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Big East To Introduce Regional Division Play For Fall Sports

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Although that’s not the headline on the press release.

NCAA Basketball: Big East Tournament- St. John’s vs Creighton
Commissioner Val Ackerman tells you what’s what.
Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

On Monday, the Big East Conference announced that The Rev. Peter M. Donohue, OSA, PhD, and President of Villanova University was elected as chairperson of the conference’s Board of Directors. Essentially, it just means that Fr. Donohue is in charge of the meetings when the Big East school presidents get together, as that’s what the Board of Directors is.

Item #2 in the press release is the announcement of a conference COVID-19 Task Force which will “provide guidance and develop recommendations to assist member schools in safely resuming and conducting athletics activities.” I’m not entirely sure why the task force is only being announced now, nearly three months after the coronavirus pandemic shut down collegiate sports in totality, but hey, here we are. Because I know you’re hanging on every word here, I will let you know that Marquette’s involvement in the Task Force is limited to Brandon Yoder, MU’s Director of Sports Medicine and head athletic trainer for men’s basketball and men’s golf, is part of the athletic trainer group along with Ralph Reiff from Butler and Tony Testa from Seton Hall.

Item #3 in the press release is actually our headline item here at your favorite Marquette athletics blog site. The Big East has now announced plans for regional divisional play for the fall 2020 campaigns. In short, for men’s soccer, women’s soccer, and women’s volleyball, aka the three fall sports that we regularly write about here on AE, the league has been split into two uneven halves. The division is geographic, with Marquette being joined in the Midwest Division by Butler, Creighton, DePaul, and Xavier. The other six schools in the conference — Georgetown, Providence, St. John’s, Seton Hall, Villanova and returning member Connecticut — will form the East Division.

For the fall 2020 season, there will be no crossover play between the two divisions. In the two soccer leagues, each division will play each other twice. It’s not expressly stated in the press release, but I think it’s pretty obvious that means one home game and one road game against each member of the division. For volleyball, each team will play their divisional rivals four times. Again, it’s not clearly stated here, but I presume that means two home and two road matches against each squad. I also presume that means that the volleyball matches in each location will be on back-to-back days or at the very least over the same weekend. For example, there’s no reason to make Marquette travel to Omaha twice to play Creighton when you can just knock out two matches in two days while you’re there.

This means that Marquette’s two soccer teams will play an eight game schedule in 2020, while volleyball will have a 16 match slate. That’s one down from the regular schedule in soccer and two down in volleyball. It’s also fewer matches than the East Division will be playing, as each team over there will play 10 conference matches in soccer and 20 in volleyball. I’m not exactly sure what this is going to mean as far as seeding for the conference tournaments, but hey, that also presumes that there even is going to be conference tournaments this year. If the Big East is going to a regional model for the regular season to save teams a few dollars on travel to help defray expenses due to money lost because of the pandemic, then not holding conference tournament also makes sense. It wouldn’t make perfect sense, but you can see the logic there.

We should probably address the elephant in the room here, and that’s the RPI implications of this. In short: Regional Divisional play is great news for Marquette.

Let’s be clear: I’m specifically referring to women’s volleyball here, but the benefit there is big enough to declare this to be great news across the board. I’ve talked a lot on these digital pages in the past that Marquette and Creighton are being dragged down by their conference schedule when it comes to NCAA tournament seeding. For example, in 2019, Marquette went into Selection Sunday with an RPI ranking of #13, and yet the Golden Eagles were not one of the top 16 seeds in the field. As a result, they had to go on the road for the first two rounds instead of hosting the NCAA tournament at the McGuire Center as they did in 2018. Since Marquette ended up in a match hosted by #16 Purdue, it’s very clear that the Golden Eagles were on the very edge of hosting the first two rounds. There’s really no other explanation other than “The Big East had a Conference RPI of #11” as an explanation as to what bumped MU out of hosting.

Under the regional division scheduling system, Marquette will play Creighton four times. The Bluejays entered Selection Sunday with an RPI of #20 last season, and there’s no reason to believe that Creighton won’t be aiming for the same heights again in 2020. Merely adding two more matches against the Jays is good for Marquette. Also good for Marquette: Avoiding any matches at all with Connecticut (RPI #201 on Selection Sunday), Georgetown (#223), Seton Hall (#286), and Providence (#298). If the Midwest Division teams end up with roughly the same RPIs in 2020 as they had on Selection Sunday in 2019, Marquette will end up with zero sub-200 RPI matches on their resume in Big East play. Had the league gone to the full 20 match double round-robin format, they would have ended up with eight.

The benefits, or maybe lack there of, are harder to divine out for soccer. Men’s soccer is a bear in the Big East no matter who you’re playing. Every single team in the Big East was in the top 100 in the RPI on the day that the NCAA tournament bracket was announced last fall. Is it good or bad that Marquette is avoiding defending national champions Georgetown (#2 in the RPI) and St. John’s (#9) in 2020? You can legitimately argue it either way, especially as Marquette is going to have to find a way to replace 15 of the 25 goals that they scored in 2019.

For women’s soccer, 2020 is the first year under new head coach Frank Pelaez, so it’s hard to make any very strong assessments about anything. Last year, MU was the worst RPI team out of the five in the Midwest Division, and that division had three of the league’s five top 100 teams. That would seem to be a good thing in terms of boosting Marquette’s RPI, but the focus for Pelaez is one of rebuilding rather than competing for a national championship tournament appearance at the moment. With that in mind, it may be beneficial to the Golden Eagles to be able to pick two matches to schedule, as they’ll be playing eight Big East matches instead of 10 in the East Division.

I would also like to point out that the press release says that schedules “will be developed,” which indicates that it could be a little while before we get those in our grubby little mitts. That’s important to note here, because by this point last year, we already had all three fall schedules. The last line of the press release also points out that “all championship dates, sites and formats will be announced at a later date.” The existence of a Big East tournament in any of the three sports that we’ve been talking about here is very much up for grabs at this point, and it’s quite clear from that language that the usual six team format for soccer and four team format for volleyball is not necessarily one that we will see in 2020. I can see an easy way to make those formats work with divisional play, but that’s a discussion for a different time.

You can read the entire press release right here.