Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Will the Supersized Big East Become the Greatest Conference Ever?

Seven Big East teams qualified for the NCAA Tournament this year, three earned number one seeds and two have made it to the Final Four. This is an article that I wrote for the November 2005 issue of Eastern Basketball (a sister publication of Basketball Times) examining the top conferences in college basketball history and discussing the possibility that the Big East might top all of them.

Remember when conferences consisted of 8-10 teams? This year the Big East expands to 16 members. If conferences get any bigger they will need to use the U.N. General Assembly to hold their Presidents' meetings.

The Big Ten sent seven teams to the NCAA Tournament four different times—1990, 1994, 1999 and 2001—and the Big East accomplished this feat in 1991. The supersized Big East is expected to break this record in the 2006 NCAA Tournament, which has led some to suggest that it will become the greatest conference ever (3/31/09 Note: the Big East sent eight teams to both the 2006 and 2008 NCAA Tournaments). That is a bold prediction because the new Big East has a formidable task just to match the excellence attained by the original Big East during the 1980s. The Big East had seven charter members in 1980—Boston College, Connecticut, Georgetown, Providence, St. John’s, Seton Hall and Syracuse—before adding Villanova in 1981 and Pittsburgh in 1983. The upstart league quickly asserted itself as a formidable competitor to traditional power conferences such as the ACC, Big Ten, SEC and PAC-10; in the Big East's inaugural year three of its seven teams earned NCAA bids. St. John's lost to Purdue in the second round, Syracuse lost to Iowa in the Sweet 16 and Georgetown made it to the Elite Eight before also bowing to Iowa—not a bad showing but this was just a taste of things to come.

In 1985, the Big East placed six of its nine teams in the NCAA Tournament, became the first conference to provide three of the teams in the Final Four and topped it off by producing both participants in the championship game; that contest turned out to be one of the most memorable upsets in NCAA history, with Villanova shooting a championship game record .786 from the field to defeat the defending champion, Patrick Ewing-led Georgetown Hoyas, 66-64. Big East teams went 18-5 in the 1985 NCAA Tournament. No conference has ever won more games in a single NCAA Tournament; second place is 15 wins, accomplished by the Big Ten in 1989 and 2000.

The Big East had tremendous individual star power in 1985 as well: future Dream Team members Ewing and Chris Mullin (St. John's) shared Big East Player of the Year honors, Villanova's Ed Pinckney (the 1985 Final Four Most Outstanding Player) and Syracuse’s Dwayne "Pearl" Washington joined them on the All-Big East First Team and future NBA players Walter Berry (who won Big East Player of the Year in 1986), Bill Wennington and Michael Adams made the All-Big East Second Team. The 1985 Big East also had three coaches who eventually earned Basketball Hall of Fame enshrinement: Syracuse's Jim Boeheim, St. John's Lou Carnesecca and Georgetown’s John Thompson.

Some Ground Rules for Comparing Conferences

One challenge in comparing conferences, teams and players from different eras is that NCAA basketball has changed so dramatically over the years: from 1967-68 to 1975-76 the slam dunk was illegal during games and pre-game warm-ups, the 45 second shot clock was first used in 1985-86 (and then changed to 35 seconds in 1993-94) and the three point shot was introduced nationally in 1986-87—and these are just a few of the on-court changes. There have also been major shifts in the structure of post-season play. The NCAA Tournament field consisted of only eight teams from 1939-1950. In 1951 the field doubled to 16 and from 1953-1974 between 22 and 25 teams participated each year. Then came rapid growth starting in 1975—from 32 teams (1975-78) to 40 teams (1979) to 48 teams (1980-82) to 52 teams (1983) to 53 teams (1984)—culminating in 1985 with the creation of the 64 team field. In 2001 a 65th team was added via a play-in game. Younger fans who have grown up watching "The Road to the Final Four" may be surprised to learn that the phrase "Final Four" has not always been a part of college basketball’s lexicon. Its first documented, official use came on page five of the 1975 Official Collegiate Basketball Guide—and the phrase was not capitalized until the 1978 Official Collegiate Basketball Guide.

