USF won’t be the only emerging team in the new Big East. UConn, which joins the league in 2004, is 7-3 this season playing in its new $91 million Rentschler Field. Existing members include current No. 21 Pittsburgh and West Virginia, which upset Virginia Tech and nearly did the same to Miami this season. Cincinnati was bowl bound last season after winning its season finale vs. East Carolina, denying USF a berth in the Hawaii Bowl. That’s nothing new for Louisville, which has been to five straight bowls with a sixth on its way this year.
The Bulls are lagging behind where they were a year ago, but have already beaten the two other C-USA “refugees.” But the competition will be keen among the top competitors. The league owns five bowl tie-ins, but whether it will retain its Bowl Championship Series berth after 2005 is the $13-million question.
The conference expansion was made to replenish the league’s football numbers, but it also has made basketball into a monster. Marquette brings its Final Four appearance from a year ago, while Cincinnati and Louisville are threats to win a couple of games in the NCAA Tournament every year. Syracuse is the defending national champion, St. John’s the reigning NIT titleholder and Pittsburgh has back-to-back Sweet 16 appearances. The Big East also features tradition-rich teams like Seton Hall, Notre Dame and Georgetown.
It will be hard work for the Bulls to stay out of the cellar. Like Vanderbilt and Duke in football, USF could easily get buried at the bottom of this league and stay there. More talent, though, means a better strength of schedule and more TV opportunities.
The USF women’s basketball team will be playing for second place in the Big East, as long as UConn is a member.
The Huskees dominate women’s basketball as well as the Big East as a whole. UConn has procured 10 regular season titles, 11 tournament titles, including nine straight from 1994 to 2002, and four national championships.
UConn is in its most successful chapter of its history, losing only once in the past two years and setting a record of winning 70 straight games.
Although considered a strong conference, no one in the Big East comes close to the dominance enjoyed by UConn. Notre Dame won a national title in 2001 as well as a Big East season title, but the results stop there.
Even though C-USA teams have made it to the NCAA Tournament, none of them have progressed past the second round. USF will notice a leap in competition and will statistically struggle in the Big East.
Cincinnati and Louisville will be joining USF in the move from Conference USA to Big East baseball, but USF will not have to worry much about its conference colleagues. The Bearcats and Cardinals have never made the championship round of the C-USA tournament and finished 11th and seventh in the 2003 regular season, respectively.
The real challenge for the Bulls will be Notre Dame and Rutgers, who together have seven Big East regular season titles and four tournament titles. Since 1997, either the Fighting Irish or the Scarlet Knights have finished No.1 in the regular season.
The Knights seem to be the more dominant of the two teams. They are the only team in the Big East to win both the regular season and the conference tournament twice; Rutgers accomplished the feat in 1998 and 2000.
St. Johns has historically been a competitive team in the conference, leading the Big East in tournament titles with five. The Red Storm, however, have slipped in recent years, winning their last title in 1997 and finishing in the middle of the pack since then. USF will not have to worry about Georgetown, which has finished last every year since 1997, except for 2001, when it finished second to last.
The Irish are also the best of the Big East in volleyball, having won three straight tournament titles and seven of the past eight. With a 19-2 mark this season, Notre Dame is ranked 14th in the latest USA Today/AVCA poll and is undefeated in conference play. The league is stealing Conference USA’s three premier volleyball teams in Louisville, Cincinnati and USF.
Like C-USA, the Big East has struggled when it comes to NCAA bids. Only twice since 1999 has the league garnered more than the automatic bid that goes to the tournament winner.
By raiding DePaul, the Big East bolstered its ranks with the two-time defending C-USA champions. The Blue Demons have ascended to No. 9 in the final ESPN/USA Today poll. They join an already formidable Notre Dame team and a worthy contender in UConn. The Irish have made five straight NCAA regional appearances, taking four conference titles in that span. The Huskies have eight NCAA appearances under coach Karen Mullins since 1990 and one College World Series berth. And while they’ve averaged 31 wins a season, they haven’t been to the NCAAs since 2001.
The league has struggled with multiple bids, as just the conference tourney winner has advanced to regionals in 10 of the past 14 years. Also, only the top four teams make the double elimination conference tournament. The Bulls finished last year ranked 25th and have continually been a winning team under Ken Eriksen, meaning they should be regulars at the tournament.
The USF men’s soccer team may be youthful, but coach George Kiefer’s nationally ranked recruiting class will be veterans by the time the Bulls enter the Big East.
Time is just what the Bulls need at this point; time for Kiefer to establish himself and time for his new players to mature.
With the Bulls projected to join the Big East in 2005, Kiefer and his squad may have enough time to challenge the best of the conference. The best would certainly be the University of Connecticut, which has made the NCAA Tournament since 1998 and took it all in 2000 when Kiefer was an assistant at UConn. Besides the Huskees, USF must keep its eye on St. Johns. The Red Storm leads the Big East with six tournament titles, and after winning four straight from 92-95, they are reemerging as a major player, winning the tournament in 2001. USF may miss playing the consistently ranked St. Louis Billikens, but the Bulls will find a plethora of NCAA Tournament-caliber teams waiting in the Big East.
