Big East Basketball Vs. SEC: Is The SEC A "Second-rate" League?

As Ken posted just below, Traitor Rick fired a shot in the general direction of John Calipari and the SEC recently.  This has been somewhat widely blogged about, but I want to address, in particular, Pitino's claim, which was echoed by Matt Norlander at CBS' Eye on College Basketball thus:

The Big East has been a better league than the SEC for most of its existence. Undeniable. And Kentucky, you'll remember, saw its 2011 season end in the Final Four at the hands of Connecticut, a Big East team. [emphasis mine]

The second sentence must go unchallenged, since it is an objective fact.  But what about the first?  Has the Big East been a "better league than the SEC for most of its existence?

To evaluate this claim, I have utilized four objective criteria, which naturally requires the Obligatory Disclaimer ™, to wit:  These are by no means the only criteria one could use, and I clearly understand the old adage that there are "lies, damn lies, and statistics.  I get that, in advance.

Now, on with the analysis.

First, some history.  The SEC was formed as, and always has been, a football league.  Basketball, baseball, and all the other sports that the SEC excels in are all afterthoughts, add-ons, and also-rans.  That is an undeniable, objective fact.

The Big East, on the other hand, was formed as a basketball league among mostly Catholic universities in the Northeast.  The original members of the conference were Providence, St. John's, Georgetown, Syracuse, Seton Hall, Connecticut, and Boston College.  In 1980, Villanova joined the Big East to make the conference a nice, round 8 schools.  Pittsburgh crashed the party two years later to make the league 9 members.  Many of these schools did not even field football teams.

In 1991, the conference expanded to 14 members with the addition of Miami, Temple, Virginia Tech, West Virginia, and Rutgers with the intention of giving the conference a football profile. Many of the teams, including West Virginia, Temple, Virginia Tech and Rutgers were football-only members for several years.  Notre Dame was added as a basketball-only member in 1995.

After a row with the ACC in 2003, the Big East surrendered three members -- Miami, Boston College and Virginia Tech to the ACC.  To compensate, the Big East raided Conference USA for Louisville, DePaul, Cincinnati, Marquette, and South Florida, all of whom joined the league in 2006.  Thus, we now have a 16-team basketball league.  TCU will join the Big East as an all-sports member in 2012-13.

Now that we've established the bona-fides, more about the criteria.  What I have chosen to compare the conference performance in basketball are four things:  The number of schools ranked in the final AP poll Top 25 since 1980, the number ranked in the Top 10, the number reaching the Final Four in the NCAA Tournament, and the number of national championships each league has won.  I did not include 1979 for the sake of making the decades work nicely together, and due to the fact that the league had an odd number of members that year.

Here's how the numbers crunched out:

Date Range Top 25 Top 10 Final Four National Champs
1980's 16 24 8 15 4 8 0 2
1990's 35 25 16 14 9 2 3 1
2000's 37 54 12 20 5 7 2 3
Totals 88 103 36 49 18 17 5 6

What this table reveals is essentially league performance by decade.  As you can see, the Big East was superior by the numbers in the decade of the 1980's, the SEC in the 1990's, and the Big East again in the 2000's.  Note that it was in the 2000's that the Big East added a number of very good basketball schools and vastly expanded the league, and the numbers in that decade reflect that, but we'll deal with that factor later.

Now, take a look at this table:

Date Range % Ranked in Top 10
SEC BE Delta
1980's 50.00% 62.50% 12.50%
1990's 45.71% 56.00% 10.29%
2000's 32.43% 37.04% 4.60%
Average 40.91% 47.57% 6.66%

This table is not really a criteria per se, but a derivative.  It shows the percentage of Top 25 teams for each school that was also ranked in the Top 10.  The purpose of this is simply to show the relative strength of the conferences at the end of each year.

Finally, we have this table:

Date Range Top 25 Top 10 Final Four National Champs
1980-2005 74 68 33 35 14 12 3 5
2006-Pres 14 35 3 14 4 5 2 1
Totals 88 103 36 49 18 17 5 6

This is the proverbial "table to be named later" I promised a few paragraphs up.  It shows the relative performances of both conferences before and after the major expansion of 2006.  The thing I like about this table is that it shows the effect, especially on the AP Poll rankings, of the additional schools.

So is the Big East really a "better league than the SEC for most of its existence?"  Well, you can argue somewhat both ways, depending on the criteria you consider the most important.  1980-2005 looks much rosier for the SEC, but keep in mind for some of that time the SEC had more members than the Big East.  The SEC is also unabashedly a football league, whereas the Big East is unquestionably a basketball league.  Trust me when I say that a Big East-ACC comparison like this would be lopsidedly in favor of the ACC, but versus the SEC, it is very, very close.

So I can't call out Matt Norlander as being wrong, necessarily, although I think I can make a strong argument that the "for most of its existence" qualifier is probably an overstatement.  For the last several years it appears that the Big East has been superior, at least partially due to the sheer number of its members, and even though the SEC enjoys a 2-1 national championship advantage since 2006, every other measure favors the Big East.  Almost the reverse is true from 1980-2005.

So there you are, ladies and gentlemen of the Big Blue Nation.  I think I can safely say with confidence that the SEC is by no means a second-rate league, as Rick Pitino claims.  I think I can also safely say that Matt Norlander's claim in support of Pitino is dubious as well, if not quite so cut-and-dried.  I suppose I could adjust all this for membership strength if I had the time, which might be the best way to do it, but it was enough work just to adjust for the various dates that teams joined the Big East and SEC, so I'll leave any apportionment like that to others.

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