Tuesday’s NCAA Tournament Media Day, co-opted by CBS and Turner Sports, brought on a fresh wave of excitement and anticipation. March is college hoops’ month after all, and from what Big East Coast Bias gathered, everybody is ready for the event to start.
With regards to the Big East Conference, there are several storylines developing as March Madness approaches. But above all else, the Big East has something that no other conference can lay claim to:
The defending National Champion.
The Villanova Wildcats, who won last year’s title in epic fashion (You’ve probably seen the Kris Jenkins buzzer-beater at least 1,000 times by now. Maybe more than that. It’s okay if you have. No one will fault you) will be walking into this year’s tourney looking to put themselves in elite company. Not since the 2006 and 2007 Florida Gators has a team gone back to back, and the ‘Cats, who have several pieces from that title team still around have as good a shot as any team in the past decade to make it happen.
“I think the thing that would certainly help them is their experience,” CBS Sports sideline reporter Jamie Erdahl said regarding what can assist Villanova’s chances of repeating as champions. Erdahl, who’s had first-hand viewing of the ‘Cats this season, continued on about the team they’re trying to emulate.
“That second year, people weren’t really talking about [the Gators] that year,” Erdahl said. “And I think sometimes it can be discounted early in March how much game experience can help you down the stretch. How much just knowing how to manage those weekends between Sweet 16, Elite Eight, Final Four... Those are distances, in terms of the season, that other teams know how to get to. If you even have half your roster that has done that within the last year, I think that’s immensely helpful.”
Turner Sports anchor Ernie Johnson and color commentator Len Elmore also added thoughts about Villanova and where they stand among the pack.
“People talk about 15 teams [with a chance to win the title], I wouldn’t go that far,” Elmore said. “But a good eight to ten teams, and of course Villanova has as good of a chance as any of them out there with that opportunity.”
“They’ve got a great shot at it,” Johnson added. “When you have a team that’s got that talent, may have the Player of the Year in Josh Hart, has one of the great coaches in Jay Wright, is brimming with confidence, all they need is that little extra fuel.”
“If you’re gonna take 10 teams they’re in that group. Teams that can win it. The size of that list always varies. If you don’t include them in that list, you’re missing the boat,” Johnson said.
Several teams since those Gators have had the chance to follow the same path, but have ultimately come up short for one reason or another. There was some obvious concern voiced by some regarding their chances and what could, ultimately, bring the ‘Cats down.
“My only concern is the heavy minutes for their four main players (Jalen Brunson, Mikal Bridges, Josh Hart, Kris Jenkins),” Steve Lavin said. Lavin, new to NCAA Tournament coverage as a color commentator, would continue off this point on the ‘Cats and their depth. “They’ll get an uptick with Darryl Reynolds coming back, and they can go seven-deep, so they can rotate somewhat more liberally to get players a little rest. I’m concerned that this last month of the half, the cumulative effect of the heavy minutes, plus carrying the weight of being number one in the country and defending national champions for most of the year, does that wear on them?”
“Do they have a poor shooting night and face a team that’s more fresh? Even if you try your best to be aware of how your team is burning your fuel, there’s psychic fuel and physical fuel. I think there are some of those elements what can be as challenging as the physical aspect.”
Erdahl, who had been on the sidelines for the Wildcats’ game against the St. John’s Red Storm in Philly earlier this season, had a front row experience to see what could possibly plague the ‘Cats. One thing stuck out to her, but she would go on to revise that.
“When I had them earlier this year against St. John’s, I thought that having a significant post presence would be a challenge down the stretch,” Erdahl noted. “However, I don’t think having that is what carries you through the NCAA Tournament. Now I thought it might challenge them more in the regular season, it might challenge them more in the Big East Tournament, but I don’t think it will hinder them as much in the NCAA Tournament because it is about speed, length and longevity.”
‘Nova has certainly had their heaping of (deserved) praise handed to them this season. However, one team in the Big East has had their number this year. The Butler Bulldogs pulled off the rarest of feats, sweeping the Wildcats in the regular season. That hadn’t happened since the 2013-14 Creighton Bluejays did the job with Doug McDermott leading the charge.
Make no mistake, Butler is well-prepared for the NCAA Tournament and has to chance to make an impact. How much of one though?
“It all depends on the kind of path that any team has to go through. I certainly think we’d see them in the second weekend,” Erdahl said of the Dawgs’ “ceiling” for the tourney. “If they put themselves in a position where they can play their style of basketball, they can beat anybody.”
“They’re a team that’s hard to play,” Bill Raftery, fan favorite color commentator and longtime voice of the Big East, said of the Bulldogs. “They’re good late in the shot clock. They’re very sound fundamentally. Don’t make mistakes, don’t turn it over, make free throws and guard you. You have a team that’s willy nilly with the basketball, or doesn’t create turnovers or offensive rebounds, you’re not going to get them against Butler.”
The Big East has the opportunity to send seven teams to the NCAA Tournament this year. In the reformatted era of this conference, that would be the most, surpassing the six that went dancing back in 2015. So, which teams have the potential to crash the party and make noise even with a lower seed?
Well, Erdahl believes that the Seton Hall Pirates head that class. She had the opportunity to cover The Hall in their lone NCAA Tournament a season ago in Denver, Colorado and thinks their experience then could prove to help them now.
“I had Seton Hall last year in Denver. And I know what happened to them was that the emotion it took, the drain from the Big East Tournament, for them to get to the NCAA Tournament, they were flat,” Erdahl said. “I think they always have the potential because we’ve seen them do it last year and we’ve seen them do it this year. I think it helps them that they’re a little bit older now. Maybe they learned how to manage that a little bit better. They don’t have to win the whole thing to get in this time,” Erdahl mentioned regarding the Big East Tournament, which Seton Hall of course won in 2016. “They can upset someone as long as they come into the tournament a little better than they did last year.”
As far as anyone else? The Providence Friars fit the bill for Erdahl, who praised head coach Ed Cooley who could wind up being the conference’s coach of the year. “They have the potential, and Cooley’s such a great coach that I know if he’s in a situation, he can out-coach somebody. It’s just the guys on the floor. Can they turn the corner? I think Seton Hall leads that pack and Providence would be my second.”
So, we’ve noted Villanova, Butler, and the middle of the pack. So let’s address the elephant in the room: Getting to the second weekend.
No, this isn’t necessarily about the Wildcats, who put that narrative to rest a season ago. But perhaps you might discuss it among the rest of the group. In this reformatted era, the Big East has yet to send more than one team onward to the second weekend. In 2014, they sent none. In 2015, they sent one (Xavier) and did the same in 2016. The Wildcats and Bulldogs are looking to be the flagbearers this year while others look to surprise higher seeds.
Is the perception of the conference in line to pivot, and will they need to send more than one team to the Sweet 16? Some tend to think otherwise.
“Not necessarily,” Lavin said. The former St. John’s Red Storm coach would play a parallel to the Pac-12, which didn’t enjoy a bevy of conference success in last year’s NCAA Tournament with Oregon being the only one to advance to the second weekend. “When you get seven teams in, which it looks like the Big East will, that’s a sign you’re healthy, there’s vitality. ... But I think, big picture, there are trends and it’s cyclical. If you can get seven in, you take it.”
Elmore had more to say on this as well and the longtime color commentator echoed similar thoughts to his peer. “I don’t necessarily measure it by who makes it past the weekends because, again, it’s all about matchups,” Elmore said. “If you can see a Villanova or a Butler or another team, I don’t know if Creighton has the chops right now, but if you can see some of those teams, Marquette even getting an opportunity to go past the first two games, I’d say it’s extremely successful.”