Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Big East's Downward Trajectory

Big-East haters, including Charles Barkley, have been having a field day over the past two days. After receiving a record 11 bids (albeit to an expanded 68-team field), the Big East has gone quietly, with just 2 of its teams (#3-seed UConn and #11-seed Marquette) surviving the first weekend to make it to the Sweet Sixteen.

And while the 11 bids may have been deserved -- perhaps most convincingly because of the general mediocrity in the rest of what became the #1-seeds(*) in the NIT field -- the BE performance has been bad. And it's part of a pattern.

(*-The NIT #1 seeds, which presumably were the "last four out" of the NCAA field -- as the NCAA now owns the NIT -- were: Alabama (21-11, #45 on KenPom, Boston College (20-12, #69), Colorado (21-13, #56), and Virginia Tech (21-11, #32.))

A year ago, the Big East sent 8 teams, which led all conferences. While West Virginia did make it all the way to the Final Four, the rest of the league did not do particularly well: only 2 teams made it to the Sweet Sixteen (WVU and Syracuse, who was beaten by eventual national runner-up Butler.)

In 2009, however, it was a better story: just 7 Big East teams (nonetheless tied with the ACC and Big Ten for most by a single conference), with 5 advancing to the Sweet Sixteen; both UConn and Villanova went to the Final Four, and but-for a tremendous defensive performance by Michigan State (throttling Louisville), the Big East may have matched its record(*) of sending 3 of the 4 teams to the Final Four.

(*-Culminating in one of greatest Finals ever, Villanova over Georgetown. St. John's also went; the other team: a Dana Kirk-coached Memphis State (nee Memphis.))

The lesson? The Big East may have become "too" good. The competition among the various programs to reach the elite level -- to be an at-large Tourney selection -- has meant that many of the programs have upgraded their coaching and commitment (most notably, St Johns this year, which went 21-12 after playing .500 over the past two years.)

With eleven legitimate Tournament teams, almost every game in the Conference was played at a high level. And the wear-and-tear may have produced entertaining league games (and a memorable Big East Tournament) but a wash-out on the game's biggest stage.

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