Three weeks ago the college basketball world marveled over the Big East, which had eight teams in the polls. As the conference schedule started up, all of these top-ranked teams started to square off and that began a bit of separation. Pitt beat Syracuse, UConn beat Villanova, Pitt beat Georgetown. Nothing too crazy, just the Big East sorting itself out.
In the past week, however, the entire conference has moved to ludicrous speed. Top teams are losing to lesser schools at alarming rates. Syracuse got throttled by Seton Hall. Providence upset Villanova. Notre Dame ended Pitt's home winning-streak. The gap between the elite and the mediocre seemed to be closing.
Saturday, however, completely threw the entire conference into upheaval.
Syracuse and Villanova, both top-five programs just weeks ago, will tumble down the rankings after losses to Marquette and Georgetown, respectively. UConn, who's spent the last few weeks confirming its place atop the heap, found itself on the wrong end of a 79-78 loss to Louisville. Even No. 2 Pittsburgh, who won, did so barely against Rutgers. RUTGERS!
What does it all mean? Is the Big East not that good after all? Is it, as some have suggested, merely only considered good because it has 16 teams? Is it the mega-corporation of college basketball conferences, too big to fail?
Or is it a sign that the conference is better top to bottom than it's been in any time in recent memory? No one doubts that Pitt is among the best teams in the nation, but if they're going to be tested every night, be it by Villanova, Notre Dame or Rutgers, what does that say of the caliber of the conference as a whole?
Usually we define a great conference by how good the top-third of its team are. If we're really being honest, there were a lot of years the ACC reigned by having 3-4 amazing teams followed by a bunch of decent ones. The Big East has the advantage of more teams and therefore more amazing teams. But sometimes that means more decent ones as well, instead of dead weight (except for you, DePaul).
Instead of measuring a conference by how good its top 4-5 teams are, let's look at how good each conference is top-to-bottom and the Big East's "bottom" is making a great case for itself. Marquette, Providence, St. John's and Seton Hall all have quality wins in January over superior squads. That might not end up being enough to get them all into the tournament but it certainly helps league perception.
The big knock against the conference is that no Big East team has won a National Title since the conference went to 16-teams. Fair or not, the Big East needs someone to emerge and win a championship in order to validate itself. Perhaps this season's much more stringent schedule will help make a champion out of someone.
That is, if any Big East team is still alive after running this gauntlet.