Conference catch-up: Big East
The name and postseason tournament venue are the same, and so are some of the members, but everything else about the Big East enters a whole new world starting this season. Gone are the football-playing members of the conference in its previous behemoth form, and in their place, basketball schools Xavier, Butler and Creighton join the breakaway Catholic Seven. The league also has a new TV home, inking a deal with new ESPN challenger Fox Sports 1, which even was able to nab ESPN Big Monday mainstay Bill Raftery to help call the revised league’s games. After years of an uneasy alliance, the basketball schools indeed showed the required Onions!! to start anew.
Getting three quality programs to join the seven was a nice start, although Xavier, Butler and Creighton have some level of staying-power questions as they ascend to this new level. The bigger thing that could boost the league going forward is the ability of programs like Providence, St. John’s and Seton Hall to rise back toward the NCAA tournament level. Buried by the BCS football money and competitive depth of the old league, these old-school Big East mainstays should find the going a bit easier when faced with their athletic-department peers. Both St. John’s and Providence, in particular, have started making nice strides in recruiting. We’ll see how quickly Steve Lavin and Ed Cooley can translate that into more league wins.
Player to Watch
It has to be Doug McDermott, an almost certain preseason All-America choice and the high usage/high efficiency driving force behind the Bluejays’ lethal offense. He’s hung big numbers on major-conference teams in the past, but with all due respect to the Missouri Valley, he’ll be seeing a more constant level of elite athleticism in their new league. This will be a nice test case to see how well great players in mid-major leagues can handle a full league schedule in a better conference. Luke Hancock, among others, has proven this kind of step up is manageable, but McDermott is a true star on the college level, and the primary focus of opposing defenses will be on him.
You can go a number of ways here, but VCU’s and Butler’s success in the Atlantic 10 last season make me feel a bit better about going with Creighton. With Grant Gibbs getting a sixth year of eligibility, the Bluejays return a lot of the pieces that comprised last season’s tremendous shooting team. New league rivals will also quickly find out that going to the CenturyLink Center is no picnic. That said, it wouldn’t surprise me if one of two or three other teams ended up winning the league. It should be quite competitive at the top.
Despite losing Otto Porter, Georgetown should have enough talent to make a run at the league title. The same certainly goes for Marquette, even with the early departure of Vander Blue (whose return very well may have made them the clear choice). Villanova should have some bite, Xavier should be significantly improved from last season’s up-and-down campaign, and don’t count out Butler, even with the departure of coach/savant Brad Stevens to the Celtics.
Providence has enough talent at the right spots to make some noise. The same could be said of St. John’s, which has some nice individual pieces but hasn’t seen things fully come together yet. Some writers like Seton Hall better than I do at this point. DePaul? Well, the Blue Demons can’t do worse than 7-83 over the next five league seasons, right?
Three Big Questions
1) How much will the move to Fox Sports 1 impact the league?
As the Mountain West, Pac-12 and other leagues have found out in previous years, ESPN is the kingmaker in college hoops, and if you’re not on their networks, life can get very difficult. The Big East needs to hope that Fox Sports 1 gains some early traction, because with ESPN moving ACC games into the Big East’s old Big Monday spot, the double-dip with the Big 12 still will very often be must-watch TV for hoops junkies. Will the new Big East have the brand and team quality power to steal some eyeballs, or will they fade a bit from the national discussion?
2) Why should we be interested in the success of the new Big East?
Well, besides the TV network issue discussed above (and more competition is always good for business), the new Big East is an interesting test case for whether schools can thrive with basketball-only revenue sport models in college athletics today. Xavier, Butler and Creighton have all annually sunk a heavy percentage of their athletics budgets into men’s basketball and have earned their way to the table. Whether this league succeeds now will probably have a significant impact on how many other schools attempt to mimic that model. VCU is a school that’s moving in that direction, but overall success for this league and the programs that pushed their way in would be good for college basketball overall as it continues to try to maintain a foothold in a football-intense world.
3) How many NCAA bids is the Big East looking at for this season?
You’d have to believe Creighton, Georgetown and Marquette have very solid chances, and depending on how things go, several other teams could clearly be in that discussion, as well. A lot will depend on how the league does in nonconference play to set itself up for league games. Four teams in seems like a reasonable target, and maybe if the league really does its work, it could be one more than that.