Big East flexing its muscle once again

Keno Davis arrived in the Big East at perhaps the most

inopportune time.

In his first season in charge of Providence last year, seven

league teams reached the NCAA tournament, including a record three

No. 1 seeds. Five advanced to the round of 16, four made the

regional finals and half of the Final Four was made up of familiar

opponents.

Davis thinks the Big East is tougher this season.

“A lot of the coaches were talking at the beginning of the

season, saying we’re going to be a really good conference because

the bottom-half teams have all improved – so we might not have

three No. 1 seeds or be as top heavy,” the second-year Providence

coach said. “Well now, maybe we are as top heavy as we were last

year.”

Davis can offer an unenviable perspective on it, too. His team

is midway through a stretch of four straight games against teams

ranked in the top 10.

“I don’t see there’s any reason why the teams in the Big East

can’t have similar success in the postseason, not just because of

the depth of the conference, but because of how good Villanova is,

how good Syracuse is, how good Georgetown is,” Davis said.

The sheer brutality of the Big East was on display last

week.

In the friendly confines of the Carrier Dome on Sunday, then-No.

2 Syracuse was dumped by unranked Louisville. A few hundred miles

to the south, struggling Rutgers stunned then-No. 7 Georgetown.

West Virginia lost to Villanova and Pittsburgh, both ranked in the

Top 25, to tumble from No. 5 to No. 8 in the poll released

Monday.

Of the four Big East teams that held down the top seven spots in

the ranking last week, ‘Nova was the only team to escape

unscathed.

“I think most years there’s six, seven, eight teams that are

pretty much separated, but this year you could go down to 12,”

said Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim, whose 34 seasons at the school

make him something of an expert.

“Definitely more good teams than I think there ever have

been.”

The strength of the Big East has often been rooted in a handful

of programs, going back 25 years to when it became the first

conference to get three teams in the Final Four. Rival leagues like

the Atlantic Coast Conference and Big 12 supposedly offered more

depth.

That’s not the case this year.

Every team but Rutgers and DePaul have at least four conference

wins. In the case of UConn, once ranked in the top 10, that’s all

it had entering Monday night’s game against Villanova.

Then there are the programs that have traditionally occupied the

cellar. South Florida rattled off four straight Big East wins

earlier this season, among them Pittsburgh and at Georgetown. Seton

Hall is in the NCAA tournament discussion with the softest part of

its schedule still on the horizon.

Soft being a relative term.

“South Florida, I think, has not got the notoriety they’re

deserving of,” said Buzz Williams, whose Marquette team is dealing

with the same injustice. “They have great athletes, they’re all

strong. Dominique Jones, everybody is talking about.”

The junior guard is averaging 21.6 points per game for the

Bulls, just behind Seton Hall’s Jeremy Hazel and Notre Dame’s Luke

Harangody. Hazel’s teammate Herb Pope is the league’s leading

rebounder, a pretty good indication that talent is more evenly

distributed than ever before.

Last year, most of the best players were stacked on the best

teams: Marquette’s Jerel McNeal and Wesley Matthews, Pittsburgh’s

Sam Young and DeJuan Blair, Syracuse’s Jonny Flynn and Paul Harris,

UConn’s A.J. Price and Hasheem Thabeet.

All of them graduated or left early for the riches of the NBA,

one of the reasons that many pundits thought – incorrectly, it

turns out – the Big East would regress this season.

“I think top to bottom, it is,” Villanova coach Jay Wright

said, when asked whether the league is better this year than last.

“I think in terms of overall depth and knowing you can get beat

any night by anybody, I do.”

Connecticut is a pretty good case study in how teams can get

caught in the spin cycle and have their season completely washed

out. The Huskies won two of their first three games in the Big

East, then had to face Georgetown and Pittsburgh four days apart –

losing both.

They later lost four of five while coach Jim Calhoun was on a

doctor-ordered medical leave of absence, and things didn’t get

better in his first game back over the weekend. Cincinnati blitzed

UConn 60-48 in Hartford to basically eliminate one of the league

favorites from making the NCAA tournament.

“There’s going to be some really good teams in this conference

being left out of the tournament,” Davis said. “Some teams that

could go really far in the tournament. I think that’s why they look

at possibly expanding because there’s always teams that are left

out that go to the NIT that could go far in the NCAA. Maybe not win

it, but win a few games.”

AP Basketball Writer Dan Gelston in Philadelphia contributed to

this report.