It has been generally understood that given the strength of the Big East Conference this season, a 9-9 in-conference record would be enough to make the NCAA tournament; 10-8 in conference would make a team a lock. Even 8-10 would put a team at the periphery of the NCAA picture, with some work to do in the Big East tournament, which begins March 10 at Madison Square Garden.
With just over a week left until the Big East tournament, however, no less than 11 teams fall under these three categories, and nine of them, should current trends hold, are poised to post 10-8 marks. This will put the NCAA tournament selection committee in the position of either denying a Big East team with a winning conference record a bid (not unprecedented, but very uncommon), or setting a record for bids by a single conference.
Simply put, never has a college basketball conference had so many teams with so much to play for so late in the season.
The two teams at the bottom of the remaining NCAA hopefuls, Notre Dame and Georgetown, could present the biggest challenges of all. Notre Dame has won four of five, and by beating either Villanova or Syracuse, stands a good chance of being a .500 Big East team with a pretty good claim on a tenth bid from the conference.
The Hoyas, meanwhile, have some work to do—but by beating Villanova on Saturday, then winning easy games against St. John’s and DePaul, would run their conference mark to 8-10. With Georgetown playing the third most difficult schedule in the country, and posting wins over Connecticut, Memphis, Syracuse (and potentially Villanova), a few wins in the Big East tournament would make it nearly impossible for the selection committee to ignore, yes, an 11th Big East team.
While both of these teams will need to pull an upset along the way, note in both cases it would take just a single upset to put the chaotic 11-team scenario in motion. What is remarkable is that for the other nine teams to get to .500 or better, it requires them to simply hold serve.
Cincinnati is 18-10 overall, 8-7 in conference play, with games at Syracuse, at South Florida, and home against Seton Hall. Should Cincinnati win the latter two, as it should, the committee would certainly have to admit a 20-11, 10-8 Bearcats team.
West Virginia just lost to Cincinnati, but at 19-9, 8-7, wins over South Florida and DePaul should get the Mountaineers to 21-10, 10-8 easily, even if they lose to Louisville in their regular-season finale.
Syracuse already has 20 wins, along with an 8-7 conference record, and hosts Cincinnati and Rutgers before traveling to Marquette. Syracuse should beat both its home opponents—even if the Orange split with them, 9-9 should be plenty to get into the NCAA tournament, with non-conference wins over Memphis, Kansas and Florida.
And Providence, a team with probably the weakest overall NCAA resume, managed two feats Wednesday night—a win clinched a .500 record in the Big East, and the victory came over Pittsburgh, giving the Friars a win over the No. 1 team in the country. A win at Rutgers Saturday would guarantee Providence a 10-8 record in-conference to go with 18 total wins—plenty to go dancing, it would seem.
And the top five conference teams—Connecticut, Pittsburgh, Louisville, Marquette and Villanova—all have clinched at least 11-7 Big East records already, and would be in the NCAA tournament if they failed to win another game.
Should all these scenarios play out, the committee would always have the option of knocking out the Big East teams that play the poorest in their conference tournament. Still, such a move will certainly result in one and perhaps several qualified conference members being left out.
Saturday, February 28
Georgetown at Villanova, Notre Dame at Connecticut
Georgetown needs a victory over Villanova to have any chance at an at-large bid, while Notre Dame’s recent surge, aided by a victory over Connecticut, could put the Irish into the field. Neither team has an easy task, however.
Sunday, March 1
Marquette at Louisville
An already difficult assignment—beating Louisville at home—became that much tougher when Marquette lost Dominic James, a four-year starter, for the season to a foot injury. James, a quick guard who can get to the basket, is the best-known antidote to the Cardinals’s suffocating defense. Discovering whether his fellow Golden Eagles have enough firepower without him to be a threat in the NCAA tournament will be part of the fun in this matchup.
Monday, March 2
Villanova at Notre Dame
While many of the Big East games are crushing defensive wars of attrition, this one, well, won’t be. The Wildcats and Irish love to shoot, and you’ll see plenty of fast-paced action and a Notre Dame crowd that knows just how much the Irish need another quality win.
Wednesday, March 4
Marquette at Pittsburgh
First Louisville, then Pittsburgh. Considering James hurt his foot shortly into last Wednesday’s game against Connecticut, that means the Golden Eagles had to play without their starting point guard and floor leader against the three best defensive teams in the Big East.