The Big East is imposing in ways beyond mere size. The conference is home to several of those hallowed one-word coaching names that command respect, even reverence. Calhoun, Boeheim, Pitino--there's ten Final Fours and four national championships right there. The league that's still younger than any of its head coaches has nevertheless already accumulated a great deal of heft through success.
So when the conference sneezes about selections to the NCAA tournament, pretty much the whole college basketball village catches the cold. You may remember last year, when a certain team in upstate New York and their Hall of Fame coach were left on the outside looking in on Selection Sunday. Even if you don't remember it, rest assured the Big East does. Witness commissioner Mike Tranghese's warning shot at this year's Big East media day. The usual discursive fare at these events is bland generalities and broad platitudes. Not this time. Tranghese instead chose to open the festivities with his best Dr. Evil impersonation. Picture him stroking a cat in his lap:
"I have coaches in this room who feel we're being arbitrated against….I think we're very capable of putting a lot of teams into the tournament this year. And if this recurs then I think we've got a big problem on our hands."
Then he pressed a button and the assembled beat writers fell through a trap door and into a shark tank. No, seriously, to review….
Syracuse felt slighted when they were left out with an RPI of 50. Theirs, of course, was nowhere near the highest RPI to be left out. In fact, no fewer than eight non-invitees were ranked above the Orangemen on the fabled Index. That's not to say that RPI is or should be the only criterion, much less that the Orangemen didn't have a beef. It's merely that the nature of the selection process itself mandates that several teams each year will have legitimate grievances. So the fact that it was Jim Boeheim's pained visage in particular that came to be seen as the very essence of traduced victimhood suggests factors were at work that went beyond the bare merits of the case. Factors such as the displeasure of a big conference accustomed to having a big influence.
Is "Big" the Same as "Good"?
Already in the young life of the super-sized Big East, it's become de rigueur for its coaches to wail that theirs is the toughest conference, that every road trip is a death march filled with unparalleled challenges, and that by virtue of its size, the conference encompasses a wide range of styles and thus requires more preparation from game to game.
The sprawling archipelago known as the Big East does indeed embrace large differences in style. Syracuse and Notre Dame play fast. Georgetown and Pitt play slow. Connecticut and South Florida pound the ball inside. West Virginia launches threes. (At least they did when John Beilein was there.) As far as overall quality, however, it's less clear that having 16 teams necessarily equates to having a competitive conference top to bottom.
Certainly Georgetown and Louisville can play with anyone. Marquette is deep and experienced. Pitt has found its niche: consistent, tough, good. Connecticut will, of course, rise from its ashes before too long. There is indeed a lot of quality in the Big East. Then again, a conference this big will always have a lot of teams who are "down" at any given moment. The coaches who wail about the tough road trips actually get to play away games at such relatively forgiving stops as Rutgers, South Florida, Cincinnati, St. John's and Seton Hall. It's no mistake that the Big East's RPI last year was a relatively un-beastly fifth in the nation. Among BCS conferences, only the Big 12 ranked lower.
The Logistical Challenges of Size
For the first two seasons of its 16-team incarnation, the Big East went with a 16-game schedule. Given that a traditional home-and-away schedule would entail 30 conference games per team, the 16-game schedule meant there were teams that didn't play each other at all during the regular season. Last year Georgetown and Providence--two storied programs affiliated by relative proximity, Catholicism and a shared history as founding members of the Big East--didn't meet. Speaking of founding members, Syracuse and Seton Hall didn't play each other.
This, of course, diluted the meaning of the term "conference" to a near nullity. Most significantly, it desiccated the regular-season championship to the point where the team that ended the season at the top of the standings could in some years be seen as little more than the winner of a weak-schedule lottery. Not that that was the case with Georgetown last year. Quite the opposite. Merely that the potential was latent in the very structure of this league.
Adding two conference games to the schedule is therefore a small but welcome improvement. Thanks to this year's 18-game conference schedule, every team will play every other team at least once. That's 15 of the 18 games right there. The other three are nominally scheduled according to "rivalries." That sounds reasonable, but some league official has likely already been asked to explain to Jim Boeheim exactly how it is that his Orangemen suddenly became the heated rivals of South Florida.
Another change on the horizon is that, as of 2009, all 16 teams will be invited to the conference tournament. High time.
The Difference is Offense
In the Big East last year, defense was more or less constant and offense was the independent variable. The big three of Georgetown, Louisville and Pitt all played a very similar level of very good defense.
Big East Defense, 2007, Conference games only
What separated these contenders was offense. That meant Georgetown, with one of the best offenses in the nation, came out on top.
Big East Offense, 2007, Conference games only
Notre Dame 1.09
West Virginia 1.08
These numbers hint at several things, all of which will be forthcoming in the team previews. For now, let us simply recognize what Jim Calhoun did in 2007. Painfully young team, atrocious shooting, no offense whatsoever, few wins...and yet somehow he still got his players to put forth the effort needed to play the best defense in the Big East. Salute, Coach.
Just imagine if Jeff Green had stayed. Georgetown would be the clear number-one pick. I mean number-one in the country, not just in the Big East.
Alas, Green is gone. How big a hit is that? Depends. If the Hoyas can simply hold on to the ball this year (instead of giving it away on 24 percent of their possessions like they did last year in-conference), Green may prove to be surprisingly easy to "replace." The way to do that is to give the rock to Roy Hibbert. The big guy makes his shots, swats away the other team's, and holds on to the ball. Besides, it's against nature for a Princeton-flavored offense to give away as many turnovers as Georgetown did last year. The Hoyas will be there at the end in 2008.
Louisville won't be far behind, if at all. They already play D. They already take care of the ball. Now, we're told, Derrick Caracter and David Padgett are healthy, weight-appropriate, and ready for minutes. If so, the Cardinals can go far.
Lastly, I'm happy to note that my procrastination has once again paid off. Putting off these predictions until now means I have some final scores at hand. South Florida loses at home to Cleveland State. Cincinnati loses at home to Belmont. The bottom of the conference last year will be the bottom of the conference this year. Still, keep an eye on USF's Kentrell Gransberry. He's not the best player in the Big East but, given his team, he's definitely the most valuable player in the Big East. For instance: he didn't play in the Cleveland State game. Look what happened.
2007 Pythag % Returning 2008
Team Wins Minutes Prediction
Georgetown 13.0 79.0 13-5
Louisville 12.2 85.2 13-5
Marquette 9.0 95.3 12-6
Notre Dame 10.7 68.4 11-7
Pitt 11.7 59.2 11-7
Villanova 9.1 57.1 11-7
Syracuse 9.6 38.9 10-8
Connecticut 7.2 91.4 10-8
Providence 8.7 83.7 10-8
West Virginia 9.0 70.2 9-9
Seton Hall 5.1 76.9 7-11
DePaul 8.4 50.6 7-11
St. John's 4.8 43.7 6-12
Cincinnati 3.6 74.9 5-13
Rutgers 3.1 61.3 5-13
South Florida 3.3 55.5 4-14
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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