It’s February. We are now into the heart of the conference schedule in college basketball. That means it is time to start debating in earnest which teams deserve to be in the Big Dance come March. A major part of that discussion is the debate over which conference is the toughest conference in college basketball.
We engaged in that debate recently here at Busting Brackets. The debate is especially interesting this year due to the reshuffling of conference membership that took place over the last year or so. There are two or three legitimate choices for which conference is indeed the best this season, but one thing is becoming increasingly clear — the Big East was not just a power conference. It was the power conference.
Like most sports debates, there are no real parameters for determining which conference is the strongest. Is it the conference with the most ranked teams? Is it the conference with the best top-tier teams? Or is it the conference that has the toughest opponents at the bottom of the standings? One thing that really complicates the debate is the fact that at this time of year, teams within a conference are all playing each other every night. When a team at the top of the conference standings gets knocked off by a basement dweller, does that mean the top team really was overrated? Or does it mean that the conference is just really deep?
The beautiful part about judging the old Big East in hindsight is that conference cannibalism is no longer a factor. There is no debating whether the parity we saw over the years was a sign of excellence or mediocrity. Now that the Big East members are scattered across three different conferences, we no longer have to wonder how those teams would do if they faced the top competition in other conferences. The answer is that the Big East teams would excel.
In this week’s AP poll, three of the top ten teams in America were members of the Big East last season. No other conference can claim that. That includes Syracuse, the unanimous selection at #1, Villanova and Cincinnati. The old Big East has three additional ranked teams in Louisville, Connecticut and Pittsburgh. Only the Big 12 can match that.
Of course, the old Big East has the best team overall in the new Big East in Villanova. The old Big East also has the top two teams in the surprisingly strong American Athletic Conference. And, the old Big East has the top team and the third place team in the mighty and historical ACC.
In other words, the old Big East may now be extinct, but its legacy is alive and well in three different conferences. And that legacy will likely play a prominent role in this year’s NCAA tournament.