Was the Big Ten <i>Down</i> Last Season?

If you watched any college basketball show, or read any college basketball article from the national media last season, I am positive you heard the mantra repeated over and over that the "Big Ten was down." You could not go a night without watching a college basketball show on ESPN where Dick Vitale, Digger Phelps, Jay Bilas, or Andy Katz were not repeating the belief that the Big Ten was not up to the par of the Big East, Big XII, or ACC.

If you watched any college basketball show, or read any college basketball article from the national media last season, I am positive you heard the mantra repeated over and over that the "Big Ten was down." You could not go a night without watching a college basketball show on ESPN where Dick Vitale, Digger Phelps, Jay Bilas, or Andy Katz were not repeating the belief that the Big Ten was not up to the par of the Big East, Big XII, or ACC. Fans on message boards across the Big Ten, especially IlliniBoard, were fed up with these comments by the national media and vehemently disagreed with them. But were the objections raised by the fans warranted, or was the criticism of the Big Ten warranted?

The answer to that simple question has had me thinking for the last few weeks. As I thought about that question, I started to go back to the only tangible pieces of information I could use to compare the conferences: statistics. Yes, I know the great literary mind of Mark Twain once said "there are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics", but he had never fathomed what statistics in sports could teach someone when they are trying to analyze past occurrences. Statistics in all of the major sports have changed the way many fans follow and analyze the game, and basketball is no different.

As I was performing research on trying to figure out how to compare conferences and the teams within them, I came upon four key statistics that would help me compare teams: Pace Factor, Defensive Efficiency, Offensive Efficiency, and Points per Shot Attempt. Before I get into the numbers that I dug through to reach a general conclusion, I would like to explain what some of these statistics and numbers actually represent.

Pace Factor (PF): This is simply put, the pace at which a team plays the game of basketball. This is the average number of possessions per typical 40 game for the specific team. The pace factor is important because it allows me to compare teams that play at different paces against each other.

Defensive Efficiency (Def. E): The number of points a team allows for every 100 possessions against it. This efficiency relies heavily on the Pace Factor and allows the measurement of defense to go beyond points scored against, and into the actual effectiveness of a team's defense.

Offensive Efficiency (Off. E): The offensive efficiency is the exact opposite of the defensive efficiency, it represents the number of points a team scores for every 100 offensive possessions. As with the defensive efficiency, offensive efficiency relies heavily on the Pace Factor to compare teams that play at different paces to a common unit of measure.

Points per Shot Attempt (PpSA): This is simply what you would think it would be, the number of points a team scores per shot they take.

Now that I have described the four statistical measures that I am going to use to compare the conferences up against each other, I will actually compare the conferences. The numbers in Table 1 represent an average of the four statistics combining every team from each major conference. I decided to leave out the Atlantic 10 to save time, but I will probably revisit this number for them at some point as well, especially because the conference did house an NCAA Tournament number one seeded team in St. Joseph's and another team that ventured far in the tournament in Xavier.

  ACC Big East Big Ten Big XII Pac 10 SEC C-USA
PF 69.89 65.85 64.15 67.10 69.02 66.38 66.74
Def. E. 99.58 98.67 100.75 100.56 102.68 99.41 98.61
Off. E. 107.05 104.93 103.64 106.71 104.47 104.70 100.53
+/- 7.47 6.26 2.90 6.15 1.78 5.29 1.92
PpSA 1.11 1.07 1.08 1.08 1.09 1.08 1.04
Table 1

So are you looking at this table thinking, "What the hell do these numbers mean?" The answer to that question is not easy, but that is what I am trying to do here, figure out what these numbers mean in relation to the level of basketball played in the Big Ten.

Conference Rankings Based on Efficiency Differential
1. ACC
2. Big East
3. Big XII
4. SEC
5. Big Ten
6. Conference USA
7. Pac 10

The efficiency differential agrees with many of the so-called college basketball experts, the Big Ten was not on par with the ACC, Big XII, Big East, or SEC. Each of these conferences averaged an efficiency differential of over five points per 100 possessions. The Big Ten averaged just under a three point per 100 possession differential, and sat by itself in the middle ground. The Pac 10 and Conference USA were absolutely horrible, averaging just under a two point per 100 possession differential in their respective efficiencies.

What these numbers show is not that the so-called experts were wrong with their opinion that Big Ten basketball was not to the level that it had been in the past, but that the Big Ten was not as bad as either the Pac 10 or Conference USA. The Pac 10 should be thanking their lucky stars that the national media continued to ignore them as they routinely have done in the past, or else their sham of a basketball conference last year would have been exposed.

