The Big East set records last season.
Eleven teams were given an invite to the NCAA tournament. Only two made it out of the first weekend. Both of them were the result of Big East-on-Big East violence; No. 11 seed Marquette upset No. 3 seed Syracuse before getting drubbed by North Carolina in the Sweet 16 and, of course, UConn rolled through Cincinnati en route to the national title.
Every other Big East team — all seven of them — fell in either the first or the second round. It’s not exactly a rousing performance for a conference that had been mentioned as one of the best ever.
This year, the Big East still got nine teams into the NCAA tournament, but for a variety of reasons, the conference was generally looked down upon. It’s not easy to figure out way. Coming off of such a dismal postseason performance, the nation watched as South Florida managed to finish tied for fourth place in the conference. South Florida! One of the teams that they were tied with, Cincinnati, had lost to Presbyterian earlier in the season.
So you can see why the rest of the country had their doubts.
But this year, the Big East is actually performing. After Saturday’s games, three Big East teams have made their way into the Sweet 16 — Syracuse beat Kansas State, Marquette survived Murray State and Louisville eliminated New Mexico. And with Georgetown playing NC State, South Florida taking on Ohio and Cincinnati squaring off with Florida State, there is a good chance that two more get through Sunday, if not all three.
When do we start asking the question of whether or not the Big East is the nation’s best conference?
Because at this point, the only other league that deserves to be in the conversation is the Big Ten. The SEC has just two teams left in the tournament. Same with the Big 12 and the Atlantic 10. The ACC has three left, but in order to get three teams into the Sweet 16, the ACC needs a 3-0 day Sunday.
The Big Ten, like the Big East, already has three teams in the Sweet 16. But unlike the Big East, getting five into the Sweet 16 is not probably. Purdue would have to upset Kansas while Michigan State holds serve against St. Louis. (But since the Big East has more teams — and more tournament teams — than the Big Ten, I think it’s fair to say four Big Ten teams is roughly equivalent to five Big East teams.)
To be frank, determining conference strength based on tournament performance is not exactly an precise exercise. I don’t think anyone would be smart to argue that the Big Ten wasn’t the best league in the country.
But it is fair to say that, based on the way they were viewed during the regular season, the Big East has way out-performed expectations.