The Underwhelming BIG EAST by Dan Pfeifer

The Underwhelming BIG EAST 

Living up to high collectively high expectations isn’t easy

The BIG EAST sells itself on men’s basketball. That was the idea when it was originally spawned, and also when it was revived in the shadow of losing a number of schools to college football’s television dollars. The decision to keep the conference alive paid off last year when Kris Jenkins hit the biggest three-pointer in the history of the college game to make Villanova, and the new BIG EAST, national champs.

College basketball’s regular season has less importance than it did before the days before both players started skipping college altogether and our current “rent-a-player” era,. But considering Fox Sports 1 basically made the BIG EAST its biggest consistent winter sports property, there’s still something to be said for measuring the quality of the conference’s product, given a network basically depends on it.

That said, this year’s BIG EAST season has felt like a bit of a letdown.

Granted, some of this has to do with the huge amount of hype surrounding the conference this year. When four of 10 teams start out ranked, and eight of 10 teams look like realistic tournament contenders, there’s an expectation every game will shine brightly, even as you also expect some of the great teams to beat each other up. But in looking at the standings, not everyone’s living up to or exceeding expectations, and some are struggling to meet them. Team-by-team:  

VILLANOVA: This is borderline unfair, but with losses already at Butler and, stunningly, Marquette, Villanova is already having a worse conference season than some expected. It’s difficult to call the number two team in the nation disappointing, but they haven’t been the threatening death star many anticipated. Villanova can be had on the right night.

XAVIER: Second place is about where the Musketeers should be. Marquette has yet to see Xavier and won’t have an easy time with them.

BUTLER: The Bulldogs’ inconsistency is only rivaled only by Marquette’s. They, too, seem comfortable at 8-4, and Butler has a history of finding another gear in the tournament, but they’d be more reassuring if they played a better more often, especially after struggling over the past couple weeks.

CREIGHTON: The Bluejays haven’t been the same since losing Maurice Watson. While they’re still tournament-worthy at 7-4, they aren’t the national title threat they were.

MARQUETTE: Currently tops among BIG EAST unranked teams, Marquette is one of two teams I see exceeding expectations thus far. Wins over Villanova and Creighton are highlights, while it’s easy to see a scenario where Marquette would have won at Butler and against Providence, meaning they’re not far from 8-4. Still, MU has losses to the Friars, St. John’s and Seton Hall, showing “bad Marquette” can also lose to just about anybody.

ST. JOHN’S: Joining Marquette among the teams who should be happy with how things have gone this year are the Red Storm, who have made a move back to legitimacy. No longer a friend to DePaul in the conference cellar, the Red Storm can come up to bite teams, as they did with MU.

SETON HALL: The Pirates often appear to do one thing really well – rebound with Angel Delgado – and look iffy doing everything else. They can’t be happy with just five wins thus far.

PROVIDENCE: Many thought this year might be a down one for the Friars and that turned out to be largely right, though a Marquette blog-writer probably shouldn’t be saying anything, given the result of the first meeting.

GEORGETOWN: Ugh. Calls for John Thompson III’s head have rang out in Hoya Saxa Nation and it’s difficult not to see them as valid. The Hoyas have only occasionally showed life, but have looked lackadaisical and disinterested other times.

DePAUL: LOL.

From the looks of it, that’s two middling teams who have exceeded expectations (Marquette and St. John’s), three that are essentially living up to them (Villanova, Xavier and DePaul), and the rest with some question marks. That’s not all that thrilling in my book.

There’s still a lot of season left, and again, what truly matters happens in March. But in terms of the road to get there, it hasn’t always been as spectacular as many BIG EAST fans would have liked.

COURTSIDE SPLINTERS

A CHALKY TASTE: After a blog where we said Marquette’s play was decidedly tough to read, MU finally produced expected results, riding an 18-0 first half run at DePaul to victory, then falling to Butler at home by three, though the Bulldogs had control most of the game.

A few fans are feeling shaky, given Marquette is now just 1-3 in its last four games, but most seem to be content with the DePaul win and Luke Fischer playing better basketball again after recording seven blocks against the Blue Demons and leading the way with 19 against Butler. Now things are at least a little more like what we thought they would be, at least we’re able to feel like we know what we should see for the time being. That alone is a relief.

PICKING UP ON THE ROLL: I have a soft spot for Eric Gebhardt, one of Marquette’s student superfans. Tweets like this and this are why. But he’s also part of the team behind the Marquette Nation account, which committed a flagrant act of journalism last week in posting two different videos showing Fischer getting burned when he doubles on pick-and-rolls this season. For as much as Marquette has struggled on defense, seeing this over and over again made one reason why they’ve floundered abundantly clear.

It became a focus of fans during the DePaul game, though it wasn’t much of an issue against Butler because the Bulldogs shot too well from outside for what they did on Fischer’s defensive turf to matter much. I asked Fischer about it after DePaul, and he said it’s largely just a matter of communication, though one also wonders if it’s also the philosophy being taught by Steve Wojciechowski.

Handling such scenarios are just one of many parts of playing good defense. But while seeing this one common basketball move lead to bad results is one thing, fans picking up on the regularity of the failure is another. Off-ball defense is half brains and half heart. Maybe Marquette needs a little more of both.

HOYA VOYAGE: Just one game this week for Marquette, as it goes to what seems to be the craziest place on earth at the moment — Washington, D.C. — to play Georgetown Saturday morning. The game will be on the same Fox network that showed this past Sunday’s Super Bowl at 11 a.m. Central.

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