Pitt basketball: Big East's haul for NCAA berths on thin side

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Pitt coach Jamie Dixon had been fond of saying the past few years that the Big East Conference was the best conference in college basketball. He had even gone as far to say on a few occasions that it was the best conference in college basketball history.

The Big East is not getting such high praise this season, from Dixon or anyone else. The conference that produced three No. 1 seeds in the NCAA tournament in 2009 and a record number of teams in the tournament a year ago is mired in mediocrity.

The Big East is regarded as the third-best conference this season behind the Big Ten and Big 12. One year after getting 11 teams into the NCAA tournament field -- an NCAA record -- teams are jostling with each other for fewer spots in the 68-team field this season.

A latest bracket projection has nine Big East teams in the field, but two of them are hanging by a thread. Notre Dame and Cincinnati are projected as No. 12 seeds and would have to play first-round games.

"I don't think we're going to get the 11 in like we got last year," Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said. "But I think we'll get a good share. It makes for an exciting race. You just never know what's going to happen week to week. Look at the way Pitt is playing now. And Villanova is another team that is playing well. It's survival mode now to get enough wins to stay in the discussion."

Notre Dame is 6-3 in conference play and tied for fourth place, but the Irish are in precarious position on the tournament bubble. They are only two spots ahead of Pitt in an all-important Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) even though they beat the Panthers and own three more conference victories.

It's the same way for the majority of teams in the conference. Teams from fourth place to 13th place are in a dogfight for those coveted NCAA berths.

"It's unbelievable," Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin said. "You can't look at our standings. Anything can happen. One thing will be consistent the rest of the season: The team you expect to win will win 50 percent of the time. You can't put any stock into the standings. Parity reigns right now in our conference."

Here's proof: Connecticut, the defending national champion, has lost four consecutive games and is careening toward the tournament bubble. Pitt, the defending regular-season conference champion, has won three consecutive games after losing seven in a row and is scrapping to find its way onto the bubble.

The Huskies and Panthers, both below .500 in the conference, aren't the only perennial powers struggling. Villanova has the same record as Pitt in conference (3-7), and for all intents and purposes, will be playing the Panthers in what amounts to an elimination game Sunday at Petersen Events Center.

Meanwhile, several teams usually at the bottom of the conference standings are inching toward respectability. South Florida, which hasn't finished with a winning record in league play since joining the league in 2005, is 6-3 and tied for fourth place with Notre Dame. Rutgers is 4-6 with victories against Pitt and Connecticut.

The only sure thing in the conference is No. 2 Syracuse, which sports a 9-1 record. Beyond the Orange, there is parity and uncertainty just about any time the other 15 teams take the court.

"Besides Syracuse, everyone else on a game-by-game basis will have some off nights," West Virginia coach Bob Huggins said. "That leads to some of the head-scratching results.

"We have Syracuse as an elite team. But we may not be quite as good on top as we have been. The teams at the bottom are substantially better. The talent is as equal as it has ever been."


Ray Fittipaldo: rfittipaldo@post-gazette.com and Twitter @rayfitt1.


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