When Villanova blew the doors off VCU on Monday night en route to a 77-53 rout, it wasn't just a statement victory for the Wildcats.
It also continued the unexpected run of success the oft-questioned Big East has enjoyed so far this season.
The Big East collectively boasts an impressive 34-2 record, a mark that includes Creighton's victory over Oklahoma, Providence's wins against Notre Dame and Florida State and now Villanova's demolition of VCU. Rebuilding Marquette is responsible for the league's only two setbacks, a predictable one against Ohio State and an embarrassing one at home against Division I newcomer Nebraska-Omaha.
While the majority of the Big East's wins have come against a collection of small-conference teams, other power conferences haven't fared nearly as well against equally suspect competition. ACC teams have already lost 14 games this season, SEC teams have dropped 13 and Pac-12 teams have suffered 10 defeats.
Ten days worth of games isn't a sufficient sample size to declare the Big East better than advertised, but the league's gaudy record is a promising sign after the reputation hit it suffered last March. All four Big East teams that made the NCAA tournament failed to advance to the second weekend as Xavier fell in the play-in round to NC State, Providence lost to North Carolina in the round of 64 and both Creighton and Villanova endured upsets in the round of 32.
The Big East team with the best chance to deliver a memorable March this season once again is Villanova, which returns four starters from last year's 29-win league championship team and adds some promising freshmen. The 12th-ranked Wildcats looked every bit as good as advertised in the second half of Monday night's matchup against No. 14 VCU.
Having surrendered the first six points of the second half to fall behind by four with 18:35 left, Villanova regained its composure during a timeout and responded with a game-altering 16-0 run. It started with a 3-point play from Big East player of the year candidate Darrun Hilliard. Back-to-back threes from Ryan Arcidiacono and Kris Jenkins extended the lead to nine and forced a second VCU timeout. And a Josh Hart 3-point play off a steal from Hilliard all but broke the spirit of the Rams.
The lead continued to swell the rest of the second half because VCU could not force its usual number of turnovers with its full-court pressure and therefore couldn't generate enough easy looks in transition.
Villanova finished with 20 assists against nine turnovers, staggeringly good numbers compared to how opponents usually fare against VCU. Reduced to trying to score in its half-court offense, the Rams floundered, shooting 37.6 percent from the field and 2 of 17 from behind the arc. Only forward Mo Allie-Cox managed to score with any efficiency.
Clobbering VCU sent the message that Villanova is worthy of its top 15 ranking, but the Big East is hopeful other members will soon join the Wildcats on the national radar.
Providence is certainly on the verge after LaDontae Henton led the Friars to two impressive victories at the Hall of Fame Tip-Off tournament this past weekend. Creighton's impressive come-from-behind home win over 18th-ranked Oklahoma suggests life may not be as bleak as expected for the Bluejays. And while Seton Hall, Xavier and Butler don't have any marquee early-season wins yet, they're each playing well.
The Pirates won the Paradise Jam tournament Monday night by outlasting Illinois State. The Musketeers have obliterated quality mid-majors Stephen F. Austin, Murray State and Long Beach State by an average of nearly 23 points. And the Bulldogs have won three games against inferior competition by 42, 22 and 41 points, respectively.
Can the Big East sustain its success once competition stiffens this week? Will the league prove to have a handful of good teams but no elite ones just like last March?
It's too early to answer those questions, but it's not too early to say this: The Big East is off to as good a start as it could possibly have hoped. For a newly formed basketball-only league trying to prove it's on par with the other power conferences, that alone is worthy of celebration.
- - - - - - -