Before the season, everyone (including me) proclaimed the Big Ten as the best conference in the country. A month into the season, the Big Ten still looks deep, strong and fully capable of landing seven teams in the NCAA tournament. But is it still the best conference in the country?
That depends. How do you define "best?"
If that seems like a rather soft way to discuss an already silly argument -- which conference is better than the other ranks pretty high on any annual list of "dumb but fun college hoops debates" -- don't blame me. Blame the impossible, subjective nature of quantifying conference strength. Is the best conference the one with the most good teams? Or the one with the best top-to-bottom performance across all teams?
Choose wisely, my friends. As of Dec. 9, 2010, the suddenly valid competition between the Big Ten and the Big East hinges in the balance.
The Big East was supposed to have a "down" year. That hasn't been the case. Instead, the league appears as tough as ever, and given recent history, that means it's been the best conference in college hoops. Thanks to the surprisingly impressive play of Georgetown, Connecticut, Louisville, Notre Dame and even Marquette and Cincinnati, the Big East is yet again stocked with at least nine potential NCAA tournament teams. No other conference can say that. Not even the much-lauded depth of the Big Ten can compete on sheer numerical terms.
A look at the Pomeroy numbers -- which is much handier than getting mired in the "this team beat that one" transitive property stuff -- bears this out. As of this writing, the Big East has 11 (yes, 11) teams ranked in the top 50 in the Pomeroy rankings: Pittsburgh (No. 4), Georgetown (No. 11), Louisville (No. 14), Syracuse (No. 18), Villanova (No. 19), West Virginia (No. 20), Connecticut (No. 28), Marquette (No. 34), Notre Dame (No. 39), St. John's (No. 45) and Cincinnati (No. 47). The real drop-off in adjusted efficiency rankings doesn't occur until we get all the way down to Rutgers, South Florida and DePaul.
Compare that to the Big Ten. The conference has seven teams ranked in the top 50 (Northwestern is ranked No. 51, so we're giving the Big Ten a slightly generous add-on here): Ohio State (No. 3), Wisconsin (No. 7), Illinois (No. 8), Purdue (No. 10), Michigan State (No. 15), Minnesota (No. 42) and Northwestern (No. 51).
One quick aside: Of course, the Pomeroy numbers aren't the be-all, end-all. Dec. 9 is still a little too close to small sample-size territory, and each of these teams have stories as well as stats: Syracuse just beat the tar out of Michigan State; Wisconsin has struggled at times; St. John's and Cincinnati haven't beaten anyone of note; Minnesota has a bad home loss; Northwestern's nonconference schedule is a joke; and so on. But, again, for the purposes of this post, the Pomeroy numbers are the best quick-reference guide we've got.
And what do KenPom's stats say? Because they take into account the entire conference's performance and not, say, which conference will send more teams to the NCAA tournament, the numbers still consider the Big Ten the best conference in the land. When you look at Pomeroy's team rankings, this makes sense. The Big Ten has five top-15 teams; the Big East has three. The Big Ten has no teams listed higher than No. 81 (Iowa); the Big East has three worse than No. 100.
If you're concerned with how many teams each league could plausibly send to the NCAA tournament, the Big East is your choice. But if you're interested in total top-to-bottom conference strength, the Big Ten is still, at least statistically, the best league in the country.
There's plenty of time to hash this out, of course. There are more nonconference games to play, for one, but there's also this little thing called the NCAA tournament, the results of which end up defining conference strength for most fans anyway. But as of now, though the Big East appears to be much better than we thought, the Big Ten is still holding strong.
Let the debate, silly though it may be, rage on.