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Meet the beast

With seven former champs, the Big East looks like the toughest basketball conference ever. The 16-headed monster could easily send half its teams to the NCAA Tournament.

By GREG AUMAN
Published November 13, 2005


NEW YORK - For the most part, conference expansion is a numbers game, making it easy for basketball fans to size up a league just by saying its name.

The Eastern 8 begat the Atlantic 10, the Pac-8 grew to the Pac-10. The Big 8 was suddenly the Big 12, and the Big Ten became, well, the Big Ten. But throughout its existence, the Big East has grown within itself, still the same name, but living up to it more and more.

It is now at 16 teams, matching the largest conference in basketball history. It is touted as the deepest - and perhaps greatest - league ever, a group that could challenge the previous limits for how many postseason teams could make it to the NCAA Tournament.

"They're going to get eight teams in every year," ESPN college basketball analyst Digger Phelps told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. "You just want to get in the hunt. You can be a 5 seed and win it like Syracuse did a few years ago. Just get in it. Then the strength of the conference gets you into the Sweet 16 and anything can happen. You saw that happen last year with West Virginia."

No conference has ever put eight teams in the NCAAs, and only five times has a league had seven selected, and just once since 1999. Come February, the middle of the Big East standings will be a high-stakes place to be, and in March, the opening round of the league tournament at Madison Square Garden - and making sure your team gets there in the first place - will bring unprecedented excitement.

"It puts an enormous pressure on coaches, but it's going to create incredible interest at the end of the year," commissioner Mike Tranghese said.

Call West Virginia the "Crazy 8s" model of the incredible depth of the league. Last season, John Beilein's team finished eighth in the regular season, with an 8-8 conference record, entering the league tournament on the bubble at 18-9. But the Mountaineers reeled off three wins there, losing to Syracuse in the final, then stayed hot in the NCAAs, reaching the Elite Eight as a No. 7 seed before losing in overtime to Louisville in the regional final.

Last year's Big East was deep, and the league added five teams from Conference USA: perennial powers Louisville and Cincinnati, as well as DePaul, Marquette and South Florida. The combination includes 15 teams that have been to a Final Four - all but the Bulls - and seven that can claim national championships.

Five Big East teams are ranked in the top 16 of the Associated Press preseason poll - No. 3 Connecticut, No. 5 Villanova, No. 7 Louisville, No. 14 West Virginia and No. 16 Syracuse. Two coaches - Syracuse's Jim Boeheim and UConn's Jim Calhoun, who won national titles in 2003 and 2004, respectively - were enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame last year, with more marquee personalities, including Louisville's Rick Pitino, pacing courtside.

"You never know about a conference until the end of the year, when you see how teams develop, if there's teams contending for the national championship, which I think there will be from our league," Boeheim said. "We've all had some key losses, and how those losses are replaced will show how good the league's going to be this year."

Like a 7-footer trying to squeeze into a Manhattan cab, the league's size has its natural problems. Tranghese calls the conference schedule "dysfunctional," an odd compromise to honor current TV contracts, with each team skipping two league opponents and playing another three schools twice.

League coaches were unhappy that only 12 teams will make the coveted Big East Tournament at Madison Square Garden, which is a major recruiting lure and had been an annual trip for boosters and fans whose teams might suddenly be missing the cut.

Missing the tournament could cost a coach his job, a fear that stretches higher in the conference standings than you think. Pitino, whose team has been picked to finish third, was asked if he sympathizes with the teams in the middle of the pack who could miss the NCAA cut as the ninth or 10th-best squad in the league.

"That could be us," said Pitino, who coached Providence to the Final Four in 1987. "In any large conference, any time you have this kind of depth and competition, not only on the basketball court but in recruiting, it's difficult. You have to really go after it in recruiting to go against the programs in this conference."

Villanova, led by guards Allan Ray and Randy Foye, was picked by league coaches as the preseason favorite, just ahead of Connecticut, which has the league's preseason co-Player of the Year in 6-9 forward Rudy Gay. The bigger intrigue may be in wondering which team will emerge from the league's middle to challenge the Wildcats and Huskies.

Who's likely to be this year's West Virginia? Cincinnati, picked to finish ninth after the summer exit of Bob Huggins, could be strong behind senior forwards Eric Hicks and James White. Georgetown could break out in its second season under coach John Thompson III.

"Last year, going into the final week of the season, Notre Dame and West Virginia were on the bubble," Pitino said. "I think there are going to be seven or eight of us going into the last week of the season with bubble-itis, feeling we're going to have to win in the tournament."

The Big East's real strength might not be in a record number of teams making the NCAA Tournament, but in the league's ability to make a splash in the Sweet 16 and beyond. Tranghese recalls having three teams - Georgetown, St. John's and Villanova - in the Final Four, and such a repeat isn't a stretch of the imagination.

"It's an extremely challenging league, and an exciting time to be part of it," Thompson said. "You have a lot of quality coaches, a lot of quality players, so we just have to see how things shake out."