It is always a big talker and there is almost never an easy answer, evaluation, or methodology to deciding. Which conference is the best in the land? That is especially an interesting topic in Iowa this season as the top two leagues in the opinion of most are the Big 12 and the Big Ten. With both Iowa State and Iowa having benchmark seasons and in the upper echelon of their leagues this topic is hotly contested here in our state.
But how to determine which is the best? There is a multitude of different rating systems available out there that already answer this question with their formulas, whether it be Sagarin, RPI, BPI, or Ken Pomeroy. To me though, the ratings of conglomerates always leave something to be desired because they’re very intangible.
But if rating systems are not the answer with their group methods what is the best way? Head to head competition? NCAA tournament success? Number of teams in the top 25 of the polls? The possibilities go on and on….and on.
If head to head matchups were extensive enough that would obviously be the best bet, but they aren’t and likely never will be in the framework of a single season. Here are the head to head results from this season:
It comes down to your perspective and opinion as to how you define “best”. I, personally, have always thought of the best league being a “top to bottom” scenario where when comparing two leagues you would rank the teams in each league and square off to play head to head games. Others think the best method is purely the number of elite title contending teams in a given conference.
The quirk in all of it comes down to accounting for the different number of teams in each league. The other primary trouble is that how is this debate to be settled when much of the season has yet to play out and those evaluations from above cannot be used? Nobody wants to wait until the end of March or beginning of April to settle this debate.
So what are unruly college basketball fans in the Midwest to do?
Turn to a hack blogger with a pragmatic approach, of course.
After excruciatingly long email discussions with two of my confidants (one an Iowa fan in the interest of fairness but also because he’s smart and knows basketball) I landed on two primary methods to determine an answer to our burning question.
Part One: League Depth
Note: All ratings used in this column are either Ken Pomeroy Ratings or the composite ratings from Sagarin and were gathered as of February 19th, 2014.
I went about this in two ways. The first came from the thought above of ranking the teams in each league and lining them up to play actual games. Since those actual games can’t really happen solely in response to my quest for answers, we just have to assume the better rated team would win—that is a huge assumption, yes.
But with the unequal number of teams in each league how can we align these matchups? I came up with an idea to go about this exercise in three groupings; the top six teams of each league, the bottom six teams of each league, and the middle six teams of each league. That way all teams are accounted for and contributing to the exercise.
The ratings used for each team were an average of their KenPom rating and Sagarin rating, and it broke down like this:
For the second part, I went a slightly different way. This gets into personal definitions but I think the definition I used pretty well covers the gamut. My contention is that when Joe Blow Purdue fan or John Doe Kansas State fan is touting the strength of their conference the root issue they’re broadcasting is that their schedule in their conference is more difficult than other conferences.
They don’t care if the #6 team in the Big Ten can beat the #6 team in the Big 12 or if the #8 team can do likewise. Like all humans, fans especially are selfish and we see everything through the lens of “me”.
So here’s what I did. Working from that assumption the real issue here is looking at strength of schedule for each team in conference play. That was annoying with the Big Ten’s unbalanced schedule, but I survived. I used the Pomeroy and Sagarin rankings independently to evaluate both leagues. With those rankings and the actual schedules played by each team in both leagues I arrived at an average opponent ranking for each team. I then averaged that (averaging an average is typically bad form but, whatever) to land on the average opponent ranking for the entire conference.
In the Big 12 that isn’t a big deal because it is just an overall average of all the team rankings due to the full round robin schedule. I then used the actual schedules of each Big Ten team to account for playing seven league teams twice and four league teams once.
In a basketball utopia I would’ve tried to account for the Big Ten games of opponents only played once being at home or on the road but if this were a basketball utopia I wouldn’t be doing this in the first place. Plus, there is a strong chance that is negligible and/or would iron out all by itself.
The numbers in the middle by each team are their current rankings and the numbers on the outside of each team is the average of the opponent’s rankings. At the bottom is the average of all of those team opponent average rankings for the conference average.
Here were the results with the Pomeroy rankings:
And with the Sagarin rankings:
My conclusion through both methods? I’d give the advantage to the Big Ten by the narrowest of margins. I’m talking less than a whisker. The averaged strength of schedule using the Pomeroy and Sagarin rankings had each league come out as “better” once though the margins are mostly miniscule. In some ways it would have likely been better to use the actual rating values as opposed to the ranking number, but I think the results would’ve been similar and that is so much less intuitive.
I give the Big Ten the edge solely because in the first section when I grouped the teams into sixes the Big Ten dominated the upper six. While that isn’t all that matters and the Big 12 actually “won” more of those matchups and the middle was very close but dominating the upper six is more important.
On that note…
Part Two: Contenders
Perhaps the more heavily weighted way to define the better conference is by determining which league has more elite teams and contenders to not only win a title but to make deep tournament runs.
But how do we define title contenders in the middle of February? As your annual bracket in March reminds you every year there is no surefire way to figure that out. However, using Pomeroy offensive and defensive ratings we can narrow down the list quite a bit. It doesn’t give you an exact answer in February as to which teams will advance the furthest in the tournament but it eliminates some teams that likely won’t.
Below you’ll see the offensive and defensive ratings for the last 11 years of Final Four teams (as far back as the Pomeroy database goes):
The color coding is done from red (best) to blue (worst) separately for offenses and defenses. You’ll see that outside Louisville in 2012, Marquette in 2003, and pretty much all of 2011 that having either an elite offense or defense is almost a requirement to win the title and being top 30 is both is the key to advancing.
Of the 44 teams that made the Final Four in the last 11 years just three of them had an offense outside the top 50, three more between 31-50 and the other 38 were all top 30. Coincidentally that split is exactly the same for defensive ratings.
The NCAA champ has never been worse than 18th on offense or 21st on defense and the average offensive ranking for the champion has been 5.2 and the average defensive ranking has been 9.7. Of the teams that made the Final Four the average offensive ranking was 17 and the averaged defensive ranking was 18.2.
To apply this to current Big 12 and Big Ten teams to sort out the contenders I separated these rankings into three tiers and one “just missed” tier. The top tier is the teams that are top 30 in both offense and defense. The second tier was for teams elite in one and at least top 50 in the other, and the third was for teams that are top 50 in both. The teams that just missed were elite in one category or very close to being top 50 in both. That breakdown and rankings as of February 19th is to the right.
In the top three tiers I have Kansas, Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan State, and Iowa State. Followed with Texas, Oklahoma State, Michigan, and Ohio State.
Again, by raw numbers the Big Ten has three teams in those three tiers compared to two of the Big 12 teams. Three is more than two but 25% is more than 20% (percentage of league teams in the top tiers).
Again, a neck and neck race that I give the ever so slight lead to the Big Ten. Again that is because of the Big Ten having the better top end teams by this measure, even if the margin is so small. The other factor is that of the just missed teams I think Michigan and Ohio State may have better chances to make a run based off having either an offense or defense that is top three nationally.
So, there you have it. The four month debate has been settled unanimously, right? The Big Ten and their top end teams in the upper half of the league are just a shade too much for the very impressive depth of the Big 12 middle teams. The Big 12 currently has 90% of its members in the Pomeroy top 70 and 80% in the top 55 which no other league can come close to matching.
The ever so slight victory in the land of enCYCLONEpedia goes to the Big Ten.