Rugged schedule just a fact of life in the Big East, Villanova knows

Posted: February 03, 2011

PERHAPS IT'S both a blessing and a curse to be in a conference as good as the Big East.

From an entertainment and competition standpoint, who wouldn't want to play in a conference where eight teams, half of the teams in the league, are ranked in the Top 25?

Finishing in the top half of the Big East is practically an automatic ticket into the NCAA Tournament.

But as far as winning a national championship, maybe the Big East is too good for its own good.

How much does playing an 18-game Big East regular-season schedule and then slugging it out in Madison Square Garden during the Big East Tournament take out of teams when it comes time to play in the NCAAs?

The last Big East team to win a national championship in men's basketball was Connecticut in 2004.

Coincidentally, or not so coincidentally, that was the year before the conference expanded its membership to its current 16 teams.

The Big East has had at least one team in three of the last four Final Fours. None has reached the national championship game.

You can't help but wonder if the Big East teams have too many conference wounds - physical and mental - to string together the six games it takes to be crowned an NCAA champion.

"I don't believe in that," said Villanova coach Jay Wright, whose team snapped a two-game conference losing streak with a 75-70 victory over Marquette last night at the Pavilion. "But there are people who do, even people in the Big East.

"I think that playing all the different styles that we play against, I think it prepares us [for the NCAAs].

"I know there are people who argue that [Big East play] wears you down and by the end of the year you are so beat down physically and mentally."

The Big East is a gantlet.

Going into last night, Georgetown (five) and Notre Dame (three) were the only Big East teams with winning streaks longer than two games.

Connecticut (17-4), Cincinnati (18-4) and Syracuse (19-4) have only lost to fellow Big East teams.

Villanova (18-4), Pittsburgh (20-2) Notre Dame (17-4) and Georgetown (17-5) all have lost just once out of conference.

Once the Big East schedule kicks into full gear it is grind game after game after game, with few, if any, opportunities to exhale.

"Playing in this league is just tough night in and night out," said Villanova guard Corey Fisher. "You just have to be mentally strong.

"The coaches help us a lot with that, and we try to help each other. I know sometimes I get down and someone picks me up.

"In this league, you might lose two games in a row and then have to play two Top 10 teams. That's what you practice for."

I went to the University of Maryland. I grew up an Atlantic Coast Conference guy and have remained one for my entire life.

But even I can admit that the ACC is top-heavy. Half of the league is not going to be ranked in the Top 25.

No league in the country has the top-to-bottom depth of the Big East.

The Big Ten is the only other conference with at least four teams in the Top 25, and that's half of the Big East total.

The difference between Duke, Kansas or Ohio State and Pittsburgh, Connecticut, Syracuse, Georgetown or Villanova is that the Blue Devils, Jayhawks and Buckeyes get more than a few nights off in conference play.

Wright said that when the Big East coaches get together during the offseason, one of the topics of conversation is how you keep your players from getting mentally worn down from the competitiveness of the league.

"When we talk, the thing we get to the most is what do you do to keep your kids fresh?" Wright said. "What do you do to keep their minds fresh and not wear them out?

"I think we are all trying to learn how to do that."

Last night Villanova got back on track with a victory over Marquette (14-9 overall, 5-5 in the Big East).

The Wildcats' reward is to play 25th-ranked West Virginia on Saturday, go to Rutgers (12-9) and then play fourth-ranked Pittsburgh within 7 days.

"It's funny because as coaches you always want to fix things," Wright said. "We lose two in a row, and suddenly, everybody is like, 'We've got to do something.'

"Then you look at this league and who you are playing, and you realize nothing is wrong, that's just the way things are." *

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smallwj@phillynews.com.

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www.philly.com/Smallwood.

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