The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Big East could be a beast. Or, more likely, wildly overrated.

Kris Dunn and the Providence Friars may not be as daunting an opponent as they appear. (AP Photo/Chris Szagola)

The Big East had three teams ranked within last week’s top 25 rankings — Villanova, Providence, and Xavier all among the nation’s top-10 — and another (Butler) on the fringes in the “others receiving votes” column. All but one of the conference’s teams has a strength of schedule in the top 100 of Ken Pomeroy’s database. At first glance, the league appears capable of stuffing the NCAA tournament, and dominating March Madness, in a season in which the top teams haven’t been consistently good.

But take a deeper look, and an unsettling fact becomes apparent: The Big East might be wildly overrated. This is particularly true once you start picking apart the teams just beneath the top of the conference.

Uneasy conference play biting Bulldogs

Outside of Villanova and Xavier, the Big East is a mess. Five teams are mired in the middle, each with three-to-five losses in conference play. Some might argue that could be a testament to the conference’s overall strength, that the Big East becomes better by playing against competition so evenly matched, but it makes it awfully difficult to distinguish the postseason-worthy teams from those that are merely good enough.

Maryland’s March: The man holding the Terrapins together

Coupled with St. John’s and DePaul, two teams that have a combined 1-17 Big East record, the conference appears on much shakier footing. The win-loss records for the other eight teams get a significant boost four times this season. There is a reason KenPom ranks the Big East fifth among all conferences, lower than every high major except the SEC.

Take a look at Butler. Before league play began, the Bulldogs were situated in the top 25 weekly, and appeared set to make the NCAA tournament for the second straight season. But then the Big East tipped, and Butler’s weaknesses — two-point shooting and overall defense — were exposed.

The departed Kameron Woods was a prolific offensive rebounder, and his ability to pluck caroms off the offensive glass with his oversized wingspan offset Butler’s lack of scoring within the arc. Without Woods, though, Tyler Wideman is the only Bulldog who grabs more than 10 percent of the team’s misses — Villanova is the only Big East team snagging a lower percentage of offensive boards, per Synergy Sports, than Butler. But Nova has a much better defense to help compensate (No. 8 in defensive efficiency nationally, per Ken Pomeroy).

The Bulldogs, on the other hand, rank 152nd in that category. And since the team’s defense has sputtered, allowing 1.05 points per possession, Butler finds itself in an increasingly tough position as the season progresses. Not only is every win to finish out conference play essential, but Butler likely needs a few to close out the Big East Tournament. Of course, the same defensive shortcomings could trip up some other teams as well.

Defensive struggles and what could fell the Friars

Teams with both an offensive and defensive efficiency ranked within KenPom’s top 100 are generally thought of to be NCAA tournament locks. His database has become a measure of pre-March Madness prognostication, and judged on overall ranking, St. John’s, Butler and DePaul are the only three Big East teams to miss that criteria.

But take a look at the conference’s non-conference track record this season — the Big East has just 11 wins against KenPom’s top 50 teams, and Xavier notched four of those victories. Yes, Providence’s win versus Arizona was impressive (the Wildcats didn’t have Kaleb Tarczewski, but still, that’s a good win), and Seton Hall bested Wichita State, a team that is clearly better than its poor non-conference play suggested. But the rest of the conference’s November and December schedules haven’t been fairly robust.

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The concern is, then, that those defensive efficiency rates are much worse than they appear, a statistical misnomer, and one that bears out: Nova and Providence are the only two squads holding Big East opponents to 0.96 points per possession or less. Let’s examine the Friars more closely, a squad with a defensive efficiency rate of 0.95 PPP. This looks fantastic, a rate fueled by generating a high percentage of turnovers (20.7 percent) and committing a shockingly low amount of fouls (30.1 percent, best in the league). But Providence is woefully inadequate on the defensive glass and allows teams to shoot better than 50 percent within the arc. Even their strength — three-point percentage defense, which takes advantage of the Friars’ length — may be a hollow one. The Big East is not a good shooting conference — only one team (Georgetown) makes more than 35 percent of its attempts from deep. There should be a very real concern should the Friars meet a low-turnover team that can get hot quickly from beyond the arc. Saint Mary’s, Iowa, or even an Arkansas-Little Rock all fit that bill and all could very well dance into March.

Is there then an exception to the Big East’s overinflated profile?

We’ve covered Xavier’s potential before, but the Musketeers have the Big East’s best long-term postseason potential. The team is deep, hard to defend (thanks to its small-ball driven lineups), and is somewhat mean. Jalen Reynolds, James Farr and even JP Macura are the type of players who use their strength and their understanding of how to defensively unnerve an opponent. Those are elements that help Xavier’s man defense or its increasingly stingy 1-3-1 zone. Coupled with an offense that melds dribble-drives and outside shooting, Xavier is the best bet for a run throughout the NCAA tournament.

SMU finding meaning in a lost season

The Big East has some of the bigger names in Division I, and it has the cachet and palatable poll rankings to appeal to not only the casual fan but also any selection committees. But there are cracks in the conference’s veneer, and it shouldn’t surprise many if the Big East suffers the same fate as the Big 12 a year ago during the opening days of the tournament.