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With No Post-Expansion Crowns, Big East May Be Too Big

Oct 20, 2010 – 5:25 PM
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David Steele

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NEW YORK -- Jay Wright likened the power, depth and tradition of Big East basketball to that of the SEC in football.

"In the Southeastern Conference, in the south part of our country, football is king. It's part of the culture, so its always gonna be a force down there,'' the Villanova head coach said Wednesday at the Big East's media day at Madison Square Garden. "In the northeast part of the country, in areas where it's cold in the winter, basketball is part of the culture. ... There's no basketball season -- it's all year round. When they stop playing basketball in high school, they're in an AAU tournament the next day.''

Wright was using the comparison to illustrate the strength of the league born out of basketball, rather than football in every other major conference -- and to explain why the Big East is always in the conversation about which conference is best.

The one flaw: while it has teams sprinkled throughout the rankings every week and throughout the NCAA tournament every March, since its 2005 expansion to a then-unprecedented 16 teams, no Big East has won a national championship. Four programs have gone to the Final Four in those five seasons, but the most recent national champ, Connecticut in 2004, did it before expansion. That fact surprised several coaches who were told it Monday.

The most reasonable explanation -- that it is too big and deep for its own good -- was largely brushed off by some coaches at the Garden media sessions as an unavoidable fact of life.

"I think a couple of teams don't get into the tournament that are good teams,'' said Syracuse's Jim Boeheim, "but no, I don't buy that.''

Eight teams got into the tournament last season, and West Virginia reached the Final Four before losing to Duke in the semifinal. The high-profile early upsets -- primarily Georgetown by Ohio in the first round and Villanova in the second, and to a lesser extent Syracuse by Butler in the Sweet 16 -- ended up denting the Big East armor somewhat.

While some coaches shrug off the idea of the conference teams beating each other up and hurting their NCAA chances -- and others think that the hyper-competitive league play actually prepares the teams for March -- Pittsburgh's Jamie Dixon did not hesitate to point out how the gauntlet of Big East play can easily be a detriment. Not that anything can be done about it, he conceded, but it is a factor, especially with the unpredictable nature of the NCAA draw.

"I think the depth of our conference makes it harder to win a national championship. I've said that over and over,'' Dixon said. "Our seeds are not going to be as high. We have more teams in the tournament, so we're moving around more teams and we're playing in different sites. We (Pittsburgh) are rarely in the East.''

"I think the depth of our conference makes it harder to win a national championship. I've said that over and over. Our seeds are not going to be as high. We have more teams in the tournament, so we're moving around more teams and we're playing in different sites."
-- Pitt's Jamie Dixon on the size of the Big East
The best example? Last season, the ongoing theme of the Atlantic Coast Conference regular season was that it was having a "down'' year. It ended up producing the national champion, Duke.

"They had one really good team. They had a high seed, played in their region -- those things played into it,'' Dixon said. "It's all about matchups, locations; that's almost as important as who the best team is.

"Having the best team and having the best conference are two different things,'' Dixon added. "Tournaments are one-and-out situations. I don't think that makes the best conference, but our strength and depth and consistency make us the best conference.''

The early exits, then, aren't always reliable indicators of the league's quality. West Virginia made it to Indianapolis as a high seed, but similar seeds did Georgetown and Villanova no good, and Syracuse had been a No. 1 seed and played its regional two hours from campus.

However, said Georgetown coach John Thompson III, "As an institution, as a team and as a conference, you want to put yourself in position to do that. Then the stars have to align themselves properly.''

Pittsburgh, the favorite in the coaches' poll to win the conference title, is also picked in the top 10 of most preseason rankings, including fourth by Blue Ribbon. Villanova and Syracuse join the Panthers as consensus top-25 picks, with Georgetown ranked in a handful as well. The loss of 11 players to the NBA Draft, including lottery picks in Syracuse's Wes Johnson and Georgetown's Greg Monroe, are countered by strong returning classes among all the top teams, including senior-led teams at Villanova and Georgetown.

In the end, the Big East passes the eyeball test again this season -- at least the test given by Big East eyes, like Thompson's. To him, the loud talk from coaches, players and fans of every conference does not matter.

"I look around this room,'' he said, "I look at how we beat each other up, and by the time the tournament rolls around, I don't have to pay attention to it. We are.''
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