— In this age of social media, it wasn’t surprising that Big East commissioner John Marinatto issued a celebratory e-mail Sunday night after his conference made NCAA Tournament history.
“Placing 11 teams into the NCAA Championship doesn’t happen by accident,” Marinatto wrote. “It takes a concerted, consistent and focused effort on the part of our coaches, administrators and student-athletes and I’m thrilled to see them rewarded in this manner.”
That history-making block of teams from one conference should have been the big story on Selection Sunday. But the NCAA men’s basketball committee snubbed so many worthwhile teams and messed up the seeding process so badly that the Big East got lost in the shuffle.
Not in the New York Times. The headline there read: “With 11 Teams in Expanded Bracket, Big East Is a Region All Its Own.”
Think of that. The selection committee could have saved itself a lot of time by turning one region of the bracket into the Big East Region. Take those 11 Big East teams, mix in five teams from the other so-called BCS conferences and you would have had the strongest region by far.
Charles Barkley fired a few salvos at the Big East on Sunday. Expect that to continue, perhaps out of jealousy. When the games begin, Big East teams will be wearing targets. There’s satisfaction in beating one of the best and the Big East really has adopted that moniker in recent years.
When that first Big East team loses in the 2011 tournament, a graphic will pop up on your television screen: “Big East down to 10 teams.” CBS, TBS, ESPN and all the other networks showing this year’s tournament will be ready to track the Big East “failures.”
It’s hard to set reasonable expectations for the Big East. Should the 11 teams go undefeated in their second-round (formerly first-round) games? That doesn’t seem reasonable. In the third-round, it is possible Cincinnati could play UConn and Marquette could face Syracuse. If that happens, the Big East will certainly lose two teams in that round.
But that isn’t anyone’s fault. When it came to the seeding, the committee had to break some of its own principles — just because it had never dealt with 11 teams from one conference before.
Should the Final Four be an all-Big East event? That’s never been done before, although the Big East sent Villanova, Georgetown and St. John’s to the 1985 Final Four.
Does the Big East have to win a national championship to successfully emerge from this tournament? Is that a fair requirement? The last time a Big East team won a national championship was 2004 when Connecticut beat Georgia Tech. The year before Syracuse stunned Kansas in New Orleans.
High seeds usually translate into national championships, but Pittsburgh is the only Big East team with a No. 1 seed this time around. Notre Dame is a No. 2 in the Southwest, behind No. 1 Kansas. Syracuse and UConn rest on the No. 3 line, and Louisville is a No. 4 that is garnering quite a bit of attention in the Southwest. Rick Pitino’s Cardinals are certainly good enough to upset the Jayhawks in the Sweet 16.
For a guy who never has reached a Final Four, Pittsburgh coach Jamie Dixon may have the best answer to this Big East dilemma, which seems to fester every year in one form or another.
“Having the best team and having the best conference are two different things,” Dixon told AOL Fanhouse at Big East media day in October. “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.”
That is the best answer I’ve ever heard to the set of circumstances that makes the Big East so unique.
“I think the depth of our conference makes it harder to win a national championship,” Dixon said. “I’ve said that over and over.”
For the past two seasons, the ACC has been perceived as being down. Only four ACC teams made the NCAA field this year. But Duke won the national championship last season — and as a No. 1 seed again this year, the Blue Devils could repeat.
“It’s all about matchups and locations,” Dixon said. “That’s almost as important as who the best team is.”
Again, that’s so true.
Back in 2008-09, the buildup for the Big East season was incredible. There was talk of sending three or four teams to the Final Four in Detroit. Comparisons were made to that 1985 season, which remains the standard for all comparison. Villanova and UConn reached the 2009 Final Four but both lost in the national semifinals. North Carolina cut down the nets in Detroit. Was that a bad year for the Big East? I don’t think so.
The same type of preseason chatter didn’t exist before the 2010-2011 season. In fact, Louisville, Marquette, UConn and Cincinnati were all picked to finish eighth or lower this season. That’s the normal cutoff for qualifying for the NCAA Tournament. They should have been snubbed in any other year, but they are pretty good teams.
“I don’t think the Big East is as good this year as it was two years ago,” ESPN analyst Jay Bilas said. “In 2009, the Big East was much better. I think it’s more competitive top to bottom, but that is due to the lack of strength at the top, relative to the top a couple of years ago.
“I think the reason we’re talking about 11 teams getting into the tournament is the relative weakness of the rest of the country. This is the weakest at-large pool we’ve ever had. … Parity doesn’t mean everybody is really good. We’ve got parity down the line because everyone is really average. … That’s why we’re talking about 11 teams, not because the Big East has raised its level of play.”
Bilas makes some excellent points, just as Dixon did. But stop and think about what Connecticut did last week in Madison Square Garden. Kemba Walker and the Huskies won five games in five days to grab the Big East championship. After playing DePaul in the first round, UConn defeated No. 26 Georgetown, No. 4 Pitt, No. 12 Syracuse, and No. 14 Louisville (rankings from the final AP poll).
UConn might win the national championship and not face a stretch of competition that difficult. What does that say about the Big East?
Maybe the national profile isn’t as high this year. But don’t blame the Big East for that.
How do we judge the Big East in the NCAA? We won’t know that until after April 4. But if the subject is the regular season, it’s clearly a no-brainer.
“The Big East, to me, clearly was the No. 1 conference in the land,” ESPN analyst Dick Vitale said. “The quality of competition is there. People have been able to see how good these teams are.”
And all 11 are good enough to still be playing.