January 12, 2011
Is the Big East too good for its own good?
As the NFL heads into the playoffs and Super Bowl Sunday is within sight, it's time to channel some of our focus to another of our favorite winter sports: college basketball. There's little in the sports world more exciting than the first weekend of March Madness. Months of practice and four months of games come down to forty minutes on the hardwood in a sudden death format. Even better, as Long Islanders we don't need to travel far or get an expensive DIRECTV package to watch the most competitive college basketball in the country.
The Big East has proven once again to be the strongest conference in the NCAA despite the large number of talented players either graduating or leaving for the NBA. Currently, six Big East teams are in the top 15 in the nation.
The titans in the league include the Syracuse Orangemen, Pittsburgh Panthers, Villanova Wildcats, and Connecticut Huskies. Juniors Kris Josephs and Scoop Jardine have led the Orangemen to an undefeated record thus far. The Pittsburgh Panthers are doing things the Jamie Dixon way, which includes aggressive rebounding and strong teamwork. The Villanova Wildcats may very well have their most talented squad in the Jay Wright era, but questions remain about Wright's ability to get his team to communicate on the defensive side of the ball. The Connecticut Huskies are extremely dangerous behind the Big East player of the year front-runner, Kemba Walker, despite two early season losses in conference play.
The second tier of Big East teams includes the Georgetown Hoyas, Notre Dame Fighting Irish, Louisville Cardinals, Marquette Golden Eagles and Cincinnati Bearcats. Put these teams in any other conference and they are first tier contenders. Yes, there are some flaws, as JT III is lacking the ideal center he needs to run his Princeton offense at Georgetown and the Golden Eagles still lack the interior dominance that has plagued them since Tom Crean was at the helm. Yet, it would not be a shock to see a record nine Big East teams punch a ticket to the big dance in March.
The usual bottom feeders of Rutgers and St. John's have dramatically improved squads and will not be the doormats we've come to expect in recent seasons. With new head coaches and top 15 recruiting classes (in 2011), both the Red Storm and Scarlet Knights have begun their turnaround and are playing competitive conference games. St. John's, with nine seniors on the roster, has the ability to improve to a .500 team in conference play and snag one of the last at-large bids in the NCAA tournament.
But is this league just too deep and too quality for its own good? While having the strongest conference the last few years, the Big East has consistently failed to provide Final Four contenders or for that matter, a National Champion. Of the 2010 Elite Eight teams only one (West Virginia) was from the Big East, despite tying their record of placing eight teams in the Tournament. In 2009, the Big East placed four teams in the Elite Eight. But, only one team from the Conference reached the Elite Eight in 2007 and 2008. The wear and tear of the 18 game conference schedule (compared with 16 in other major conferences) and the expansion of the Big East Tournament has added extra mileage to athletes that are competing night in, night out with the most athletic teams in the nation.
As Big East hoops fans, January, February, and early March are exciting times, but lately there has been an empty feeling once March Madness gets underway. Reducing the conference schedule to 16 games and cutting down the Big East Tournament to ten qualifiers might help the Conference get back on track to prosper during the heavyweight fights of late March. Ultimately that's what counts, right? As good as that February win feels over your most hated Big East rival, clinching a Final Four berth on a last-second floater in the lane feels a heckuva lot better. As a Villanova alum, trust me on that one.
*Pete is a Montauk resident, producer at ESPN Radio 1230AM, and host of "The Pete Mundo Sports Talk Show", live on your airwaves, 88.7FM WEER Hamptons Community Radio Tuesday and Thursday nights from 7-8PM. Pete can be reached via e-mail at Peterfmundo@gmail.com.