Last year, when a disappointing Notre Dame team foundered in a brutal midseason conference stretch, the common consensus was that the Big East was almost too good -- Notre Dame might have finished in the top four in, say, the Big Ten. Instead, Notre Dame struggled down the stretch, purportedly adrift in the most unforgiving of conferences. The Big East had swallowed up another victim.
There was some truth to this diagnosis, though by the end of the year it was clear that, conference or no, Notre Dame wasn't really all that good in the first place. Much like in 2009-10, the Irish were a bubble team. In 2009-10, though, the Irish's much-bemoaned Big East affiliation is proving to be -- don't look now -- an advantage.
Don't look at me funny; it's true. Before this week, Notre Dame had lost its past three games (at Seton Hall, to St. John's at home, and at Louisville in overtime) and weren't even a bubble consideration. Now, after Wednesday's win over No. 21 Pittsburgh and today's very impressive victory at No. 11 Georgetown, the Irish are fully back in the conversation. And they have the Big East to thank.
It's a matter of stakes. Lose in the Big East, and you lost to good teams; gosh, that's no fun, but it doesn't necessarily mean your team is bad. Just that you were put into a "meat grinder," as Brey has termed it. But if you win, well, look at you! You just beat Pittsburgh, who beat Syracuse at Syracuse. Pretty impressive. And you went to Georgetown -- the site of the Hoyas' blowout of potential No. 1 seed Duke last month -- and not only won, but won big? You might just belong in the tournament after all!
The point here is that coaches who complain about the Big East being so difficult should also consider the fact that playing in the Big East gives them the opportunity to pull of this sort of late-season Irish-esque bubble miracle every year. When you play so many good teams, you're bound to beat a few of them eventually, and if you happen to build a decent record on the back end and time your big wins appropriately -- these two couldn't have come at a better time for the Irish -- you can reap benefits disproportionate to the challenge.
Throw in the added respect teams get from surviving a Big East schedule intact, as well as the national attention and ESPN broadcast love and, well, maybe being in the Big East isn't such a meat grinder after all. The Big East often taketh away. But sometimes, it can be generous, too.