No one expected Conference USA to be a better conference than any of the six BCS conferences, so their place in these efficiency ratings is not surprising at all. These ratings do show an anomaly, though. If Conference USA was the sixth best conference of the major seven conferences, why did they receive six bids to the NCAA Tournament while the Big XII received only four, and Big Ten & Pac 10 each received just three?

With these numbers, the ACC ranked out as the best major conference in all of college basketball last year. The conference had two teams reach the Final Four, Duke and Georgia Tech, and had six invitees out of nine members to the NCAA Tournament.

Only two teams in the entire ACC had efficiency differentials of less than zero, meaning they allowed more points per 100 defensive possessions than they scored for 100 offensive possessions, Virginia and Clemson. While four different teams had an efficiency differential over ten: Duke, Georgia Tech, Wake Forest, and North Carolina State.

  Pace Factor Eff. Diff.
Duke 69.27 21.63
Georgia Tech 71.41 13.51
Wake Forest 72.12 11.70
North Carolina State 65.47 10.05
North Carolina 73.18 9.54
Florida State 67.68 9.09
Maryland 72.86 6.56
Clemson 68.36 -7.16
Virginia 68.67 -7.70
Table 2

The Big East was the home of the National Champion UConn Huskies, and the previous season's National Champion Syracuse. The Orangemen were without Carmelo Anthony, but that did not hurt the Big East in the perception department. The conference was basking from the glow of cutting down the nets the previous year, and had the favorite to cut down the nets in San Antonio. The media was fawning over the Big East and not just Syracuse and UConn.

One of the teams that gained some of the most respect from the media was Pittsburgh, but fans were not buying into the hype of the Panthers. Ben Howland had just left for UCLA during the previous summer, and Pittsburgh played a boring, slow down brand of basketball that just turned fans away. Combine that with them basically not leaving the state of Pennsylvania until conference play started, and you had a highly ranked team completely ignored by fans as being overrated. The fans were wrong, though. Pittsburgh was the second best team in the Big East, and they did it by being efficient on both sides of the ball.

Outside of Pittsburgh and UConn, Seton Hall was the best team in the Big East followed closely by Ryan Gomes' Providence Friars. Norm Roberts will have a lot of work to do with the St. John's program, as they were just terrible last season, and the only team in the Big East that had a negative efficiency differential.

  Pace Factor Eff. Diff.
UConn 69.43 21.58
Pittsburgh 60.77 17.57
Seton Hall 66.47 10.23
Providence 65.98 9.56
Boston College 63.71 8.68
Syracuse 67.13 7.60
Notre Dame 64.61 5.22
Rutgers 66.44 4.44
Villanova 67.18 2.39
Georgetown 68.68 1.40
West Virginia 63.86 0.16
St. John's 66.03 -13.72
Table 3

When talking about the Big XII, many fans considered the conference over-rated, and was not worthy of the attention it was receiving through the national press. Their beliefs were justified when the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee selected just four Big XII teams to the NCAA Tournament. If that was the case, how did the Big XII rate out as the third best college basketball conference in these efficiency ratings?

Simple. The programs in the Big XII that were expected to be great teams (*cough* Missouri *cough*) had bad seasons, and the teams that were expected just to have good teams did not live up to that billing (Oklahoma and Texas Tech). There were four teams in the conference that had efficiency differentials over ten, and only two with negative differentials. The problem was the expectations placed on Oklahoma, Texas Tech, and Missouri were not lived up to, so the conference as a whole did not get the respect it deserved.

The most surprising numbers from the efficiency ratings is how well Nebraska was able to play throughout the season. Many people thought Nebraska's string of home victories over Missouri, Kansas, and Texas Tech were flukes, but they truly weren't. Were these teams more talented than Nebraska? Definitely. Were they better teams? Not when you compare the differences in the overall efficiency.

  Pace Factor Eff. Diff.
Oklahoma State 66.27 21.21
Texas 67.02 16.10
Nebraska 63.46 11.93
Kansas 69.68 11.51
Texas Tech 68.62 9.72
Oklahoma 64.55 6.24
Kansas State 66.54 5.70
Colorado 69.02 5.69
Missouri 66.83 1.97
Iowa State 70.87 1.78
Texas A & M 67.99 -7.84
Baylor 64.31 -10.24
Table 4

The SEC's candle bearer for the 2003-2004 college basketball season was the Mississippi State Bulldogs. Mississippi State stayed consistently in the top of the polls, and deserved to be there.

