One last roar from Big East

Villanova head coach Jay Wright calls out to a referee during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Louisville at the Big East Conference tournament, Thursday, March 14, 2013, in New York. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)
Villanova head coach Jay Wright calls out to a referee during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Louisville at the Big East Conference tournament, Thursday, March 14, 2013, in New York. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II) (Frank Franklin II)
Posted: March 20, 2013

There has been a lot of heartfelt testimony recently about the greatness of the Big East basketball conference, whose member schools will split apart next season to form or join hoops leagues that won't be nearly as great.

Because it is something of a poignant passing, the testimony has mostly been about the camaraderie among the teams, about the tradition that reaches back to the Big East's birthing by Providence athletic director Dave Gavitt, and about the singular philosophy of believing in basketball even in the great shadow of the hungry football ogre.

It was an occasionally tearful goodbye in Madison Square Garden, and as nice and sincere as the talk has been, the true greatness of the Big East wasn't on display until Sunday evening when the league placed eight representatives in the NCAA tournament field.

That marked the sixth time since 2006 that the Big East had at least eight teams in the tournament. The record was 11 in 2011. To put that in perspective, consider that no other conference - not the Big Ten, not the ACC, not the Pac-12, not the SEC, nobody - has ever had eight teams in the tournament. Not six times. Not three times. Not once. Never.

Sure, it's a tough league to play in, but the depth and the talent of the Big East always means that some of its fringe teams will be pulled along into the tournament simply because the league has been so highly rated by the selection committee. Every game is considered a good game. So the wins are very good, and the losses are not so bad.

Villanova is in the NCAA tournament and deserves to be there, but the Wildcats will be getting on a plane for Kansas City on Wednesday only because the Big East figured out a long time ago how to tilt the system a little in its favor: Build a box. Tell everyone it's a good box. Stay inside the box.

For the other side of the equation, take a look at a team such as Memphis, the Conference USA champion that compiled a 30-4 record this season. That's gaudy, but if the Tigers lost the double-overtime conference championship game to Southern Mississippi, there's a good chance they wouldn't have made the tournament. (As it was, 30-4 got them just a No. 6 seed.) Why? Because Memphis hasn't beaten a single team in the NCAA field this season. Why? Mostly because there aren't any others in its 12-team league.

Villanova had plenty of problems this season, but failing to play ranked teams was not one of them. That's what the Big East does. It allows the possibility of absolution to its sinners.

"If you really talk about the value of the Big East, that's the value of the Big East. And our season this year might be one of the great examples of all time," Jay Wright said before the Wildcats practiced Monday. "If you lose to Columbia and lose some other games, the only way to make up for it is to beat a top-10 team, a top-five team. The only way you're going to do that is to play them at home.

"That's what the Big East always provides you is the opportunity to get a big-time team at home and be able to beat them. We probably benefited the most this year of any team ever from that, and from the difficult schedule [of the] league that lifts the teams. You always have to answer for those early losses. But how do you do it if you don't get to play the top-five teams and beat them?"

You don't. You become Tennessee, which finished 20-12 (Villanova is 20-13) and sixth in the SEC. The Volunteers had at least one win over four of the five teams that finished above them in their conference, including champion Florida. Unfortunately for Tennessee, which begins NIT play on Wednesday, wins in the SEC don't mean very much and losses destroy you.

Villanova did its penance with home wins over Louisville, Syracuse and Georgetown, and the tournament committee rewarded the Wildcats with the eighth and final Big East slot in the tournament. (Cincinnati, at 37, was seeded one spot above Villanova, at 38, but the Wildcats were moved up a line on the bracket to a ninth seed, apparently flopping with Colorado, a natural ninth seed that was dropped to 10th. This was probably done to avoid giving Villanova a potential conference opponent - Marquette - before the regional final. It is one of the things the selection committee tries to do, and for those who might have rather gone to Austin than Kansas City, it was a little annoying in this case.)

If this selection was a farewell present from the old Big East to Villanova, it was a good one. The real question is: What kind of pull will the new Big East have next season? Only three of the eight Big East teams that were invited to the tournament this year (Villanova, Georgetown, Marquette) will be in the new league. Even with the apparent additions of Creighton, Butler and Xavier, the Catholic Seven have to pray their first impression on the NCAA world is a good one.

"What I'm hoping is that you have Providence, with good, young players; St. John's, with a lot of young players; Georgetown, still young; we've got a good team coming back [at Villanova]. What we need is everybody to be good," Wright said. "We need that league to start with six or seven teams around the top 25, just like this [current] league has. I think it's important to start that way because if you start that way you can establish it and it can stay that way. It's really important for us."

The flip side of this journey into the unknown would be a conference that isn't strong enough to earn or sustain those rankings, and isn't deep enough to pull the middling teams into the national conversation. Then, even if you are still called the Big East, you just aren't.

It will be interesting to follow, just as it was interesting to hear the old lion roar one more time on Sunday night. Mark it down. There will never be a conference that can shake the trees quite that way again.


Contact columnist Bob Ford at bford@phillynews.com. Follow @bobfordsports on Twitter.

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