When someone says ‘Big East’, the first sport that comes to mind is basketball. With this year’s national champion in Villanova, plus a host of other squads that regularly inhabit the brackets in March, the Big East is a prolific conference in basketball.
In that regard, the Big East has taken a backseat in recent years, to powerhouse conferences like the ACC and the SEC. The ACC has been a nemesis of the Big East, sucking away Big East squads into the ACC like ships into a whirlpool. Louisville, Notre Dame, and Pittsburgh all departed for the more elite ACC, in search of better competition that would give them better chances at at-large bids. Sure enough, being in the ACC increases your chances of making “June Madness” significantly. This year, the ACC qualified a whopping 10 teams, which included 9 at-large bids, while the Big East has qualified just one team each of the past two years. However, despite the drop-off in elite talent in the last couple of years, signs show the Big East are not far off from rising to prominence once again, joining the elite teams that inhabit the ACC, SEC, Pac-12, Big 10, and Big 12.
Georgetown Stuns Eventual Champion Virginia
Georgetown is hardly a top-tier Big East squad. Last season, the qualified for the Big East Tournament - for the first time in 30 years. The Hoyas are 0-6 all time in the Big East tournament, having gone two and done in each of their three tournament appearances. However, last year, the Hoyas enjoyed a turnaround season, led by Big East Player of the Year Nick Collins. Collins, an eventual eighth round pick of the Oakland Athletics, not only led Georgetown to a tournament berth, but also a mid-season upset, a 1-0 shocker over Virginia, the eventual national champions. It was a program-defining win for the Hoyas, a team who, like the Big East, focuses much of its attention on basketball. However, starter Simon Matthews was perfect for five innings, and the bullpen fired four innings of two-hit shutout relief, dominating the Cavaliers, who were ranked #20 at the time. The Cavaliers went on to run through the NCAA tournament, defeating Vanderbilt twice in a row for the national title, making that win that much more impressive for Georgetown.
St. Johns Makes Surprising Run In Chapel Hill Regional
While an upset win, like Georgetown’s stunning victory over Virginia, can be perceived as a fluke, unlikely to happen again, a successful season that ends with an impressive run in the NCAA tournament can not. St. Johns garnered the #1 seed in the Big East Tournament in 2015 and won the title with ease, cruising to a 3-0 record in the double-elimination tournament, tallying a win over the Hoyas, plus a pair of Ws against Creighton. That was all very nice, but expectation would be that St. Johns, victors against second-tier competition, would fold in the limelight. Shoved into a regional with top-seeded Oklahoma State as well as a strong SEC program in Arkansas, St. Johns was given very little chance to win a single game. However, St. Johns pushed and shoved for nine innings with Oklahoma State, falling by a single run. They immediately rebounded with a dominant showing, a 10-4 rout of Oral Roberts. However, matched up against the Cowboys once more, St. Johns appeared ready to bow out...until they shocked the Cowboys, advancing to the region’s title game against Arkansas. In their first showing against the powerful Razorbacks, powered by the bat of eventual first-round draft pick Andrew Benintendi, St. Johns pushed the eventual College World Series qualifier to the brink, dropping a nail-biting 4-3 decision. Although they fell short of the Super Regionals, St. Johns garnered some attention for themselves and the Big East with their mini-run.
Creighton Cruises Through Non-Conference Schedule; Draws Attention to Big East
Still fighting the Big East prejudice that teams coming from the notoriously basketball-focused conference couldn’t stand up to elite competition outside the conference, Creighton did their best to disprove that this season. Winning 38 games on the season, the Blue Jays were certainly in the discussion for a potential at-large bid. They were swept in their initial series but won 16 of their next 17 against non-conference opponents, including sweeps of America East powerhouse Stony Brook, a strong Big 10 opponent in North Dakota, and several other impressive sweeps. The sweep of North Dakota, a power-5 conference squad was possibly the most impressive and gave Creighton some national attention. They created a very tough non-conference schedule after that, dropping close games to Wichita State, Nebraska (2 games), and Arkansas. A very competitive non-conference schedule kept the Blue Jays from reaching the 40-win plateau. One or two more wins in that extremely tough schedule may have been the boost Creighton needed to get an at-large bid after they fell to Xavier in the conference championship. Had the Big East been a more respected conference, the Blue Jays may have very well had a chance to prove themselves in the NCAA Tournament.
Xavier’s Impressive Season Peaks with Huge Win over Vanderbilt in NCAA Tournament
The bottom-feeders of the Big East last year, Xavier did not look like they had improved with their 3-12 start. They started 1-3 in Big East play and it looked to be a long season for the Musketeers. Until, of course, they went 13-1 over the remainder of conference play and claimed the top seed in the Big East tournament. Their season including an impressive series victory against St. Johns and Creighton, as well as a sweep of Seton Hall. However, an unimpressive non-conference record left the Musketeers needing to take the Big East title if they wanted to play into June. They did just that, picking up a win over St. Johns and a pair of victories over Creighton to clinch the Big East title. That brought their record to 4-1 against Creighton, who was ranked 46th in RPI. Their tournament run allowed them to secure at least a .500 record on the season, with their title-clinching victory bringing them to 30-28 on the year. However, the Musketeers, despite being one of the top home run-hitting squads in the tournament, were given very little respect entering the tournament. Given the fourth seed in a regional that included Vanderbilt, the regional was rated the ‘easiest for the top-seed’. In fact, there was one absolutely scathing scouting report that saw Xavier with absolutely no chance of even contending with the Commodores. Xavier no doubt saw these picks and entered with a chip on their shoulder. They played like it in their tourney opener, absolutely demolishing Vanderbilt, who boasted consecutive appearances in the title game. In their 2014 run, the Commodores opened with a 11-0 whipping of Xavier in the tournament. The matchup in the 2016 regional provided a sweet chance at redemption for the Musketeers. And get revenge they did. The 15-1 thrashing sent the Commodores on their way to a shocking 0-2 exit in the tournament. Meanwhile, Xavier battled out a tight game with UC Santa Barbara, before dropping into the loser’s bracket. There, Xavier beat another Power-5 Conference squad, the Huskies of Washington, representing the Pac-12. Their very surprising run ended the next game as the Musketeers failed to defeat UC Santa Barbara.
Will Baseball's Elite Start to Notice the Big East?
After sending consecutive teams to the brink of the Super Regionals, the Big East has made a convincing case for some national attention. Despite having only a 7-team conference, plenty of talent has come out of that conference, most recently being Collins, currently in Class A in the Oakland system. They have proven they can compete with the best teams in the country, and even wallop them, as Xavier did. The Big East is doing all they can to make a name for themselves...will they be noticed in the years to come?