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CHRIS DUFRESNE / ON COLLEGE BASKETBALL

Big East is clearly the beast

Conference has had a great tournament, but one of those teams needs to seal the deal.

March 28, 2009|CHRIS DUFRESNE

BOSTON — "Our league is better than your league" has been a parlor game played out for decades in bars and on talk radio.

But seriously, have you checked out the Big East?

This year, there is no debate: Their league is better than yours.

In fact, there may have never, in the history of assemblages, been a league quite like it.

The Big East is the NFL's Black and Blue division combined with the American League East combined with the Southeastern Conference in college football.

Understand that this kind of thing might happen as often as Halley's Comet -- once every 76 years. It takes the perfect combination of know-how, coaches, want-to and 80% of your league's star players returning.

The Big East thinks it's the best league a lot of years, so you have to be careful.

The Pacific 10, remember, had 12 basketball national titles in its hip pocket before the Big East was formed.

"We tend to over-exaggerate and inflate some things that never really seem to come to fruition," Pittsburgh Coach Jamie Dixon, who grew up in Los Angeles, said Friday.

The conference, founded in 1979, was "so tough" it once instituted a six-foul rule. It was the league that, in 1985, put three schools in the Final Four.

Last spring, though, Dixon made the kind of prediction that can later be used against you in the court of public opinion.

Dixon claimed the Big East had potential to be "the best conference in the history of basketball."

Great: more Big East bloviating. We'll see about that.

And so they played the season . . . and the Big East had, at one point in January, nine of the top 25 ranked teams in the Associated Press poll. Pittsburgh and Louisville rose to No. 1 for the first time in their schools' history.

The Big East may not have the best individual team ever, but, from one through nine, the Yankees never fielded a better lineup.

Notre Dame and Georgetown were ranked No. 9 and No. 22 in the preseason AP poll and ended up getting chewed up like dog toys. The schools finished a combined 15-21 in conference play.

"There's a philosophy that we beat each other up," West Virginia Coach Bob Huggins said before this year's tournament started, "and there's the philosophy that, you know, what doesn't kill you makes you stronger."

West Virginia didn't make it out of this year's first round, losing to Dayton, but Huggins' survival-of-the-fittest theory seems to be playing out.

Five Big East schools advanced to the Sweet 16.

Pittsburgh and Villanova are playing here today in the East Regional championship.

Marquette, hampered by star guard Dominic James' foot injury, nearly upset No. 3 Missouri in the second round, losing by four. Missouri is still in the tournament after hammering Memphis.

The Big East this year had to leave its wounded behind.

After it lost James to the foot injury, Marquette lost five of its next six games. All the defeats were to Big East schools ranked in the top 12.

"In the Big East," Villanova junior guard Scottie Reynolds said Friday, "if you look ahead you can lose the game that you're playing that night and you can also be going into a three-game losing skid."

The verdict regarding this NCAA tournament has already gone gavel down.

Three conferences earned seven NCAA bids this year: the ACC, Big Ten and Big East.

The Big East was 14-2 headed into Friday's games while the Big Ten and ACC were 6-6.

Anyway you crunch the numbers, it's the Big East.

Players, coaches and league officials all said this season was a "perfect storm" sort of confluence.

An inordinate amount of star leaders returned to several conference schools.

Pittsburgh seniors Levance Fields and Sam Young have melded with wide-load sophomore center DeJuan Blair.

Villanova goes about eight deep, with seniors Dante Cunningham and Dwayne Anderson meshing with juniors Reggie Redding and Scottie Reynolds.

The talent goes on and on.

Anderson said playing in the Big East helped Villanova prepare for its deep NCAA run.

"Big East teams have advanced because of all the vicious games, night in and night out," he said.

Pitt's Young says there is nothing in this tournament that he has not already seen on the Big East circuit.

"There are so many different styles in the Big East," Young said. "You've got to prepare for every style: zones, pressure, man to man."

The benchmark for the conference has always been 1985, when St. John's, Georgetown and Villanova became the only three schools from the same conference to make the Final Four.

Boston College also won two games in the tournament that year before losing by two points, to Memphis, in a regional semifinal.

But the conference in 1985 wasn't two fathoms as deep as it is this year. Villanova has just crushed UCLA and Duke, two pillars of the tournament, by a total of 43 points in consecutive games. Here's the deal, though:

To be considered "the greatest" conference of all time, the Big East has to close the deal or else it's like the New England Patriots going 18-0 but losing the Super Bowl.

To earn its place in history, a team from the Big East has to win the national title.

"If North Carolina wins the championship, that kind of puts the Big East behind," Villanova's Anderson admitted.

So, it's all about the last team standing in the end?

Anderson: "Yep."

--

chris.dufresne@latimes.com

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