TOM DAVIS: The BIG needs put back into the Big East

St. John's men's basketball coach Chris Mullin reacts during the first overtime of a game against Georgetown Saturday in Washington. Georgetown won 93-89 in double overtime. (By The Associated Press)
Seton Hall men's basketball coach Kevin Willard talks with Desi Rodriguez during the second half of a recent game against Butler in Indianapolis. Seton Hall won 90-87. (By The Associated Press)
A beautiful and magnificent new scoreboard hangs over the court of the new Wintrust Arena in downtown Chicago. The arena was built to house the DePaul Blue Demon basketball program. It opened this season. (By Tom Davis of News-Sentinel.com)
St. John's forward Tariq Owens (11) gestures from the bench area during the second overtime of a game against Georgetown Saturday in Washington. Georgetown won 93-89 in double overtime. (By The Associated Press)
DePaul men's basketball coach Dave Leitao applauds during the first half of a recent game against Villanova in Chicago. (By The Associated Press)
Georgetown forward Marcus Derrickson (24) blocks St. John's guard Shamorie Ponds (2) during the first overtime of a game Saturday in Washington. Georgetown won 93-89 in double overtime. (By The Associated Press)

CHICAGO – A quick glance at the Big East Conference men’s basketball standings this morning – or any morning, for that matter – and the placement of teams shouldn’t be much of a surprise to any fan with some degree of interest in this league and this sport.

Villanova is in first place, as usual, and the terrible triad of Georgetown, DePaul and St. John’s is, once again, bringing up the rear.

Five years into the reconstruction of this league, there are absolutely no excuses; perhaps there are legitimate reasons, mind you; but there are absolutely no excuses for that to occur much longer.

Those three aforementioned and bottom-dwelling programs have wasted the fact that they possess a number of inherent advantages over the rest of the conference. That makes it a travesty that for the third consecutive season they are each headed straight for basketball ignominy, and it is hurting the conference from a marketing standpoint.

Since the Big East was reformed with new teams for the 2013-14 season, DePaul has (on average) finished ninth, while Georgetown and St. John’s seventh each.

From a publicity standpoint, that needs rectified.

“Our league is by far the best basketball league in the country,” Seton Hall coach Kevin Willard told News-Sentinel.com recently. “It’s not even close. I watch college basketball all day long and the level of play that is in this conference, and now that it has been around for four or five years, kids all around the country want to come and play in this league.”

And that is with programs in Omaha, Cincinnati, Milwaukee and Indianapolis thriving. Imagine how much better the recruiting and play would be if the league could actually sell successful basketball within its three largest metropolitan markets of Washington, D.C., New York and Chicago.

To Willard’s point, CBSSports.com bracketologist Jerry Palm currently has seven Big East programs projected to earn NCAA Tournament bids in March, which is second only to the Atlantic Coast Conference (eight teams projected) and squashes the mediocre Big Ten (four).

“The visibility is unbelievable,” Willard continued, “and the competition is great. I think top to bottom, we have great coaches. They are phenomenal universities. It has become much easier for us to recruit nationally.”

It should be. The Big East is a fantastic, competitive conference filled with basketball-centric athletic departments, metropolitan locales, multi-million dollar budgets, and grand facilities.

If you can’t sell the REAL Manhattan over the fake one (Manhattan, Kansas), then what are you doing in the coaching business?

There is definitely a big-time feel to reporting on this league, as well as following it, and according to Butler senior forward Kelan Martin, competing in it.

“It’s tough, night in and night out,” Martin said of the growth of the league following the Bulldogs’ latest victory at DePaul Saturday. “Every team comes with an edge. Every team comes to compete, so there are no nights off in this league.”

He’s absolutely right.

Even though the Blue Demons, Hoyas and Red Storm have struggled to actually win, they are each competitive.

St. John’s fell to 0-8 in the league with its double-overtime loss at Georgetown Saturday, which was typical for the injury-riddled Red Storm this year.

In six of St. John’s eight defeats, it has fallen by single digits.

For DePaul, the number is three of six, while for the Hoyas it has been two of five.

RELATED STORY:North Side grad making quick impact with DePaul basketball

The quality of basketball at programs such as Butler, Xavier, Marquette, Providence and Creighton is high and has been for some time. And that is great. However, in growing its level of awareness from fans, but more importantly, from recruits, the Big East desperately needs its most marquee locations to be good. Really good.

The coaches would argue this, understandably, but the other Midwest-based programs need DePaul to be relevant nationally.

A strong Blue Demon program will benefit the remainder of those programs in their recruiting battles with Big Ten programs.

The same can be said out east of St. John’s and Georgetown and their impact in going against the Atlantic Coast Conference teams for prospects.

In the case of DePaul, its leadership is trying to remedy the situation.

The university opened the new and magnificent Wintrust Arena this season and third-year coach Dave Leitao is “ecstatic” with the impact that it has made on his program.

“There is a lot more interest, from a lot of angles,” Leitao told News-Sentinel.com Saturday, “not the least of which is the DePaul fan base, our students, our faculty, (and) our administration. The people of Chicago, they love basketball.”

“The beauty of the arena and recruiting, obviously, you start checking all of those things off, and hopefully, in a very short period of time you’ll start to see a change on the court.”

For Georgetown, it already has every advantage that it could possibly need.

The Hoya program has geography, financial commitment, campus beauty, elite academics, magnificent and new on-campus training facilities, and it plays in a gorgeous downtown NBA arena.

For St. John’s, it has the geography and its proximity to recruits on its side, as well as financial commitment. However, the Red Storm facilities leave a lot to be desired, so it will be interesting to see if the program can overcome that obstacle.

“What is great now,” Willard said, “is our fans understand how great of basketball that Butler, Xavier, and Creighton play. They respect the programs and they want to come out and watch them now.”

That’s nice, but the league needs a lot more going for it than a good team in Omaha.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Tom Davis at Tdavis@news-sentinel.com.


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