In 1966 Texas Western became the first team with five black starters to win the NCAA title, an achievement that literally changed the face of college basketball by shattering a senseless taboo. If we arbitrarily declare 1966 to be the beginning of the modern era, we can split the past 40 years nearly in half by dividing it into pre-1986-87 and post-1986-87. Post-1986-87 includes the shot clock, the three point shot and the 64 team field.

Now that we have a manageable period of time to examine, neatly divided in two, the next step is to define our terms. What makes a conference great? The most emphasis has to be placed on winning championships and generating legitimate title contenders. Another important consideration is the conference's depth. A great conference should have electrifying star players and fierce, competitive rivalries between its members.

Great Conferences of the Early Modern Era (1965-66—1985-86)

The ACC earned more Final Four berths than any other conference during this period, with four schools combining for 14 appearances and three championships. The PAC-10 (and its predecessors, the PAC-8 and the AAWU) made 11 Final Four appearances—all of them by UCLA, which won eight championships (one of the Final Four appearances was later vacated by the NCAA). The Big Ten sent six different teams to a total of eight Final Fours, winning three titles.

While UCLA was the dominant team of this era, the ACC and Big Ten were deeper, stronger conferences:
  • In 1973, three ACC teams won at least 23 games--North Carolina State (27-0), North Carolina (25-8) and Maryland (23-7). North Carolina State, led by the sensational David Thompson, defeated Maryland 76-74 in the ACC championship game, but Maryland earned the conference’s NCCA Tournament bid because North Carolina State was ineligible for postseason play that year due to recruiting violations. Maryland made it to the Elite Eight. North Carolina, ranked 11th in the final regular season AP poll, finished third in the NIT.
  • In 1974 the ACC could very well have provided two NCAA Finalists like the Big East did in 1985—but at that time each conference could receive only one NCAA Tournament bid. That made the ACC championship game pivotal not only in determining who went to the tournament but very possibly who would be that year's national champion. Not surprisingly, this situation produced one of the classic games in NCAA history, North Carolina State's 103-100 overtime victory over Maryland. Thompson scored 29 points for North Carolina State and 7-3 center Tom Burleson led the way for the Wolfpack with 38 points and 13 rebounds. Six All-Americans and 10 future NBA draft picks played in the game; Maryland's John Lucas (18 points and 10 assists) became the number one overall pick in the 1976 NBA draft. North Carolina State defeated Marquette 76-64 to win the national championship while Maryland, ranked fourth in the final regular season AP poll, did not participate in postseason play. North Carolina State finished the year 30-1, while Maryland went 23-5.
  • The NCAA changed its rules in 1975 and allowed two teams from the same conference to receive tournament bids; five years later the NCAA permitted more than two teams from the same conference to receive tournament bids. In 1976 the Big Ten became the first conference to send two teams to the Final Four—and both made it to the national championship game. Indiana, led by future pros Scott May, Kent Benson, Quinn Buckner, Bobby Wilkerson and Tom Abernethy, went 32-0 and beat Big Ten rival Michigan 86-68 to claim Bob Knight's first national title. Indiana is the last undefeated team to win the national championship. Indiana and Michigan combined for a 9-1 NCAA tournament record, the most wins by a conference in one tournament in the 1970s.
  • In 1978 four of the seven ACC teams won at least 20 games and all seven finished over .500, for a combined winning percentage of .673. North Carolina (23-8) lost in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, North Carolina State (21-10) fell 101-93 to Texas in the NIT championship game and ACC champion Duke (27-7) lost 94-88 to Kentucky in the NCAA championship game. Virginia (20-8), the ACC's fourth 20-win team, dropped a 70-68 overtime decision to Georgetown in the NIT.
