Friday, July 23, 2010

Rivalries -- the Big East vs the Atlantic 10

The Untelevised Conference Challenge
Made for television power conference "challenges" have, along with early season invitational tournaments and one-shot TV-initiated match-ups, become popular media events that break up the monotony of the diet of out conference games in which an "above the red line" host pummels a "below the red line" visitor, and then settles the penalty clause for breaking the NCAA-mandated home-away contract.

The rivalry between the Atlantic 10 Conference and the Big East Conference, is unusual. True, the foot prints do not match exactly, but those footprints do contain a large overlap -- one that starts in New England at the shores of the Atlantic Ocean, south to the Appalachian coal fields, northwest to the Great Lakes and west to the shores of the Mississippi. The schools within that overlap, 27 of the 30 member schools, loosely share a common history. The six schools west of the confluence of the Monongahela and Allegheny Rivers have all shared at least one common conference affiliation in the past 50 years. In the Northeast, where schools did not affiliate until the final ascendence of the NCAA over the NIT in the mid 1970s, basketball rivalries, independently and individually scheduled, stretched through the decades. Villanova and Duquesne, two schools who have not met since 1994, played 49 games in the 60 years preceding seasons. Often these rivalries started as "bragging right" affairs. Philadelphia's Big 5 Series, dating to the mid 1950s, pits La Salle, Saint Josephs's, Temple and Villanova in an annual round robin. The Crosstown Shootout between Cincinnati and Xavier, a series dating back 1927-28, became an annual event in 1945-46. Three of the two conference's four New England members played in the now defunct Yankee Conference, while the fourth school, Providence College, independently scheduled the other three going back to the earliest days of the Friar's program (1920 - 1932). And the annual round robin series between Duquesne, Pitt and West Virginia dates to the mid 1970s. In the 2010 season the conferences scheduled 23 games, played between 27 of the two conferences 30 members.

For Those Too Busy for the Details...
Big East schools held a 17-6 (0.736) margin this season. For the games Big East schools won, the average winning margin was 12.6 points; for games won by the Atlantic 10 school, the winning margin was 8.2. The Big East's winning percentage may seem large, but consider it is well below the 0.850 winning percentage Red Line defined by the Mid-Majority's Kyle Whelliston. The Red Line (which can, as defined by Whelliston, change over time...but likely won't change much) is a line of demarcation -- members of those conferences above the Red Line compiled a winning percentage greater than 85% (0.870 in 2009) over teams from those conferences below the Red Line. Money, TV exposure and branding, as suggested by Whelliston, have played a (large) role in the demarcation. But the line itself refers to a result tallied on the court, not size, nor football affiliation, nor budgets.

Individual Standings
The record for teams by conference...

Big East Teams (14/16)
Cincinnati010.000Crosstown Shootout
Notre Dame101.000
Seton Hall110.500
St. John's301.000
Villanova410.800Big 5 = 3 games
West Virginia101.000Duquesne
1760.7390.131 < 0.870

While the Crosstown Shootout, the Duquesne-Pittsburgh-WVU Series and Philadelphia's City Series are annual events, they account for only six of the 23 scheduled games. Of the remaining 17, four were invitational tournament-arranged match-ups. The others, 13 of 23 (56.5%), were individually scheduled games. As the total number of games played (23) suggests, few, only four this season, played more than a single game against an A10 team. Villanova's commitment to the Big 5 guarantees the 'Cats will see at least three A10 teams each season, but a combination of invitational tournament commitments and individually schedule contracts means the number of A10 meetings will rarely be less than four. The Atlantic 10 standings are not quite the mirror one might expect...

Atlantic 10 Teams (13/14)
Charlotte101.000at Louisville!
Dayton010.000PR Shootout Tour.
George Washington010.000
La Salle010.000
Rhode Island101.000vs. Providence
Saint Joseph's020.000
St. Bonaventure020.000
St. Louis010.000

Unlike the Big East membership, more than half (8/14 -- 57.1%) of the A10 membership did play multiple games with Big East teams. That the two A10 teams that seemed to be competitive with their Big East counterparts in multiple match-ups turned out to be Temple and Xavier should be no surprise. Both received 2010 NCAA bids and were awarded seeds higher than #8 (the tournament mid-point).

