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The Big East Conference: Is It Fundamentally Broken?

Dejection, not just for Dalton Pepper and the Mountaineers, but the Big East conference as a whole.
Dejection, not just for Dalton Pepper and the Mountaineers, but the Big East conference as a whole.

Most can agree that the Big East was the best conference to watch in 2010-2011, at least during the regular season and conference tournaments.  That's true more years than it is not, which is certainly commendable.  But the Big East is not the superpower that some would have you believe (like the SEC in football, for example).  It's failures in the postseason, with 2011 being the most glaring example, are troubling.

It has been seven years since a Big East team cut down the National Championship nets (UConn last accomplished the feat in 2004).  In a year where the conference received 11 bids yet only placed two teams in the Sweet Sixteen, the backlash against the conference looks well deserved.  While a few years of missing expectations can be overlooked as a small sample size, this continued streak of futility begs the question: is the Big East broken?  My short answer is yes, but a league with such tradition is not beyond repair.

So what is keeping the Big East from fulfilling it's destiny as the baddest conference in all the land?  There are two main reasons for the league's troubles: method of officiating and lack of talent.

The Big East is notorious for featuring rough, almost brutal basketball.  Announcers will laud the officials for "letting them play," which can result in a gritty style of game which begets the background of most of the players and excites traditional fans of the conference.  Fans from other conferences however, castigate the Big East for being a league of brawlers, with little to no finesse present throughout the season.  That criticism is usually dismissed before the NCAA Tournament, as it's usually quickly overshadowed by fantastic games and even better finishes, especially once we reach Madison Square Garden.

But come the NCAA Tournament, the story changes quickly.  Suddenly, the Big East mentality of "letting them play" is replaced by an officiating standard that is more applicable nationwide.  While a team towards the east coast may encounter the same officials as during the season, a lot of teams will be seeing very new faces with a very different modus operandi.

It's not my intention to have the Big East do a complete 180 from how its games are officiated now; that would destroy a tradition of tough, muscular basketball that has served the conference well over the past decades.  Incremental changes -- ones that would allow creative play to flourish -- would serve to help the conference in the long run.  Play would be faster and better flowing, scores would be higher, and the excitement level could exceed what is currently in place.  Small changes could encourage more top-flight players to decide to play at member institutions.  Which leads us into the next issue: lack of star power.

Last night on TNT, Charles Barkley, in explaining his dislike of the Big East, mentioned a lack of talent within the league.  Now, Barkley's comments over the past week have riled many fans of the conference, mostly because they seemed largely arbitrary.  Barkley's point about talent, however, is well placed.

It is fruitless to try to judge talent in the league based off recruiting classes.  Services like ESPN, Scout, and Rivals rank players to the best of their ability, but they have very little skin in the game and don't suffer much on large-scale misses.  Ranking talent on the back end, however, is much easier.

While there is something to be said for having a very good college player whose skills won't properly translate to the professional game, most casual fans want to see the type of talent that will one day be starring in the NBA.  In that regard, the Big East is failing.  Since UConn's championship in 2004, the Big East has had a total of 11 first round draft picks in seven drafts (five of which are from UConn alone).  See any superstars on this list?

  • 2004: #2 Emeka Okafor (UConn), #3 Ben Gordon (UConn)
  • 2005: #7 Charlie Villaneuva (UConn)
  • 2006: #7 Randy Foye (Villanova), #8 Rudy Gay (UConn)
  • 2007: #5 Jeff Green (Georgetown)
  • 2008: #8 Joe Alexander (WVU
  • 2009: #2 Haseem Thabeet (UConn), #6 Jonny Flynn (Syracuse)
  • 2010: #4 Wesley Johnson (Syracuse), #7 Greg Monroe (Georgetown)

It's been since 2003, the draft that included Carmelo Anthony, where the Big East had a bonafide star come from within its ranks (I'm not counting Dwyane Wade -- though he played for Marquette, he never did so in the Big East).

For a 16 team conference that stretches most of the basketball hotbed that is the northeast corridor, this is not an impressive statistic.  Putting players in the pros reflects positively on that particular school and makes it much easier to recruit talent looking to make it there themselves.  When you're the largest conference with schools in the biggest cities in the country, placing less than two players at the top of the draft each year is not getting the job done.

The lack of top flight talent is even more glaring when considering the Naismith Player of the Year, given to the nation's most outstanding player each year.  While Kemba Walker is one of the four finalists for this year's award, the Big East has not had a player actually win the trophy since 1985 (when Patrick Ewing accomplished the feat).  While the Naismith might not be a perfect test of finding the best player in the country, it does feature names like Duncan, Jamison, Kenyon Martin, Battier, Jason Williams, Reddick, Durant, Hansbrough, and Griffin, just in the past 15 years.  No respecting college basketball fan would sneeze at that list, yet the Big East hasn't had someone on it in 25 years.

While the Big East features depth and a host of good teams, it's this lack of star talent that keeps it from making the leap from regular season darling to postseason domination.  When combined with the officiating issues, this has stunted the growth of the Big East greatly over the past decade.  What could be a dominant conference has left fans wanting and critics ranting.

Small changes could alter that course, and after this crash-and-burn effort in the NCAA Tournament,  we've finally reached a point where those changes need to be implemented.