If we were having a conversation about the Big East conference a month ago, we would have been hard pressed to say anything negative about it.

In its marquee sport – men’s basketball – four of its teams were ranked in the top 10 in the country – Villanova, Syracuse, West Virginia and Georgetown. Pittsburgh and Marquette had long since proven themselves as NCAA tournament teams and were competing for seeding. Cincinnati, Connecticut, Louisville, Notre Dame, Seton Hall and South Florida all were battling for spots in the Big Dance at points during the season. Of those teams, Louisville and Notre Dame would eventually qualify as well.

What other conference could say it had 12 teams with a legitimate chance at making the NCAA tournament? Who would have thought it possible that this year’s conference had the potential to be better than the 2009 edition that featured three No. 1 seeds, four Elite Eight teams and two berths in the Final Four? Coming into this year’s NCAA tournament, it was a real possibility. Look at the bracket you completed two weeks ago, and you will probably see a reflection of the then-popular opinion that the Big East would have a number of teams advance deep into the tournament.

It is amazing how the fate of a conference can change so quickly.

The Big East laid a collective (Easter) egg during the NCAA tournament, with West Virginia serving as the conference’s only representative in the Elite Eight.

Of the Big East’s eight qualifiers, four – Georgetown, Louisville, Marquette and Notre Dame – failed to advance beyond the first round, with all but the Cardinals losing to significantly lower seeds. Villanova, with some help from the referees, was able to squeak past Robert Morris in overtime to advance to the second round. But the Wildcats’ luck would run out there as they lost to No. 10 St. Mary’s. Pittsburgh would also bow out in the Round of 32, dropping a close game to No. 6 Xavier.

Despite its dominating regular season, No. 1 seed Syracuse – who was without center Arinze Onuaku – could not hold down the pesky Butler Bulldogs in the Sweet 16. With the absence of the Orange in the Elite Eight – something few would have predicted – West Virginia’s run to the Final Four remains the conference’s only hope of salvaging this season.

But the Big East’s collective on-court performance in March is only one component of its bad month. The coaching chaos at St. John’s and Seton Hall is a sign of trouble at some of the Big East’s┬átraditionally proud programs.

St. John’s is an integral part of the Big East’s history and was a charter member dating back to 1979. Older Georgetown fans can remember the heated rivalry the Hoyas had with the Redmen in the mid-’80s, with Georgetown’s Patrick Ewing matching up with St. John’s Chris Mullin in epic battles. But gone are the days when longtime St. John’s Head Coach Lou Carnesecca would pace the sidelines and lead the Johnnies to victories against the likes of John Thompson Jr.

For the past decade, St. John’s has been irrelevant. In 2004, St. John’s thought it had hit rock bottom. It had just vacated wins from 2001 to 2003 and placed itself on probation after reports surfaced that former Head Coach Mike Jarvis had his staff pay some of his players. To clean up the program, the school hired Kansas assistant Norm Roberts, who was known for his integrity and ability to recruit.

Unfortunately for the Red Storm, Roberts’ integrity cost the program victories. He was unwilling to play ball with the notorious New York City AAU coaches who act as power brokers for their star players.

Roberts failed to ever make the NCAAs in his six seasons and was fired earlier this month.

Immediately, rumors swirled about who would replace him. Early reports had St. John’s offering Florida’s Billy Donovan $3 million per season to lure him to Queens. After Donovan turned them down, they thought they had a deal with Georgia Tech’s Paul Hewitt, someone they reportedly coveted. But last Thursday Hewitt ditched St John’s at the altar, leaving them without a coach or direction as precious recruiting time ticks away.

The situation is bad at St. John’s, but things are worse at Seton Hall. After a bruising New York Times article in which former players and associates ripped Head Coach Bobby Gonzalez for his crazy mentality and erratic behavior, as well as the Pirates’ embarrassing loss to Texas Tech in the first round of the NIT – in front of 1,823 fans at the Prudential Center – Gonzalez had to go.

But what has come to light after his firing has been even more incriminating for the program. A few days after Gonzalez was canned, junior forward Robert Mitchell – who was just removed from the team – was charged with kidnapping and armed robbery. This comes just months after transfer guard Keon Lawrence was arrested for driving the wrong way on the Garden State Parkway and charged for assault, but was only suspended by Gonzalez for eight games.

Gonzalez left the athletic department in such shambles that it must be rebuilt from the ground floor. This starts with the program’s leadership.

Current Athletic Director Joe Quinlan is without a contract and is leaving at the end of the year. Law School Dean Patrick Hobbs led the process to hire a new coach but was hamstrung by the school’s inability or unwillingness to pay for Gonzalez’s replacement. Seton Hall wanted Siena’s Fran McCaffery, but they could not offer him enough money. On Sunday, McCaffery took the head job at Iowa while Seton Hall quickly announced the signing of Iona coach Kevin Willard. In three seasons, Willard’s Gaels amassed a record of 45-49, but finished third in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference this season.

The Big East boasts plenty of schools that compete at the highest levels of basketball, and in normal years the conference dominates the NCAA tournament. But there is something special about the Big East when its traditional small Catholic schools – like Georgetown – compete with the big, bad state schools that have seemingly unlimited funds.

St. John’s and Seton Hall are down right now. But it will be up to the next St. John’s coach and Willard to see if these proud programs can once again crack the top of the Big East standings.

Nick Macri is a junior in the College. The Big Picture appears in every other Tuesday issue of Hoya Sports.

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