Big East tournament not what it used to be

Villanova coach Jay Wright says Connecticut and Syracuse will be missed in this year's Big East Conference tournament.     Inquirer, file
Villanova coach Jay Wright says Connecticut and Syracuse will be missed in this year's Big East Conference tournament.     Inquirer, file
Posted: March 13, 2014

The spotlighted court once again will ride amid the darkness of the arena like the gleaming deck of a great ship at sea as the basketball teams claw each other through the four days and nights, and it will all still look very much like the Big East tournament.

In fact, it is the Big East tournament, and it is Madison Square Garden, and many of the usual suspects are still on hand as the league works to reestablish its place in the college basketball firmament.

A year ago, eight teams would exit the Big East championship and take their places in the field of the NCAA tournament. This time around, only two schools are guaranteed slots in the NCAA, with another one or possibly two hoping to sneak in through a side door.

What the remnants of the Big East - the non-BCS-football schools that cast their lots together when their brethren cut and ran for the promise of bigger money elsewhere - will become is still unknown. What it is now is better than might have been feared, but also somewhat less than might have been hoped.

"I think this is an off-year for our league," said Jay Wright, whose Villanova team finished the regular season ranked No. 3 in the nation. "If this was a conference that had been in existence for 20 years, I think you'd say, 'Ah, it's just a down year, but it'll be back.' "

The catch-22 for schools that hope to gain national attention and rise in the rankings and RPI during the season is that it is nearly impossible during the conference schedule unless there are several highly rated teams in the league. Otherwise, the gains have to be made during the early, nonconference schedule or probably not at all.

In the Big East, both Villanova and Creighton did well against good nonconference teams and avoided bad losses. The rest of the league wasn't as lucky and has scurried to catch up. Cases, slight though they might be, can be made for Xavier, Providence, Georgetown, and St. John's to be included in the NCAA field, but a stumble in the conference tournament would doom any of them.

"Everybody had tough preseasons and tough breaks except us and Creighton," Wright said. "I think in other years, that doesn't happen and you're going to start with four teams in [the rankings], and then it gives everybody else the chance to move up. We're the fourth-rated conference for RPI, and I think that will get better and we'll give teams a chance to improve themselves [during the conference season], but this year, it wasn't there."

A good example this season is Providence, which finished with a 10-8 record in the Big East and a 20-11 overall record. In other years, that resumé would have been pretty strong. (Villanova was 10-8, 20-13 last season and made the field.) The Friars, however, had only one decent win this season - at home against Creighton - were 2-6 against all teams ranked in the top 50, and suffered a bad loss at home to Seton Hall.

Providence opens the Big East tournament against St. John's on Thursday, another team that has improved during the season, but not so you would notice in the rankings. The Red Storm were 1-7 against top-50 teams (also beating Creighton), and managed to lose to DePaul, a sin that is difficult for the NCAA tournament committee to absolve. In the past, a Big East tournament game between the No. 4 and No. 5 seeds in the league was purely for NCAA seeding. This year, it is for survival.

There's no surprise there. Remove Syracuse, Louisville, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Notre Dame, and Connecticut, among others, and the result is obvious. The Big East is still a very good league. It just isn't what it was. Not this season.

Which leads to a question about the Big East tournament itself. The setting is the same, the stakes are still high. What will this season's tournament be like?

"It's not going to be the same, because Connecticut and Syracuse were such a big part of it," Wright said. "The other teams you miss basketball-wise, but those two schools were a big part of what that tournament is all about. There was just an aura because those two schools were close to New York and their fans would stay. It will not be the same, but it will still be one of the best basketball experiences in the country. People in New York go to this thing every year, and it's basketball. It's the mecca of basketball."

The hoops pilgrims will return and the teams once again will claw for the four days and nights. It often will look very much the same. After it is over, however, more teams will pack up and head home for good, and that won't be the same at all.


bford@phillynews.com

@bobfordsports

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