NEW YORK - The Big East couldn’t have asked for more from its first season with 16 teams.
Co-champions Connecticut and Villanova are 1-2 in the Top 25 heading into the conference tournament, and half of the league’s teams are expected to receive a bid for the NCAA tournament.
“I don’t ever think I used the word grind about a season and I found myself using it at the end of this one,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said. “There was never a time to relax and that’s a positive for a great league. We never had to get our guys ready. I’d rather have it that way when every game was a big game.”
How good the conference was didn’t hit West Virginia coach John Beilein until he looked at the bracket for the first round of this week’s Big East tournament. That would be Wednesday’s four games among seeds five through 12. The two doubleheaders feature two ranked teams (No. 15 Pittsburgh, No. 23 Georgetown) and two others which seem to have an at-large NCAA bid almost locked up (Cincinnati, Seton Hall). Two of the others (Syracuse, Louisville) are teams which were ranked in the preseason Top 25.
“Doesn’t it remind you of a bracket for a round three of an NCAA tournament?” Beilein asked. “It’s past the first-round games with those matchups. When I looked at the brackets it finally hit me what a great league we have. If those storied programs are playing to get the quarterfinals, the league is better than we ever thought it would be.”
The schedule Wednesday has eighth-seeded Cincinnati (19-11) against ninth-seeded Syracuse (19-11), fifth-seeded Georgetown (19-8) facing 12th-seeded Notre Dame (15-12), seventh-seeded Seton Hall (18-10) against 10th-seeded Rutgers (17-12), and sixth-seeded Pittsburgh (21-6) facing 11th-seeded Louisville (18-11).
The four teams with byes to Thursday’s quarterfinals are top-seeded Connecticut (27-2), second-seeded Villanova (24-3), third-seeded West Virginia (20-9) and fourth-seeded Marquette (20-9).
No team has ever won four games in the Big East tournament and only three have won three games to reach the championship game. West Virginia did it last year, losing the title to Syracuse, while Connecticut did it in 2000 and Pittsburgh in 2001.
“We did it, but it’s tough to get all the way through,” Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun said. “It won’t surprise me to see somebody playing a fourth game in four days, the league is like that this year. This was the most games that came down to last three minutes, at least our most in 10 years and yet we were 27-2, which means we were there to finish the deal. But in a one-game tournament anything can happen.”
Marquette was the only one of the five new members from Conference USA (Louisville, South Florida, Cincinnati and DePaul were the others) to earn a first-round bye. The Golden Eagles prevailed in a three-team tiebreaker with Pittsburgh and Georgetown for the fourth seed.
The nation grieved for those hurt, killed and affected by the Boston Marathon bombings. After one of the suspects was caught on Friday — following a day-long lockdown and manhunt — sports returned to Boston over the weekend.
Less than 24 hours after the champion is decided at Madison Square Garden on Saturday night, the NCAA’s field of 65 will be announced. Could it be possible that a record nine Big East teams see their names in the brackets?
“It was almost impossible to imagine that a couple of years ago,” Calhoun said as he started to laugh, “but, it’s been that kind of year.”
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