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January 22, 2014

Big East, Big Disappointment


After crawling out of the grave last year, the Big East came into the 2013-14 season with plenty of excitement and promise. Despite the recent defections of Syracuse, Pittsburgh, and Notre Dame, the Big East brought in three new schools, a big-time TV deal with Fox Sports 1, and a stranglehold on Madison Square Garden as host of their conference tournament. But, as we cross the halfway mark of college basketball's regular season, the Big East has proven anything but intimidating.

On a positive note, the biggest conference surprise has been the Villanova Wildcats. Villanova has been a top-ten team for the past several weeks, and holds a strong non-conference resume with wins over Number 2 Kansas and Number 23 Iowa. Not only have the Wildcats been the biggest surprise in the conference, they've also been one of the most stunning teams in the country. Frankly, their top-ten ranking may be slightly inflated by a weak conference, but neither the Cats, nor the Big East will complain.

Unfortunately for the Big East, there have been far too many teams that have surprisingly underachieved, headlined by Marquette and Georgetown. The Golden Eagles were a preseason top-25 squad, but started the season with five non-conference losses. Granted their non-conference included two top-ten teams (Ohio State, Wisconsin), but conference play hasn't been much better, off to a 2-3 start. Meantime, Georgetown has an awful non-conference loss to Northeastern, and double-digit conference losses to Providence, Xavier, and Seton Hall. Also, the Hoyas are the Conference's biggest brand. It is best for the Big East to have John Thompson III's team remain nationally relevant.

Locally, St. John's has been a disaster. The Red Storm beat Dartmouth Saturday, their first win in the New Year. They're 10-8 overall, and 0-5 in Big East play. The Red Storm has arguably the most athletic roster in the Conference with players Rysheed Jordan, D'Angelo Harrison, and God'sgift Achiuwa.

Coach Steve Lavin deserves some blame for not doing more with a lot of talent, and highly recruited players. In his defense, he has a young team, has had a tough non-conference schedule (Wisconsin, Syracuse), and played three of the first four conference games on the road. And like any young team, string together a few wins, build some confidence, and St. John's can be dangerous by February. But, the problem is, with the hole they have dug themselves, the wins must come ASAP, or the chances to make the NCAA Tournament will be non-existent.

Prior to the season, I believed a successful year for the "new" Big East would include five of 10 teams playing in the Big Dance. Since it is a smaller sized conference, 50 percent of the league earning a berth to the NCAA's would be very respectable. But, with the way the season has played out so far, getting five in seems unlikely.

After Villanova and Creighton, the second tier of the conference must begin to crystalize. Xavier, Georgetown, and Marquette are still the best bets. Without improvement from the other eight teams, the conference risks not being considered one of the "Big Boys" along with the ACC, Big 10, and Pac 12.

For a conference that prides itself as basketball-centric, that would be embarrassing. You only get one first impression. For this collection of ten Big East teams, this is it. It's imperative they don't blow it.

Pete is a lifelong Montauk resident and former sports talk host at 88.7FM WEER. He's currently a Sports Anchor at WCBS 880 and WFAN radio in NYC. He can be reached via email at peterfmundo@gmail.com.

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