A team that is not guaranteed a tournament berth and is currently 11th in the Big East (St. John’s) just handily beat the defending national champion Duke Blue Devils.
When comparing the league’s credentials, it’s hard to argue against the Big East as the nation’s toughest. Its members boast victories over several top teams, including Texas (2x), Duke, and Kentucky. However, I’m not sure this league has a dominant team that will translate good into historical greatness by cutting down the nets in early April. Last year, the Big East had five teams that were a #3 seed or better, and seven teams that were at least a #6 seed.
That seems like child’s play compared to the seeds likely to be handed out to Big East teams in 2011. However, only West Virginia played to their seed last season in reaching the Final Four, as Georgetown (first round), Villanova (second round), Pittsburgh (second round), and Syracuse (sweet sixteen) all lost earlier than expected.
The one thing that stands out to me about the Big East in 2011 is the lack of perceived NBA talent for a conference that has been so dominant in the regular season. Chad Ford of ESPN Insider has only one Big East player in the Top 40 of his most recent Top 100 Draft Prospect list: Connecticut’s Kemba Walker at #8. Most of the other elite teams in the rankings have at least one, and sometimes multiple players, that are potential first round picks. Ohio State has Jared Sullinger, Kansas has Marcus Morris and Josh Selby, Texas has Jordan Hamilton, Duke and Kentucky have several that are viewed as NBA prospects. The Mountain West boasts more than the Big East, with Jimmer Fredette and Kawhi Leonard.
This is not to say that NBA potential determines how good college teams are; some great college players just don’t translate to the NBA because of size or other factors. Plenty of teams have great individual talents but don’t have the coaching or chemistry to make any impact at the college level. I am saying, though, that teams that make deep runs in the tournament often do have, along with excellent coaching and chemistry, some difference makers that flash elite talent. The last two teams from the Big East to appear in a championship game, Connecticut in 2004 with Emeka Okafor and Syracuse in 2003 with Carmelo Anthony, had lottery selections on the roster.
What the Big East does have is high quality coaching, lots of senior leadership, and generally speaking, good guard play from the tournament contenders. Connecticut is the biggest threat, if Kemba Walker gets on a roll, to make a deep run, while Pittsburgh is among the nation’s best, and leads the conference with an 8-1 record. The league has plenty of games to beat up to each other, and teams can re-arrange from week to week with everyone being so close. Right now, after Pittsburgh and Connecticut as a #1 or #2, my guess would be the following:
(3) Villanova, 17-4, 14th in RPI, 12th in Pomeroy
(3) Georgetown, 17-5, 3rd in RPI, 15th in Pomeroy
(4) Notre Dame, 17-4, 9th in RPI, 23rd in Pomeroy
(5) West Virginia, 14-6, 13th in RPI, 16th in Pomeroy
(5) Syracuse, 18-4, 20th in RPI, 19th in Pomeroy
(5) Louisville, 17-5, 22nd in RPI, 17th in Pomeroy
(8) Cincinnati, 18-4, 44th in RPI, 27th in Pomeroy
(9) Marquette, 14-8, 59th in RPI, 25th in Pomeroy
(11) St. John’s, 12-8, 24th in RPI, 52nd in Pomeroy
With St. John’s upset and quality win over Duke, I think an amazing 11 Big East teams are currently on pace to make the tournament. The committee is going to have a hard time balancing these teams in the brackets, though they did away with the rules that used to require conference members to avoid each other until the Elite 8. It’s possible now, for example, that a #4 and a #5 seed in the same region both come from the Big East. I suspect that the committee will try to avoid that if possible, but it’s a certainty that Big East teams will be on the same side of the bracket.
We will see if they can live up to the regular season hype, and win in the tournament to set up those conference matchups in March.
[photo via Getty]