Against the swank backdrop of New York’s Chelsea Piers, Big East Commissioner Val Ackerman brimmed with confidence last fall as she spoke of making the reconstituted league a force in college basketball and matching, if not surpassing, the heights of last season, when five of the conference’s current teams advanced to the NCAA tournament.
But as conference play gets underway Tuesday, the Big East’s task of re-establishing its clout in college basketball — without former members and perennial powers Syracuse, Connecticut and Louisville — is just beginning.
The early-season play of the Big East, the 10-team, basketball-centric conference of which Georgetown was a principal architect, has been undistinguished. Of the bunch — previous Big East members Georgetown, DePaul, Marquette, Providence, St John’s, Seton Hall and Villanova, plus newcomers Butler, Creighton and Xavier — only Villanova is nationally ranked at No. 11.
Marquette, which was picked to finish atop the league standings, is a disappointing 8-5. Creighton (10-2), which boasts unanimous Big East preseason player of the year Doug McDermott, slipped from the rankings after a two-week stay. Georgetown (8-3) has one quality win to date, an 84-80 victory over then-No. 10 Virginia Commonwealth on Nov. 24, but also suffered an embarrassing loss to Northeastern three days earlier.
Jerry Palm, who predicts the NCAA tournament field for CBSsports.com, is skeptical about the Big East’s prospects for becoming a force in the sport — at least in its inaugural season. Under Palm’s tabulations, the Big East has only one team (Villanova) among the top 25 in the RPI, a metric used by the NCAA selection committee to pick tournament teams. The league has five teams among the RPI top 50: Xavier (33), Butler (35), St John’s (46) and Georgetown (49).
Through Saturday’s games, Big East programs were 1-12 against teams ranked in the top 25 of the RPI.
“When it comes to what the other nine teams have done, Villanova excluded, I don’t see a national champion contender in this bunch. I don’t even see a Final Four contender,” Palm said. “It’s not a bad league. Nobody has been putrid in this league. Even DePaul, who is clearly the worst, hasn’t been as bad as they have been.”
Nonetheless, Palm says he doesn’t count the Big East among the top four or five leagues in college basketball, predicting it will send “three-ish” teams to the NCAA tournament.
Georgetown Coach John Thompson III said Monday that it was too early to sound any alarms about the Hoyas’ national standing or that of the new Big East.
“There is no need to start lamenting, wondering, worrying,” said Thompson, whose Hoyas open their Big East campaign Tuesday at Verizon Center against DePaul (8-5). “We just have to go win the next game. At the end, if you win enough games, that will take care of itself.”
Other Big East coaches are more bullish.
Said Ed Cooley, coach of the 10-3 Providence Friars, during a conference call last week: “I think there are 10 good teams in this league. At the end of the day, we’ll have as many teams in that tournament as any league in the country.”
DePaul Coach Oliver Purnell rejected a suggestion that the new-look Big East needed to do a sales job to re-introduce itself as a player on the national scene. “People know about these teams and know they’re good come tournament time,” Purnell said. “Their tradition, the things they’ve done in recent history say to me these teams will be very good going down the stretch.”
Formed in 1979 as an alliance of urban campuses known for tough-nosed basketball, the Big East dominated the game in the mid-1980s, with Georgetown winning the NCAA championship in 1984 and Villanova following suit in 1985, when three Big East teams reached the Final Four. But the alliance grew strained after the conference added schools that played big-time college football. And after a 15-month span saw six members bolt for higher-profile football conferences — Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Louisville, among them — those left behind split into two leagues following last season.
The “new” Big East has men’s basketball at its core, as before. But no amount of tradition, regardless of how illustrious, guarantees a spot in the NCAA tournament.
“The Big East is a great name, but it’s not the same,” ESPN analyst Jay Bilas said Monday in a telephone interview. “Most people look at the Big East as being dead; it doesn’t exist anymore. This conference has to forge its identity. It has got a couple of marquee teams — Villanova and Georgetown — and everybody else is fighting for recognition.”
Given the home-and-home schedule, in which each Big East team plays the other nine twice each season, the overall strength of the conference matters a great deal. Without high-profile victories, it’s difficult for a team to compile a regular season resume that will stand out to the tournament selection committee in March.
Georgetown addressed that challenge head on with nonconference games against four ranked teams: Oregon, VCU, Kansas and Michigan State. So far, the Hoyas are 1-2 against them, with No. 5 Michigan State yet to come on Feb. 1 at Madison Square Garden in New York.
“I think it’ll take care of itself,” Thompson said of the Hoyas’ national standing. “When we put the [nonconference] schedule together, we put together a very difficult schedule. And just because there is one ranked [Big East] team now doesn’t mean we’re going to end up with one ranked team.”