The Big East enjoyed a notable season in 2017-18. Six teams advanced to the NCAA tournament with Villanova winning the national championship for the second time in three years. The conference sent 11 players to current NBA rosters, with the Wildcats providing four of them.
So the expectation was for the Big East to not be as strong this season. With Saturday’s start of conference play, the league has just one team, Marquette, in the AP top 25. Villanova already has four losses, matching its total for all of last season.
Still, this could be the most interesting season since the Big East reorganized before the 2013-14 season. The league is as competitive as ever from top to bottom. While the regular-season champion the last five years never has won with more than three losses, this year’s winner could have as many as five or six.
“We had a really good team last year, but it wasn’t good enough to win the regular season in the Big East,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said Thursday on the coaches’ conference call. “So that’s how good our conference was last year, and that’s how good it is this year. I definitely think that this season, there’s just more balance than there’s ever been.”
However, with balance comes the fact that teams could be knocking each other out of NCAA tournament consideration. The Big East sent seven teams to the NCAAs in 2017.
“That’s always a concern when you have a really balanced conference,” said Wright, whose team begins conference play Wednesday against DePaul at Finneran Pavilion. “I think we’ve fared pretty well [in nonconference play], maybe not as well as we’ve done in the past. I don’t think the nonconference scheduling will hurt us, but the parity could hurt us a little bit.”
Big East teams are 90-30 (.750) in nonconference play with a handful of such games remaining. Last year, conference teams were 103-23 (.817).
Marquette and Seton Hall have helped their tournament standing in the early going. The Golden Eagles, ranked 18th this week, have four wins over teams ranked in the KenPom.com top 50. The Pirates knocked off Kentucky and Maryland this month.
Unranked St. John’s (12-0) enters the Big East season as one of just five undefeated teams in the country although it has not played a single top 50 team to date. That will end Saturday when the Red Storm visit Seton Hall in their conference opener.
“I think the conference is going to be as tough as ever, maybe a little bit different with a lot of veteran players having left,” St. John’s coach Chris Mullin said. “You have to bring your A-game each and every night. I’m not quite sure if I’d call it wide-open. I think it’s going to be very, very competitive each and every night.”
The Red Storm’s Shamorie Ponds, the conference’s preseason player of the year, averages 19.6 points and a league-leading 6.0 assists. Marquette guard Markus Howard, who has a pair of 45-point games this season, tops the scoring list with a 25.0-point average.
With all this balance, it’s easy to overlook Villanova, champion of the last two Big East tournaments. Providence coach Ed Cooley, for one, says don’t sleep on the Wildcats.
“You lose four draft picks, you’re going to go through a transition,” Cooley said. “They played Michigan [a 73-46 defeat] relatively early and that’s one of the best teams in the country. You don’t let the one game demoralize you. But they’re a totally different team now than they were when they played Michigan with respect to other guys getting on the floor and getting more confident.”