With the SuperBowl and the end of January around the corner, the eyes of the sports-hungry are starting to turn to college basketball, where the annual NCAA Tournament - and the conference battles that lead to admission to the Big Dance - become a topic of conversations for more than the die-hards.
Of course, St. John's is likely out of the postseason picture. At 7-13, the Red Storm could only take on three more losses in the next 12 games (including the first round of the Big East Tournament) and end the season with a .500 record. A .500 record is necessary for inclusion in the postseason NIT; and while pay-to-play tournaments named the CBI and CIT exist, it's hard to imagine the Johnnies wanting to extend a miserable season unless there's a feeling that the team could go on a run.
Outside of the rebuilding Red Storm, there is conversation about the Big East - a conference that has been very good to begin the season. As many as four teams have been ranked; others have received votes. Currently, three teams are in the top ten.
But the postseason is where the league needs to shine a little for national perception. From the AP:
In the second year, six teams make the tournament, but top-seeded Villanova lost in the round of 32 for the second straight season, and only Xavier advanced to a regional semifinal.
How the Big East fares in the N.C.A.A. tournament this year will determine how far the conference has come in terms of perception. But with three teams among the top 10 in this week's Associated Press poll - No. 6 Villanova, No. 7 Xavier and No. 10 Providence - the season has been more like what the Big East brass envisioned when the conference was made over.
To silence critics who contend that the conference has lost its elite status, the Big East probably needs a couple of its teams to make long postseason runs. But Georgetown Coach John Thompson III, whose father was among the league’s winningest coaches in 20 years with the Hoyas, said the Big East needed no validation.
And Pat Forde tosses some more gasoline-soaked rags on the fire in his well-read column:
The 10-member league has been fun, deep and nationally competitive - to a point.... The successes in pre-conference play have not carried over to when it matters most - the new Big East has not been a good NCAA tournament league. It was 5-6 as a conference last year, with only Xavier exceeding expectations by making the Sweet 16 and three teams underachieving according to seed. In 2014 the league was 2-4 in the Big Dance, with nobody making the Sweet 16.
The primary problem is the annual March futility of Villanova (31), which cannot get out of the first weekend despite excellent seeding. As a No. 1 seed last year, the Wildcats fell in the second round. As a No. 2 seed in 2014, the Wildcats fell in the second round. With a current RPI of 2, a Sagarin rating of 3 and a Ken Pomeroy rating of 4, Villanova is good enough to score a high seed despite doubts about its tournament staying power.
Perception does matter.
And great regular seasons are forgotten in the wake of poor NCAA Tournament results. But with the exception of Villanova, a team that is locked into a cycle of constantly reloading, Xavier and Providence are better teams than last year's NCAA Tournament squads.
Plus, the NCAA Tournament is a bit of a crapshoot. Good teams that should be overmatched on paper can use the quantitative and visual scouting information to find matchups that work. One-day tournaments can have surprising and unheralded results. A hot jump-shooting team can pull off an upset. Conversely, a team whose jumpers go awry - like Villanova the past two seasons - can have wide variance in their expected results.
Or maybe a great regular season is enough. The high-end recruits are still coming to the Big East's programs. The money is still there to pay for top staffs. Fans still attend the games. Maybe the perception that the league needs a huge postseason is just national narrative. Your thoughts?