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Not a Good Weekend for the Big East

Big East teams gave critics plenty of ammo, with a disappointing first weekend of the NCAA Tournament

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Whether we like it or not, whether it's fair or not, the fact is broad conclusions are drawn about entire conferences based upon their teams performances in the NCAA Tournament.  This is true for all conferences.  Baylor and Iowa State lose on Day 1 - clearly the Big 12 wasn't as good as everyone thought.  However, it is especially true for the Big East.

In its second year after the break-up with the football schools, the Big East is still trying to forge its identity on the national landscape.  The conference is still trying to prove that it carries the same weight that it did when UConn and Syracuse were still around.  This is made challenging by the lack visibility and hype afforded Big East teams by ESPN - the primary vehicle by which most people consume their college basketball information.  Fox Sports 1 is great for a Big East fan, or even just a hardcore college basketball fan, but the fact remains that the network is not yet a destination for casual sports viewers.  This places added importance on games in the Tournament, to remind people that the Big East is still very much alive and we're playing some good basketball.

Last season was a season of transition.  Two of the flagship programs, that were being counted on to represent the league in March (Georgetown and Marquette), failed to even make the tournament.  Instead the conference was represented by a few of the newcomers (Creighton and Xavier), a member of the old guard that squeaked in by wining the Conference Tournament (Providence) and finally, by the third flagship program, Villanova, who won the league regular season crown, and earned a #2 seed.  Villanova was really the only Big East school that seemed to have a real chance at a deep run.  Unfortunately, they ran into the eventual National Champs, UConn, in the round of 32, and the Big East failed to get a team into the Tournament's second weekend.

That was rough, but it somehow seemed ok.  Georgetown would be back, with a highly touted recruiting class. St. John's returned a veteran group.  Providence and Xavier seemed poised to build on their 2014 successes.  And Villanova would be returning nearly everyone that mattered from a team that had gone 28-4.  The Big East was going to make some noise in 2015.

Basically, all of that ended up being true.  The Big East finished with the 3rd strongest conference RPI.  Its teams performed fantastically in the non-conference.  This year they got six teams into the Big Dance, and seemed to get a fair bit of love from the selection committee on their seeds.  St. John's got a 9 seed, Providence, Xavier and Butler were all given 6 seeds, Georgetown got a 4, and Villanova got a coveted 1 seed.  But this respect from the committee, drew a great deal of skepticism about how good the Big East teams really were and there was an extra level of scrutiny cast on those teams by those who thought the conference was overrated.  The Big East needed to come up big, to silence the critics and help re-establish the league's standing with a lot of college basketball fans.

Unfortunately, it didn't work out that way.  St. John's, without the suspended Chris Obekpa, got bounced by San Diego St., on the Aztecs best offensive night of the season.  Providence got stuck playing Dayton, in a de facto home game in Columbus, had Kris Dunn pick up 2 fouls during pregame warm-ups, and were never able to get over the hump.  Butler dispatched the bubblicious Texas Longhorns, before losing in overtime to Notre Dame in round 2 (or round 3 or whatever it's called).  Georgetown managed to avoid losing to a double digit seed this year, but wasn't able to overcome Utah in the 4/5 game.  All of that would have been ok, if Villanova could make that deep run that they seemed poised to make.  But once again it was not to be.  After eviscerating Lafeyette in their opener, the Wildcats picked a terrible time to have an uncharacteristically awful shooting night and got bounced by the 8 seed, NC State, in the round of 32.

Luckily Xavier was able to handle Ole Miss and then avoided falling victim to America's Cinderella, Georgia State.  The Musketeers ensured that the Big East would not get shut out of the Sweet Sixteen for a second year in a row.  But those looking for an opportunity to cast aspersions on the league found no shortage of ammunition in the other five losses - especially Villanova's.

In reality, there is no shame in any of those losses.  And it's completely unfair to discard a season's worth of successes, because of four days in March.... but fair's got nothing to do with it.  This is the time of year when perceptions are formed across the college hoops world, and unfortunately, the perception of the Big East is that it came up small once again.