Only two weeks ago, the Big East stood at the height of its power with an NCAA tournament-record 11 teams in the field. Pundits were discussing whether this year’s conference was the strongest in college basketball history. Pittsburgh, Notre Dame, Syracuse, Connecticut and Louisville all harbored realistic Final Four aspirations.
Today, with the field narrowed to 16, only Connecticut and Marquette remain in the tournament to represent the Big East, and the Golden Eagles are an underdog against North Carolina tonight. Four of the five Final Four contenders mentioned above couldn’t even make it out of the first weekend.
Yet the Big East’s lack of success in the tournament is not exactly new. A Big East team hasn’t played for the national title since 2004, when Connecticut brought home the championship. The tournament involves a lot of luck, but if the Big East really is the strongest conference in the country — as many assume it to be — we would reasonably expect to see better results in the post-season.
So what can account for the conference’s failures?
Here’s a possible explanation: maybe, among the top teams of the conference, the talent just isn’t there.
Since 2004, Pittsburgh has recruited only one Rivals five-star prospect. Notre Dame hasn’t received any over that time span.
It is true that the conference’s more storied coaches, such as Jim Calhoun, Rick Pitino and Jim Boeheim have been more successful than Jamie Dixon and Mike Brey. Connecticut has successfully recruited six five-star prospects (although two left the team after one year or less of limited production), Louisville has secured five and Syracuse has enrolled four.
But this just doesn’t stack up against other elite schools. Look at some of the teams that have won national championships since 2005: Duke has 10 such recruits, Kansas has nine and North Carolina has nine. Other programs that have made multiple deep NCAA tournament runs have also had more success on the recruiting trail. Kentucky, Texas and Ohio State have obtained 11, nine and eight five-star prospects, respectively.
Pro scouts haven’t discounted Big East players, as the conference has seen 12 lottery picks in the NBA draft since 2005. But out of these 12, only three currently start for NBA teams, and two of these are rookies Wesley Johnson and Greg Monroe, who start for rebuilding franchises. The only other regular starter is Memphis’s Rudy Gay. Many of the rest of the Big East’s lottery picks over the last six years have been massive disappointments, including Joe Alexander, Hasheem Thabeet, Jonny Flynn, Hilton Armstrong and Terrence Williams.
More than ever, this year we saw the price some of the Big East’s best teams paid for their lack of elite talent. When Pittsburgh played Butler, the best NBA prospect was Butler’s Shelvin Mack. Morehead State shocked Louisville, but the player on the floor with the brightest NBA future, Kenneth Faried, played for Morehead State. During the closing minutes of these two upsets, neither Pittsburgh nor Louisville had a star that they could consistently rely upon to get them points or control the game, and it cost them dearly.
In light of these shortcomings, why does the Big East continue to hold such a special place in our college basketball consciousness? No doubt, the storied history of programs like Georgetown, St. John’s, Villanova and Syracuse plays a big role. But I think part of the reason is East Coast bias. The Big East dominates the college basketball landscape in cities like New York, Washington and Philadelphia that take center stage for the national media establishment.
If this tournament has taught us anything, it is that great basketball is played all over the country, even in conferences that many ordinarily dismiss. Teams like Richmond and San Diego State may not have played consistent competition all year long, and players like Justin Harper and Kawhi Leonard may not get the attention of a Ben Hansbrough or a Dwight Hardy, but we overlook them at our own peril.
Until the Big East picks up the slack on the recruiting trail and starts producing players that are able to succeed at the next level, this conference’s increasingly undeserved reputation will continue to shatter brackets for years to come.
Parimal Garg is a senior in the College. Taking the Court appears in every other Friday edition of Hoya Sports.