Villanova and the Big East's other top teams have proved themselves in the regular season, and now they must do it in the NCAA tournament.
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The Big East is dead.
A year ago, the Big East 2.0 secured only four NCAA tournament bids, and none of those teams made it out of the first weekend. Not good, especially for those who still lived in the past. Villanova, the conference’s regular-season champ, lost to eventual national champion UConn, and Creighton, which had the consensus national player of the year in Doug McDermott, got upset by Baylor.
The haters who were still comparing the league to some idealized, no-longer-existent vision of the old Big East saw all this as proof positive the new conference was only a shell of its former self.
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And this season?
This season, no other conference did as surprisingly well in nonconference play, and that streak in November and December has vaulted the Big East to one of the top conferences in the nation.
Look: All this can change in a couple weeks. It’s part of the unfairness of college hoops, where a team’s entire season of success can be wiped out with one early exit in March. I get that.
But as it stands, the Big East is looking at six NCAA tournament bids, according to FOXSports.com bracket expert Stewart Mandel. That’s third in the nation behind the Big Ten and Big 12’s seven bids apiece. Getting 60 percent of its 10 teams in the Big Dance would be a higher percentage than every conference’s except the Big 12.
And the advanced metrics show that the Big East is the nation’s second-best conference, behind the extraordinarily deep Big 12. The Big East ranks second in conference RPI behind the Big 12. It’s the only conference in the country with six teams ranked 36th or higher in RPI.
RPI not your bag? I understand; I’m not a big fan of the metric, either, even though it’s the top metric used by the NCAA tournament selection committee. But look at KenPom.com, which also has the Big East as the nation’s second-ranked conference. Six teams are in the top 37 on that site, led by fifth-ranked Villanova. I can see how someone would put the ACC ahead of the Big East, even though I would disagree; the ACC has two certain one-seeds in Duke and Virginia that accentuate that top-heavy conference. But there isn’t a logical argument that puts the Big East any lower than the nation’s third-best conference.
Yet you still hear those haters, saying dumb things about how this new conference hasn’t proven itself yet. From what I can tell, that’s all just based on one underperforming March.
Depending how the conference tournaments shake out, season No. 2 of Big East 2.0 likely will feature a one-seed in Villanova, plus a handful of more teams – Georgetown, St. John’s, Providence, Butler and Xavier – in the five- to nine-seed range. With the nation’s most underrated point guard in Ryan Arcidiacono and a share-the-ball mentality that has an astounding six players averaging 9.3 or more points, Villanova should be considered a serious Final Four threat.
And depending how the matchups work out, I could easily see four more Big East teams – a tough, well-rounded Georgetown that’s had one of the nation’s toughest schedules, a streaking St. John’s that’s won seven of nine, a Providence with one of the nation’s best point guards in Kris Dunn, and a defense-focused Butler that has been one of the nation’s most surprising teams – make the Sweet 16.
“Top to bottom, our league was really, really good this year,” Creighton head coach Greg McDermott said this week.
McDermott should know. His team – the lowest seed in this week’s Big East tournament – went 4-14 in the Big East, yet even that last-place record was a bit misleading, as six of those losses were in one-possession games. The conference’s last-place team was six possessions away from being 10-8 in the conference and perhaps being a tournament team.
“I think (the Big East) has been viewed well nationally, and it probably surprised a lot of people how well our league’s been in such a short time together,” McDermott said.
But here’s the rub with March: If for the second straight year Big East teams aren’t playing on the second weekend, the hating is going to get louder. An entire season’s worth of impressive basketball can be wiped out in a few days. The people who continue to compare this Big East to the Big East of Louisville and Syracuse and UConn – to something that no longer exists – will grouse, forgetting that the better comparison is with the original seven-team Big East of 1979, at a time when basketball was the focus and the siren song of football had yet to make the original Big East lose its way.
It’s the curse of the Judgment of Small Sample Sizes.
Of course, if the Big East does what I expect – send Villanova deep into the tournament, and a handful more teams into the second weekend – then the dumb arguments about the Big East’s struggles will finally go away.
Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @reidforgrave or email him at ReidForgrave@gmail.com.