The Big East naysayers were waiting for this week, and it played out perfectly for them.
Xavier taking down No. 1 ranked Villanova at home on Wednesday, and then losing to a desperate (and talented) Seton Hall team on Sunday, 90-81, was exactly what the critics wanted.
If you were a Xavier fan worried about the hype getting too big and the praise becoming too effusive for the Musketeers entering the tournament with a protected seed, you can breathe easy now. Regardless of what the number next to their name says on Selection Sunday, they won’t be a favorite at this year’s dance.
Dana O’Neil at ESPN didn’t waste anytime reminding us that the Big East isn’t respected the same as other conferences after Xavier’s loss. And one of the conference’s most ardent haters, CBS’ Doug Gottlieb, had already tweeted this Saturday night before the game: https://twitter.com/GottliebShow/status/703754547743698945
Those comments aren’t outlandish, or even unreasonable. However, they very clearly fit a narrative that has been building about the current version of the Big East conference. One that will continued to be hammered home as we approach the NCAA tournament and the talking heads turn up the heat on their takes. The short version: the Big East lacks elite teams, and isn't a legit top conference.
The argument could be made that this is all just a media-driven narrative that has no impact on what happens. And that would probably be correct, but college locker rooms are wallpapered with news clippings of media narratives. You can bet Jay Wright and Chris Mack will be using any potshots taken at their team and conference in the coming weeks as motivation going forward.
Also, this is an issue that’s not lost on the presidents and athletic directors of the conference. They see that perception of the league as being important to its long-term growth and success.
“We realize the next five to 10 years is a really important bandwidth of time for this league,” Xavier Athletic Director Greg Christopher told MusketeerReport on a podcast in November. “Before you get to the next set of TV contract negotiations, the league has to earn its position as a big six basketball conference. And that means somebody has to get to the Final Four and win a National Championship.”
This is how we do college basketball. Winning a few games in the tournament is the only measure of a program’s success, and the programs in the Big East haven’t been successful over the first two years. In year one, the conference’s best teams, Villanova and Creighton, received a two and a three seed respectively. Both teams lost in the second round, as eventual national champion Connecticut upset Villanova by 12, and Baylor drilled Creighton by 30. Last year was even more of a disaster. Villanova earned a No. 1 seed, but then got bounced again in the second round by NC State, 75-65. Fourth-seeded Georgetown lost to Utah by 11 in the second round, sixth-seeded Providence was upset by Dayton in the first round, and sixth-seeded Butler couldn’t pull out a second round thriller against Notre Dame.
Out of 10 NCAA tournament bids over the last two seasons, Xavier was the only team to make it to the Sweet 16.
“It is frustrating, there’s no doubt, that we’ve gone two seasons, and only one team has made it to the second weekend,” Christopher said. “We have to do a little bit better than that.”
The Musketeers have the team to do it this year. They’re talented enough, they’re in position for a two-seed, and they’ll have plenty of “experts” picking them to get upset now. The loss to Seton Hall all but guaranteed the direction of the narrative for Big East teams leading up to Selection Sunday. For a team that’s never been ranked this high or received a seed higher than three in the tournament, maybe coming in as an underdog of sorts and playing with a little added chip on its shoulder isn’t the worst scenario.
It's worked pretty well for Xavier in the past.