As most college basketball fans know, conference play doesn’t really heat up until the end of the season, with most teams to this point in the season only playing four or five games in their conference so far. That being said, the parity is strong in a lot of conferences in college basketball. Obviously, one would expect the Power 5 conferences to change a lot with teams like Wisconsin, Oregon, and even 2017 National Champion North Carolina losing a lot of players either to graduation or to the NBA Draft. And there certainly has been, with the Big 10 and Big 12 being deeper and looking a little different than in prior years. However, this article focuses on the first of three non-power 5 conferences that could have not just one, but multiple teams making noise come March Madness.
The Big East used to be one of the staples of NCAA basketball, back when teams such as Syracuse, Louisville, Villanova, and UConn were at the peak of their games playing in the same conference, with Jim Calhoun and Jim Boeheim leading their respective schools to National Championship seasons. Since the realignment of those schools elsewhere (besides Villanova), it hasn’t been thought of as an overly strong conference. This year, however, may sway that argument otherwise. When Butler stands in 7th place in the conference, you know there is something special about it. Villanova has been the #1 team in the nation for a good portion of the season, but that won’t go away anytime soon. What has been more surprising is the emergence of teams such as Creighton, Marquette, and Georgetown that have given the conference some competition and parity. Even though Creighton and Marquette were in the tournament last year, both were first-round exits and neither was really thought of as a threatening team, especially with the Bluejays losing Maurice Watson Jr. for the season.
However, these teams may present a tougher out in this year’s NCAA tournament. I’m not claiming that eight teams will be in, because with conference play likely causing one of the top eight to fall off, it will be tough for all to maintain success at the same time. That being said, I think they can be either represented as higher seeds or potential sleepers. Creighton right now possesses the 5th best offense in the nation at about 90 points per game, with their top five scorers shooting above 50%. They also have several players with an assist-to-turnover ratio at 3.0 or higher. You need good offense and smart shooting to succeed in the NCAA tournament, as indicated by 2017 Final Four representatives Gonzaga and Oregon, and even Elite Eight representative Xavier. Creighton has that ability with a dynamic but smart offense, and that could make them dangerous in the NCAA tournament.
The Georgetown Hoyas, being coached by New York Knicks legend Patrick Ewing, stand at 12-4 right now and come in with a very different identity than past Georgetown Hoya teams. Georgetown has not made the NCAA tournament since 2015, and only very sparingly since the old Big East. Fans may remember them as the team victimized by upset sensation Florida Gulf Coast in 2013. However, those teams were defensive heavy, with offenses ranking in the bottom 100 in the NCAA. Teams with offenses that bleak rarely have success in the NCAA tournament (Virginia has been that for a while and only scored 39 points in an NCAA tournament loss). But this Georgetown team is different. They’re a team with more balance and a more dynamic offense, led by a walking double-double in Jessie Govan (18.1 PPG, 11.8 RPG) and a coach that will help bring intensity come tournament time. With their next two games coming against Seton Hall and Villanova, the Hoyas will have a chance to see how they measure up against two of the top 15 teams in the country. If they can rise to the occasion against them, it could bode well come tournament time with Patrick Ewing as their head coach.
Some other teams not to count out are Marquette (12-5) and Seton Hall (14-3). Marquette has two guys averaging over 20 points per game in Markus Howard and Andrew Rowsey, and four guys shooting over 40% from three (those two included on that list). So if they get hot at the right time, who knows what their ceiling could be. Their main problem is their defense, which hurt them last year against South Carolina in the tournament. This year, it’s even worse, ranked at 264th in the nation at 76 points per game allowed. However, South Carolina’s offense was one of the worst in the nation last year, and look what happened to them. Also, the recent history of the NCAA tournament shows you can be a tough out with an extreme offense-based team (take Iowa State, UCLA, and Oklahoma as examples). The question is, can their team defense adjust and play well together at the right time to look better than a 264th ranked team. That will be the question with the Golden Eagles, who similarly to Georgetown, are looking to rise back in the new Big East after being a dominant team in the original Big East.
The last of these teams feature the Seton Hall Pirates, a squad that has made the tournament the last two years but did suffer early exits, one as a 6 seed and the other as a 9. That being said, teams that have a balanced attack and don’t have to rely on one star player to carry them are often tough outs in the tournament as well, both within the conference and in March Madness. Seton Hall currently has four players averaging 14 points per game or better, and several players, both in their starting lineup as well as coming off the bench, shooting right around 50% in terms of field goal percentage. That balance has led to them being the #13 team in the nation at this point in the season, with a defense that isn’t great, but is still manageable at 70.5 points per game (#134 in nation). Their biggest weakness has been from the free throw line, with several players who get valuable minutes shooting below 65%. That is something that is often the difference in NCAA tournament games, so until they can get that cleaned up, it’s tough to put them as a higher sleeper in comparison to other teams in the conference. That being said, it is one of the simpler things to practice in comparison to half-court defense or fast-break basketball concepts. With the emergence of newer Big 10 and Big 12 teams, I don’t expect Seton Hall to stay #13 in the entire nation, but their balance and depth still make them a tough out in the NCAA Tournament.
This article is not meant to lead you to believe that this Big East will ever top the original Big East powerhouses. But what it is leading you to believe is that they are just as deep, if not deeper, than some power 5 conferences. The Pac-12 is very top heavy. The SEC, despite being balanced, have teams that have notable flaws or are inexperienced. The Big East, on the other hand, have had teams that have risen, not necessarily ahead of Villanova, but not far behind this year. And again, whenever Butler is in 7th place, there is something good about that particular conference. And let’s not forget about Xavier, who is the #10 team in the nation coached by arguably the most underrated head coach in all of college basketball. In my opinion, I think they will have the most overall success of these teams, with a good chance to make the Final Four. Obviously, there’s also Villanova as well, who is still #1 in the AP and Coaches’ Poll for now. Those teams have been very good recently, with Villanova taking home a National Title in 2016 in arguably the best National Championship game ever. However, I think it is the new breakthrough teams that can make some noise in this tournament and can play just as well, if not better, than a lot of those Power 5 teams. When upsets start happening in March, don’t be surprised if it comes at the hands of the Big East.