Big East Logjam is a Major NCAA Tournament Concern

Posted by Brad Cavallaro on January 25th, 2019

After Providence and Marquette earned a pair of wins on Wednesday night, many Big East observers noticed an interesting wrinkle in the conference standings: every team from third to 10th place had four losses. With over one third of conference play already in the books, this level of parity is both astonishing and extremely rare. A clearer hierarchy among those eight teams will likely develop over the next few weeks, but the corollary to the unusual situation is that such parity is extremely concerning for the Big East’s position in the upcoming NCAA Tournament.

Marquette is One of Two Big East Teams Riding High (USA Today Images)

Fan bases from those other eight programs optimistically claim that a single win could vault their teams to third place in the Big East. And while this is technically true, those pundits are also failing to recognize how insignificant conference standings are outside of seeding in the Big East Tournament. Their thinking is that teams that finish in the top half of the league always make the NCAA Tournament. This assumption, however, is tenuous given how much non-conference performance matters for teams that struggle in conference play.

At-large NCAA Tournament berths per conference significantly fluctuate from year to year. The Big Ten only received four berths last season, but appears likely to get nine or 10 this season. Nebraska finished with a 13-5 conference record a year ago and was still relegated to the NIT at the end of Selection Sunday. Conversely, the Pac-12 and Atlantic 10 might not receive a single at-large bid this season, which truly shows that performance matters.

Even though the Big East usually earns between five to seven NCAA Tournament bids, it is poised to receive fewer this season. Given the league’s downgrade in overall talent and its cannibalization of the soft middle, three or four bids seems likely, with five probably the maximum. From here on out, if a bubble team doesn’t beat Marquette or Villanova, it isn’t likely to move the needle with the selection committee. This is a problem endemic to the mid-major leagues every season. How can a bubble team jump its competitors in stronger conferences when their opportunities to enhance their resumes are so limited (i.e., when Villanova and Marquette to come into town)?

Marquette and Villanova, of course, are feeling great about the league’s stratification. The soft midsection of the conference gives both teams an opportunity to rack up wins and climb the national rankings, improving their potential seeds by the day. The unfortunate result for teams like Butler, St. John’s, Seton Hall, and so forth is that they will continue to cannibalize each other. The best case scenario would be for several teams to break off from the pack and beat up on the bottom of the league down the stretch, but so far, that hasn’t been the case. Creighton (2-4) is the only Big East team that has yet to lose to Xavier, DePaul, or Georgetown. The Big East has placed at least four teams into the NCAA Tournament every year since realignment. In order to feel safe about that continuing, a few teams need to spend the next few weeks gaining separation to establish a clear second tier. Otherwise, Selection Sunday could be one of the most disappointing that this league has experienced in many years.

Brad Cavallaro (16 Posts)

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