Villanova head coach Jay Wright gestures during the second half...

Villanova head coach Jay Wright gestures during the second half of a second-round game against Milwaukee in the NCAA tournament on Thursday, March 20, 2014. Credit: AP

What was the best thing about the first season of the new Big East basketball conference?

"I think getting the first year of the Big East over with was the greatest thing we did,'' Villanova coach Jay Wright said recently as the league prepared to launch its second season.

Downsizing to 10 schools from the 16-team behemoth that had dominated the college basketball landscape for many years produced seismic changes in power and public perception. Where the old Big East once landed a record 11 NCAA Tournament bids, the new version was lucky to eke out four spots. Twelfth-seeded Xavier was one of the last teams into the 68-team field, and Providence, which got in only by winning the Big East Tournament, was relegated to a lowly 11th seed. Second-seeded Villanova and third-seeded Creighton were the only sure things.

"We just got caught on the bubble,'' Wright said. "I think we'll see a difference this year and in years to come. What is this league? It's going to be a great basketball league that is going to have five or six teams knocking on the door every year. If you're in a league that gets 50 or 60 percent in every year, that's a hell of a league.''

Commissioner Val Ackerman said the logistics associated with a new league were a daunting undertaking that led to considerable uncertainty. But the Big East Tournament still took place at Madison Square Garden and produced an exciting finish when Providence upset Creighton and All-American Doug McDermott for the title.

"The championship game at the Garden was as good a basketball game as the Big East has seen,'' Ackerman said. "That was a highlight. We sent 40 percent of our schools to the NCAA Tournament and another couple into the NIT. It was no small thing to get this running. Now we've got it settled and we can really focus on how to build the conference and the name.''

According to Ackerman, the Big East had seven schools under consideration for an NCAA berth by the selection committee at the end of the season. But a 20-win St. John's team fell short, and the low seeding of Providence and Xavier indicated a certain lack of respect.

Asked if the Big East received its due from the selection committee, Providence coach Ed Cooley said, "No, not at all. We basically were the last team in. We had our opportunity, and I thought we blew it. That's on us. That's not on the committee.''

The Friars lost a two-point heartbreaker to North Carolina in their NCAA opener and Xavier was blown out by North Carolina State in a First Four contest. Creighton and Villanova each lost its second tournament game to lower seeds, but the Wildcats were beaten by eventual national champion UConn, a refugee from the old Big East.

Georgetown was one of the teams that stumbled late and fell out of NCAA consideration. Hoyas guard D'Vauntes Smith-Rivera, the preseason pick as conference player of the year, said, "It's pretty evident some people don't see it as the same, but the conference is still really strong. The cities we bring in -- Chicago, New York, D.C., Indianapolis, a lot of the powerhouse cities and basketball states -- are still involved, and the better players around the country still come to this conference.''

Ackerman said there has been a renewed emphasis on improving non-conference schedules to satisfy the NCAA selection committee's desire to see teams intentionally schedule strong national opponents. "That drove our decision to have the alliance with the Big Ten to open next year with a bang,'' Ackerman said. "That is our way of signaling we're not afraid to play anybody.''

Creighton coach Doug McDermott pointed to his program's decision to enter into home-and-home agreements with Oklahoma of the Big 12 and Arizona State of the Pac-12 during the next two seasons as evidence of that commitment to upgrade non-conference foes.

"By the looks of the non-conference schedule this year, I think we've got some quality opponents across the board,'' McDermott said of the league as a whole. "Now we have to have success. If we do that, we can get multiple teams in the NCAA Tournament and, hopefully, half of our league. I think that needs to be our goal.''

As one of the new members of the Big East, McDermott couldn't be happier with what the move has meant to his program. "We just went over 15,000 season tickets sold for the second year in a row,'' he said. "In terms of value the Big East has brought to us, it's been incredible. Our community has embraced it, our fan base loves it.''


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