Nine months removed from becoming the first conference to earn three #1 seeds in a NCAA Tournament, the Big East is looking to break its own record and send as many as nine teams to the Dance come March.
Through November, the conference has three teams ranked in the top 10, with seven ranked teams overall and sporting a 79-12 record.
More impressively, the Big East had a strong showing in the preseason tournaments. To recap:
Old Spice Classic – Marquette beat Xavier and Michigan, and then lost the finals to Florida State by a point after leading by as much as 17 in the second half.
76 Classic – Won by West Virginia who beat a resurgent Texas A&M team and feel good story Portland (who earlier shocked UCLA and Minnesota).
Maui Invitational – Cincinnati lost to Gonzaga in a thrilling overtime game for the championship.
Paradise Jam – DePaul defeated Northern Iowa and then lost to Tennessee in the semis, 57-53.
Puerto Rico Tip-Off – Won by Villanova after eking by George Mason, and then beating Dayton and Mississippi.
Charleston Classic – South Florida defeated Davidson, and lost to South Carolina in the semis, 68-62.
Legends Classic – Rutgers lost to Florida in the championship game (although granted Florida had to beat mighty Michigan State to get there, while the Scarlet Knights had to topple a 3-4 UMass team that lost to Cornell).
Cancun Challenge – No Big East teams participated.
NIT Preseason Tip-Off – UConn beat LSU in the semifinals, and were defeated by Duke in the championship game.
CBE Classic – Pittsburgh advanced past Wichita State and then was defeated by Texas in the championship game.
Coaches vs. Cancer – Won by Syracuse, after defeating Cal and North Carolina.
So there you have it. Of the 10 preseason tournaments in which the Big East Conference had a participant, eight had a Big East team playing in the title game, winning three of them. What’s more, nationally ranked Georgetown (#14) and Louisville (#18) did not participate in any of them.
However, if the notion of the conference landing nine or even ten teams into the NCAA Tournament sounds familiar, it should. Last year at this time, the Big East also had seven teams ranked in the early season polls, and many speculated (including yours truly) that they might top the eight teams they sent to the Dance in 2008. Of course, Georgetown, Notre Dame and Providence eventually fell by the wayside, with West Virginia and Syracuse nearly joining them (had it not been for strong runs in the Big East Tournament) and the Big East ended up with seven bids.
This season there are already some question marks that have arisen surrounding some ranked Big East teams that could spell trouble down the road (much like Georgetown last year).
Louisville, after losing Earl Clark and Terrance Williams to the NBA, has as many as ten players seeing significant playing time, and looks like they are still trying to find their sea legs with listless wins over East Tennessee State and Morgan State. They followed that with an ugly defeat to UNLV where they were down by as much as 19 in the second half before making a game of it with a furious rally.
UConn needed a monster effort by Jerome Dyson to come back from nine down with nine minutes to go to get by Hofstra and into the Preseason NIT, then went down in an eyesore of a championship game in which Duke shot 28% but cleaned up on the boards.
Of course the most obvious obstacle to sending several teams to the Tournament is that when there are so many loaded teams playing against each other in conference play, multiple times, the losses (and the injuries) can pile up.
Marquette, for example, starts off their Big East slate with West Virginia (on the road), Georgetown and a home and home with Villanova. Pittsburgh gets to start their conference play with three straight road games against Syracuse, Cincinnati, and UConn. They then get Georgetown and Louisville at home.
Notre Dame begins the New Year going to Storrs, and then soon after has a three game stint against West Virginia, Cincinnati and Syracuse. Seton Hall (who is undefeated but has played nobody) starts their conference play against West Virginia and Syracuse, while St. John’s (who has also played nobody) has a trip to Georgetown on New Year’s Eve.
So can the Big East really get nine teams into the Dance? We should have a pretty good idea by mid-January.