Last season, its first year in the new 10-team Big East, DePaul won three league games. In its three previous seasons in the old 16-team Big East, it won six conference contests, total. We could handle this reality with cashmere mittens or simply be polite about it, but that wouldn’t serve the forthcoming point. So let’s be blunt: The Blue Demons were checked off as an easy win by virtually any opponent they faced. Along the rutted road of league play, they were the rest stop.
Yet on Tuesday, there was visiting Georgetown, a club on the outskirts of the national polls and considered among the league favorites, tied with DePaul deep into the second half. The Blue Demons already had enjoyed three conference wins and a startling, if ephemeral, stay at the top of the Big East standings. If they were a rest stop, they were the kind with a slasher-movie psycho who lurks in a stall.
“It’s going to play out, year in and year out,” relieved Hoyas head coach John Thompson III said two days later, after his team went on a late run to escape Allstate Arena with a six-point win. “There are no weak sisters here.”
The same is true of the Big 12, which also has only 10 teams. Among the top eight conferences in the country, according to RPI, the Big 12 and the Big East are the smallest. Yet they also rank No. 1 and 2, respectively, in conference RPI entering the weekend and appear to be on pace for an extra-large presence in the NCAA tournament. After years of conference expansion and realignment, it’s encouraging proof that the small can survive and that supersizing is not always the healthiest option.
Nor do there appear to be any plans for these leagues to grow any larger. That's even true for the Big 12, which had two teams -- Baylor and TCU -- left out of the recent College Football Playoff in part because the league wasn't big enough to have a conference championship game.
“I think there is a very low possibility that we would expand,” Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby said in a phone interview last week. “In fact I was proud of our (athletic directors) for not taking a knee-jerk reaction after being left out of the playoff. They were very thoughtful about it. I don’t see expansion in our future.”
The result, for now, is that there is terrific quality of depth for basketball in both leagues. A full 70 percent of both Big 12 and Big East teams rank in the RPI's top 40 and are currently projected to earn NCAA tournament bids, according to SI.com's most recent Bracket Watch. That means teams will spend the next two months socking each other in the mouth -- this weekend alone, No. 9 Kansas plays at No. 11 Iowa State, and No. 16 West Virginia is at No. 20 Texas -- but there will be benefits.
“There’s no doubt they’re going to cut each other up,” Bowlsby said. “Will we have a team on the one[-seed] line? Maybe we will if someone gets really hot. More likely than not we’ll have teams that everyone knows are pretty good but don’t have that glitzy one-loss or two-loss record. In the end, it’s a matter of what you do in the postseason. If you’re tempered by fire through an 18-game season, you’ll fare OK.”
Consider this, then, a celebration of modest size. Both leagues have a double round-robin format guaranteeing two games against every conference foe. That means there's no escape, but it can be more helpful than piling up wins against inferior competition. These teams have to win, for sure. But the tournament selection committee won’t be fooled if one gets beat up a little.
“Based on what the committee has said, over time, (evaluation) is based on opportunities to get resume-type wins,” Kansas coach Bill Self said. “You can be top-heavy and bottom-heavy. In this league, I don’t know if we’re either one.”
Both leagues are growing comfortable with intimacy. Two guaranteed meetings per year will create memories and animosity. Maybe Creighton-Marquette won’t become a scintillating rivalry on a national scale. But it probably has a better chance, thanks to sheer familiarity, than Nebraska-Rutgers in the new-look Big Ten or Louisville-Virginia Tech in the now-15-team ACC.
The idea of preserving rivalries has had negligible influence in decisions for conferences to expand over the past few years. It doesn’t seem to have a value on spreadsheets. But it has its virtues. “The model that we have right now for basketball is to me the best for basketball,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said. “You can tell in a short period of time the rivalries that have developed already just by fans knowing the players. When we played Butler, I could just sense the buzz. People respect the Butler program and the games we had against them. They wanted to see Butler. I think (10 teams) is a perfect number.”
These things run in cycles; it was only last year that the Big East lamented its four NCAA bids -- a far cry from the record 11 that the league got in its goliath form in 2011 -- and lackluster postseason performance. But the size of the leagues is working now and can work again, which means no basketball devotees will grumble if any expansion notions are shelved somewhere in the sub-basement of league priorities. If the seedings and records of the teams -- and the mental health of the coaches -- take hits in the meantime, so be it.
“I suspect what we’ll have at end of the year is a champion that has had some losses,” Bowlsby said. “But you wouldn’t want to draw them in first round of the tournament. Probably our fifth place team, you wouldn’t want to draw. Probably our eighth place team, you wouldn’t want to draw.”