Is the Big East Back to Being College Basketball's Best Conference?

Is the Big East Back to Being College Basketball's Best Conference?

Jalen Brunson of the Villanova Wildcats gets pumped prior to a game against the Temple Owls.

SourceMitchell Leff/Getty

Why you should care

Because the Northeast is basketball country. 

Patrick Ewing’s towering figure remains a dreaded sight for his puny opponents. Sure, it’s been 32 years since the 7-footer dominated Big East foes during the conference’s heyday as college basketball’s premier assembly, but now Ewing has returned to rebound his Georgetown Hoyas from college basketball’s doldrums. After a 17-year Hall of Fame NBA career and another decade-plus as an NBA assistant coach, the finest player in Georgetown University history is now the program’s head coach.

But the return of Georgetown’s prodigal son is significant for more than just the Hoyas. While Ewing’s Georgetown team has raced to a surprising 8–1 start, the rest of the “new” Big East — five seasons removed from conference realignment that saw several Big East staple programs leave for fatter paydays in more football-focused conferences — the league has reestablished itself as arguably the top conference in college basketball.

Last season an unprecedented 70 percent of Big East teams made the NCAA Tournament. This year that number could grow.

With 11 of its 16 members reaching March Madness in 2011, the Big East already holds the record for the most teams to make the tournament. But many of those 11 teams have since left what’s now a 10-team league. With seven entrants to last year’s tournament, the Big East topped the ACC’s previous record for greatest percentage of qualifiers (six out of nine teams in 1996 and 1997). But qualifying teams for postseason play is only half the battle when reestablishing a conference’s national brand. “Even though [the Big East] has some old standby Big East teams, it’s still a relatively new entity,” says ESPN analyst Jay Bilas. “At the end of the day, a league is about which teams are nationally competitive. Nothing helped the Big East more than Villanova winning the national championship two years ago.”

Continuing to rebuild the national brand is paramount to the sustained success of the Big East. The league still hosts its conference tournament in New York at Madison Square Garden every March, but the excitement once surrounding that near-mythical tilt has dissipated, trickling into a lack of enthusiasm on the recruiting trail. Just this past season, three top prospects from New York City who almost surely would have signed with Big East schools in decades past — Mo Bamba, Hamidou Diallo and Isaiah Washington — decided to head elsewhere for college.

But according to Bilas, Villanova’s 2016 championship may have reestablished the Big East as a desirable destination. Villanova coach Jay Wright has turned a once-pedestrian program into a legitimate avenue for future professionals, and the No. 1–ranked Wildcats have won four straight Big East crowns. “[Wright] does a phenomenal job with the culture and instilling what’s important,” Xavier head coach Chris Mack told reporters via conference call. “You play Villanova, you understand what they’re about. That’s a challenge not just for myself, but for every coach.’’

While most regions in America rally behind an obsession with college football, the Northeast is basketball country.

That doesn’t mean that the rest of the league will relent. No. 10 Xavier (9–1) and No. 15 Seton Hall (9–2) are close behind Villanova (10–0), and No. 25 Creighton (8–2) rounds out the USA Today coaches poll. No league member — other than DePaul — has more than three losses through 11 games. Though the onset of conference play will certainly bruise some teams’ résumés, there remains a strong possibility that seven or eight teams will earn an NCAA tournament berth come March.

While most regions in America rally behind an obsession with college football, the Northeast is basketball country. The Big East tournament was appointment television from 1979 to 2012. The league-wide rivalries were authentic, and fans understood the history of a conference now seeking redemption. The old Big East may be dead, but continued postseason prominence could help this new version develop into something equally exciting.

If nothing else, at least we have years of Ewing versus St. John’s coach Chris Mullin on the horizon.

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