By Jamal Murphy
The “Glory Days” of the Big East, back in the mid-1980s when Patrick Ewing and Georgetown were battling Chris Mullin and St. John’s for the number-one ranking in the nation, are impossible to measure up to, for any conference in college basketball, let alone one bearing the same name.
“It’s never going to be the same,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said during the Big East Tournament last week. “That was just a special time.”
But, quietly (a word that could never be used to describe the league in its heyday), the new Big East has become special again, an elite basketball conference.
With Villanova and Xavier both entering this week as number-one seeds in the NCAA Tournament, which begins in earnest today, it is impossible to deny that the Big East is back.
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Many critics scoffed at this possibility five years ago, when the league slimmed down to 10 and focused on basketball, taking schools with strong mid-major basketball histories from beyond the east coast. The league was instantly formidable, but has recently reestablished itself as elite after Villanova’s championship in 2016, seven NCAA Tournament bids last year, and six bids this year, including the two aforementioned number-one seeds.
“I think the Big East is the best conference in the country,” Marquette coach Steve Wojciechowski said last week. Marquette finished seventh in the conference and was one of the first teams left out of this year’s NCAA Tournament. “Last year it was brutal, and 70% of our teams got in the NCAA Tournament,” he continued. “The league’s better this year. I mean, you’re talking about we played Xavier twice and Villanova three times.”
“Both those teams have a great chance to win a national championship, and the ‘middle of the pack’ [of the conference], I put it up against any other conference in the country,” Wojciechowski concluded.
The next few weeks could go a long way in determining whether the Big East gets the national respect it deserves. Despite the league ranking second in conference R.P.I. and third by kenpom.com, respect is earned in March and the NCAA Tournament.
For Villanova, this is another postseason of Final Four or bust. Xavier — a team known for success in the tournament — will attempt to defy the widely held belief that they are this year’s weakest number-one seed and the one most likely to lose first.
But, even more important for the Big East will be the fate of that “middle of the pack” that Wojciechowski referred to. Seton Hall, Butler, Creighton and Providence are all talented and tough teams capable of doing damage in a tournament field rife with parity. A strong showing could make articles such as this unnecessary in the future.
Regardless of what happens in the NCAAs, the future looks bright for the league. Beyond the seven teams already performing at high levels, the bottom three teams in the conference don’t seem too far behind.
Georgetown looks to be moving in the right direction after a promising rebuilding year under new coach Patrick Ewing. Despite a horrible January for St. John’s, they finished the season strong, including wins over Duke and Villanova. And even DePaul showed marked improvement this season under coach Dave Leitao. It’s quite possible the Big East will have no bottom next year.
The Big East Tournament also continues to thrive. Despite the presence of the Big Ten Tournament and the ACC Tournament in New York this year, the Big East announced that last week’s tournament enjoyed its highest attendance figures since the current 10-team alignment.
Jay Wright sees all the positives.
“If you think about it, what we all used to get so excited about was Georgetown would be playing St. John’s in [Madison Square Garden] they’d be 1 vs. 2, 2 vs. 3, Syracuse would be in here, 2 vs. 3,” Wright reminisced.
“Well, we’re doing the same thing now in the Big East. You’ve got Seton Hall in the top 25, Butler is in the top 25, Villanova and Xavier playing 2 vs. 3. Even earlier in the year we played some 1 vs. 4 games. That’s what we used to love about the old Big East.”
Now, Wright and company can only hope they bring that old Big East feeling to the Big Dance.
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Jamal Murphy is a contributor to CBS Local. He writes extensively about college basketball, the NBA and other sports, often focusing on the intersection of sports and social justice/awareness. Listen to Jamal on the Bill Rhoden On Sports podcast (iTunes & Soundcloud) that he cohosts with legendary sports columnist, Bill Rhoden. Email him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter: @Blacketologist.