When big money and football-fueled relocation was finally done tearing what was left of the original Big East apart, and the ”Catholic Seven” was all that remained of the legendary conference following the 2012-13 campaign, nobody knew if college basketball would ever be the same.
But much like one of the conference’s tough-as-nails teams from the 1980’s, the Big East quickly regained its proverbial footing, dusted itself off, and became stronger with the additions of Xavier, Creighton, and Butler before the beginning of the very next season.
Now in its third year of reincarnation as a mix of the urban-based conference it was originally intended to be, and the football-less group of catholic programs that it was forced to become, the Big East is back in the sport’s spotlight due largely to the play of the top-ranked Villanova Wildcats and the fifth-ranked Xavier Musketeers
And for head coach Jay Wright’s Wildcats [13-1, 16-3], entering the NCAA Tournament as a Big East big-shot and one of the top teams in the country is nothing new.
In each of the last two seasons, Villanova has consistently dominated its opponents over the final six weeks of its schedule on the way to finishing fourth in the Associated Press Top-25 and winning consecutive regular season conference crowns, adding a Big East tournament title last winter.
While they may have entered the madness of March as a two seed in 2014, and a top seed last season, the Wildcats didn’t venture beyond the round of 32 on either occasion, placing added pressure on this year’s squad to prove that it’s worthy of the hype it’s received thus far.
Currently ranked fifth by the Associated Press, Xavier has also become a respected tourney-regular and a real threat to make some noise well beyond the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament after reaching their third Sweet 16 since 2010 at last season’s big dance.
At 24-3 overall and 12-3 in the Big East, the Musketeers have every right to believe that the all-powerful selection committee will make them a two seed at next month’s NCAA Tournament barring a late-season collapse
So far, head coach Chris Mack’s Musketeers have beaten a variety of likely and potential tourney teams such as recently-ranked Dayton, Alabama, Seton Hall, Butler [twice], Creighton, and Providence [twice].
But if Xavier wants to enter the post-season as the best that the Big East has to offer, winning Wednesday’s rematch with the Wildcats at home is a must.
In their first meeting, Ryan Arcidiacono’s 27 points led then-no.16 Villanova to a 95-64 destruction of then-no.6 Xavier in Philadelphia on New Year’s Eve, handing the Musketeers their first loss of the season.
”We can’t think backwards, we gotta worry about thinking forward,” Mack told the media at Tuesday’s press conference. ”We understand what Villanova brings to the table. We just have to be ready to play February 24th’s game and not December 31st’s game.”
But Xavier suffered that loss without the services of freshman guard Edmond Sumner, and regardless of how good they’ve looked lately, the Wildcats aren’t likely to hit 15 of their first 19 shots, or shoot better than 50 percent from the floor as they did in round one.
”That was such a bizarre game. As soon as [Sumner] went down it was shocking for all of us and it really affected them,” Wright told Villanova’s official website. ”And we just started making ridiculous shots. It was just a surreal day.”
Along with Villanova and Xavier, Providence will also be attending the NCAA Tourney, and according to this week’s edition of Joe Lunardi’s ”Bracketology” on ESPN.com, Seton Hall [19-7, 9-5], is in line for a ten seed, while Butler [18-9, 7-8], would have to fight its way through one of the four opening-round duels.
Although firmly on the bubble, Creighton [17-10, 8-6], could also earn a dance card with a solid run in the conference tournament.
Even if all six Big East squads are blessed by the selection committee, sending a total of six teams is nothing compared to the high points of the conference’s previous life when two or three Big East teams were placed in every region.
But at this point in the season, having two teams like Villanova and Xavier reside among the nation’s elite is further confirmation that the Big East is back, and while the conference won’t be sending the most teams to this year’s NCAA Tournament, the teams that do attend will definitely belong.