Seton Hall has surpassed its expected Big East finish every year of the Bobby Gonzalez era. Now for the 2009-2010 season, a similar jump could place the Pirates within reach of being a part of March Madness for the first time since the 2005-2006 season.
This year, many media outlets have projected that the Big East will take a step back as an overall league.
“We’ve graduated, I think, 38 of 80 of the starters of last year’s teams, so we’ve lost a lot,” Big East commissioner John Marinatto said. “The teams that finished in the lower echelon returned, for the most part, their starters. So, they have an opportunity to take advantage of the situation and move up.”
The change follows a 2008-2009 campaign for the Big East that saw the conference achieve unprecedented national prominence.
Last season, three teams (Louisville, Connecticut and Pittsburgh) earned No. 1 seeds in the NCAA Tournament, a first for any conference in history.
Four Big East schools won at least 30 games, five teams advanced to the Sweet 16 round of the NCAA Tournament, and a record nine schools entered the Associated Press Top 25 poll on Jan. 5. Villanova and Connecticut both reached the Final Four as well.
But for the upcoming season, the buzz surrounding the Big East is not as prevalent. ESPN.com only ranked Villanova, West Virginia, Georgetown and Connecticut within its preseason Top 25 polls. Additionally, none of the notable preseason rankings (including Blue Ribbon, CBS Sports, the Sporting News and Athlon Sports) placed any Big East Team higher than No. 4 overall.
“Whether or not the national media recognizes us, the RPI (Ratings Percentage Index, a national ranking system) will,” Connecticut head coach Jim Calhoun said. “That’s what really gets out there.”
There may be fewer spots in the NCAA Tournament this season, but Cincinnati head coach Mick Cronin said a high finish in the Big East always leads to a bid for March Madness.
“Top six means you’re Top 25 (in the nation),” Cronin said. “If you’re Top 25, you’re competing nationally come March. Top six get in (to the NCAA Tournament) automatic.”
For Seton Hall, the task is to jump teams from its No. 10 conference prediction. Released on Oct. 21, the official Big East preseason coaches’ poll had the Pirates at 110 points overall.
For perspective, consensus Big East favorite Villanova finished with 218 points and the No. 1 ranking. West Virginia finished second in the poll at 215 points, and Connecticut was third with 185 points total.
“It’s an honor to be a face of the Big East now, but we don’t get into all that (hype),” Villanova guard Corey Stokes said.
After the top three, the Hall trails Louisville, Georgetown, Syracuse, Cincinnati, Notre Dame and Pittsburgh, respectively.
“I put Seton Hall in that mix, too (of getting to the Top 25),” Louisville head coach Rick Pitino said. “They have guys that can take a step up from being role players to star players.”
Notable star players in the group ahead of the Pirates include big men Luke Harangody for the Fighting Irish, who was named the preseason Player of the Year for the Big East, and Georgetown’s Greg Monroe, the league’s Rookie of the Year last season.
“You definitely have to have endurance (in this league),” Monroe said. “You play against a lot of great big men day in and day out.”
Contrarily, Pittsburgh may be one of the Hall’s targets to leapfrog in the standings. Despite going 31-5 last season, the Panthers lost four of its five starters during the offseason.
Placing below Seton Hall, in order, were St. John’s, Marquette, Providence, South Florida, Rutgers and DePaul.
The Pirates did earn some attention through the preseason All-Big East teams, as Jeremy Hazell earned a spot on the All-Conference Second Team.
For Seton Hall, effective Big East play may be a key to building a potential NCAA Tournament résumé. The Pirates’ top non-conference foes are Virginia Tech (in Cancun on Jan. 2), Cornell (a road game on Nov. 20) and Temple (home on Dec. 19).
“The (NCAA Tournament selection) committee can say that they look at the end of the year more than the front, but you got to win in the beginning,” Providence head coach Keno Davis said. “Last year, we went 8-4 in our non-conference. That wasn’t good enough.”
Without any other significant out-of-conference matchups, there is even more importance on the Hall’s Big East games and those against schools ranked below them.
“Metropolitan basketball is going to grow, going to get better,” St. John’s head coach Norm Roberts said. “Seton Hall is better, and so is Rutgers. But it’s a process. If you get to seven or eight in our league, you’re an NCAA Tournament team.”
Seton Hall opens Big East play against West Virginia on Dec. 26 at Prudential Center, a game that will be televised nationally on CBS.
Brian Wisowaty can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.