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Big East on the Brink

Examining how the Big East's muddled middle affects its chances for NCAA Tournament bids, and the future of the conference.

Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sport

Coming into this first season of the new Big East, the Catholic 7 schools from the old Big East could not help but wonder whether or not their time as part of one of the power conferences was coming to an end. Sure, Xavier, Butler, and Creighton are all excellent programs with a history of consistent NCAA Tournament appearances. But all are perceived as perennial middle seed teams, not the sorts of teams that can compete for 1-2 seeds and the national championship. In losing Syracuse, Connecticut, Pittsburgh, Louisville, and Notre Dame, the new conference might be seen to lack some star power. Fears abounded that this was the first step to being the new Atlantic 10, or the dreaded "mid-major" designation that would make true national contention difficult.

Obviously, it would be important for the new conference to get off to a strong start and show potential recruits that the Big East remained one of the sport’s brightest stages. The conference looked to be set with at least four solid tournament bids with Creighton, Georgetown, Marquette, and Villanova. St. John’s, Xavier, Butler, and Providence looked good enough to potentially get the conference at least five bids in its first year. The problem seemed that while the team had quantity, it would lack true national contenders who would earn top three seeds.

This has not proven to be the case. Villanova has spent most of the year in the top ten and barring a collapse should be seeded in the 2-3 range. Creighton may be a notch below that in the polls and conventional seeding, but they have the consensus Player of the Year in Doug McDermott and statistical analysts like Ken Pomeroy love the Bluejays (he currently ranks them third in the nation). Both are strong teams that can legitimately contend for the national title.

However, the strong middle that seemed to be the strength of this conference hasn’t materialized. Providence has been the third best team in conference play but did nothing in the non-conference. Xavier had a good nonconference runs with good wins over Tennessee and Cincinnati, but has lost three in a row and finish with a brutal schedule. If the Tournament started today, both teams would probably make it but with double digit seeds.

St. John’s, Georgetown, and Marquette would probably be on the outside if the Tournament was selected today. The Red Storm have won five out of their last six, with the only defeat being a strong performance at Creighton. But, they did nothing out of conference and started 0-5 in the Big East. Georgetown has good wins over Michigan St., Virginia Commonwealth, and Kansas St., but lost five Big East games in a row and currently stands at 4-6 in the conference with no notable conference wins. Marquette has played one of the strongest schedules in the nation but didn’t manage to win any of their tough games. They are currently 5-5 in the conference with their best win being against George Washington.

As things stand right now, these five teams look destined to be bunched somewhere between 10-8 and 8-10 in the conference. As of right now Pomeroy projects the Friars to go 10-8, Xavier and Marquette to finish at 9-9, with a crowd of St. John’s, Georgetown, and Seton Hall at 8-10.

In the old Big East, a winning record in conference play could basically guarantee a tournament bid no matter how empty the rest of the resume (see South Florida, 2012). It is not clear this is still the case. A 10-8 conference record might not be enough for Providence, and 9-9 probably would not be enough for Marquette or Xavier. No team with a losing record could feel good about their chances. If the conference did indeed finish as Pomeroy projects, the Big East would not be assured of more than two bids. Three would seem to be the maximum. Such a result could potentially hurt the perceived the prestige of the conference and make things tougher for members in future years.

The conference will be better off if two or three of the five team jam in the middle can separate themselves enough to get over the .500 mark. This would probably guarantee the conference four bids. The Big East needs Creighton and Villanova to remain strong and run away from the pack to get high seeds in the NCAA Tournament. It also needs to hope that DePaul and Butler don’t pull any surprises against potential tournament contenders. Beyond that, Big East fans should hope that the series between the six mediocrities is dominated by a couple of those teams to get that separation. If Providence, Marquette, St. John’s, Xavier, Georgetown, and Seton Hall play even against each other, there is a strong likelihood that none of them get in. Nothing could do more than a two bid Selection Sunday to get the Big East on the Mid-Major Express.