It was a very bad weekend for the Big East. The conference sent a record 11 teams to the NCAA tournament and after one weekend of play only two are advancing to the Sweet 16. The first weekend was a massive disappointment for the conference and a torrent of commentors are now using it as evidence that the conference was overrated, overhyped and the victim of an ill-advised 16-team model. They're wrong.
It is a fool's errand to try and judge the strength of a conference based on the first four days of a single-elimination tournament that by its very nature creates upsets and sends worthy teams packing early. The fact that nine of 11 Big East teams lost does not mean those nine teams did not deserve to be in the tournament. All it means is that they ran into teams that had their number and they did not deserve to advance to the Sweet 16.
If losing in the tournament means you should not have been there in the first place, why do we even have a tournament? Would the critics prefer it if the BCS took control of college basketball and made all this upset talk unnecessary? Or what about a format with best-of-seven elimination. Does anyone really think Pittsburgh would lose to Butler four out of seven times? How about Louisville and Morehead St? Those teams got unlucky, they lost and they deserved to go home, but that does not make them bad or invalidate what they did this year.
One thing you'll never hear critics do is list the teams they think should not have made the tournament. Go back one week and tell me who should not have been in the tournament. You know what you'll find? The team with the weakest resume was Marquette who is, wait for it.... going to the Sweet 16. Sure, Villanova and Georgetown were in free fall, but they had done more than enough to earn a trip to the dance. Do you remember the team that received the most scorn for making the field? That would be VCU and they're headed to the Sweet 16 as well.
The Big East had 11 of the best 68 teams this year. Period. The league deserved every bid it got. It also had more than its share of bad luck and a whole lot of teams of deserved to make the big dance but did not deserve to keep dancing past the second round. It did not have an elite team and unless UConn and Marquette can defy the odds and make the Final Four it will not have a team playing on the tournament's last weekend, and that's okay.
There are two other lines of discussion you'll probably hear along with the overrated talk. The first is that the Big East has a structural problem because it has not won a title since 2004. Bullshit. Winning the tournament is a crapshoot and while having the best team in the country helps it is far from a guarantee you'll win the title. Plus, there is only one national champion each year -- there are not a lot to go around. Just look at the amount of titles each conference has won since 2004.
Big East: 0
Big 10: 0
Big 12: 1
Pac 10: 0
Do you see people freaking out about the Big 10 or Pac 10? No, because winning a championship is hard as hell and like I said above, a crapshoot. Plus, that since 2004 stat is loaded specifically to make the Big East look bad. Take it back to include 2003 and 2004 and the Big East has two titles.
Quick, do you know the last time a Big 10 team was a title? It was Michigan St. in 2000 (and it was the conference's first since 1989). How about a Pac 10 team? That would be Arizona in 1997. But people don't use that as evidence that the league is in trouble because that would be just as stupid as measuring the strength of the Big East on the strength of DePaul.
The other thing you'll hear is that the Big East, for whatever reason, has trouble attracting top-level talent. This may be true -- you do not see a ton of one-and-done NBA studs coming in to the conference, but it has nothing to do with the conference's ability to perform. Do you know how many times in the modern era a stud freshman has led a team to a national title? One, Syracuse in 2003. That type of player does not win championships. Instead, championships are won by guys who have talent, but not so much that they're able to jump to the NBA after just one year and the Big East has loads of talent like that.
The problem isn't the Big East, the problem is that the format is designed not to reward the absolute best team, but rather one of the six or eight best teams that happens to get a lucky draw and avoids making a dumb mistake the longest. It's incredibly exciting, but it means measuring outcomes based off of tourney performance is a fools errand.
The Big East had a great regular season and a bad tournament. It happens. It does not mean the conference is bad, it does not mean there is a structural flaw, it just means it got unlucky. That's how it goes and its why we love the sport. We call it March Madness for a reason -- no one would love it if it was simple and predictable.