The Big East fragmentation that occurred several years back broke apart what widely was considered America’s toughest basketball conference and forced the league to make due without its football playing members.
And while the league certainly has maintained its national brand, this year’s recruiting results register as at least slightly alarming. There’s still time for each school to build a strong class, but presently just one Big East member holds a top-25 class for 2016.
But a gulf has emerged between the Wildcats’ class and the rest of the league. Most painful for Big East programs is that players within the league’s natural geographic footprint — including New Yorker Mustapha Heron (Auburn) and New Jersey native Tyus Battle (Syracuse) — have chosen regional programs in other conferences or else will leave the area altogether for college.
Programs such as Kentucky have targeted New York and made life even more difficult for league programs. Momentum is a difficult concept to pin down in recruiting — particularly on a collective, conference-wide basis — but Big East schools must maintain a foothold in the Northeast while the new, Midwestern members continue to integrate successfully.
Court results remain top notch
Interestingly enough, however, Big East teams continue to succeed on the hardwood. Yes, some of those gains have been based on recruiting wins from a prior era, but you can’t argue but so much when six out of 10 schools earn invitations to the NCAA Tournament, which is precisely what happened in 2014-15.
Coaching still matters, and the Big East is fortunate to boast some of the game’s best young head coaches. Of the six conference teams to make last season’s tournament, four of them — Ed Cooley, John Thompson III, Chris Holtmann and Chris Mack — are in their 40s.
And Jay Wright, at this point the Big East’s most established coach, is just in his early 50s. Meanwhile, a couple of the conference’s rebuilding programs also are relying upon youth: Kevin Willard (40) at Seton Hall and Steve Wojciechowski (39) at Marquette.
The league’s oldest coach is 55-year-old Dave Leitao, who took over this past spring at DePaul after a previous successful stint with the Blue Demons in the mid-00s.
Contrast those ages to the ACC, which features multiple coaches over 60 and likely will be tasked with some critical hires within the next five years.
Although Chris Mullin is a first-year college coach at 52, his St. John's program also could give the league a major player in New York. The Red Storm recently landed top-100 NYC native Shamorie Ponds, who projects as a potential impact performer. They’re also competing strongly for big-time city product — now prepping in N.C. — Rawle Alkins.
Still, league schools will need notch additional wins between now and fall signing period, and the number of uncommitted seniors — just 31 of the top 100 — is shrinking by the day.
So we’ll raise the Big East recruiting threat level to concerned, albeit not dire. The next few weeks will illustrate how the league’s young vanguard can compete against their older peers in more robust, football-centric leagues.