For three seasons now, the Big East has had its share of critics. First, that it’s not as good as the American Athletic Conference, the new conference formed from the split of the old Big East – a cry that grew louder when UConn won the national championship in the first year after the split. Next was that they overachieved, and they had a bunch of good schools but no national power. Then there were troubles in the NCAA Tournament, the ultimate measuring stick.
And in 2015-16, they were all obliterated. The conference had great validation come its way, none more so than on the last night of the season.
It’s worth looking at the postseason part of this given what happened. The Big East went from having 11 teams in the field in 2010-11 to nine the next year and having the national champion (Louisville) in its final season with the old membership, as well as having at least one team in the Final Four each year from 2008-09 to its final year, to having just one team (Xavier in 2014-15) advance past the first weekend in the first two years of its new configuration.
This was not your brother’s Big East.
This year, Villanova won for everyone. They won for themselves, of course. They won for Jay Wright, maligned at times for the program’s faltering a bit after reaching the Final Four in 2009 and being a high seed that lost early. They won for the teams that aren’t stacked with McDonald’s All-Americans or future NBA lottery picks. They won for the Big East, a big feather in the conference’s cap when the conference really needed it. And they won in impressive and dramatic fashion, with a great show offensively for six games and a buzzer-beater in the national championship game for an instant classic.
This comes after the conference had a better regular season record in non-conference play, although barely. Conference teams went 96-30 against non-conference opponents before the postseason, compared to 94-30 last season. The postseason only helped: last year, Big East teams won just five postseason games, while Villanova alone won six. The Wildcats got help, as Butler, Providence and Xavier each won a game in the NCAA Tournament and Creighton won two before falling at BYU in the NIT quarterfinals. That’s 11 wins, with Seton Hall being the only postseason entrant not to win a game.
It was indeed quite a season for the conference, and now the off-season with no coaching changes. It’s no longer the Big East in name only. It’s no longer the Big East with the tournament at Madison Square Garden and the resemblance ending there. 2015-16 was a big year for the Big East, and while it might never duplicate the top half of this decade, it’s still pretty good on the hardwood. And now that it’s back to being a basketball-first conference, as is its heritage, it feels like good times are here again for the conference.
The Big East Tournament saw the higher seed win every game until the last two. It started with Georgetown dumping DePaul 70-53 and Marquette holding off St. John’s 101-93 on the first night. The next day, Villanova sent Georgetown home with an 81-67 win, then Providence beat Butler 74-60, Xavier handled Marquette 90-72 and Seton Hall held off Creighton 81-73 in a very good game, easily the best of the day.
In the semifinals, Villanova got a big basket at the first half buzzer and carried that into the second half en route to a 76-68 win over Providence. Seton Hall then scored the first win for a lower seed, beating Xavier 87-83 to reach the title game and at that point look like a lock for the NCAA Tournament, if they weren’t one already.
The Pirates and Wildcats played a great championship game, one to remember. Seton Hall led for much of the game, then lost the lead, but they responded after that and made the plays late to take home their first Big East championship since 1993 with a 69-67 win.
Player of the Year: Kris Dunn, Providence
Rookie of the Year: Henry Ellenson, Marquette
Coach of the Year: Kevin Willard, Seton Hall and Jay Wright, Villanova
Defensive Player of the Year: Kris Dunn, Providence
Most Improved Player: Ben Bentil, Providence
Ben Bentil, So. F, Providence
Trevon Bluiett, So. G, Xavier
Kris Dunn, Jr. G, Providence
Henry Ellenson, Fr. C, Marquette
Josh Hart, Jr. G, Villanova
Isaiah Whitehead, So. G, Seton Hall
- Villanova won the program’s second national championship and did so with a great run at the offensive end.
- Big East teams won four in-season tournaments, as Villanova won the NIT Season Tip-Off, Marquette won the Legends Classic, Creighton won the Men Who Speak Up Event and Xavier won the AdvoCare Invitational.
- Only the Big 12 had a better non-conference winning percentage than the Big East.
- Providence guard Kris Dunn won Player of the Year for a second straight season and also won Defensive Player of the Year, making him the only guard in the conference’s storied history to win both in the same season.
- Providence forward Ben Bentil went from being a complementary player to leading the conference in scoring.
- Marquette freshman Henry Ellenson was third in scoring and led the conference in rebounding.
What we expected, and it happened: St. John’s had a long and challenging first year under Chris Mullin. The Red Storm won just one game, and while they did beat Syracuse in non-conference, it was the exception that proved the rule. There’s nowhere to go but up, and that was to be expected with their depleted roster.
What we expected, and it didn’t happen: Seton Hall’s 2014-15 season did not end well at all, and there was not much positive energy around the program. Despite their talent, including with the coach, expectations were something of a mixed bag for this team. They made a leap into third place, two games ahead of the teams that tied for fourth, and then won the tournament.
What we didn’t expect, and it happened: Providence looked like they didn’t miss a beat despite big questions surrounding the supporting cast around Kris Dunn. Ben Bentil’s emergence was a big reason the Friars were terrific in non-conference and then had a good Big East run, though a slump kept them from finishing higher.
Team(s) on the rise: Xavier. The Musketeers had some tough luck in the second round buzzer-beating loss, but they had a great season and look ready to be among the signature programs of the conference along with Villanova.
Team(s) on the decline: Georgetown. The Hoyas’ Final Four appearance now feels like centuries ago. They haven’t been the same since Otto Porter left town.
2016-17 Big East Outlook
At first glance, Villanova and Xavier should still lead the way next season. The Wildcats lose plenty, but will also return plenty since no players left early for the NBA Draft, and Jay Wright has the culture just the way he wants it. Xavier had a great season cut short by a tough buzzer-beating loss in the NCAA Tournament, but will return many key pieces.
After that are the questions, and there are many. Providence loses a great deal with both Dunn and Bentil gone to the NBA Draft, while Seton Hall also got bitten by the NBA Draft bug but returns four starters, and Butler loses a couple of key pieces. Creighton might be ready to move up some in the standings, while Marquette loses a big piece with Ellenson’s departure for the NBA Draft. Georgetown is trending downward, while DePaul and St. John’s will continue rebuilding with second-year head coaches.
If this past season is any guide, though, Big East fans can be optimistic. The conference has faced questions before since the split, but 2015-16 was just the season they thought it could be. And with coaching stability for the time being, there is even more for fans to be optimistic about.