares.’ ”
Wright may have missed his team’s trip to Georgetown this season, but we get the point. The league tournaments are where all these coaches and their players can get together, drink the konference Kool-Aid, puff out their chests and declare, “Night in and night out, there’s nowhere tougher to play than the Big Bad 14 Conference.” Selection Sunday becomes just an extension of conference pride week, with the execs in offices in Greensboro, N.C. and Chicago and New York and San Francisco firing out missives about why each contributed most to this year’s tournament.
Those nine bids for the ACC this year, the coaches surely would say, prove their point.
“We are universally felt to be — I think by everybody — the No. 1 conference in the country,” said Syracuse Coach Jim Boeheim, whose team was universally felt to be — by the committee, at least — not among the 36 best who didn’t qualify automatically.
And that’s all fine. But in terms of predicting the tournament? Try again. The correlations just aren’t there. Villanova’s national title came in a year they romped through their new 10-team league — featuring floundering St. John’s and DePaul — at 16-2, results that left the Big East ranked fourth in overall strength, according to the NCAA’s Ratings Percentage Index (RPI).
The top conference a year ago, by RPI: the Big 12, which sent seven teams to the NCAA tournament and propelled Oklahoma to the Final Four — but watched four lose in the first round. The Pac-12, ranked third behind the Big 12 and ACC, sent seven teams to that tournament. By the second weekend, it had one team left.
That’s just one example, but it’s clear this isn’t an exercise defined by strength in numbers. Rather the number of strong teams you have. In 2014, the SEC ranked below the Atlantic 10, seventh in conference RPI, and managed to send just three teams to the NCAAs. Danged if two of those teams, Kentucky and Florida, didn’t reach the Final Four.
So, then, if the rigors of the regular season don’t provide a formula, we must be able to lean on the hot team headed in. Hello, then, Duke, which won four games in four days in Brooklyn, or Michigan, which literally ran from a smoldering plane, dusted itself off and won four games to take the Big Ten.
Except that doesn’t work at all. You may remember that Villanova won the national championship last season. You may have forgotten that Seton Hall beat the Wildcats in the Big East tournament final. Duke: National champions in 2015, losers by 10 to Notre Dame in the ACC semifinals. Connecticut couldn’t manage to win the American Athletic Conference tournament in 2014 — then won their next six games to take the national title.
It makes you wonder why North Carolina Coach Roy Williams wore a hang-dog look after his team lost to Duke in the ACC semis. After all, he reminded his team of some salient facts.
“There’s a lot to still play for,” Williams said. “. . . Our final goal was not to win the ACC tournament. Our final goal was to play on the last Monday night and win the game there.”
Williams knows this, too: In 2005, his Tar Heels were upset in the semifinals of the ACC tournament by Georgia Tech, and Duke took the conference championship. In 2009, Florida State knocked off North Carolina in the semifinals, again opening the path for Duke.
Those two years: Williams’s two national championships with Carolina. You’re dadgum right there’s a lot to still play for.
For more by Barry Svrluga, visit washingtonpost.com/svrluga.
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