The darling of the SEC in the national media was Vanderbilt, but they truly did not deserve the love they were receiving. The Commodores were winning games, but they were not a very good team. Their overall efficiency was just below zero, -0.62. The Commodores were a very efficient defensive team, but on offense they were extremely ineffective, even with Matt Freije. These numbers show that the Commodores may have been the luckiest team in Division I college basketball during the 2003-2004 season.

Kentucky was Kentucky.

  Pace Factor Eff. Diff.
Mississippi State 69.25 16.81
Kentucky 67.88 14.70
South Carolina 66.46 11.99
Florida 67.81 8.99
Alabama 65.22 6.41
Louisiana State 64.92 4.78
Georgia 63.99 2.08
Tennessee 67.61 0.79
Auburn 64.83 0.55
Arkansas 67.39 0.36
Vanderbilt 66.67 -0.62
Mississippi 64.49 -3.36
Table 5

The Big Ten only had two good teams last year, Illinois and Wisconsin. It was no coincidence that these two teams battled it out for the Big Ten Championship once again. Outside of the Illini and the Badgers, there was no one in the conference that these numbers would flush out as a good team. If the conference had more solid teams to go with the Badgers and the Illini, the conference would not have been down, but when conference powers like Michigan State and Indiana are just shadows of their former selves, the media will pounce on a conference for being down.

Michigan State is now expected to be year in and year out a dominant team in the conference, but they struggled mightily last season. The Spartans were without a point guard for the second consecutive season, and it caught up to them, especially defensively. When you think about Michigan State, you think of the great defensive teams that were common place in their three straight runs to the Final Four, but this past season was just the opposite. Surprisingly, the lack of a point guard did not hurt the Spartans on the offensive side of the ball (where they were very efficient), but it killed them defensively. Teams were scoring more than one point per possession against the Spartans, and that was why they struggled last season.

When people talk about Big Ten Conference basketball, they talk about solid defense. The traditional statistics definitely bear this out as the teams within the Big Ten are routinely on the top of the points against statistics. What the defensive efficiency numbers are here to show is that while teams may not score a lot against Big Ten defenses, it is more of an effect of game pace than actual defense, at least in the 2003-2004 season.

Only Illinois, Purdue, and Wisconsin allowed less than one point per possession when they were on the defensive side of the ball. The other eight teams in the conference all allowed more than one point per possession, the sign of a poor defensive team. If you want to find a direct result as to why the Big Ten is considered a down conference it is this, the part of the game that has helped define the Big Ten conference has not been as good as it has been in the year's past.

When you look from top to bottom of the conference, you see a conference that is loaded on the bottom. Five teams in the conference had negative efficiencies differentials.

Horrible is the word that comes to mind when describing Penn State. Only St. John's was a worse team in major conference basketball, and they lost half their team and coach mid-way through the season.

  Pace Factor Eff. Diff.
Wisconsin 60.64 19.16
Illinois 64.45 13.69
Michigan 66.27 8.73
Purdue 63.56 7.11
Michigan State 63.61 5.30
Iowa 68.96 4.32
Northwestern 60.59 -2.15
Minnesota 66.69 -2.19
Indiana 64.06 -3.19
Ohio State 63.53 -5.48
Penn State 63.25 -13.42
Table 6

Conference USA probably received the biggest boost in national perception from the Big Ten being "down." The teams like Cincinnati, Memphis, and Louisville all received higher seeds than their counterparts in the Big Ten, but at least in the case of Cincinnati and Louisville, one could argue they deserved their seeds in the NCAA Tournament based on their play during the season.

In all of Conference USA four teams had an efficiency differential of over ten: Cincinnati, Louisville, Memphis, and Charlotte. There were some real bad teams in this conference as well, giving the better teams some easy wins as half of the conference (six teams had a negative efficiency differential). Army managed to have the worst differential with -20.06 based on their inability to score as they barely averaged 0.75 points per possession.

PAC 10
The Pac 10 should be thanking their lucky stars no one at ESPN stayed up past midnight eastern time last year, or else they would have rightfully received a major beat down from the analysts. Outside of Stanford and Arizona, the Pac Ten sucked, bottom line. Only Oregon and Washington had efficiency differentials above zero, while the other six team's efficiency differentials were negative.

The common theme throughout last season was that Stanford was keeping its undefeated season alive through luck. While that was the case if you watched the games against either Arizona or Washington State, it was not like Stanford was a bad team. The Cardinal had an efficiency differential of +18.99 on par with the best teams in the country. Since many fans were only able to see how Stanford "eeked" out another win, they assumed the team was heavily over-rated, but that was not the case.

Illini Inquirer Top Stories