Big East dominating NCAA tourney
The Big East is celebrating its 30th birthday deep into March
UConn, Pittsburgh and Villanova advanced to the regional finals
Louisville and Syracuse can make it five teams in the Elite Eight
BOSTON -- It's one thing to bag three of an NCAA tournament's top four seeds. But in that alone there's no proof, only promise. And the Big East, touted as the college game's preeminent league since November, is keeping its promises. And then some.
In Thursday night's regional semifinals, Connecticut, Pittsburgh and Villanova made clear that the Big East merits the adjective suggested by a fusion of the words in its name: beasty. Finesse, those three teams made clear, is fini. The Huskies, Panthers and Wildcats kicked out kickout artists Purdue, Xavier and Duke.
Thus here we are: If Big East tournament finalists Louisville and Syracuse also punch their Elite Eight tickets tonight, it would represent the first time one conference has sent so many teams so deep into March since the tourney field expanded to 64 teams in 1985.
The Big East's NCAA tourney survivors are just that, survivors. They play through. Nothing seems to faze them -- not no-calls, not incidental contact, not ugly wins, not (to go briefly back to the Big East tournament here) multiple overtimes or double byes. Even carpers like me -- I harp on the lousy free-throw shooting of four of the league's remaining teams (only Villanova sinks better than 68 percent) -- give them no pause.
Indeed, the Duke mystique made no impression on Villanova, 77-54 victors in one East Region semifinal last night. So what if Jon Scheyer was ACC tournament MVP and Gerald Henderson earned a spot on the All-ACC first team? Against waves of the Wildcats' Big East-annealed defenders, Scheyer shot 3-for-18 and Henderson went 1-for-14. Villanova, eyeballing the Blue Devils' man-to-man defensive pressure, chose not to blink, but instead put the ball on the deck and beat 'em off the bounce.
Coach Jamie Dixon was unfazed by the 17 offensive rebounds his Panthers surrendered; by his team's 33.8 percent shooting; and by point guard Levance Fields' indisputably horrible game before he suddenly went all hero in the final minute, sinking his team's lone three-pointer of the half and adding a breakaway layup after a steal as Pitt, uh, Levanced to the other East Region final, 60-55.
Neither a freshly uncovered scandal nor an opponent that has long served as exemplar of the Big Ten, college basketball's original smash-mouth league, fazed UConn. The Huskies whupped Purdue 72-60 in their West Region semifinal by bringing their own relentlessness to the Boilermakers' half-court discipline.
How did the Big East come to sit so majestically astride the game? It's partly the result of the league's expansion in 2006 to 16 teams. Out went football-minded Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College; in came the cream of Conference USA, which gave the league a foothold in the deep recruiting pools of the urban Midwest.
The league's best teams aren't clones of one another. But most have depth, experience and backcourt poise. Three tune their ears to current or future Hall of Famers in Jim Boeheim, Jim Calhoun and Rick Pitino, while the other two feature, in Dixon and Villanova's Jay Wright, coaches who have, respectively, strung together six- and five-consecutive NCAA appearances.
During the regular season, Calhoun fretted the league would wind up beating one another up and stumble come March. The opposite has happened: The Big East has sent forth deep and resourceful teams adapted, as that Vegas tout Charles Darwin might have foreseen, for the possession-by-possession, bumper-car style of tournament play.
Thus there's a good chance that Detroit's Ford Field will resemble Rupp Arena in 1985, when three of the Final Four called the Big East home.
Indeed, as I write this, it's still possible that the league Dave Gavitt created in 1979 will go four-for-four.
Either way, it would be quite a 30th birthday present to itself.
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