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Stuck in the Middle

The mass in the middle hasn't separated, creating tremendous uncertainty for the projection for this year's tournament....and the future of the conference.

Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

A few weeks ago, I wrote that the Big East was on the verge of getting an unacceptably small number of teams into the NCAA Tournament. The problem was not the conference as a whole was not strong. Top to bottom, it’s been a good facsimile for the old Big East, complete with legitimate Final Four contenders Creighton and Villanova.

The problem, however, has been that the next five teams are stuck in the middle with very profiles to each other. Unfortunately, that profile has been alarmingly near the cut line, with the result that for much of the season it seemed as if the Big East may only qualify two teams for the Big Dance, with seemingly five teams in the last eight out.

Fairly or not (I vote for the latter), the Big East needs a respectable number of teams to get into the Tournament this year, and by that, I mean at least four. Uncertainty abounds about the quality of the new conference, and nobody’s going to look at Ken Pomeroy’s rankings (where the Big East is the third strongest conference) in determining whether the new lineup is a "power conference" or "mid-major". Nor will anybody note that the new Big East has far fewer teams than the old version, or even the current Atlantic 10.

The fact is the conference lost several of its higher profile teams and is now on a new and relatively unwatched television channel. The conference has been given next to no coverage on ESPN, which is the undisputed king of sports media. If the Big East only qualified 2-3 teams, particularly in a year where that would be "behind" the Atlantic 10, it could doom the status of the conference in the sports landscape, which could potentially be a disaster.

The key for the conference as a whole was that 2-3 of the teams in that middle group of five needed to separate from the pack and get themselves into the tournament. That hasn’t really happened. Creighton and Villanova will clearly make the Tournament, with both looking at garnering a 2-3 seed. Seton Hall, DePaul and Butler are clearly out, barring one of them pulls the upset and snags an automatic bid in New York.

Of the five remaining teams, Xavier had put itself in the best position by getting to 10-6, with wins over Creighton and two over St. John’s, combined with a neutral court win over Cincinnati buttressing the profile. But they lost last night at Seton Hall, which puts them in some danger with their last game Thursday at home against Villanova. They should still make it, but if they lose that one and go one-and-done in New York, they could still miss out.

St. John’s started 0-5 in league play, then went 8-1. They suffered losses at Creighton and Villanova that were both close. They had an easier finish and looked the most likely Big East to team to get to 11 wins. But they blew a home game badly to Xavier and now need to win at Marquette just to go 10-8. Their best non-conference win is against San Francisco, so needless to say 9-9 won’t do it for them. They probably need two more wins total, including the tournament.

Providence has been on the cut line all year. Joe Lunardi has them as the last team out today, I have them as the last team in. They have a similar profile to St. John’s, and their best non-conference victory is Vermont. At 9-7 (with a home win over Creighton), they finish with Marquette at home and Creighton on the road. If they win both, they are probably in. Otherwise, they will need at least a win in New York.

Unlike the previous two teams, Georgetown has the non-conference wins over Kansas St., VCU and Michigan St. (in a win that looks less impressive by the week). But the Hoyas are 7-9 in the conference, and that won’t get it done, particularly since the Hoyas have been wretched in true road games this season. Their non-conference means they can probably get in 9-9. The problem is that they are 7-9 and their last two games are at home against Creighton and at Villanova. The Hoyas likely need three more wins, not counting the First Round of the Big East Tournament vs. Butler/DePaul, to get in.

Marquette is 9-7, but they haven’t beaten one of the two conference powers and their only respectable non-conference win was over George Washington. But they have two winnable (but tough) games to finish the season - at Providence and at home against St. John’s. It will be tough to leave out an 11-7 team from this conference.

Looking to the Big East Tournament, it is likely that the 4-5 quarterfinal (right now projected to be 10-8 Providence vs. 10-8 Marquette) on Thursday will be an eliminator. It also appears that Thursday will be absolute must-wins for the 6 seed (9-9 St. John’s) and the 7 seed (7-11 Georgetown), should it survive the first round.

Looking at the landscape as of now, the likely range is 3-5 teams, but 4 is the likeliest number. Unless we want to see a lot of stupid questions about the quality of the conference, that needs to be the minimum number.