The Times West Virginian

March 23, 2011

HERTZEL COLUMN: Conference affiliation means little

By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian

MORGANTOWN — If this is an “I-told-you-so” column, so be it, considering that I have spent a lifetime betting on slow hoses and drawing to inside straights.

With that in mind, it would seem to be only fair to crow when I finally got one right, so sit back and listen in to my “cock-a-doodle-do.”

It was a couple of weeks back, during the Big East Tournament, long before they ever drew the field of 196 or whatever it is for the NCAAs, that we expressed a degree of dissatisfaction with the conventional wisdom that the Big East would get – and deserved to get – 11 teams in the tournament.

“What troubles us today is that the scuttlebutt surrounding this year’s Big East Championships is that 10 teams for certain and most likely 11 of the 18 Big East teams will be selected to take part in the NCAA Championships,” we wrote.

Then, after some talk about the subject we offered this:

“ … should a team that was unable to finish anywhere near the first half of its conference, a team that has had what it has to consider to be a disappointing season, get in the NCAAs when say the second- or third-place finisher in the MAC or the Sun Belt has no shot with a 22-victory season of which it is proud?”

Certainly, nothing has transpired to date to alter my opinion on this, save for the fact that it landed me squarely alongside Charles Barkley, who waited until the losses for the Big East started mounting before receiving a storm of publicity for calling out the “Big Least,” as he dubbed it, while appearing live with Louisville’s coach Rick Pitino on WTBS.

It is my experience that the only thing more certain to get you into trouble than agreeing with Charles Barkley on any subject is to wind up as his partner on the golf course, a fact of life that even Hank Haney, the world’s greatest teaching professional, found exasperating to fix.

Yet, there we were, strange bedfellows indeed, Barkley and Hertzel.

This is the way Barkley put it during the TV show with Pitino, whose Louisville Cardinals had cooperated with Sir Charles’ theory by falling down the first time it hit the floor in the tournament:

“The Big Least as I call it, or the Small East,” Barkley said. “(UConn) finished at the bottom of their conference, then they win five games in five days. I think the Big East is the most overrated conference in the world.

“People were complaining about VCU, Georgia and [other] teams getting in, [but] the Big East should have never gotten 11 teams in.”

At that point, Pitino interrupted. See, to get a word in with Barkley, it is necessary to interrupt. Pitino’s point was that without giving the Big East its 11 teams, Marquette would not be one of only two teams to survive the first weekend.

That is right, this super conference that was granted an unprecedented 11 teams in the NCAAs and that once landed three of its teams in the Final Four, had nine teams eliminated during the first weekend of play.

Nine! Names like Syracuse and Louisville and Villanova and Georgetown and, yes, West Virginia. Then Pitt, a No. 1 regional seed, went face up.

“Listen,” Barkley said to Pitino. “(Marquette) beat Syracuse. That tells you Syracuse wasn’t that good. That’s my point ... and after Notre Dame loses (Sunday night), it’s just going to be another feather in my cap.”

The trap was set now, and Pitino bit like a hungry largemouth bass snapping at a dragonfly on a hook.

“Well I’m gonna tell you, Notre Dame will not lose tonight,” Pitino said. “I’m on record with that one with you. They will not lose tonight.”

Final score: Florida State 71, Notre Dame 57.

See, here’s the deal, and sooner or later someone is going to realize it:

There is not much of a difference between the Big East and the Big Ten and the Colonial Athletic Association and Conference-USA and on and on and on.

We, in the media, run these ridiculous propaganda programs that make you think you are watching big time basketball, but every conference has its Kemba Walker, it’s Jim Calhoun. You think a Big East team wouldn’t grab up Butler’s Brad Stevens if he were available? You think St. John’s wouldn’t recruit Jimmer Fredette?

San Diego State can play basketball, just as BYU can. And if the 11th team in the Big East is only as good as the third team in the Colonial Athletic Association, a team from Virginia Commonwealth, why should it get a bid to add to the Big East’s richest at the expense of a mid-major that obviously deserved to avoid playing a play-in game.

You can talk all you want about RPI and Jeff Sagarin and Ken Pomeroy but the truth is that really isn’t an imbalance in talent in college basketball and that once you get past the giants of the industry – Kentucky, Duke, Ohio State, North Carolina, Kansas and few more – it’s all pretty much the same and on a given night any one of the top 50 or so teams can beat anyone else … regardless of conference affiliation.

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