Big East is good, and this year is proving it

The league made history twice in one week, and the rest of the country is finding out how good it is

Many have tried to tell the story of the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament. No one did it better than Connecticut forward Jeff Adrien after Huskies blew out Chattanooga by 56 points and Texas A&M by 26.

"There's no other league in the country like the Big East," he said. "We just go out there every game and try to take each other's heads off. I'm for real when I say that ...

"You know, I think our conference prepares us to play games like this. It's nothing to us. It doesn't really match up to what we've been through during the year."

Twice in the past week, the Big East Conference made tournament history. On Selection Sunday, it became the first conference to get three No. 1 seeds -- Pitt, Louisville and Connecticut. Then on the first weekend, it became the first league to advance five teams to the Round of 16 -- the three top seeds plus Villanova and Syracuse.

Are you thinking what I'm thinking?

That we're awfully lucky to be able to watch Pitt play in the greatest conference in college basketball history?

"It gets even harder to live up to those standards," Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said Sunday after the Panthers terminated Oklahoma State, 84-76. "But I think we're going about it the right way."

Dixon was among the first to predict this greatness for the Big East. He knew what he had coming back -- three stars in Sam Young, DeJuan Blair and Levance Fields. They helped Pitt climb to No. 1 in the polls this season for the first time. Dixon also knew what the league's other teams were returning. Connecticut was No. 1 at two different times during the season and Louisville finished the regular season No. 1. Villanova was No. 11 at the end, Syracuse No. 13.

"Others soon seconded my opinion," Dixon said. "It wasn't just us coaches spouting hot air about being the best conference in history. The [No. 1] seeds validated it. [Having five teams left] is further validation how good this league is."

Although Connecticut's two tournament wins were among the most lopsided, Pitt's victory against Oklahoma State might have been more impressive. Oklahoma State, which beat powerful Oklahoma in the Big 12 tournament 10 days earlier, appeared headed for the upset when it came from 11 down in the second half to take a 72-71 lead with 31/2 minutes left. But the Pitt players didn't blink. Nor should they have. Hadn't they climbed out of a 56-51 hole with 71/2 minutes to go to beat Connecticut Feb. 16 in Hartford?

"They say we beat each other up in the Big East," Fields said. "But I think that helps us in the long run."

Louisville coach Rick Pitino was thinking the same thing when his team fell behind Siena by four points with about eight minutes to go Sunday.

"We play in the Big East for a reason -- to prepare us for these moments," he said after Louisville came back to win, 79-72. "It prepared us for everything."

Then, there was Villanova coach Jay Wright. His team had the strongest showing of the weekend, blowing out UCLA by 20 Saturday. UCLA had made it to the past three Final Fours.

When asked if the Big East grind prepared Villanova for such a showing, Wright gushed, "Playing in the Big East, sometimes, is overwhelming to me."

Big East teams went 11-2 in the long weekend, the losses by Marquette to Missouri in the second round and by West Virginia to Dayton in the first round. Only the Big 12 came close to that success; it went 9-3 and has Oklahoma, Missouri and Kansas left. The Big Ten went 6-5 and has Michigan State and Purdue still in the field. The Atlantic Coast Conference went 5-5 with North Carolina and Duke advancing. The Pacific-10 has just long shot Arizona left. The disgraced Southeastern Conference is done.

Now, the Big East has a chance to match the record it set in 1985 when it sent national champion Villanova, runner-up Georgetown and St. John's to the Final Four.

"Incomprehensible," Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese said 10 days ago at the conference tournament of getting three teams to Detroit.

Maybe it was before the seedings and the NCAA tournament's first weekend. Not now.

Louisville has the best chance of getting to the Final Four, needing to beat Arizona and then Michigan State or Kansas. Connecticut figures to make it out of the West Region if it can beat Memphis, which was beaten this season by Syracuse and the Big East's 12th-place team, Georgetown. It seems likely Pitt and Villanova will play in the East Region final Saturday; the prediction here is Pitt will beat Xavier Thursday night in Boston and Villanova will whip Duke. And don't rule out Syracuse; it's playing its best ball of the season, although beating Oklahoma and probably North Carolina in consecutive games is a lot to ask.

That brings to mind something else Tranghese said at the Big East tournament.

"We're good. Everybody knows it."

If they didn't then, they do now.

Ron Cook can be reached at . First Published March 24, 2009 4:00 AM


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