Big East Stumbles Out of the Block

    
November 26th, 2006
Certainly two weeks do not make an entire season, but if first impressions hold, then the Big East’s slogan that it is the “Biggest and the Best” conference in the country will be only half right. Those who follow college hoops knew that the conference would not be as strong as it was a year ago, especially at the bottom of the league, but I doubt anyone expected the number of shoddy, inept performances that numerous Big East teams have displayed so far. Consider the following results from early-season contests.

 

 

Cincinnati, after three easy wins over non-descript opponents, lost to Wofford, 91-90, in Cincy.  Granted, the Terriers lost to North Carolina State by only four points, but it’s still not a good omen for Coach Mike Cronin and staff.

 

De Paul, which I picked to finish ninth in the 16-team conference, lost by 20 to Bradley despite the fact that the Demons lost only one contributor from last year’s team, while Bradley had to replace three starters, including center Patrick O’Bryant. Coach Jerry Wainwright’s crew then lost at Northwestern by 10, an even more humbling experience, because it managed to score only 39 points.

 

Georgetown defeated a decent SEC team in Vanderbilt but then lost to Old Dominion by 13, 75-62. Even worse, the Hoyas suffered this double-digit defeat on their home court. They certainly didn’t look like a Top 20 team, let alone a Top 10 team.

 

Notre Dame is 3-1 so far, but they lost to Butler of the Horizon League, 71-69, in Indianapolis . This two-point loss had to be déjà vu for Coach Mike Brey and returning players from last year’s team that lost more games in the last minute of play than they care to count.

 

Providence has played only three games, but they suffered an embarrassing loss to Ivy League foe, Brown, 51-41. The Friars should be considerably improved this season, but they didn’t play like a decent team in this game. Even without center Randall Hanke, Coach Tim Welch’s charges should have dispatched Brown without much difficulty.

 

Rutgers faced Bob Huggins’ Kansas State team at the RAC and managed to score only 41 points in a 14-point loss to the Wildcats. At least Kansas State is a member of the Big 12, so the defeat doesn’t sting quite as much as if it had come against a team from a weaker conference. Still, 41 points in 40 minutes is not exactly a recipe for success.  The real killer, though is the recent loss, 71-70, to Jackson State at home.  It was Jackson State’s first win of the season (though they have played a very tough schedule).  The Knights followed up the Jackson state loss by getting blown out by Bradley (101-72), and losing to Miami Ohio.

 

Seton Hall, a team that will be fortunate to make the Big East Tournament, lost on its home court to Fairleigh Dickinson, 76-71. This is the same Fairleigh Dickinson that has been picked to finish as low as eighth in the Northeast Conference, the same Fairleigh Dickinson that returned only two starters, the same Fairleigh Dickinson that lost to Providence by 25 points four days earlier.

 

St. John’s, a team I expect to finish in the upper half of the conference and have a decent shot at an invitation to the Big Dance, was drilled by Maryland of the ACC by 32 points. Adding insult to the proverbial injury, the drubbing took place at Madison Square Garden , the Red Storm’s home court, and, adding ridicule to insult, the debacle was televised nationally on ESPN. To their credit, Coach Norm Roberts’ players regrouped and took nationally ranked Texas to the wire the next night before losing, 77-76.  Even worse, St. John’s lost a home game to a middle of the road MVC team, Illinois State, on Saturday.

 

Villanova, despite the loss of its top three guards, still has considerable talent and experience. The Wildcats had numerous opportunities to upend Xavier, but they couldn’t pull it off and lost to the Musketeers, 71-66. Though Xavier, too, has both talent and experience and is the favorite to win the Atlantic 10, this was still a game Coach Jay Wright’s team could have won, but didn’t.

These 16 losses, most of which have to be considered upsets, don’t even involve two teams - South Florida and West Virginia - that could easily end up at the bottom of the conference standings. Both teams have played relatively easy non-conference schedules so far, so their combined record of 8-0 is misleading.

 

Even teams that have not yet suffered unexpected losses have come close. Marquette, for example, barely got past Division 2 Hillsdale College by 10 points and was fortunate to defeat a mediocre Idaho State team in overtime. Connecticut beat a lower-level SEC team in Mississippi but also struggled to defeat Quinnipiac by seven points, 53-46. Louisville had a real battle on its hands with Northwestern State as it was down by 11 at halftime before pulling away in the second half to win by 13. (Ed: The Cardinals lost to Dayton yesterday 68-64).  Similarly, the heavy favorite to win the league title, Pittsburgh , was down by four to Oakland before winning by 11.

 

It is still early in the season, of course, but if first impressions carry any weight, then this could be a rough year for quite a few Big East teams. The problem is that the major conferences establish their credentials with respect to RPI in the non-conference season, so poor showings now, by any league members, can have an adverse effect on all teams down the road.

All is not lost, however, as there are still six weeks prior to the conference portion of the season, sufficient time for Big East teams to make their statements. During that time, they need to defeat some ranked opponents (such as Marquette’s upset of Duke) and avoid more losses to teams outside the power conferences.

 

So far, the Big East as a whole has stumbled, but there is ample time for conference teams to regain their balance and make a run at a solid conference RPI.