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Big East hopes to overcome non-conference struggle

2013-12-29T21:00:00Z Big East hopes to overcome non-conference struggleEric Olson AP Sports Writer nwitimes.com
December 29, 2013 9:00 pm  • 

The reconstituted Big East was formed last spring with the goal of being one of the strongest conferences in men's basketball.

If the all-important Ratings Percentage Index is to be believed, the Big East is one of the best in the land. Only the Big 12 and Big Ten are better by that measure through the first two months of the season.

The question is whether the Big East can maintain its position.

Eighth-ranked Villanova is the only Big East representative in this week's AP Top 25. The 10-team conference is a combined 2-12 against opponents currently ranked, with Villanova owning both of those wins.

With conference play beginning on New Year's Eve, the Big East still has the goal of placing four to six teams in the NCAA tournament, commissioner Val Ackerman said Friday.

"You always have injuries or a game or two that don't go like you want," she said. "We're in a great spot right now."

The RPI, of course, is only a snapshot in time and doesn't mean nearly as much now as it will when the selection committee meets in March. Strength of schedule and strength of opponents' schedules are key components. The dearth of wins over high-quality foes will make it hard to stay as high as No. 3 at the end of the season.

"Everything will be fine," Georgetown coach John Thompson III said. "I think you should wait until the season is over and look at the complete body of work. The one thing this conference has always done is have teams go out and play very tough pre-league schedules. We said it at the beginning: This is and will be one of the better basketball conferences in the country."

The new incarnation of the Big East came to fruition last March, when seven basketball-centric schools broke away to find a safe haven from football-driven conference realignment. Those seven invited Butler, Creighton and Xavier to join them. They secured a 12-year television contract with Fox worth $500 million.

The other former Big East members went into the new American Athletic Conference or the Atlantic Coast Conference.

Villanova (11-0), picked fourth in the conference's preseason poll, has been the pride of the Big East so far. The Wildcats knocked off Kansas and Iowa in a Bahamas tournament and will go for another huge win Saturday at second-ranked Syracuse (11-0).

Ackerman said the Villanova-Syracuse game is a strong segue for what she called "the big event" — the start of conference play Wednesday. Fox Sports 1 will televise all five Big East games back-to-back, starting with St. John's-Xavier at noon and ending with Marquette-Creighton late that night.

If Villanova has been the most pleasant surprise, Marquette has been a bit of a disappointment. The Golden Eagles (7-5), who went to a regional final after tying for first in the Big East, have lost to Top 25 opponents in Ohio State, San Diego State and Wisconsin.

Only Kansas has played more games against top-50 RPI opponents.

Asked if Marquette's non-conference schedule was too rigorous for its own good, coach Buzz Williams said, "We can't answer that question until the second week of March."

Ackerman said she's working to set a scheduling alliance with another conference that would create attractive non-conference matchups for television and teams' NCAA tournament resumes. She wouldn't disclose details.

The Big East has one major positive so far. The conference features a bona fide national player of the year candidate in Creighton's Doug McDermott, whose 24.8-point scoring average is second nationally.

McDermott, a two-time first-team All-American, made a surprise decision to return for his senior season after being projected to be a late first-round NBA draft pick.

"I don't think he has any regrets," said Creighton coach Greg McDermott, Doug's father. "He came back first and foremost to play one more season with these guys, and he's excited to play in the Big East. He's seen every defense known to man. As a coaching staff we have to be creative in finding ways to get him shots against the different defenses he's playing against night in and night out."

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