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Big East looks the same in some ways and quite different in other ways

November 13, 2015 Columns, Your Phil of Hoops No Comments

The Big East still has its name and logo. It has several brand-name programs from its history, like Georgetown, Providence, St. John’s and Villanova. It has a Thompson coaching at Georgetown, and a legend from St. John’s is now coaching them. The tournament is still at Madison Square Garden, as if it could ever be anywhere else.

It sounds like little has changed. But something is missing as the third year of the current alignment tips off.

Coaches naturally talk up the conference and its strength, but it doesn’t feel like a powerhouse conference like the Big East of old, even before the old Conference USA teams entered following the ACC’s raid of the conference over a decade ago. There isn’t a big rivalry in the conference, as opposed to ones that used to exist. Add in the presence of a number of teams from the Midwest that joined later, and the feeling persists aside from the quality.

The closest thing the conference has to a national power since the change has been Villanova. After that, however, there has been a bit of a drop-off, especially in terms of consistency. Georgetown hasn’t been the same since the Otto Porter days, going back to the last years of the old Big East. Creighton had a big year in their first season, but dropped off markedly last year. Providence won the tournament two years ago and reached the NCAA Tournament again last year, but the Friars will be challenged to get back this year. St. John’s has had talent, but it hasn’t translated on the bottom line.

There is still quality, but the conference’s identity is perhaps a bit undefined right now. Villanova appears to be carrying the flag early on, but who will carry the flag with them? You have to think the conference won’t be a one-trick pony given the programs that are in it, but it’s not clear who that will be.

It could be Georgetown or St. John’s, given their history. It could be Providence with the work Ed Cooley and his staff has done, including back-to-back NCAA Tournament trips for the first time in a quarter of a century. It could be Marquette, which has had its fair share of success and should certainly be able to recruit enough talent with second-year head coach Steve Wojciechowski. It could be newcomers Butler, Creighton or Xavier, who all have a history of success, though out of those three only Xavier has made the NCAA Tournament in both of their first two seasons in the new conference.

Last year, the conference was thought to be a bit of an also-ran among the elite conferences, but started out like a house on fire. Big East teams won 39 of their first 41 games before coming back to earth a bit. They still finished 94-30 in non-conference play, posting a .500 or better record against teams from all Power 5 conferences except the Pac-12 (they went 2-4 against those schools). Villanova (Legends Classic) and Seton Hall (Paradise Jam) won early season tournaments, while Providence went 2-0 in the Hall of Fame Tip-Off (matchups at Mohegan Sun Arena were pre-set).

This year? After Villanova, it’s a tough call. Providence has a reigning co-Player of the Year back in Kris Dunn, but how much help he will have is an open question. The Friars won’t be picked to seriously challenge the Wildcats by many prognosticators. Xavier brings back a lot of good talent, as do Georgetown and Butler, so they should be in the running. Creighton and Marquette will have more talent, while St. John’s has to adjust to a new coach and a very new roster. DePaul also has a new head coach as Dave Leitao begins his second stint in Chicago, and at the very least the Blue Demons should be a tougher out. Seton Hall will have talent, but they had talent last season, too, and after a nice start, they didn’t finish well, so what that talent will translate into on the bottom line is hard to figure.

The Big East isn’t talked about much as a conference that lost out in the recent conference realignment craze, but make no mistake: it did. It didn’t take the kind of hits the CAA or Conference USA did, but it hasn’t made out like the Atlantic 10, one of the clear winners in all of this (although, interestingly, since the split, the Big East has basically owned the Atlantic 10 in head-to-head matchups). The Big East in its old form may not have been very sustainable given the diversity of schools, but it did once place 11 of 16 teams in the NCAA Tournament.

A few decades ago, you could easily figure who would carry the flag for the conference. Georgetown and St. John’s were givens, and Providence was right there along with Villanova, while DePaul wasn’t in the conference back then but was a consistent NCAA Tournament team. Right now, Villanova appears to be the consistent leader, with others still trying to establish themselves right behind them. It’s one of several ways in which the conference feels a bit different now entering its third year in the current form.

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