NCAA -- 11 to Go?...
16 weeks into the season and the conference still has eight teams in the Top 25. Consider that in all 10 different Big East teams have been ranked over the course of the season, with at least three ranked every week so far. Eleven teams may be a stretch, but conditions are in place for the conference to break it's previous "most teams in the NCAA" record, eight, from 2006...
1. 15 of the conference's 16 teams entered conference play with winning records & strong RPIs.
2. 11 teams have established winning conference records (not an absolute predictor of an NCAA bid, but a necessary prerequisite) through week 16.
3. The bottom five teams have absorbed a lion's share of the losses handed out this season, while (Pittsburgh aside) the other 10 winning teams have traded punches and taken hits, mostly (but not exclusively) from each other. Only a few of those 11 teams (counting Pitt in this group) have ugly losses, and even those are not to the lowest two teams in the conference, DePaul and South Florida. 10 of the 11 teams are ranked #35 or higher in the RPI of 2/24, with Marquette number 11 on the list, ranked #52 (as of 2/24). But entirely in keeping with the tenor of the season, the Warriors hammered Connecticut 74-67, in Hartford, to bring their record to 8-7, virtually guaranteeing themselves a 0.500 record (or better) going into the Big East Conference Tournament next month. UConn is also 8-7 and also looking at a 0.500 record (or better) to finish out conference play.
Sorted by net efficiency and including results through Thursday night's games, the "great divide" between the top 11 and bottom five is distinct. Five teams -- Villanova, Marquette, Louisville, Notre Dame and Syracuse share a tier, separated by a 0.015 difference in efficiency net. The next tier contains Cincinnati and West Virginia, with Georgetown and a surging St. John's close behind. Connecticut maybe underwater this week, but given the volatility in the conference race, could easily be back on the plus side of the net efficiency next week. Pitt and DePaul, outliers from virtually week 1 of conference play, have been joined by South Florida, as the Bulls settle into a niche at the bottom, just above the Demons. The 0.045 separation between UConn and Seton Hall is almost as large as the one that separates Pitt from Nova, and Rutgers from USF.
About Marquette & Villanova
Those two schools have had their struggles in conference play, yet have net efficiencies and Pythagorean Winning Percentages fairly inconsistent with their conference records. Pythagoras "says" each should have an additional win. The paradox is resolved when considering the winning and losing margins for 20+ games (apiece) the two have logged since January. The Golden Eagles' average winning margin is 11, while their average losing margin is -6.9. They have two wins by more than 15 points, and only one loss by more than 10. The Wildcats' 9 wins have been by an average of 10 points, while their six losses have been by an average of -4.8. Only a single loss (Providence) has been by more than 10 points. And yet the Wildcats may well be one of the eight teams who opens the Big East Tournament on Tuesday. Such is the Big East this season.
So How Many?...
I have to fight the urge towards over optimism, but certainly nine at this point is realistic...if conservative. Eleven teams have pretty much done what the NCAA has asked -- they have scheduled out of conference games away from home, limited the number of cupcakes (RPI ranks > 200, for example) and won against top 100/50 competition. It will be crucial, this season even more than most, for the Big East teams at the lower end of the S-curve to win their first round BET games and finish Championship week with a record no worse than 1-1. Watch how the bubble and at-large lock teams in the lower ranked conferences fare during their conference tournaments. Upset conference champions tend to limit BCS conference bubble teams. If favored teams prevail in the #6 - #10 ranked conferences during tournament week, then 10 or 11 is very possible.