A Few Thoughts
1. Charlotte's 12/9 87-65 road win over Louisville raised a few eyebrows around D1, and resurrected a lot of hopes around Charlotte, NC. The '49ers, having taken a 101-59 drubbing at the hands of Duke in their third game, pulled themselves together to launch a seven game winning streak, with road wins over Louisville and Winthrop serving as the high notes. They did/could not sustain the momentum however, dropping three more OOC games (at Old Dominion, home versus Georgia Tech and at Tennessee), before starting conference play. Taking a "bubbly" 10-4 record into conference play, Charlotte then launched a second extended winning streak, running out to an 8-1 conference record, assembling a solid tournament resume right into the first week of February. And then Charlotte imploded, going 1-6 down the stretch. A first round (home) loss in the A10 Conference Tournament closed out any post season chances, and sent 12 year veteran coach Bobby Lutz packing. Louisville, after dropping a second (in a row) head scratcher to Western Carolina. As Big East pundits posted "What Happened to Louisville" essays, the Cardinals started to come together, running off four wins before starting Big East play. Louisville went 11-7 in conference play, and earned their third consecutive NCAA bid.
2. Dayton met Villanova in the second round of the Puerto Rico Tip Off in late November. An early harbinger for the Flyers' fortunes, they trailed for all but 2:30 minutes, but closed to within two points with 90 ticks on the clock. Villanova won it late at the line, pushing the winning margin out to six points, just beyond the five point "close game" margin. Of Dayton's 12 losses, nine were by five or fewer points. Make that 10 by six or fewer.
3. St. John's three A10 wins suggested a better Big East Conference season was on the horizon. If their +1 opening salvo versus St. Bonaventure was underwhelming, consider it came on a neutral upstate court. The Philly Hoop Group Classic Final win over Temple, coming on the floor of the Palestra in Philadelphia on the other hand should have raised hopes that the team was coming into it's own. The 17 point thumping of Fordam in mid December was simply an exclamation point on what, to that point, had been an 8-1 run (the sole loss was to Duke). St. John's however, stumbled again (to Cornel in the ECAC Holiday Tournament) before the start of conference play. And started their conference schedule with an 0-3 streak. The Johnnies did earn an NIT bid, but lost on the road to Memphis in the first round. Coach Roberts joined Bobby Lutz on the unemployment line (until June, when Lutz joined Fred Hoiberg's Iowa State staff as an Assistant Coach).
4. Temple, A10 Tournament Champ, may have been disappointed by their 2-2 record versus the Big East, but with their 12/19 71-61 win over Villanova, the Owls managed to break their four game losing streak versus Villanova, regain a co-leader standing (with Villanova) in Big 5 competition, 120-84, and eventually win the 2010 City Series outright. Some wins are sweeter than others.
5. The last word in this season's interconference competition came on March 21, and it was uttered by Xavier as the X-men beat Pittsburgh 71-68, in the second round of the NCAAs.

Out of Curiosity...
I wondered how these teams matched up before the 64 team NCAA and CBS' TV money "encouraged" the NCAA to level the field and award automatic spots to all conference champions. The time before BCS football and power conferences (though not necessarily before the Red Line) emerged in D1 basketball. As a completely unscientific experiment, I arbitrarily subtracted 35 (to insure it would predate the 64 team tournament field and the Big East and Atlantic 10 Conferences) and compiled the team-by-team results of the 1974-75 season. A number of the teams (DePaul, Villanova, St. John's and Providence among others) were independents, while others were affiliated in now defunct conferences (Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island in the Yankee Conference to cite one example -- there are others). Though neither conference was operational in 1975, elements of both were present in the primordial soup of the ECAC North and South Divisions (back then, even as it is today, more an "affiliation" than a "conference"), and the now defunct East Coast Conference. West of the Alleghanys the Missouri Valley Conference Champion was Louisville. The Cardinals would in succession beat Rutgers then Cincinnati on their way to a 3rd place finish, beating Syracuse. 29 of the 30 conference members faced off least once during the season, with 65 total games played between teams of the two conferences. That total does not include games played between teams that would eventually join the same conference (either Atlantic 10 or Big East). Big East teams held a 52-13 record, which computes to an 80% winning percentage. For the (future) Big East teams, the average margin of victory was 14.3 points; for the (future) Atlantic 10 teams, the margin of victory was 5.9.

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