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Midweek Musing: Big 12 Basketball is the nation’s best. And that’s no conspiracy

The Big 12 has reached such a lofty station that the troll takes have emerged to explain away its greatness

NCAA Basketball: Houston at Texas Christian Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

The calendar has turned to February and there is much basketball to be played before Selection Sunday sets the NCAA Tournament bracket in March or a National Champion is crowned in April, but through three months of the 2023-24 college hoops campaign there is one undeniable truth: the Big 12 is unquestionably the best conference. That is not to say one of the league’s 14 teams is guaranteed to be cutting down the nets in Glendale, every major conference has at least one true title contender, Purdue, UConn, Arizona, North Carolina and others should certainly be among the favorites and would each compete near the top of the Big 12 if that were their conference home. The statement is so obviously true that national media have to come up with wild conspiracy theories in effort to dispute it, talking heads that stan for some other league must spew nonsense trolling for clicks, and even mid-major conferences are out there with ludicrous claims. But here I am taking the bait, so let’s look into it:

First, let’s take on the low hanging fruit first. Last week, the American Athletic Conference publicly claimed that it is “the most competitive basketball conference in the country” in a tweet that generated widespread engagement, which I suppose was its goal.

Using the definition of competitive to mean “as good or better than others of a comparable nature,” I suppose the key is to understand what the American deems comparable. Are the teams competitive with each other within the conference? Yes. Is the AAC equal to or better than many other mid-major conferences fighting for multiple bids? Sure. Is the AAC competitive on the national scale when compared to major multi-bid conferences? C’mon y’all. Memphis was once the league’s top team, ranked Top 10 in the AP Poll a few weeks ago, but is now riding a 4-game losing streak to teams rated outside the NET top 100, most recently falling at home to #248 Rice. The league has five Quadrant 1 quality victories in total across the 14 teams, an average of 0.36 per team. The Big 12 has two teams with more than that individually, with a nation-best 40 total for the conference. Among non-Power 6 conferences, the WCC has as many Q1 wins as does the American, while the A-10 has more and the Mountain West has over 3-times as many (17). The new-look American has been an exciting league for sure, FAU enters after a Final Four run and continues to be a threat, North Texas and UAB have kept pace in the Top 5 of the league standings, former Horned Frog PJ Haggerty is lighting up the scoreboard at Tulsa. The league plays competitive basketball every night, but “most competitive in the country?” Get real.

Now it’s time for the real galaxy brain stuff - that “Aaron Rodgers in a cave doing ayahuasca” type of take. I want to preface this by stating that I often listen to the Field of 68 Podcast, it’s not my favorite college basketball outlet, but they put out daily content and I’m right there to drink it up. As with any daily sports talk radio or other content, the need to put out new takes every day can lead to some outlandish statements. The latest flaming hot take came from Terrence Oglesby, former Clemson Tigers player and current ACC Stan. His suggestion on Tuesday’s show was that the NET is a conspiracy against the ACC that the Big 12 is using it to manipulate its computer rankings and influence the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee to place undeserving Big 12 teams into March Madness while more deserving ACC teams will be left at home. While we can all agree that Brett Yormark can wield his power to tremendous effect, I don’t think he’s scheming in a room somewhere with whomever created the NET formula to ensure the Big 12 gets a boost. The ACC has fared well in direct competition with the Big 12, including a Clemson neutral site victory over the Horned Frogs, so it must be data manipulation that leads to the misguided belief that the Big 12 plays good basketball.

One issue with the argument is that Oglesby is using incomplete data, not only was he using some schedule strength list from three weeks prior for some reason, but you have to look at the full season schedule strength, not just non-conference. Yes, Big 12 teams on average take on fewer elite non-conference games, but that’s because that’s the only opportunity for Big 12 to play against sub-150 ranked teams. Every ACC team gets at least two such games during league play. A fringe ACC Bubble contender like Virginia Tech gets two games against #222 Louisville and two games vs. #171 Notre Dame in league play.

It is true that the NET is an imperfect system, but you need to have some method of understanding how the performance of 362 teams stack up against one another. As flawed as it may be, Oglesby’s biggest complaint is that the NET rewards blowing out terrible non-conference opponents, claiming that the system does not cap the net efficiency value (net points per 100 possessions), indicating in his mind that a five-point win over a Top 25 caliber team is not as valuable as a 50-point win over a sub-300 team. That would be a solid point, if it were true, but of course it isn’t. Sweet bad-faith argument, sure would be a shame if it were wholly false.
According to the NCAA, in describing how NET works:

“The adjusted efficiency is a team’s net efficiency, adjusted for strength of opponent and location (home/away/neutral) across all games played. For example, a given efficiency value (net points per 100 possessions) against stronger opposition rates higher than the same efficiency against lesser opponents and having a certain efficiency on the road rates higher than the same efficiency at home.”

Ultimately, the NET is just a sorting tool, it is not the final deciding factor in NCAA Tournament bid selection or seeding. Oftentimes teams with a solid NET ranking get left out or pushed down as the Selection Committee evaluates the entire resume, not just a single computer metric. To note: all of the major computer metrics similarly adjust for opponent strength. KenPom addresses this non-conference strength of schedule concern specifically and the adjustment is very prominently displayed in the publicly facing numbers on the website. The Bart Torvik T-Rank gives even more detail about how the adjustment is reached, showing the calculation used to reach the adjustment on the FAQ page.

Oglesby doubled down on his position upon receiving some social media push back, again claiming that the only reason the Big 12 is highly-rated is because it “beat the life out of teams ranked in the 300s.” If his hypothesis were true, wouldn’t the same go in the other direction? In that case, the only reason those teams are ranked in the 300s is because they got their brains beat in by Big 12 foes. In this case we should be talking about NET #344 Houston Christian as a Bubble team, because the only reason it is so lowly ranked is because TCU and BYU smashed the Huskies by a combined 84 points. The ACC has played an average of six Q4 games per team; the Big 12 has played an average of seven Q4 games per team. The entire argument is that this single game per team is what has given the Big 12 such an egregious, conspiratorial advantage, delivering the Big 12 an average NET ranking of 46. Meanwhile the ACC sits today with an average NET ranking of 79, good for the fifth-best overall behind the Big Ten (64), SEC (67), Big East (76) in addition to the evil swindlers of the Big 12.

Bottom line, while accurate that the Big 12 plays a slightly lighter non-conference schedule on average compared to some of its peers, you know what else the Big 12 does: WIN. The ACC has more Q4 losses than the Big 12 has Q3 losses. The ACC has seven more Q3 losses than the Big 12 has Q3+Q4 losses combined. The Big 12 has a Q3+Q4 win percentage of 93.2%; the ACC is at just 83.5%. The good news for everyone is that the metrics and arguments and comparisons will mean very little in the end, as the worthy teams will get the chance to prove it on the court in the NCAA Tournament.