Can Big East still come up big?

From left, basketball commentator Bill Raftery, Big East Commissioner Val Ackerman, and basketball commentator Gus Johnson hold jerseys at a news conference during the Big East Conference NCAA college basketball media day?in New York, Wednesday, Oct. 16, 2013. (AP Photo/Craig Ruttle)
From left, basketball commentator Bill Raftery, Big East Commissioner Val Ackerman, and basketball commentator Gus Johnson hold jerseys at a news conference during the Big East Conference NCAA college basketball media day?in New York, Wednesday, Oct. 16, 2013. (AP Photo/Craig Ruttle) (AP)
Posted: December 20, 2013

The time-honored saying is that you never get a second chance to make a first impression, and all the schools that stayed together or banded together to form the new Big East basketball conference came into this season hoping the first one really was the best.

Not right away, maybe not for several seasons, but whether the league becomes a major success or something less depends on how it is viewed by those who rank the teams, place them in the firmament of college basketball, and, ultimately, by those who decide which lucky ones gain entry to the NCAA tournament.

In the old Big East, which placed eight teams in the 2013 tournament, this wasn't really a problem. A team could have an average out-of-conference schedule, even lose a game to a bad team along the way, and still redeem itself in the conference season with home games against highly ranked teams.

A great example was last season's Villanova team, which suffered an early-season hiccup against Columbia that would have practically eliminated the Wildcats' tournament chances if the Big East didn't have ranked teams that could offer atonement. Villanova took advantage, beating Louisville, Syracuse, and Georgetown at home - all ranked in the top five at the time - and was awarded that eighth and final conference slot despite a 20-13 record after the Big East tournament.

No one appreciated the old Big East more than Villanova coach Jay Wright, and as last season neared the end, he looked ahead and expressed his hopes for the new conference.

"We need the league to start with six or seven teams around the top 25, just like this league," Wright said. "I think it's important to start that way, because if you start that way you can establish it and it can stay that way. It's really important for us."

Six weeks into the new season, Villanova is holding up its end of the deal. The Wildcats knocked off ranked teams in Kansas and Iowa and have run the table on the rest of their out-of-conference schedule so far. At 10-0, they are ranked No. 8 in the country.

The bad news, however, is that as you look around the Big East, they don't have much company. Those two wins by Villanova are the only wins by Big East teams against schools currently ranked in the top 25. The rest of the league, all of which is unranked, is 0-9 against currently ranked opponents.

What will that mean down the road this season? There are limited opportunities for Big East teams to improve their reputations before the conference schedule, and once that begins, the only ranked opponent left for almost all of them to get well against is Villanova.

Georgetown still has a game Saturday against Kansas and a February game against Michigan State. Providence will play No. 22 Massachusetts on Dec. 28, but by that time, after the Minutemen play on the road against a tough Florida State team, UMass might not even be ranked. Otherwise, that's it. Villanova finishes its nonconference schedule at Syracuse, although a loss there would be balanced against the big previous wins. The nine other Big East teams haven't built a similar fallback position.

It is a vastly different dynamic now, and though the landscape still could change, the very first impression hasn't been the best. For his part, Wright remains hopeful.

"We don't have a great team [in the league], but we've got a lot of really good teams. Every team in the league is capable of beating a top-10 team, and good enough to win the games they're supposed to win," Wright said this week as the Wildcats took a break before playing Rider on Saturday. "I don't think that, as a league, we got as many signature wins as we would have liked early, but we also don't have any real bad losses. It's just a good, solid league, and it's going to be interesting to watch how that plays out with the RPI this season."

The Rating Percentage Index, which is used heavily by the pollsters and the NCAA tournament committee, takes into account wins and losses, but also strength of schedule, and it's true that a league that is truly solid top-to-bottom, if that is what the Big East proves to be, presents a different rating challenge.

At the moment, the Big East is ranked among the top four conferences in the country for overall RPI, trailing the Big 12 and the Big Ten and either just ahead or just behind the Pac-12, depending on the day. That's better than both the ACC and the Southeastern Conference, but the trick will be staying there.

"We [the Big East] haven't made the impact we wanted, but our level of play is consistently higher than I would have thought," Wright said. "It's going to take a couple of years to see how this turns out. I was definitely concerned coming in, and after being in it a month and a half, I'm feeling good about it, but still saying we've got to let this thing play out."

There is no other choice. Villanova has made a good first impression, no doubt about that. As for the others, most are really hoping that second impressions count, too.


RPI Watch

Big East teams and their projected rankings in the Rating Percentage Index, according to realtimerpi.com:

10. Villanova

31. Butler

57. St. John's

68. Creighton

71. Xavier

72. Providence   

79. Georgetown

97. Marquette

98. DePaul

147. Seton Hall   


bford@phillynews.com

@bobfordsports

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