The Coleumn: Could the Big East Conference be a seven-bid league? 

The BIG EAST conference announced the 20-game league slate for the 2023-24 UConn men’s basketball team on Friday (Sept. 15). Connecticut will face each league foe twice in a home-and-home round robin, beginning on Dec. 20 and concluding on March 9. Photo from UConn Athletics.

In the Associated Press Top 25 preseason men’s basketball poll released on Monday, the defending national champion and No. 6 UConn men’s basketball team find themselves sandwiched between the No. 8 Creighton Bluejays and No. 5 Marquette Golden Eagles in the top 10. Not far off in the distance, the Villanova Wildcats lurk at No. 22 ahead of their second season without Basketball Hall of Fame head coach Jay Wright. Beyond those four Big East Conference powerhouses, the Xavier Musketeers and Rick Pitino-led St. John’s Red Storm find themselves on the edge of the polls with 55 combined AP votes. 

Let’s assume all six programs I just mentioned earn a spot in the 2024 NCAA men’s basketball tournament, which would match the number of representatives ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi predicts the Big East will have. Beyond them, I see three teams that could be on the bubble come Selection Sunday in five months and a legitimate possibility the Big East could be a seven-bid league for the first time since 2017. 

Given the parity across college basketball and the influx of transfers stepping foot into one of college basketball’s most competitive conferences, could it actually happen? 

When it last happened six March Madness tournaments ago, only the Butler Bulldogs reached the second weekend as a No. 4 seed despite Villanova being the defending national champions and the No. 1 overall seed. Getting that many teams in the Big Dance would tie 2017 for the most bids the conference has had since it split in 2013. 

Head coach Shaheen Holloway and the Seton Hall Pirates could make some serious noise in conference action as their No. 56 KenPom preseason ranking puts them four spots ahead of the Red Storm. Al-Amir Dawes, Kadary Richmond and Dre Davis, all guards, return after they each averaged over nine points and made more than 35% of their shots from beyond the three-point line in Holloway’s first season with the Pirates. 

Junior center Elijah Hutchins-Everett enters the mix after scoring 11.5 points and grabbing 5.5 boards per game with the Austin Peay Governors, making him Seton Hall’s premiere frontcourt player following KC Ndefo and Tyrese Samuel’s departures. That leaves one opening that can be rotated between senior center Jaden Bediako, Boise State transfer Sadraque NgaNga and two freshmen. Bediako should win the competition for the spot given his experience as a starting center last season with the Santa Clara Broncos, but Holloway should have a final decision on who earns it by the time the Pirates visit the No. 20 Baylor Bears in December. 

I would not be surprised if the Georgetown Hoyas stole a spot in March Madness after a two-year hiatus, even though they have the conference’s lowest KenPom ranking at 159. Their most recent appearance came after winning the Big East Tournament as a No. 8 seed in 2021, but even if the automatic bid is not in reach, the Hoyas have the talent to secure their first at-large selection since 2015. Jay Heath, Wayne Bristol Jr. and Ryan Mutombo all stayed in Washington, DC amid the coaching change from Patrick Ewing to Ed Cooley, making up 21% of the team’s returning minutes and 26% of their scoring from 2022-23. 

Gone are Primo Spears and Brandon Murray, both of whom departed for Power 5 schools; in are University of North Carolina guard Dontrez Styles, University of Illinois guard Jayden Epps and All-MAAC Third Team selection Supreme Cook. Averaging a career-high 13.1 points as a junior, Cook covered both sides of the glass with the Fairfield Stags at 3.2 offensive rebounds and 5.2 defensive boards per game. 

Do not count out the Providence Friars either. As much as UConn fans view the Friars as the Joker to their Batman, head coach Kim English successfully retained most of Cooley’s core from last season. That includes All-Big East First Team selection Bryce Hopkins, who finished second in the conference with 8.5 rebounds per game and seventh in scoring at 15.8. Both he and Devin Carter, who led the team in steals at 1.8, can exploit several of an offense’s weaknesses. 

English’s additions from his former school, George Mason University, in Josh Oduro and Davonte Gaines will further complement Providence’s aggressive style of play. Oduro, a 2023 A-10 All-Conference First Team selection, scored 12 points per game in his four years with the Patriots while notching a career-high 7.9 boards as a senior. Gaines spent half as much time at George Mason, averaging 7.3 points and 6.1 boards in 23 games last season. Once English figures out the last starter, the Friars have the pieces for a powerful season like they had back in 2021-22. 

Other than losing buy games at home, the one thing that may prevent these teams from making the conference a seven-bid league is their schedules. Between the three Big East charter institutions, at most seven nonconference games are against Quad 1 opponents, while most of the rest involve either Quad 3 or Quad 4 teams. If the three institutions fail to pull off the upset in at least five of those Quad 1 contests, then their March Madness hopes come down to conference play. Not posting a winning record in conference play or beating any of Marquette, Creighton or UConn on the road may result in barely missing the tournament. 

Pundits everywhere have claimed that the Big East will be one of, if not the most competitive, college basketball conferences this upcoming season. Between the returning talent that did not declare for the big leagues, every team reloading in some way or another and the Huskies’ having a target on their backs following another national title, the conference is as much of a gauntlet as it has been since 2013. The A-game performances that Big East basketball requires night in and night out could result in the conference producing seven tournament-worthy teams. 

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