No Joke: Championship Basketball in New York

The Big East Conference, which started in 1979 as a seven-team collection of northeastern Catholic schools, and which dominated college basketball for much of the 1980s, has become a virtual national championship in and of itself since expanding to 16 teams in 2005.

The basketball conference now boasts schools as far west as Milwaukee and as far south as Tampa. Of the 16 teams, 15 have reached the NCAA Tournament’s Final Four.

At the annual preseason media day held on Oct. 22 at Madison Square Garden, both longtime observers of the Big East as well as newcomers agreed that the conference has become the center of the basketball universe. Where opinions diverged widely was over just how good this development is for the participating schools.

For the programs at the top of the Big East, some coaches believe that the daunting in-conference schedule—now 18 games, not including the conference tournament—wears down potential title contenders heading into the NCAA tournament.

“None of the Final Four participants last year had the conference schedules that we did,” Villanova coach Jay Wright told a group of reporters Wednesday. “And it’s no different this year—you wouldn’t be shocked if any one of four or five of these teams won the national championship.”

Wright declined to name the teams he had in mind, and with nine different Big East teams making appearances in various preseason Top 25 polls, there were no obvious answers.

Almost certainly, however, one of those Wright has in mind is Connecticut, which was named the preseason favorite by the Big East coaches poll Wednesday. Nine of the 16 coaches ranked the Huskies No. 1 in the conference. But Louisville, Pittsburgh and Notre Dame also received first-place votes.

And the next four in the coaches poll include 2007-08 Sweet 16 participant Villanova, a Marquette team that advanced to the second round and returns its top three offensive weapons, a Georgetown team that is one year removed from a Final Four appearance (and boasts one of the best recruiting classes in the country) and Syracuse, whose appearance in the NIT had far more to do with injury than with lack of talent.

The ninth-place team? Another Sweet 16 team from last year, West Virginia.

“This is a more difficult conference than ever before,” Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said Wednesday. Boeheim is one who would know: he’s the last remaining original Big East coach. His Orange won 19 regular-season games last year, but were left out of the NCAA tournament. Two years before than, 21 regular-season wins weren’t enough. In both seasons, Syracuse was determined to be the ninth-most-deserving team, and the tournament selection committee took eight—still, a record for any conference.

And further developments will make postseason success for Big East teams even tougher. The league, since expanding to 16 teams, had only brought the top 12 to Madison Square Garden for the conference tournament, with the winner earning the conference’s automatic NCAA bid. But at the behest of coaches that were repeatedly left out (including, embarrassingly, the host St. John’s on several occasions), all 16 teams will participate this coming March.

So the top four seeds get a bye all the way to the quarterfinals, needing just three wins to take the tournament. Seeds five through eight get one day of rest, and will need four wins in four days. What does this mean for the nine seed and lower? To win the conference’s automatic bid, five victories in five days, March 10-14—then just five days later, the first round of the NCAA tournament.

To put this in perspective, take a look at the 2006 tournament champion Syracuse. The Orange won four games in four days—then, as an NCAA No. 5 seed, promptly lost their first-round game less than a week later to 12 seed Texas A&M. In 2008, Pittsburgh performed the same feat—then, as a No. 4 seed, lost to Michigan State in the second round.

Len Elmore, the sage ESPN and CBS basketball analyst who provides color commentary for many Big East games, pointed out the Pittsburgh example, but thinks the pluses outweigh the minuses.

“It’s a benefit as a whole,” Elmore said. “You get to play against different styles, you get to travel all over—exactly as you would in the postseason. So it’s hugely beneficial.”

Elmore also pointed out that expanding the conference tournament allowed for more teams to play their way into the NCAA tournament—something of a sore spot for Elmore, whose 1973-74 Maryland team, ranked fourth in the country, lost what was then the only ACC spot in the NCAA tournament to eventual champion North Carolina State based on regular-season record.

Elmore thinks, despite the dominant Big East of the 1980s, that this version is better.

“Those 1980s Big East conferences had the flagship teams—Georgetown, Syracuse and St. John’s—and those top three teams powered the conference. Now you have so much more competition, with UConn, Pitt, West Virginia, Louisville—just terrific diversity.

“I’m an ACC guy,” Elmore concluded. “But this is the best conference in America.”

Still, one of those flagship schools that hasn’t excelled, St. John’s, is still trying to figure out how to compete in the new Big East. The Red Storm hasn’t played in three of the past four Big East tournaments, winning more than 12 games in a season just once over the last four years.

“St. John’s isn’t playing with seven other Catholic schools anymore,” Red Storm head coach Norm Roberts said. “It’s different now.”

And it isn’t the history—St. John’s has won more college games than any program other than Kentucky, North Carolina, Kansas and Duke—that Roberts is selling to try to lure recruits. It’s the fact that every Big East game will be available on national television, with more than half on network of basic cable.

“The Big East is familiar to the whole country now,” Roberts said. “Kids in California are watching St. John’s play West Virginia, St. John’s play Marquette. They can say, ‘Hey Mom, Dad: you’re going to see me play.”

No Joke: Championship Basketball in New York