By Mary Cunningham
The ‘new Big East’ formed in 2013, and at the time, it felt like a hodgepodge of basketball programs thrown together on a whim.
There were the old Big East holdovers like Villanova, Georgetown, St. John’s and Seton Hall, but new schools also joined the fray in Xavier, Butler and Creighton.
“The Ivy League with Rosaries,” as the Inky’s Bob Ford described it!
What would this conference’s identity be? It would take years to find out, along with some soul-searching. The tales of the old Big East are legendary – the games were so physical that often times, they resembled a different sport entirely.
That is most certainly not the Big East’s identity in 2016. But in the midst of its fourth full season, perhaps this conference doesn’t care about its reputation anymore. It just wins, and people will ultimately say what they’re going to say about them.
The Big East is notably absent from the list of Power Five conferences as we know them. But it was also never a mid-major. The past few years, it’s just sort of existed in its own world – the Big East featured some quality teams, but until any of them made real noise in the NCAA tournament, it would just sort of be. That’s intentionally abstract. Going into the 2015-16 season, the league still hadn’t carved out its niche.
You can’t overstate how important Villanova’s national championship was to the Big East, but the truth is, top to bottom, the Wildcats played in one of the better conferences in the country last season. Xavier had its best season in years. So did Seton Hall. Butler maintained its level of consistency, and Providence had two of the top 20 players in America. The Wildcats dominated the league in the regular season, but all of these schools put up a fight.
Villanova’s incredible title run simply made people notice what was happening in the new Big East. So this season presented a fork in the road for the league: with new eyeballs on it, would the Big East show that it’s more than a Villanova feasting ground? Or would other teams jump into the public spectrum?
The answer, overwhelmingly, has been the latter.
The Big East’s top four teams are a sparkling 31-1 on the season, and each has bested at least one powerful program from another conference.
Villanova owns a win against Purdue on the road. And frankly, the Boilermakers are a terrible matchup for the Wildcats. Purdue’s strength is its massive front line of Isaac Haas and Caleb Swanigan; Darryl Reynolds is Villanova’s only true big, and the Cats played the 6-6 Jenkins extensive minutes at center. Dominant post players are supposed to be the Wildcats’ kryptonite.
It didn’t matter. Villanova scored gutsy win in West Lafayette, and beyond that, the Wildcats haven’t really been challenged. Josh Hart has an expanded role this season, and he’s responded well. Jenkins is better than he was last year. So is Jalen Brunson. And if you’re a ball-handler and Mikal Bridges is guarding you, just save yourself the trouble and pass to a teammate. It’s not worth the hassle.
Creighton is scoring the ball at a crazy-good rate. The Bluejays are averaging 90.8 points per game, which ranks fifth in the country. Greg McDermott no longer has a Missouri Valley Conference roster propped up by his son Doug; these guys were recruited to play in the Big East, and they’re thriving in McDermott’s wide-open system.
Six Bluejays average eight points per game or more, and the backcourt of Marcus Foster and Mo Watson, Jr. is elite. Creighton defeated Wisconsin earlier this season by double digits, and it took down three other power conference schools (Washington State, North Carolina State and Ole Miss) with relative ease.
Then there is Xavier, which hasn’t had as good of a start as it hoped for in 2016-17. With that said, the Musketeers are still 7-1, and their one setback came on the road against No. 4 Baylor. That’s about as good of a loss as you’ll find.
Xavier needs more from its frontcourt – Trevon Bluiett and Edmond Sumner have been as good as advertised, but the Musketeers miss Jalen Reynolds and James Farr, and their replacements have struggled. If Chris Mack can salvage a bit more out of his big guys, Xavier can still challenge Villanova for the Big East crown.
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The Big East is really good again, for entirely different reasons than it used to be. Outside of the ACC, there might not be a better or more entertaining conference in college basketball this season.