  • Six of the eight ACC teams in 1980 won at least 20 games; five made it to the NCAA Tournament and the sixth, Virginia, won the NIT. Duke and Clemson each advanced to the Elite Eight before being eliminated. The ACC's winning percentage in 1980 was .654, paced by Maryland’s 24-7 record.
  • In 1981 the ACC had two 29 win teams and five 20-plus win teams. Four ACC teams went to the NCAA Tournament and two more went to the NIT. Two ACC teams reached the Final Four: Virginia (29-4) lost 78-65 to North Carolina (29-8) but defeated Louisiana State 78-74 in the third place game; North Carolina lost the NCAA Championship Game 63-50 to Isiah Thomas and Indiana.
  • The 1982 ACC boasted four 20-plus win teams, including two 30 game winners led by future NBA All-Stars—North Carolina (32-2), which had Michael Jordan and James Worthy, and Virginia (30-4), which had 7-4 Ralph Sampson. All four 20-game winners made it to the NCAA Tournament, but only North Carolina enjoyed an extended run. Boosted by the jump shot that freshman Jordan later said put him on the map, Dean Smith won his first national championship as the Tar Heels defeated Georgetown 63-62.
  • The ACC enjoyed similar success in 1983, but produced a most unlikely—and memorable—national champion. Five ACC teams won 20-plus games and four were selected for the NCAA Tournament. The fifth, Wake Forest, won three games in the NIT before getting blown out by Fresno State. Three ACC teams made it to the Elite Eight, but only North Carolina State made it past that round. The Wolfpack shocked everyone by upsetting heavily favored Houston 54-52 in the NCAA championship game; Houston, known as Phi Slama Jama because of the team's tremendous dunkers, had Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler, who were both named to the NBA's 50 Greatest Players list in 1996. North Carolina State finished with a 26-10 record, becoming the first team with at least 10 losses to win the NCAA title (since then Villanova had 10 losses in 1985 and Kansas had 11 losses in 1988).
  • In 1984 the ACC produced five 20-plus win teams and none of its eight teams had a losing record. All five made it to the NCAA Tournament and two made it to the Elite Eight. Wake Forest lost in that round and Virginia lost 49-47 in overtime to Houston in the Final Four. Jordan's Tar Heels went 14-0 in conference play and 28-3 overall, but lost to Indiana 72-68 in the NCAA Tournament.
We have already mentioned the tremendous season enjoyed by the Big East in 1985, possibly the greatest single season by a conference. The SEC is similar to the PAC-10 in the sense that one team accounted for most of its NCAA Tournament success during this era—Kentucky, which made four trips to the Final Four and won the 1978 national championship. In 1986 the SEC posted a 12-4 NCAA Tournament record, sending LSU, Kentucky and Auburn to the Elite Eight. LSU advanced to the Final Four before losing to "Never Nervous" Pervis Ellison’s Louisville Cardinals, the eventual national champions.

Great Conferences of the Recent Modern Era (1986-87—2004-05)

Four ACC teams have made 20 Final Four appearances and won six championships since 1986-87, while seven Big Ten teams earned 15 Final Four trips and three titles. No other conference has even 10 Final Four appearances during this time. Duke has accounted for three of the ACC’s NCAA championships and nine of the Final Four berths, leading all teams in both categories. North Carolina is second in Final Fours (seven) and tied for second with Connecticut and Kentucky in championships (two).

ACC teams won at least 10 games in the NCAA tournament for seven straight years, 1989-1995. No other conference has come close to putting together such a streak. Duke won back-to-back titles in 1991-92 and North Carolina made it three straight for the ACC by claiming the 1993 crown. The ACC sent at least one team to the Final Four from 1988-1995. The rivalry between Duke and North Carolina is one of the best in sports and the drama is only heightened by the fact that most years the Blue Devils and Tar Heels are not only fighting for conference supremacy but are both viable national championship contenders—including 2005, when North Carolina won the title and Duke made it to the Sweet 16.

