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Robyn Norwood ON COLLEGE BASKETBALL

League Hopes Sweet 16 Is a Feast for the East

March 25, 2003|Robyn Norwood

Suddenly, the Big East has its sights on the Big Easy.

With four teams in the Sweet 16 -- and an 8-0 record so far -- the conference that went from the Beast of the East in the 1980s to the Least of the East in recent years has made its case after being snubbed on Selection Sunday.

Landing a team or two in the Final Four in New Orleans would make it emphatic.

"My fingers are crossed. We have four chances," Big East Commissioner Mike Tranghese said. "But they're tough games. Notre Dame-Arizona, Pittsburgh-Marquette, Syracuse against a hot Auburn team, Connecticut against Texas in San Antonio ... There are just no easy games."

Little more than a week ago, the league was reeling after the NCAA selection committee -- a group Tranghese was part of for five years -- picked Alabama and Auburn, two Southeastern Conference teams that didn't have winning league records, over two Big East teams that did.

Boston College and Seton Hall finished 10-6 in the Big East, and Boston College tied for the East division title. Alabama and Auburn scuffled to the finish line, though Auburn, at least, has justified its presence by reaching the Sweet 16 as well.

"Some people in the East have tried to craft a conspiracy theory," Tranghese said, shrugging off the concept. "I don't know the reason [teams were left out]. I thought we deserved at least another team. I have to tell you, when I was on the committee, twice in five years, the last team in was one I voted against.

"I told the four teams they could either bellyache or go do their job. I thought the teams played with a little bit of a chip on their shoulder."

They did, and in the process outdid the vaunted Big 12, which has Oklahoma, Texas and Kansas in the Sweet 16, as well as the Big East's new rival, the SEC, which along with the Atlantic Coast and Big Ten, has two teams remaining. The Pacific 10, Conference USA and Horizon each have one.

"The Big East is a strong conference," Pittsburgh Coach Ben Howland said. "Everyone knows that, and I think it's clear more than four teams should have made it, in particular Boston College."

Exactly how there was such a gap between reality -- the Big East is not just a bunch of no-offense bruisers anymore -- and the perception that the SEC was head and shoulders above, is hard to fathom.

"I was surprised at what people considered the perception of the league to be," Boston College Coach Al Skinner said. "I thought we were pretty well respected until I started reading stuff. Then when we beat N.C. State, everybody started talking about what a bad loss that was for N.C. State."

Thank a flawed RPI formula in part, and that Big East schools tend to play a lot of regional teams during the nonconference season.

But the truth is, it has been a long time since the heyday of the Big East, which reached its apex in 1985 when three of the Final Four teams -- Georgetown, St. John's and NCAA champion Villanova -- were from the league.

The Big East won two championships in the 1980s -- add Georgetown's 1984 title to Villanova's -- played for the title four other times, and put a total of eight teams in the Final Four during the decade.

In the 1990s, Syracuse lost to Kentucky in the 1996 title game, and Connecticut won the championship in 1999.

But since then, no Big East team has reached the Final Four.

Defense has always been part of the league's reputation, and it's clearly part of the reason the Big East is doing well now.

Connecticut, Pittsburgh and Syracuse all ranked in the top eight in the nation in defensive field goal percentage this season, holding teams to 39% or less.

"I think to win the national championship, you have to be very good defensively," Tranghese said. "That's why I happen to think Kentucky is the best team right now."

The Big East's defensive excellence comes in different packages.

Connecticut, led by Emeka Okafor, is the shot-blocking national champion.

Pittsburgh, with a superior on-ball defender in Julius Page and old-fashioned Big East brawn inside, makes teams work for every shot.

Syracuse does it with a zone that features 6-foot-6 Kueth Duany at shooting guard and 6-8 Carmelo Anthony at small forward, making it a difficult defense to shoot over.

Yet, what might have been overlooked this season is the Big East's offensive ability. Notre Dame, Syracuse, Connecticut and Boston College were among the top 20 scoring teams in the nation, and Pittsburgh, with its patient quest for a good shot, was third in shooting percentage at 57.4%.

And let's talk about players. Boston College's Troy Bell, the fifth-leading scorer in the nation at 25.4 points a game, ended up in the National Invitation Tournament.

There's Anthony, the Syracuse freshman so head and shoulders above the competition that even Coach Jim Boeheim expects him to turn pro after one season.

Notre Dame and Pittsburgh have two of the standout point guards in Chris Thomas and Brandin Knight.

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