The creation of the Big East was predicated on a couple of key concepts:
• Basketball-first, like-minded schools would be better served aligning themselves together than existing as football’s forgotten baggage. Few would argue that point.
• The schools involved, with their name brands and long histories, would give the league instant credibility. That’s where things get a little messy.
No doubt the schools still boast recognizable names, but the real path to legitimacy comes in the win-loss column. Right now, the Big East is struggling in that department. Georgetown, Butler and Marquette, three old reliables, are skidding, while the old guard of St. John’s, Seton Hall and DePaul have little to show but dusty old record books filled with past glory.
That’s why Saturday’s game between Xavier and Providence is so critical. The Big East desperately needs someone to assert themselves besides Villanova and Creighton, and these two are the most likely to do it.
Truth be told, it would be even better for the conference if the Friars won. The Musketeers are a proven commodity thanks largely to their past NCAA tournament experiences, and with quality wins against Cincinnati and Tennessee -- not to mention a hearty RPI of 30 -- Xavier is in good NCAA position. The name resonates; the results bolster the name.
But Providence is a different story. Ed Cooley has worked wonders to rebuild the Friars into a contender. The process has been long and occasionally messy, but Cooley has turned Providence into a respectable program again.
There is a difference between respectable and contender, though, and that’s the step Providence needs to take. That’s the step, frankly, the Big East needs Providence to take. After three dismal losses in a row, the Friars have won four straight, knocking off Georgetown and Creighton in the process. That turns Providence into a curiosity right now -- an "are they really that good?" question mark. A win against Xavier might make that answer a bit more definitive.
It’s been 10 long years since this once-proud program went to the NCAA tournament, and the Friars are more "bubble" than "lock" right now. ESPN's Joe Lunardi put Providence among his last four in this week, and with an RPI of 45, that makes perfect sense.
Beating Xavier won’t make the Friars a lock or automatically bump up the Big East’s image, but it will be a much-needed shot in the arm for both program and conference.