By Andrew Kahn
On Feb. 12, the day after the NCAA Tournament committee’s early bracket reveal, Michigan coach John Beilein was asked about the Big Ten not having any teams in the top 16.
“I think the Big Ten will end up doing their work in the NCAA Tournament,” he said. “What everybody thought was — we had such a great season last year as a league — that this league was down this year. It is not down. It’s just stronger top to bottom. … We’ll answer that question in March.”
Have we? Was Beilein right? It’s complicated.
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Depending on which computers you ask, either the ACC (RPI) or Big 12 (KenPom) was the best conference in college basketball this season, followed by the Big East, Big Ten, SEC and Pac-12.
Come NCAA Tournament time, complicated math is often overruled by simple results. The Sweet 16 is set, and it includes three teams each from the Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12, and SEC, two from the Big East, and one each from the ACC and West Coast Conference.
“Time is a friend of truth,” Beilein said Wednesday, reflecting on his February comments now that Michigan is joined in the Sweet 16 by Purdue and Wisconsin. “As time went on, I just figured the truth would come. I thought (the Big Ten) was really good.”
People who share Beilein’s belief often tend to ignore certain Tournament results — in the Big Ten’s case, first-round losses by Maryland and Minnesota — and can’t seem to recall anything from before January.
As Kansas coach Bill Self reminds us, “A lot of times a small sample size format like the NCAA Tournament doesn’t really project what a league is.” Self was not responding to Beilein and had plenty of praise for the Big Ten and his own league. But it’s important to remember these conference rankings were built on what happened throughout the season.
It would make sense, now, to use the NCAA Tournament games as additional data points in conference assessment. But since this is March Madness — not just the biggest event in the sport but the most recent — it is often overvalued in this debate.
What South Carolina coach Frank Martin said Thursday about any one team can be applied to conferences, too: “You can be undefeated going into the NCAA Tournament. If you don’t make a run in this tournament, all your accomplishments kind of go out the window. Or you can be a team that lost 12 games, and you make a run in this tournament and everyone forgets all your sins.”
And honestly, there’s nothing wrong with that. The NCAA Tournament is cruel but fair. Unlike many of those early-season games, none of these are played on a team’s home court. There are no excuses for freshmen still acclimating or a team possibly looking ahead to its next opponent.
Some people are going to use these three long weekends to sort out the conference rankings; others, like North Carolina coach Roy Williams, will not let the Big Dance change what they already believe. Neither group is wrong.
Regardless of where certain coaches or fans fall in this debate, there is plenty of conference pride. Beilein said he congratulated Purdue’s Matt Painter and Wisconsin’s Greg Gard via text after their Tournament wins, and they reciprocated. Scott Drew, via Twitter, urged Baylor fans to root for Kansas (both schools played in Tulsa last weekend) and congratulated Kansas and West Virginia for joining the Bears in the Sweet 16: “Love when the Big 12 wins in March!” His feelings, based on the replies, were not shared by the entire Baylor fanbase.
Players who have reached the Sweet 16 and were asked about conference pride got to the heart of the matter: Most said it was nice to see the league do well, but it wouldn’t mean much if they weren’t a part of it. North Carolina’s players, coaches and fans won’t apologize for being the lone ACC team remaining, just as Minnesota’s early exit isn’t eased by the Big Ten’s relative success. Come next season, new banners will be hanging in a handful of arenas, not any conference office.
Andrew Kahn is a regular contributor to CBS Local. He writes about college basketball and other sports at andrewjkahn.com, and you can find his Scoop and Score podcast on iTunes. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter at @AndrewKahn.