The Big East Conference's expectations will likely never be as high as they were during its heyday as the most dominant conference that the realm of college basketball has ever seen. We're talking about a league that, in 2011, sent 11 teams to the NCAA Tournament. A staggering 68.75 percent of the conference was in the field of 68, and the sport's National Champion was part of that famed group.
But as the mass exodus ensued, expectations dropped drastically. The new generation of the Big East Conference paled in comparison. The league sent 40 percent of its members to The Big Dance, but they were subsequently pantsed. Villanova and Creighton were the only teams to win NCAA Tournament games that year, and they were bounced in the Round of 32. In sourly fashion, Villanova's defeat came at the hands of former Big East representative and eventual National Champion Connecticut.
The second year of the Big East V2.0 showed more promise. The league itself improved dramatically and there was more talent present. The Butler Bulldogs emerged as a threat from the jump. Georgetown bounced back to its winning ways after a foggy year that sent them to the NIT, and revered former power St. John's returned back to relevance and made its first appearance in the NCAA Tournament in half a decade. But sourness would still be felt. Absolved of that were the Xavier Musketeers who made a strong run to the Sweet 16, but Villanova once again was upset by a lower seed and no other team but the Musketeers were able to make the second weekend.
Mike Rutherford of Card Chronicle and SB Nation put it best when describing what the Big East had to do in its third year:
If the Big East wants to avoid an onslaught of "we need to stop calling it the Big East" columns in summers to come, it needs its flagship programs to step up. 'Nova needs to shed the stigma that has become more attached to it than any other, Georgetown, Xavier and Marquette need to remain (or re-emerge, in Marquette's case) in the national picture, and teams playing above their program profile need to cash in on their moment in the spotlight. The aura of the Big East name can only carry these 10 teams so far before the hoops world starts clamoring for results. A conference that sends more than half of its squads to the big dance is certainly one worthy of praise, but that praise is unlikely to come until at least one of them makes a legitimate run at a national title.
Well, as we head into the month of December, the Big East Conference has more than done its job thus far.
Villanova has been a force to be reckoned with this season, especially so on the defensive side of the court. Via KenPom.com, they're the top defensive team in the country by the Adjusted Defensive Efficiency metric, allowing only 88.9 points per 100 possessions. As Rutherford entailed, they are the flag bearer for the conference right now as its reigning, defending back-to-back regular season champions. Super freshman Jalen Brunson has been as good as advertised, and was the winner of the Preseason NIT Tip-Off MVP award. They'll have a chance in December to step up against the big boys of other conferences with games lined up against Oklahoma on a neutral floor and against Virginia in Charlottesville. The flag bearer for the conference has ripe opportunities to do serious damage.
Butler's offense has been nothing but dynamic in the early portion of the season. I mean, they dropped 144 points in their first game, for goodness sake. Their lone loss of the season was to Miami, who, too, has been awesome to start the 2015-16 season save for a shocking loss to Northeastern recently. Kellen Dunham has been an efficient and effective player for the Bulldogs as has transfer Tyler Lewis. Andrew Chrabascz and Tyler Wideman have looked good as well along with Roosevelt Jones, who has been one of the best rebounders in the conference and the nation, too.
Georgetown might be 2-3, but is there a better 2-3 team in the country? They have a lot of moving parts right now that need to be gelled up but they've competed with the likes of Maryland and Duke in College Park and on a neutral floor and lost by a combined six points to two of the best teams in the country. They, like Villanova, will be tested again in December against old friend Syracuse, who will come to Washington D.C. later this week. A matchup against Monmouth of the MAAC also looms. The Hawks have already proven to be one of the nation's best mid-majors, and if there's any team that, right or wrong, has a stigma to shed, it's the Hoyas.
Marquette hit a few speed bumps out of the gate. A gutting loss to Belmont, an Ohio Valley Conference powerhouse, opened up their year and two games later the Iowa Hawkeyes went to the 414 and thrashed them at the BMO Harris Bradley Center. As we've learned though, life's about "What have you done for me lately?" Well, all Marquette did this past week was win the Legends Classic in Brooklyn. They picked up a win against Arizona State in overtime to win the title, and prior to that, squeaked out a win over the highly touted Ben Simmons and the LSU Tigers. With their victory over Jackson State Sunday, MU has pulled together a three-game winning streak. That could quickly turn to six going into their highly-anticipated encounter with in-state rival Wisconsin on December 12th. And the Badgers, at this point in the season, are in quite a funk.
The Providence Friars are hot off the heels of a terrific performance in the 2015 Wooden Legacy event. There's no shame in losing to Denzel Valentine and the Michigan State Spartans, especially when you consider that Providence arguably was the better team for over 30 minutes in the contest. Kris Dunn has been good as advertised, and Ben Bentil is breaking out as one of their top secondary options along with sophomore Rodney Bullock. PC will be taken to task by in-state rival Rhode Island this Saturday in what ought to be a thriller at the Ryans Center in Kingston.
But no team has made a bigger impact nationally than the Xavier Musketeers. The Musketeers have hit their stride and been dominant in the last 10 days. It started with a thumping on the road against the Michigan Wolverines in Ann Arbor. Then, after handling Northern Kentucky at the Cintas Center, X traveled down to Orlando for the Advocare Invitational. All they did was thump Alabama, crush USC in a game that wasn't ever close, and beat down in-state adversary Dayton by almost 30 points. Trevon Bluiett has been sensational, as has Jalen Reynolds and fellow 6-foot-10 forward James Farr has been quietly emerging.
And that's not even including the likes of Seton Hall and Creighton, who have combined to lose just two games thus far this season. The Hall has gotten great contributions out of their crop of sophomores, especially Desi Rodriguez. The new-look Jays have been led by transfers Cole Huff and Maurice Watson Jr., and freshman Khryi "Tazz" Thomas has been one of the best newcomers in the conference. Even St. John's, who will very much be in transition this season, has had its moments of promise in the early goings.
The season has a long way to go and the Big East will likely hit its peaks and valleys throughout the campaign. With that said, there's lots of reason for optimism. And maybe, just maybe, things will continue falling into place for this "new" Big East Conference and long-awaited success in March is on the horizon.