Generally speaking, it's not an entirely fair or true evaluation of a league to place too much emphasis on conference-vs.-conference challenges. However, this go-round of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge was very telling. And not just in the obvious "the ACC is better than the Big Ten" way.
Prior to the season, most would have agreed that graduation losses and coaching changes were going to have an impact on the Big Ten. But the pounding the ACC put on the Big Ten seems to illustrate that the drop-off is more precipitous than anyone could have imagined.
Big Ten is down. Way down. That's well-reflected in the first projection of the season.
The ACC won eight of 11 games, but some of the individual defeats are even more telling. Illinois, picked to be the third-best team in the Big Ten by the league coaches, lost by double-digits to an NC State squad with 10 freshmen and sophomores and selected to finish seventh in the ACC. Wisconsin, tabbed second in the preseason in the Big Ten, was absolutely taken apart by the ACC's preseason sixth-best, Virginia. If the second- and third-best teams in your league aren't even truly competitive with the second division of another conference, a problem exists.
Though Michigan beat Miami, those two teams aren't likely to be playing in March. And Michigan State followed up its win over Clemson with a loss at Old Dominion. So
Penn State's upset of Duke is the only win that even resonates. That was a huge boost for the Lady Lions, but the Big Ten needed something more.
It is just going to be one of those seasons. Perennially good programs appear to be down all at once and that probably means less interesting basketball and less overall success. And Big Ten supporters shouldn't get their hopes up because it goes deeper than just losing some games to the superior ACC.
" Purdue lost by 14 to Temple and lost all three games at the Paradise Jam. Injuries and inexperience might be too much for the Boilermakers to overcome this season.
" Old Dominion has already beaten Michigan State, Penn State and Purdue. In fact, after a month, the CAA's Lady Monarchs would qualify as the best team in the Big Ten.
" Ohio State, probably the league's best, has lost to the only good competition it has played (Auburn and Maryland by a combined 23 points).
" Wisconsin, in addition to the beating at the hands of Virginia, also dropped a home game against Wyoming.
" Illinois lost at home to 2-7 UAB.
" Penn State followed up its thrilling upset of Duke with a 19-point loss at Syracuse and preceded it with that loss to ODU by a whopping 28.
It is still too early to tell exactly how this will translate into March and the number of teams the Big Ten will get into the NCAA Tournament, but it doesn't look good.
Five Big Ten teams were included in our preseason projection, but that number now stands at just three. That includes Penn State, one of the last four teams in. Purdue and Wisconsin fell out and weren't even considered for the tournament field. Minnesota, along with the Lady Lions, has been a bit of a surprise, playing above expectations. Every other team in the league has played at or below that level. No Big Ten team was included among the tournament field's top-16 seeds.
The league has flamed out -- with just one Sweet 16 entrant -- in the last two tournaments. This season the disappointment will likely be on Selection Monday.
A couple of items that need pointing out about this first bracket since the games began:
1. For purposes of this exercise, a conference's automatic qualifier is whichever team is leading the league as of today. At this point, most leagues have started playing conference games, so the "leader" is chosen from the best overall record. So before you get confused or upset about seeing a VCU or Dayton in the field, realize that those schools are currently leading the CAA and Atlantic 10, respectively, and go in as automatic bids.
2. Records are for Division I opponents only. The NCAA Tournament committee doesn't recognize victories over Division II or III opponents, so neither do we.
3. Schools hosting sub-regionals must be placed there for the first- and second-round games. This is debated as fair or unfair every season. It is what it is and seems to best marry all the considerations that go into making a successful tournament. Sometimes that is going to mean a higher-seeded team playing a road game early on. It has happened before and will happen again. Tennessee won a national championship last April after playing Pittsburgh in Pittsburgh during the second round. It typically hasn't been a major problem.
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