C-USA teams are on the rise, but that’s nothing compared to the fire power the Big East has. Four teams are presently in the NSCAA/adidas Top-25 poll with a fifth (Rutgers) receiving votes. Soccer America ranks two teams in the top 10, including Notre Dame, which is second in both polls. Seven teams appear in the top 10 of their region.
C-USA has zero teams among the Top 25. Notre Dame made the third round of the NCAA in 2002, but had its streak of seven straight tournament titles stopped by UConn last year. West Virginia has fallen in the championship game of the past two tournaments.
Big East teams played just six league games this year, with the top eight making the tournament. With six of those teams winning in double digits and an above .500 Syracuse team sitting at home, the Bulls have a tough task.
The USF men’s tennis team will have a chance to challenge immediately on entering the Big East because of the departure of Miami and Boston College who together hold 18 of the 24 conference tournament titles.
With the Big East tennis powerhouses out of the way, the Bulls need only worry about Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish have won the conference tournament three times. In 1996, 1999 and 2002 the Irish took the tournament title and otherwise have finished second to Miami since 1997. USF coach Don Barr and his squad are familiar with the Hurricanes and handed them a stunning 6-1 victory last season.
With experience against nationally ranked teams and seven NCAA Tournament appearances in the last nine seasons, men’s tennis has a good chance of being a dominant figure in Big East tennis.
Playing a Big East schedule wouldn’t fit the type of competition USF is used to. A year ago, USF played teams ranked in the ITA’s Top 75. The Big East had three such teams, but Miami and Virginia Tech are on their way out of the conference. That leaves Notre Dame standing taller than ever. The Fighting Irish went to the second round of the NCAA Tournament after falling in the first round the previous year. Since 1996, Notre Dame and Miami have traded off finishing first and second in the league.
Under former coach Sherry Bedingfield, the Bulls were accustomed to being ranked and playing in the NCAA tournament. However, the team has had three straight losing campaigns, including Gigi Fernandez’s first season in 2003. If they return to form, the Bulls should see success in the Big East.
C-USA is stocked with teams that litter GolfStat’s top-100 teams. The same can’t be said of the Big East, which had golf as one of its first sports when the conference began in 1979. Departing Virginia Tech has clearly been the class of the league, taking three straight titles. Notre Dame was edged out by the Hokies a year ago by two strokes, but are 67th in the current rankings, 11 spots ahead of USF.
Six schools are ranked below 200, so making the conference tournament (the top-six qualify) shouldn’t be an arduous task. However, it’s not like they’ll be competing head-to-head with these teams during the season. It will make garnering an automatic berth to the NCAA regionals easier.
The Big East is the new kid on the block, hosting its first tournament last year. Providence, UConn, Syracuse and Pittsburgh don’t even field teams. Again though, Notre Dame possesses an imposing squad. In the current GolfStat rankings, USF is 71st and the Fighting Irish come in at No. 43. Winners of the first-ever tournament, they had four of the first five individual finishers.
The league doesn’t get an automatic bid until 2006, so the Bulls will be in a bind in their first season. But from there, USF and Notre Dame should square off with the NCAA bid on the line. None of the other league contenders, including Louisville and Cincinnati, are among the top 110 of the GolfStat teams.
The USF cross country teams have been consistently near the top during their time in Conference USA. The men have won four conference titles since 1992, while the women have taken two titles and four second-place finishes.
They will face a new challenge in jumping to the Big East, however, where they will face off with some of the nation’s top programs each year. Notre Dame, Villanova, Providence and Georgetown all have sent men’s and women’s teams to the NCAA championships in each of the last four years. Throw in Boston College’s women’s team, and you have the schools who for the last five years have, in some order, provided the top four men’s teams and top five women’s teams in the conference meet.
USF has some experience against these teams. The Notre Dame Invitational is among the biggest meets of the season for any program, and this year it hosted 19 nationally ranked teams. USF’s men and women teams finished 12th and 20th respectively, with Notre Dame’s men and women teams taking both titles.
Jumping with USF from C-USA will be Marquette. The Golden Eagles’ women’s team has won the last four conference titles and is ranked No. 21 in the nation. The team is the only one from C-USA to be ranked this year.
Track and Field
With six of the past nine outdoor titles, the Georgetown men are definitely a force. Nipping at their heels are the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, who claimed their second championship in 2003. The Irish women settled for the runner-up position because Miami claimed its third straight crown this year. Notre Dame did make the Trackwire Top 25 entering the meet, two places in front of the Hurricanes at No. 20.
UConn’s men also pose a threat, having won the title in 2002 and leading the event after Day 1 this year.
USF won’t have to worry about men’s indoor, where the Big East had Villanova finish in the top five and three individual All-Americans.
The women’s indoor field is stacked with four returning teams that went to the 2003 NCAA meet. The league can also boast of its nine individual and three relay teams that garnered All-American honors.
The Bulls have been extremely competitive in all three track and field teams it has. The stiffer competition will either drive the Bulls to match their talent or fade into the background.