A number of national college basketball writers have started singing the same song when it comes to sizing up the Big East’s performance in nonconference play.
And it’s not flattering.
For instance, Rob Dauster, who covers college basketball for NBC Sports, summed up the feelings some of his colleagues have about the reconfigured league when he recently analyzed the conference race.
“Villanova is kind of the favorite by default here, as the Big East has been one of the country’s most disappointing conferences this season,” Dauster wrote. “They really are the only team that looks capable of winning a couple games in the NCAA tournament right now.”
The Wildcats, unbeaten heading into Saturday’s game at Syracuse, have emerged as the Big East standard bearer. Villanova is eighth in this week’s Associated Press poll and owns the league’s only two wins against teams currently in the Top 25.
The rest of the league is 0-12 against rated teams. The Wildcats own two of the league’s five wins over teams in the top 50 in the RPI and none of the 18 losses.
The Big East does have some pluses that balance those minuses. Overall, the league sits at third or fourth in conference RPI, depending on which rankings are used and the day of the week.
Six of the league’s 10 teams are in the RPI top 60, and seven have lost three games or fewer. One of the three teams with more than three losses is preseason favorite Marquette, but it could be argued that the Golden Eagles have played the most demanding schedule with five games against RPI top-50 opponents.
“Only one team, Kansas, has played more top-50 games,” Marquette coach Buzz Williams said on Friday’s Big East coaches teleconference. “Have we helped ourselves? In regards to being willing to play those games, yes. In regards to four of those five games being on the road, yes. In regards to being 1-4, no.”
Nor have the Golden Eagles helped the national perception of the Big East. Marquette was the lone conference school to start the season ranked but it dropped out after the first three polls. Having the team that everyone figured would be the Big East’s bell cow stumble through the preseason hardly scores points with the national analysts.
Creighton spent two weeks in the rankings but dropped out after back-to-back losses to San Diego State and George Washington in the Wooden Legacy tournament.
That leaves Villanova as the league’s only ranked team. The Wildcats moved into the rankings after winning the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament, where they posted wins over nationally ranked Kansas and Iowa in back-to-back games.
Xavier also played in the tournament, suffering the Big East’s only three losses there.
“We were down in the Bahamas with Xavier and we beat Iowa in the championship game in overtime,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said. “Xavier had Iowa down 15 and lost in overtime.”
Those two outcomes, Wright said, underscore what he sees as the fine line that figures into how the Big East is perceived nationally.
“The way I look at this league, everybody can beat top-10 teams,” he said. “Most teams could be a Top 25 team. We don’t have any bad losses. We might have one or two, but look at the RPIs. The lowest is 140.”
The RPI takes into account wins and losses but also strength of schedule. It’s important in the long term for a conference to establish a solid top-to-bottom RPI profile as it prevents wild fluctuations through the season.
“This is going to be a competitive, competitive league,” Butler coach Brandon Miller said. “I think there’s always going to be rumblings and talk when you have a new league, but statistically, especially looking at the RPI, we’ve played pretty well.”
But with the way nonconference play has unfolded, it appears Big East teams will have limited opportunities to improve their national reputations once conference play begins. One college basketball website, Warrennolan.com, has just Villanova among the top 50 in its projected RPI.
Based on those rankings, Butler (53) and Creighton (63) would find themselves on the bubble should they not earn the league’s automatic berth in the NCAA tournament.
Of course, getting teams to the tournament and having success there is the ultimate measuring stick these days of a conference’s strength. In his latest bracket predictions, ESPN’s Joe Lunardi has four Big East teams — Villanova, Georgetown, Creighton and Marquette — making the field of 68.
Before the season started, some college basketball observers were projecting as many as six league teams might make the tournament.
“I think at the end of the day, we’ll have as many teams in the tournament as any league in the country,” Providence coach Ed Cooley said. “It will all balance out in the end.”
Conference play begins Tuesday for all 10 teams, with Fox Sports 1, the league’s broadcast partner, televising each of the five games. The schools will play 18 conference games in a round-robin format before convening in New York in March for the league tournament.
Georgetown coach John Thompson III cautions on reserving judgment on the Big East, though he knows that’s difficult to do in these days of 24/7 news cycles and the demand for instant analysis.
“I think you should wait until the season is over and look at the complete body of work,” he said. “At the end of the day, and I’ve said this from the beginning and it’s true now, this is and will be one of the better basketball conferences in the country.”