Friday, December 3, 2010

Big East is flexing its early-season muscle

PHILADELPHIA -The Big East Conference may just be getting started bullying its competition.

From the beaches of Hawaii to chilly Midwest road games, the behemoth conference is flexing its muscle and putting teams on early notice that it's better than advertised.

Take a look at The AP Top poll: No. 3 Pittsburgh leads six conference teams in the Top 25.

Take a look at November tournaments: Led by UConn storming through the Maui Invitational field, six league teams won tourneys and two more were runners-up.

Take a look at the records: Seven teams are undefeated entering Friday night's games.

Throw in UConn guard Kemba Walker leading the nation in scoring at 30.0 points per game, Georgetown's overtime win over No. 9 Missouri in Kansas City, Mo., in front of a pro-Tigers crowd, and the Panthers living up to their preseason billing as the team to beat, and it's looking like another sensational season out of this bloated, 16-team basketball conference.

"We know we've got the toughest league in the country, the best league in the country," Syracuse guard Scoop Jardine said.

Yes, the Big East is tough enough.

But the only tournament, of course, that really counts starts in March. And no Big East team has won it all since UConn in 2004.

Not only is the Big East in an 0 for 6 national-championship skid — not an alarming drought yet, just surprising — the conference has placed only four teams in the Final Four since 2004 and two entries came in the same year (2009).

There are a few theories:

— The simple one is that it's grueling to win a national championship, period. UConn coach Jim Calhoun lamented during Big East media day that his 2006 team was good enough to cut down the nets had it just beat George Mason in the regional final. The Huskies lost and Florida went on to win the first of consecutive championships. North Carolina (twice), Duke, and Kansas were the best teams in their championship seasons and no Big East team, or any other, could stop them.

— The Big East is simply too, well, big. Perhaps it's no coincidence a Big East team hasn't won a national championship since expansion in 2005-06 added Louisville, Cincinnati, South Florida, DePaul and Marquette. The demanding schedule against a top-heavy roster of likely tournament teams leaves contenders worn out by the time March Madness brackets are announced. Some coaches are firm believers the schedule toughens teams and makes them tournament-ready. The Big East tournament is a grueling marathon (did someone say six overtimes?) that can take its toll on any team.

"It's great for the conference," Syracuse forward Rick Jackson said. "The whole year, we beat up on each other. I think that's why we have a lot of success during the NCAA tournament, because we play top teams every night."

— Too much, too early. This sport sure isn't college football, where Top 25 nonconference teams generally avoid each other like they're Jennifer Aniston and Angelina Jolie. The days of loading November and December with softies are mostly obsolete. Pittsburgh and UConn have already played games more suitable for the later rounds of the NCAA tourney.

"It's difficult right now and that's what's fun to see," Louisville coach Rick Pitino said. "Once we get into league play, and I know the Big Ten is strong this year, but I'm still not sure that we're not the strongest conference in basketball."

The Big East had four teams in The Associated Press preseason Top 25 men's basketball poll and now has six. UConn went from unranked to seventh — the second biggest entry in AP poll history — and undefeated Notre Dame cracked the poll.

The Big 12 boasts four teams in the first 11; the Big Ten has five total in the poll.

Connecticut beat then-No. 2 Michigan State and then-No. 8 Kentucky on the way to winning the Maui Invitational. Since the poll expanded to 25 teams in 1989, the only more impressive entrance was Kansas' jump to No. 4 after winning the 1989 Preseason NIT.

"UConn was the surprise," Villanova coach Jay Wright said. "I thought it would take them some time with some younger players to get that good. I think we, in the Big East, knew they had the potential to be that good. To do it that quickly, in Maui, was really impressive."

The Big East contenders that have lost this year haven't exactly been upset. Villanova's and West Virginia's only defeat came in tournament finals against teams now in the Top 25.

And maybe even some of the teams, usually dumped in the second-tier of the conference, will find their fast starts can roll over into January and beyond — all the way into postseason play. New coach Steve Lavin has St. John's off to a 6-1 start with a Great Alaska Shootout championship, for example. Providence is 7-1 and Pitino's Cardinals, picked eighth in the Big East's preseason poll, are 5-0 thanks to a well-balanced offense.
"I think the Big East is a lot better than people thought," Pitino said, "including myself."

Joining UConn and St. John's as tournament champions were: Pittsburgh (2K Sports Classic), Notre Dame (Old Spice Classic), Syracuse (Legends Classic), and Georgetown (Charleston Classic).

Nice achievements, but not worth more than a quick photo with the trophy before moving on to the next game. When a Big East team cuts down the nets that first Monday in April, then the conference can really celebrate.

"Winning these tournaments, it's nice," Wright said. "But it doesn't really mean anything." 

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