Big East justifies NCAA contingent

Posted: March 13, 2010

During the Big East Conference tournament, you'll see a matchup that exceeds its billing, one that will have you talking to your friends for days about what a great game it was.

Such a matchup took place this week at Madison Square Garden when longtime rivals Syracuse and Georgetown, both nationally ranked and headed for the NCAA tournament, went at it in arguably the week's best game, one the Hoyas won, 91-84.

The caliber of the opponents and the quality of the game made it worthy of a championship contest. But no, this one took place in the quarterfinals - that's right, the quarterfinals - between the top-seeded Orange and the No. 8 seed Hoyas.

That's the way it is in the Big East. And that's why when the NCAA men's basketball committee announces seedings, sites and pairings tomorrow for the Big Dance, the Big East will have at least eight teams included, the most of any conference.

Yes, the Big Twelve and the Atlantic Coast Conference, both 12-team leagues, will have an anticipated seven each, a higher percentage. But the Big East is a league that sees teams devour each other during a grueling 18-game schedule and limit more from getting to the party.

"It's the same as it is every year, and the same as it's going to be every year as long as we have 16 teams," Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin said earlier this season.

"What our conference does is take tournament teams and puts them on the bubble. You have 11 teams probably in our league that have played well enough in nonconference and had good enough teams to be NCAA tournament teams. But the reality is we're all not going to make it. It's a matter of just killing each other off."

As much as Cronin's Bearcats tried this year, coming a West Virginia buzzer-beater away Thursday night from continuing their long-shot NCAA bid, they couldn't get over the hump and are headed for the NIT.

As it stands now, the top eight finishers during the Big East regular season are headed for the NCAA tournament. Marquette clinched its bid Thursday with a victory over Villanova. Notre Dame defeated Seton Hall and Pittsburgh and will pack its suitcases. Louisville also should make it, with its first-game loss to Cincinnati trumped by a season sweep of third-ranked Syracuse.

Syracuse, West Virginia, Villanova, Pitt and Georgetown were locks heading into the Big East tournament.

The Orange are expected to gain a top seed despite back-to-back losses over the last week, and despite the knee injury suffered Thursday by center Arinze Onuaku. Onuaku was expected to undergo an MRI test yesterday, but the results had yet to be announced.

West Virginia entered last night's semifinal against Notre Dame with a lofty RPI of 4. The Mountaineers beat the Irish, 53-51, and have an outside chance at a No. 1 seed should they win the Big East tournament and Duke lose in the ACC tournament. Even if that did happen, West Virginia still would have to battle Ohio State or Purdue for the top line should either of those teams win the Big Ten tourney.

Bracket-projection experts all had differing opinions yesterday on Villanova, which holds an RPI of 10. Collegerpi.com still had the Wildcats as a No. 2 seed, while Sporting News Today established them as a third seed and ESPN Bracketology put them at 4.

The belief was that the Wildcats had to beat the Golden Eagles (RPI of 46) to stay as a third seed. But another school of thought is that the Cats would get to play their first two games in Providence, R.I., as a 3 or a 4, and give their sizable fan base an easy trip.

At the other end of the seed game are Marquette, Louisville and Notre Dame, all thought to be somewhere between a 7 and a 10, but dancing nonetheless.

The Big East could get a ninth team, Seton Hall, into the NCAAs should things fall into place today and tomorrow. The Pirates (RPI of 59) were among collegerpi.com's last teams in the field yesterday, and they were among the first four out on ESPN.com.

The Pirates' best road win came at Cornell. They knocked off only one team (Pitt) in the Top 20 of the RPI and went 4-9 against the RPI Top 50. But they did beat tournament teams Louisville and Notre Dame as well as the Panthers, and did not lose to a team ranked below 69 in the RPI.


Contact staff writer Joe Juliano at 215-854-4494 or jjuliano@phillynews.com.

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