by Kevin Pulsifer
Well, it looks like Villanova learned how to swim.
Last fall, in the midst of the horrific conference realignment, I wrote an article about how all the other important big-name basketball schools either upgraded their football program—a la Rutgers—or devoted themselves to a strong basketball conference—a la Syracuse—to escape the horror that was the drowning Big East Conference.
Villanova was left to renovate Main Campus, and while it looked nice for sure, I couldn’t help but wonder where the future of Villanova athletics was headed. Everyone else had grabbed a life vest.
As it turns out, college realignment has had only a minor effect on the school’s outlook as it pertains to success.
Sure, Syracuse is ranked No. 1 in the nation, and UConn, Pitt and Louisville are in contention for Sweet 16s. But the revamped Big East has its own merit as well.
As of Tuesday, Joe Lunardi’s Bracketology has six Big East teams in the tournament: Villanova, Creighton, Xavier, Providence, Georgetown and St. John’s.
A 70 percent success rate for the tournament (if Marquette is able to hop in on the strength of a late-season push) would be unheard of for a single conference in March Madness.
The old Big East had 11 of its 16 members reach the NCAA Tournament in 2011, surpassing their own record. But that’s only 68 percent.
For a 10-team league, they would need eight teams to reach the tourney. A 12-team league would need nine. Neither of those have happened before, so it would set or tie an NCAA record if the current conference could get to seven bids.
Villanova and Creighton are the obvious names. ’Nova has been ranked in the top 15 ever since knocking off Kansas and Iowa over Thanksgiving break, and the Bluejays just demolished the Wildcats in successive meetings.
Creighton may struggle in Madison Square Garden during the Big East Tournament, but I consider it a lock for a top-3 seed at this point.
Xavier and Providence represent two teams that started out surprisingly in the conference. Both have experienced minor slumps lately, but barring a collapse, the Musketeers will be dancing in March. The Friars can’t afford any more bad losses, but are expected to make the field of 68.
Meanwhile, Georgetown has had a significant off-year, especially after pollsters predicted the Hoyas would be in the elite class of the conference. Their recent winning streak has me feeling like they’ll survive and advance.
But here’s where things get interesting. Marquette has alternated wins and losses for most of the conference season, and posted no major victories in out-of-conference play. But Buzz Williams is an amazing coach, and his team sure knows how to gut out wins when they need it most.
Meanwhile, St. John’s has been streaking lately. Winners of eight of their last nine—with the lone loss being a five-point game in Omaha against Creighton—it is an astoundingly talented team that has finally started to play together.
You’re hearing it here first: if the Red Storm makes the NCAA Tournament, I’m calling it a surprise Sweet 16 team.
Of course, St. John’s may not make the tournament. After all, there are 350 other teams vying for 68 spots.
But it stands to reason that the fourth-ranked conference in terms of RPI strength has held its own amidst swirling rumors of despair for the former “Catholic 7.”
When half of the old Big East jumped ship for greener pastures, and it was decided that Houston, Memphis, UCF and SMU were to join the crowd, the days of Big East dominance appeared to be over.
So the remaining teams—excluding UConn, South Florida and Cincinnati—formed an alliance where college basketball remained the top priority. They then brought in teams with similar mindsets, and in looking back, they have done a wonderful job.
Butler is clearly struggling without its previous Head Coach, Brad Stevens, who left for the Celtics after last year. But I have faith that it will rebound.
Meanwhile, Creighton and Xavier have been every bit as advertised, and then some. This is a stronger conference, top-to-bottom, than I would have expected two years ago. And there’s a chance it can get better.
Ten-team conferences allow for an ideal scheduling scenario where each team plays every other team twice, home and away.
But for the sake of the conference, I hope there is some expansion within the next few years.
Saint Louis and VCU are two teams that fit perfectly into the tough-sledding, battle-oriented Big East where any team except DePaul can win on any given night.
They also match up well in terms of location, something that Gonzaga and BYU could never do.
With 12 or 14 teams, there now creates a possibility of a two-division Big East Conference. I don’t have the names figured out yet—the Big East-East and the Big East-West don’t exactly flow—but it would allow for scheduling simplicity and solve travel problems.
Providence, St. John’s, Villanova, Seton Hall, Georgetown and VCU would be along the coast, while Butler, DePaul, Creighton, Xavier, Marquette and Saint Louis would be out in the Midwest.
If we wanted to jump to 14, perhaps UMass and Dayton would join. They fit in well with locations, too. Maybe even UConn might want to return to its native homeland.
With this band of teams battling it out week after week, it’s clear that this conference will be a more cohesive and basketball-oriented than the old Big East ever was.
I got it! The Big East-Coastal Division, and the Big East-Heartland Division. Or something like that.
Whatever does end up happening, it sure looks like the Catholic 7’s prayers were answered.