Forgrave: Big East builds strength through its depth

Just how strong is the new Big East?

It’s a question that’s intrigued me since the new college basketball season tipped off. Going into the year, I believed eight of the Big East’s 10 teams had a legit shot of playing in the NCAA tournament and that the bottom two, Seton Hall and DePaul, were improving. This felt like a deep league, if not a league with a marquee team. But the conventional wisdom as nonconference play wound down and Big East play began on New Year’s Eve was that the new conference had fallen short of expectations, especially with Big East powers like Marquette and Georgetown struggling.

I posed a variation of my question – how good is this league, and how do you see the Big East doing in the NCAA tournament? – to a handful of Big East coaches last week as we neared the midpoint of conference play.

While each coach gave the standard "it’s too early to make projections" answer, the consensus seemed to be that the Big East ought to have at least four and perhaps five teams involved in March Madness.

What makes this conference stand out isn’t a single strong team at the top but the relative strength of all 10 teams.

"It’s going to take a couple of years to really figure this out," Villanova coach Jay Wright said. "Right now, we’re all just guessing. I think we’re going to be a real unique entity and a real problem for the (NCAA tournament selection) committee because of the overall strength top to bottom. … You look at our RPI, the last team is Seton Hall, and Seton Hall could beat anybody in the country, including Arizona or Kansas or Wisconsin, anybody. If that’s the lowest RPI team, that’s going to be a really unique issue for the committee.

"And going forward, that’s what this league is going to be. This league can really be a powerful entity in college basketball and be a powerful entity in the tournament."

He’s right. The Big East obviously isn’t what it was last season before the split, when the conference sent eight teams to the tournament and two teams to the Final Four. But in terms of top-to-bottom strength, it’s still one of the nation’s deepest, most parity-filled leagues, featuring styles as different as Creighton’s Euro-inspired, 3-point-centered game and St. John’s up-and-down approach, Villanova’s smothering, trapping defense and Butler’s methodical, fundamental play.

I wrote last month I thought six Big East teams would make the tournament. That was an example of irrational exuberance on my part.

Part of it was that I was having (and still am having) a very difficult time imagining an NCAA tournament that includes neither Georgetown nor Marquette, which is becoming a more distinct possibility with each passing day. Since 2001, there have been exactly two NCAA tournaments in which neither the Hoyas nor the Golden Eagles were in the field. Part of me still expects that Buzz Williams or John Thompson III – even without adequate point guard play in Milwaukee, even without Josh Smith in D.C. – will still find a way.

"Teams like Marquette and Georgetown are going to get well and play well down the stretch – they always do," DePaul coach Oliver Purnell said. "I love what Providence is doing. They seem to be getting confidence as a group. And Seton Hall now has all of their starters at same time (after being decimated by injuries). There are three or four teams in our league that are really going to jell down the stretch."

The other part of my irrational exuberance is that I still have a love affair with St. John’s. I spent a week with the team over the summer as it barnstormed Europe, so I got to know some of their great personalities. (There’s no one in college hoops I root for more than D’Angelo Harrison, no better on-court demeanor that Jakarr Sampson, no one more fun to watch on defense than Chris Obekpa.) I also saw up close what I still believe to be one of the more talented teams in the country.

One Big East coach told me St. John’s is just a lot of great pieces that don’t fit together. If the Red Storm does figure out a way to fit together, however, I still believe they’re capable of going on a tear through the rest of Big East play or securing an NCAA bid by unexpectedly winning the Big East tournament in March. They’ve won three in a row after starting Big East play 0-5.

Six teams for the Big East was irrational; the only league that’ll get that high of a percentage of its schools in will be the Big 12. And that’s the only conference I think has more parity top to bottom than the Big East.

I look at KenPom.com’s overall team rankings, which I consider a more accurate tool than RPI, and see the Big East with a higher percentage of teams in the top 68 than every conference except the Big 12. I’m not arguing that the Big East is a better conference than, say, the Big Ten, which has five teams in KenPom.com’s top 18, but just that it is surely one of the country’s deepest conferences. It’s currently fourth in conference RPI.

"So much can change between now and March," said Creighton coach Greg McDermott, whose team is in first place with only one Big East loss. "Basketball season is a long season. There’s ebbs and flows to every season. There are periods of time when teams are playing great, then because of injuries or illnesses or whatever reasons, teams get out of sync for a while.

"I believe our league strong enough to warrant four or five teams in the NCAA tournament when it all shakes out. I just really hope we don’t beat each other’s brains in before Selection Sunday."

He’s right. The only thing that’ll keep the Big East from having as many teams in the tournament as it would like is if the lesser teams in the league show their strength. Which, when you think about it, is a pretty good problem to have.