Unprecedented depth across BIG EAST offers opportunity, risk for Golden Eagles

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Photo by John Steppe

Marquette men’s basketball huddles prior to the Golden Eagles’ win over Central Arkansas Dec. 28.

Usually having seven other BIG EAST schools projected to go to the NCAA Tournament would be a positive. That is a given on one condition, as Creighton head coach Greg McDermott sees it.

“If we don’t totally beat the hell out of each other,” McDermott said. “That’s kind of my fear.”

With the BIG EAST schedule boasting an unprecedented level of nonconference success entering league play, Marquette has an especially difficult path to earning enough wins to set up a deep postseason run.

Providence is the only team not to be either ranked or receiving votes in the latest Associated Press poll. The 10 BIG EAST schools entered conference play this week with a combined 101-25 record in nonconference play.

For perspective, the Big Ten went on a combined 113-39 record from nonconference play.

“The challenge is, from the rest of the country’s perspective, if a team ends up being 9-9 or 10-8 (in BIG EAST play), that hurts you,” DePaul head coach Dave Leitao said. “The analytics and the metrics hopefully will state the fact that there are so many good teams and so many competitive games.”

The strength of the conference comes without any clear frontrunner to win the conference.

“Whoever the 10th team is has the ability to beat anybody in the country, and I think this year it’s going to play out more than it ever has,” Villanova head coach Jay Wright said.

In the first night of conference play, the team picked last in the preseason poll, DePaul, had the lead over the preseason favorite, Seton Hall, with two minutes to go.

Farther east, No. 10 Villanova, the team with two national titles in the last four seasons, only won by six at home against Xavier, who missed the NCAA Tournament last year.

“While I’m not sure that there’s necessarily an elite team in our league,” McDermott said, “there are 10 really good basketball teams. I don’t think any team is suffering from any ill effects of losing too many guys last year.”

Meanwhile, the bottom three teams in the preseason poll — Butler, St. John’s and DePaul — entered BIG EAST play with a combined 35-4 record.

“Obviously those (bottom three) teams have been very, very strong and are off to great starts,” McDermott said. “Obviously when you have a league that gets off to a start like that and there are so many quality wins, I think that bodes well for your conference when March rolls around.”

For a team like Providence with a subpar start to the season, it provides enough opportunities to overcome its six nonconference losses.

“Every game is a Top 70 game,” Providence head coach Ed Cooley said. “Our league has positioned itself in the nonconference that all of our wins against one another will be quality wins, and it won’t be bad losses.”

But it also means a team like Marquette at a 10-2 mark can be vulnerable. Marquette head coach Steve Wojciechowski said “the race (to a BIG EAST title) is as wide open as it’s ever been.”

While ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi’s latest bracket has eight BIG EAST teams playing in March, teams won’t want to bet on that eighth ticket in.

It would likely require at least one or two teams to make the field with a below-.500 conference record. In the last 18 BIG EAST seasons, that has occurred twice — once to St. John’s in 2019 and once to Syracuse in 2005.

Both those teams had higher in-conference win percentages though than the BIG EAST average for eighth place teams since 2018 — .352.

There is a slim margin for error.

“You have to bring your best to the table,” Butler head coach LaVall Jordan said.