Back in October, before the season officially kicked off and every website was pouring out their season previews, the general consensus seemed to be that the Big Ten and the Big XII were going to be vying for the spot atop the conference power rankings this year.
It made sense.
The Big XII was home to two Final Four favorites (Kansas and Kansas State) and five legitimate contenders (throwing Baylor, Texas, and Missouri into the mix) for the conference regular season title. The Big Ten wasn’t much different, as Purdue and Michigan State were widely considered a toss-up as second to Duke nationally and Ohio State, Wisconsin, and Illinois were all thought of a potential sleepers in the league. Throw in a handful of potential all-americans and talented freshmen in each league, and it only made sense.
That’s why it was the consensus.
Because the consensus usually is the option that makes the most sense.
The Big East, on the other hand, was thought to be down this season. They lacked the firepower at the top of the league that they had in 2009, when three of the four No. 1 seeds, five of the Sweet 16 teams, and half of the Final Four were all Big East members. They lacked, and for the most part still do lack, the kind of individual talent that makes NBA scouts salivate. The two favorites for conference player of the year — Austin Freeman and Cory Fisher — are terrific four year college players, but neither will be lighting up NBA Draft boards in June.
Two months into the season, the picture looks a little different.
The Big East is rolling. Of the 19 teams in the country that are still undefeated, seven reside in the Big East — Pitt, UConn, Georgetown, Syracuse, Notre Dame, Cincinnati, Louisville. Three more have just one loss, and that includes 9-1 Providence, who was predicted to be a Big East doormat but is off to the school’s best start since 1988. (By comparison, the Big Ten and the Big XII both have just two undefeated teams left.)
That’s not all. The Big East had six teams win the early season tournament they participated in. Two more made the finals. While these tournaments hold no real value beyond the entertainment and the potential for some great non-conference matchups, they do allow us to get a feel for what the national landscape looks like. These tournaments don’t schedule two teams from the same league to avoid issues with repeating games that happen in conference play.
So how did this happen? How did the Big East pole vault the Big XII and the Big Ten in the conference rankings?
For starters, the top of the Big East has been putting together some impressive wins against the Big XII and the Big Ten. UConn and Syracuse both beat Michigan State. Georgetown beat Missouri. Notre Dame beat Wisconsin. Pitt beat Texas. The only significant win either of these two leagues have notched over the Big East is Minnesota’s win against West Virginia.
It also has helped that a number of Big East teams have been early season surprises. I don’t think anyone predicted the kind of start that the UConn Fighting Kemba Walkers have had. Georgetown, who is currently sitting No. 1 in the RPI, has beaten the like of Old Dominion, NC State, and Utah State in addition to Missouri. Notre Dame, Cincinnati, Louisville, and Providence have all exceeded expectations early on. Even Georgetown, who was a top 20 team in the preseason, has looked like a Final Four contender early in the season.
All of a sudden, the conference that didn’t have enough firepower at the top has five teams in the top 12 and seven teams ranked in at least one of the polls.
Do I think this will last?
And its not because I think that the teams in the Big East will beat each other up come conference play. The bottom of the conference is weak enough that there will be nights off, and the Big Ten and the Big XII are just as deep as the Big East.
Its because so many teams in the Big East are playing their absolute best basketball right now. UConn is bound to come back to earth. Kemba Walker is not going to be able to put up these numbers all season long. Providence and Cincinnati will start losing games once they actually play some competition. Louisville plays a style that will cost them some games on nights they aren’t hitting threes.
The Big East has proven that we misjudged them early on.
And if you were to take a snapshot of the country today, its easy to make a convincing argument that the Big East is the best conference. I hope this post did just that.
But counting on this kind of play from everyone in the conference for an entire season is wishful thinking.