Gruman: Big East making rough first impression

The Big East had hoped to make a splash in its new-look first season. But Andrew Gruman notes that the Marquette Golden Eagles aren't the only team that is struggling as the conference looks likely to only get two teams into the NCAA tournament.

Marquette head coach Buzz Williams on the NCAA Tournament prospects in the new conference: "We don't have the data on what it takes to be an at-large tournament team in the new Big East. How is it going to play out when we come to Selection Sunday? We don't know yet, but it's why we played a tough non-conference schedule."

Seth Wenig / Associated Press

This was not the first impression the Big East wanted to make. With just over six weeks until Selection Sunday, the new-look league has just two teams feeling good about seeing their name come up on the screen.

Losing programs like Syracuse, Louisville, Pittsburgh, Connecticut, Notre Dame and Cincinnati was unquestionably going to hurt, but expectations for the 10-team, basketball focused league were still somewhat high.

Marquette, Georgetown and Villanova were holdovers carrying quite a bit of tradition and more importantly quite a few recent NCAA tournament appearances. Butler, Creighton and Xavier were coming in as basketball schools more than ready to make an impact in a major conference.

It's not too difficult to see why the league as a whole has struggled in comparison to other major conferences. The Golden Eagles were picked to win the Big East and are likely going to miss the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2004-05.

Marquette was picked to win the conference because of what the program has done lately more than on its current roster. Vander Blue forgoing his senior season left the Golden Eagles unprepared in the backcourt and without a player capable of being a playmaker. 

Georgetown has made the tournament in seven of the last eight years but needs a big late-season run to avoid the NIT, despite picking up a big win against Michigan State last Saturday. Injuries and suspension have just made the Hoyas an average team.

It hasn't been all doom and gloom for the Big East, as Villanova has surprised many to currently sit at 20-2 and Creighton looks like a team capable of making a run in the tournament. Though not likely, the Big East  could be a two-bid league. That would be a big early blow to the conference.

Xavier and Providence are bubble teams at the moment, but both have hurt their respective cases in the last two weeks. The Friars had won five in a row before falling to Marquette and St. John's within a five-day span, while the Musketeers have dropped three straight to fall to 16-7.

St. John's has as much talent as anyone in the league and finally seems to be hitting its stride. But at 14-9 and 4-6, the Red Storm might need to win eight of nine to avoid having to win the Big East tournament.

What the new Big East doesn't present teams like Marquette is an opportunity to play a tournament-bound or a highly-ranked team on a regular basis like the old league did. The Golden Eagles had numerous chances to jump back into the tournament mix over the last few years because they'd have a ranked team to face on a Tuesday and another just a few days later.

Five of the teams that left the Big East after last season are currently ranked. Put Marquette at 13-10 and 5-5 in the Big East in last year's league and there's no doubt the Golden Eagles would still have a chance. Now you have teams who are good enough to beat top level competition, see Georgetown against Michigan State, but not squads you beat and leave an impression.

Butler and Seton Hall are probably not going to the tournament, but they aren't easy wins either. DePaul wasn't a pushover when it had all of its players able to play. The bottom of the Big East doesn't present guaranteed wins, but that doesn't do much when it comes to creating a solid tournament resume.

"I would probably say we have to go 7-2 down the stretch," Marquette coach Buzz Williams said after Saturday's loss to St. John's. "That would put us at 11 conference wins, so we'd be 11-7. That might get you in. It'd be hard. Might need to win a game (at the Big East tournament). It's hard to say.

"We don't have the data on what it takes to be an at-large tournament team in the new Big East. How is it going to play out when we come to Selection Sunday? We don't know yet, but it's why we played a tough non-conference schedule."

The Golden Eagles beat Butler since Williams made those comments, so now 6-2 would be the mark he feels they need. Will that be good enough? And that's not even taking into consideration if Marquette is even good enough to beat Creighton at home and Villanova on the road. The Golden Eagles need both of those games.

It's hard to imagine 11-7 in a major conference not making the NCAA tournament, but Marquette's inability to win more than one of its big non-conference games is probably going to be the nail in the coffin.

What this year has proven is how important Marquette's non-conference schedule is going to be in the future. The Big East is only going to get better as a few teams overcome down years, but big wins are simply harder to come by without the incredible depth and strength of the old league.

The Golden Eagles are not only going to have to schedule fairly tough, but they are going to have to pick up a few resume-building, non-conference wins.

Unlike personal relationships or in the business world, first impressions are make or break when it comes to basketball conferences. The Big East is going to be fine going forward and Marquette is still in a good spot. This is not a mid-major by any stretch of the imagination.

But there are challenges to overcome and differences from what the Golden Eagles have been used to, and they are learning that first hand this year.

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