The Big East’s elite status should no longer be questioned as Villanova reloads and preps for another Final Four run

NEW YORK — If you survey any prevailing and widely accepted modern metric that evaluates annual team and conference performance, college basketball differs from college football in how its power structure has been fleshed out from a league standpoint.

In college football, there’s the Power 5. It’s comprised of the ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC. But college basketball’s got a set of seven pre-eminent leagues — I’ve come to term it the Major 7 — which of course has the aforementioned five conferences, but also the American Athletic Conference and the Big East.

When college football’s power brokers (read: university presidents, mostly, with a few league commissioners tugging the levers) opted to blow up rivalries and make a mockery of geography-based alliances in conferences that spanned decades, there was alarm within college basketball. Specifically, there was alarm that the Big East, which had grown into the most proud and publicized college hoops conference aside from only the ACC, might become a caldera of its former self. 

But let this be the occasion to finally, once and forever, kill that script. 

“The results have spoken for themselves,” commissioner Val Ackerman said Thursday at Big East media day. 

We’re officially more than a half-decade removed from the volatile conference realignment that threatened the very existence of the Big East. In the ensuing five seasons, the reformed and reborn 39-year-old league has twice produced a national champion, placed another school (Xavier) onto the 1 line of the NCAA Tournament, twice given us a National Player of the Year (Jalen Brunson and Doug McDermott), cultivated 16 draft picks, averaged nearly five at-large bids every season and produced two No. 1 seeds in the same NCAA Tournament.  

Forget the past five years: The ACC is the only other league that can match all those stats in the past decade-plus. 

The Big East’s 5.6 bids per year in the past five seasons of being a 10-team conference has validated it not just within the Major 7, but as a well-founded top-three conference in the sport. It’s been ranked as such the past four years at, the Massey Ratings, Sagarin Ratings and others. 

“Sentiments are changing, the naysayers have really been quieted,” Ackerman said. “It doesn’t mean that we are standing still. If you stand still you will be left behind.”

I sat down with most of the league’s coaches on Thursday and got to talking with them about the stature of this conference in 2018. All said the expectations — not hopes, expectations — at this stage for the Big East is for half the league, at minimum, to be in the only March tournament that matters. They’re right. And in some years, Wright told me seven or eight can happen. (Seven did in 2017.) So within college basketball, the story of the Big East’s survive-to-thrive arc has been told to completion.

Villanova 3-balling its way in historic fashion to clipping the nets last April should have wrapped that up. 

And yet, incredibly, we’re on the stoop of the 2018-19 season and the conference only has Villanova represented in the preseason AP Top 25 poll. I am completely certain of very few things in this manic sport, but I am incontrovertibly sure of this: when we get to the NCAA Tournament, the Big East will have more than one ranked team.

It could have as many as four. 

Jay Wright’s Wildcats, of course, were picked to win the league again. But Villanova didn’t win last season’s Big East regular-season title; that was Xavier. Villanova should be the preseason pick. It returns Eric Paschall and Phil Booth, both invaluable fifth-year seniors, either of whom could take Big East Player of the Year by season’s end. 

“It starts with Phil Booth and Eric Paschall,” Wright said. “They have a chance to be two of the best players in college basketball. Great leaders. I think both have a great chance to be NBA players.” 

But neither of those guys was picked preseason POY. That would be St. John’s Shamorie Ponds. And that’s where things can get fun in the Big East this season.

It can be fun because it’s different … but with just enough familiarity (i.e. Villanova probably hovering around the top 10 through much of the season). If there’s a team to take down Nova, St. John’s is my pick. While Chris Mullins’ team was selected fourth by league coaches, I’ve got the Johnnies as the second-best squad in the Big East

“Our focus is on making those expectations and hype and buzz a reality,” Mullin said.

Villanova’s still class of the league, but for those who’ve been waiting for St. John’s to truly pop and make the conference feel new — yet old — again, it’s gotta be this year. Ponds won’t go it alone. The NCAA cleared a transfer waiver for former Auburn stud Mustapha Heron, who will try to form a power trio between himself, Ponds and Justin Simon. 

Ponds and Simon both averaged north of five assists last season. No other backcourt in America did that.

“There’s a lot of hype coming into this season and we know that,” Ponds said. “We kind of feel like we have a bullseye on all of our backs. All of the other teams in the Big East know that we have a hungry and talented roster this season. Despite all of this, it’s important that we stay focused and level-headed. If we do that, we can be one of the better teams in the league this season.”

And the Red Storm, which was a letdown in the big picture, did upset Duke and Villanova and had a top-25 defense in America. 

For all the developments this league has given college basketball over the past five seasons, the only boxes still left to check are St. John’s and Georgetown storming back to national relevance. If it doesn’t happen for Mullin’s team this season, then when? This is the group.

“At the end of the day, expectations don’t mean anything,” Mullin said. “Our performance on the court is what really matters. I’ve never paid any attention to what’s being said on social media and as a player I never paid any attention to outside criticism. We just have to practice hard, prepare, and go compete each time we step on the court.”

It’s not likely Villanova gets dethroned this season, but if it does and it doesn’t come at the hands of St. John’s, then Marquette’s the only other answer. Steve Wojciechowski’s team was picked second. It has junior flamethrower Markus Howard, who just as easily could have been named preseason POY in this league instead of Ponds. 

Providence coach Ed Cooley said Marquette’s talent coming into this season is obscenely underrated. With Xavier expected to step back after losing Chris Mack to Louisville and a lot of good players to the NBA and graduation, maybe it can/will be Marquette that is the foil this season. And of course, there’s Butler. The Bulldogs have been the one team in the Big East that can truly claim they’ve somewhat had Villanova’s number.

There’s more unpredictability in the Big East this season than we’ve seen in some recent years, but the idea that Villanova is carrying the league is overstated. These two things can be true at the same time: Villanova is the best and most important program in the conference but there are also other schools who validate its standing nationally. 

As for national title contenders? OK, Villanova is the only practical one at the moment for 2018-19. Even then, a lot’s left to develop. Who’s going to be this season’s Donte Divincenzo? 

“The sophomore class: Dylan Painter, Jermaine Samuels, Collin Gillespie, Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree,” Wright said. “If those four can step into a role like, by the end of the year, where they’re playing like juniors — where we thought we would have Omari Spellman and Donte Divincenzo at least, if they could play like that by the end of the year, what we have learned by losing in the second round and winning a national championship? Once you get to the tournament, anything can happen.”

If you’re thinking that the Big East needs Villanova to stay on top to maintain its credibility, it’s not that simple. But sure, Villanova should again be the best team in this conference, and as the reigning champs, that’s good for business. Variety and team shuffling keeps things interesting, though, and in St. John’s, Marquette and Providence, the league should yet again prove its status among the best in college hoops — validation that is no longer necessary. 

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