Grueling Big East Conference flexing its muscles again
NEW YORK — Keno Davis arrived in the Big East at perhaps the most inopportune time.
In his first season in charge of Providence last year, seven league teams reached the NCAA tournament, including a record three No. 1 seeds. Five advanced to the round of 16, four made the regional finals and half of the Final Four was made up of familiar opponents.
Davis thinks the Big East is tougher this season.
“A lot of the coaches were talking at the beginning of the season, saying we’re going to be a really good conference because the bottom-half teams have all improved — so we might not have three No. 1 seeds or be as top heavy,” the second-year Providence coach said. “Well now, maybe we are as top heavy as we were last year.”
Davis can offer an unenviable perspective on it, too. His team is midway through a stretch of four straight games against teams ranked in the top 10.
“I don’t see there’s any reason why the teams in the Big East can’t have similar success in the postseason, not just because of the depth of the conference, but because of how good Villanova is, how good Syracuse is, how good Georgetown is,” Davis said.
The sheer brutality of the Big East was on display last week.
In the friendly confines of the Carrier Dome on Sunday, then-No. 2 Syracuse was dumped by unranked Louisville. A few hundred miles to the south, struggling Rutgers stunned then-No. 7 Georgetown. West Virginia lost to Villanova and Pittsburgh, both ranked in the Top 25, to tumble from No. 5 to No. 8 in the poll released Monday.
Of the four Big East teams that held down the top seven spots in the ranking last week, ’Nova was the only team to escape unscathed.
“I think most years there’s six, seven, eight teams that are pretty much separated, but this year you could go down to 12,” said Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim, whose 34 seasons at the school make him something of an expert.
“Definitely more good teams than I think there ever have been.”
The strength of the Big East has often been rooted in a handful of programs, going back 25 years to when it became the first conference to get three teams in the Final Four. Rival leagues like the Atlantic Coast Conference and Big 12 supposedly offered more depth.
That’s not the case this year.
Every team but Rutgers and DePaul have at least four conference wins. In the case of UConn, once ranked in the top 10, that’s all it had entering Monday night’s game against Villanova.
Then there are the programs that have traditionally occupied the cellar. South Florida rattled off four straight Big East wins earlier this season, among them Pittsburgh and at Georgetown. Seton Hall is in the NCAA tournament discussion with the softest part of its schedule still on the horizon.
Soft being a relative term.
“South Florida, I think, has not got the notoriety they’re deserving of,” said Buzz Williams, whose Marquette team is dealing with the same injustice. “They have great athletes, they’re all strong. Dominique Jones, everybody is talking about.”
The junior guard is averaging 21.6 points per game for the Bulls, just behind Seton Hall’s Jeremy Hazell and Notre Dame’s Luke Harangody. Hazel’s teammate Herb Pope is the league’s leading rebounder, a pretty good indication that talent is more evenly distributed than ever before.
Last year, most of the best players were stacked on the best teams: Marquette’s Jerel McNeal and Wesley Matthews, Pittsburgh’s Sam Young and DeJuan Blair, Syracuse’s Jonny Flynn and Paul Harris, UConn’s A.J. Price and Hasheem Thabeet.
All of them graduated or left early for the riches of the NBA, one of the reasons that many pundits thought — incorrectly, it turns out — the Big East would regress this season.
“I think top to bottom, it is,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said, when asked whether the league is better this year than last. “I think in terms of overall depth and knowing you can get beat any night by anybody, I do.”
Connecticut is a pretty good case study in how teams can get caught in the spin cycle and have their season completely washed out. The Huskies won two of their first three games in the Big East, then had to face Georgetown and Pittsburgh four days apart — losing both.
They later lost four of five while coach Jim Calhoun was on a doctor-ordered medical leave of absence, and things didn’t get better in his first game back over the weekend. Cincinnati blitzed UConn 60-48 in Hartford to basically eliminate one of the league favorites from making the NCAA tournament.
“There’s going to be some really good teams in this conference being left out of the tournament,” Davis said. “Some teams that could go really far in the tournament. I think that’s why they look at possibly expanding because there’s always teams that are left out that go to the NIT that could go far in the NCAA. Maybe not win it, but win a few games.”
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