The Big East is the most impressive past of any conference in college basketball. A rich history, a tradition of winning, and an expectation for that to continue: These are things every sports fan would love in the teams they root for. Just ask any Chicago Cubs fan what he’d give to have the sort of winning tradition that comes with the Big East Conference.
But tradition and history can also be burdens. And with these burdens can come unfair expectations.
Such was the case last season in the rebooted version of the Big East. So much talk was about what the Big East wasn’t instead of what the Big East was. It was a season in which any national discussion of the Big East seemed focused on the teams that headed elsewhere – the Syracuses, the UConns, the Louisvilles, the Pitts – instead of the seven teams that remained and the three that were added.
This was unfair from the start, and it led to an “underperformance of the Big East” story line that took hold early but wasn’t necessarily based in truth. Remember, the Big East still sent four of its 10 teams to the NCAA tournament, and two more – Georgetown and St. John’s – were on the bubble until the last possible moment. By most measures, that’s a pretty darn good inaugural season.
Problem was, the Big East had to live up to its own enormous shadow.
“The league has made a conscious effort to blend in tradition but also make sure we create our own identity,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said Wednesday at Big East media day at Madison Square Garden. “If you want, you could label it as a burden. But I’d rather have it that way, with all the history, than starting something new.”
As the glory days of the old Big East recede one more season into the past, the new Big East – formed in the same basketball-centric image of the old Big East in an age where football drives the bus – should be able to stand even better on its own without carrying those burdens of the past. Two of the four Big East teams that made the NCAA tournament last season – Creighton and Xavier — were new additions. When Marquette’s last coach fled largely because of the league’s reset, its new coach, made the biggest offseason splash in recruiting, nabbing consensus top-10 recruit Henry Ellenson over bluebloods like Kentucky and Michigan State.
Now, we should be able to compare the new Big East to itself.
It’ll bring one team at the top – then a glut of unknowns. Every opposing coach picked Villanova to finish first in the preseason poll. It makes sense as the Wildcats return every major contributor except James Bell from a 29-win team that was a two-seed in the NCAA tournament.
After that? It’s a toss-up. I count five other teams that have a shot at making the NCAA tournament: Georgetown, St. John’s, Xavier, Providence and Seton Hall. If you want to make a case for Butler, which returns stud scorer Kellen Dunham and has Roosevelt Jones returning from injury, I won’t argue much; the Butler Way always does more with less.
Ask me who is most likely to finish second and I say Xavier, which was picked fourth in the coaches’ poll. St. John’s is the high-ceiling/low-floor bunch that, if the group jells and everything goes right, could upset Villanova and win the conference.
Xavier has the league’s deepest recruiting class, led by elite scoring wing Trevon Bluiett. That five-man class joins a group that includes two low-post presences in skilled senior Matt Stainbrook and ultra-athletic sophomore Jalen Reynolds; they ought to form the conference’s top frontcourt. Dee Davis is a senior point guard who’ll be less of a scorer and more of a game manager than Semaj Christon was last season. And don’t forget about Indiana transfer Remy Abell, an excellent perimeter defender.
The chemistry for this team will be aided by a summer basketball trip to Brazil that helped inaugurate the newcomers into the system.
“It was perfect timing,” Xavier coach Chris Mack told me. “It can only help team camaraderie. We have a much deeper team this year. We’re hungrier. I’m feeling better about this team than any team since I got here.”
St. John’s has the conference’s most talented group, led by a ridiculous backcourt of senior D’Angelo Harrison and sophomore Rysheed Jordan. Like last season, it’s just a matter of St. John’s meshing as a group – and a shorter rotation and more experienced players ought to help that.
Seton Hall is the conference’s biggest question mark. With a stellar six-man recruiting class – all kids from New York and New Jersey, led by Big East preseason rookie of the year Isaiah Whitehead – it won’t shock me if Kevin Willard has this group rolling by March. Georgetown will be much improved from the squad that missed the NCAA tournament last season; an awesome four-man recruiting class will join big man Josh Smith and Big East preseason player of the year D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera. The Hoyas will be more versatile than a season ago, but they will rely on a lot of freshmen who’ll be thrown out there right away. And despite losing all-everything guard Bryce Cotton to graduation, Providence should make a run at the NCAA tournament – as long as often-injured point guard Kris Dunn is healthy.
But look: This isn’t the Big East of yore. It never will be. We should stop comparing it to the conference of Lou Carnesecca and Rollie Massimino, of Jim Boeheim and Rick Pitino.
“You guys want to consistently point out how different the Big East is, who we are now compared with who we were a few years ago,” Georgetown head coach John Thompson III said Wednesday. “You guys are trying to create a split. But we’re still the Big East.”
The history of the old Big East is awe-inspiring: 33 years of the best basketball conference America has ever seen, with Chris Mullin and Patrick Ewing, Allen Iverson and Carmelo Anthony. Like Jay Wright said, we all should embrace that past.