As for the Big Ten, let's start with the four years that the conference earned a record seven NCAA Tournament bids, the mark that the newly formed Big East is expected to break. In 1990 only Minnesota made it to the Elite Eight and the seven teams combined for an 8-7 record in the tournament. The Big Ten went 11-7 in the tournament in 1994, with Michigan and Purdue reaching the Elite Eight. In 1999 the Big Ten again sent two teams to the Elite Eight and this time both--Michigan State and Ohio State--made it to the Final Four before losing, leaving the Big Ten with a 13-7 tournament mark. Two years later, the Big Ten went 10-7 and sent two teams to the Elite Eight, with Michigan State advancing to the Final Four before being eliminated. The accomplishment of sending seven teams to the NCAA Tournament on four different occasions is somewhat diminished by the early exits of most of those teams and the failure of any of them to make it to the title game in the years in question.

The Big Ten had more impressive showings in 1989 and 2000 despite sending fewer teams overall. Michigan's Glen Rice set single season NCAA Tournament records for points (184; 30.7 ppg) and three pointers made (27) in 1989 while leading the Wolverines to the national title. Illinois made it to that year's Final Four and four of the Big Ten's five entrants advanced to the Sweet 16, giving the Big Ten an outstanding 15-4 tournament record. In 2000, the Big Ten went 15-5 in the tournament, producing three Elite Eight teams, two Final Four teams and the eventual national champion, Michigan State.

Who can forget Michigan's Fab Five teams? Who can name the "other two" who played alongside current NBA players Chris Webber, Juwan Howard and Jalen Rose? (Ray Jackson and Jimmy King) The Fab Five Era began with lofty expectations but only produced championship game losses by Michigan in 1992 and 1993. In 1992 Ohio State and Indiana joined the Wolverines in the Elite Eight and Indiana made it to the Final Four; in 1993 Indiana returned to the Elite Eight but lost in that round. The Big Ten went 14-5 in the 1992 tournament and 10-5 in the 1993 tournament.

During most of this period, PAC-10 teams tended to make early exits from the NCAA Tournament. Notable exceptions to this pattern occurred in 1995 and 1997. In 1995, five PAC-10 teams compiled a 9-4 NCAA Tournament record, headlined by UCLA winning the conference's first national title since John Wooden's Bruins claimed the 1975 crown. The PAC-10 did even better in 1997, with Arizona winning the championship, UCLA joining the Wildcats in the Elite Eight and five conference teams combining to win 13 tournament games while losing only four. The PAC-10 went 13-5 in 2001, sending three teams to the Elite Eight--but only Arizona advanced, eventually losing to Duke in the championship game.

The SEC enjoyed a great five year stretch from 1994-98, with Kentucky (two) and Arkansas (one) winning three titles; each team also lost once in the championship game during that time. That period accounts for five of the SEC's nine Final Four appearances during the recent modern era.

The Big East has enjoyed notable success in the recent modern era. In 1991 the Big East tied a record by sending seven teams to the NCAA tournament but none of them made it to the Final Four. St. John's and Seton Hall reached the Elite Eight and the seven teams finished with an 11-7 tournament record. Like the Big Ten, the Big East's most impressive seasons are not the ones that involved earning seven tournament bids. In 1999, five Big East teams went 10-4 in the NCAA Tournament, with Connecticut winning the championship and St. John's also making the Elite Eight. Syracuse won the 2003 championship, capping a 12-3 performance by four Big East teams in that year's tournament. Connecticut made it two titles in a row for the Big East in 2004; that year six Big East teams went 12-5 in the tournament.

The Challenge

So what does the new Big East have to do to become the greatest conference of all-time? Sending a record eight, nine or ten teams to the NCAA Tournament is not sufficient unless several of those teams advance to the Elite Eight and the Final Four. For single season excellence it will be difficult to match the 1985 Big East's combination of three Final Four teams, two Dream Teamers sharing conference Player of the Year honors and one very memorable NCAA championship game. The teams from the new Big East must make 20-25 Final Four appearances and win a half dozen or so national championships in the next two decades to rival the ACC's sustained excellence.

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