Posted: Tuesday March 8, 2011 9:42AM ; Updated: Tuesday March 8, 2011 12:54PM
Stewart Mandel
Stewart Mandel>INSIDE COLLEGE BASKETBALL

Big East is a monster, but does it boast a national title contender?

Story Highlights

The Big East is as hyped as it's ever been with 11 potential tourney teams

The league has statistically underperformed recently in the NCAA tournament

League champ Pitt hasn't made a Final Four despite being a top three seed 6 times

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Kemba Walker
Kemba Walker and No. 21 UConn face a difficult road to the Big East final.
AP

According to this week's AP and Coaches polls, as well as the RPI ratings, Connecticut (21-9) is one of the nation's Top 25 teams. According to the latest bracket projections, the Huskies are in line for a No. 5 seed in next week's NCAA tournament, putting them near the top quartile of the 68-team field.

Yet the Huskies couldn't crack the upper half of their own conference tournament. As the No. 9 seed, Jim Calhoun's team will meet 16th seed DePaul at noon ET Tuesday in the opening game of the Big East Tournament. A win earns them a date 24 hours later with eighth-seed Georgetown (21-9), ranked 11th in the RPI. The winner there will meet top-seed Pittsburgh (27-4) on Thursday. And it will take two more rounds after that to determine a champion.

"That tournament, it's going to be crazy," said Huskies star Kemba Walker. "This league is just unreal."

College basketball fans have long grown accustomed to hearing Big East coaches, players and certain television analysts call the conference "unreal," particularly this season. The conference is expected to shatter its own previous record for NCAA tournament berths by one conference (eight) with as many as 11. Six Big East teams have reached the top 10 in the polls at some point this season.

All of this, however, has begun eliciting backlash from other parts of the country, wondering whether the Big East is truly deserving of the hype or an inevitable byproduct of the East Coast-centric media. Case in point: After a slow start, UCLA (22-9) won nine of its last 11 -- including one over the Big East's St. John's -- yet never cracked the Top 25. Meanwhile, after starting 17-2, Villanova has lost eight of its last 12 yet remained ranked through last weekend.

They also look back at recent history and note that the Big East has not produced a national champion since Connecticut in 2004 yet seems to enjoy a national reputation on par with (if not exceeding that of) the SEC in football. Of course, that league has won its sport's past five crowns.

A few weeks ago, Jason Lisk of TheBigLead.com did a statistical analysis of conferences' performances based on expectations over the past four NCAA tournaments. Of the eight leagues he measured (the six BCS football conferences plus the Atlantic 10 and Mountain West), the Big East had the worst discrepancy between its teams' expected wins (based on historical performance by seed) and actual wins (minus-6.8). Just last year, the league went 8-8 in the Dance.

Mind you, the Big East has produced five Final Four teams since that Emeka Okafor/Ben Gordon-led UConn team cut down the nets (2005 Louisville, 2007 Georgetown, 2009 Connecticut and Villanova and 2010 West Virginia), but it's also seen several high-profile flameouts, most recently top-seeded Syracuse against Butler in last year's Sweet 16. And because the Big East tourney impacts NCAA tourney seeding, teams that get hot at the Garden often get bumped up a spot or two higher than is probably merited. See 2010 semifinalists Notre Dame and Marquette, which went from bubble status late in the season to No. 6 seeds in the Dance. Both were upset in the first round.

None of that has dampened the perception surrounding this year's edition of the conference, considered its most loaded yet. "This league is so hard that it's really hard to believe sometimes," Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said recently, and apparently the sport's pollsters agree. At no point since conference play began have there been fewer than seven Big East teams in the AP or coaches polls. This week in the AP poll, Villanova (21-10, 9-9 Big East) fell out, but Cincinnati (24-7, 11-7) and West Virginia (20-10, 11-7) moved in, assuring that nine ranked teams will participate in this week's event.

The league's hottest member, Notre Dame (25-5, 14-4 Big East), winner of four straight and 11 of its last 12, moved into the top five alongside regular-season champ Pitt (27-4, 15-3). In perhaps the ultimate sign of respect for the Big East, its second-place team stands two spots above the ACC's regular-season champ, North Carolina (24-6).

Putting potential voter bias aside, however, the RPI ratings -- the main metric used by the NCAA's selection committee in evaluating teams' wins and losses -- are compiled by a computer with no prejudices or knowledge of previous years' results. It also lists eight Big East teams among its top 25, and the primary reason is the league's superiority against the others when their teams played earlier in the season.

The Big East led all conferences with a 29-16 record against the other BCS leagues. It boasts 10 nonconference wins over current RPI top 25 teams (Pitt vs. Texas, Notre Dame vs. Wisconsin, Louisville vs. UNLV, St. John's vs. Duke, West Virginia vs. Purdue, Cincinnati vs. Xavier, Georgetown vs. Utah State and Old Dominion and Connecticut vs. Kentucky and Texas). By comparison, the Big Ten has four, the Big 12 three.

However, the Big East isn't held in quite as high esteem in Ken Pomeroy's more precise efficiency-based ratings, which goes beyond wins and losses to assess teams' quality of play. While he has seven Big East teams in his top 25 (and UConn is 26th), the league ranks second overall behind the Big Ten, primarily because "the Big East's 13th to 16th teams may all be worse than the worst Big Ten team [Indiana or Iowa, take your pick]," and the Big East's 11 projected tourney teams (which includes bubble team Marquette) notched nearly 40 percent of their league wins against that pack.

"I don't know about the Big East deserving all of the hype, but I think it's reasonable for them to get 11 teams," Pomeroy said. "There is a lot of parity between their second- and 11th-best teams. None of those teams are particularly great, though."

Case in point: Notre Dame. Following a dramatic season-finale win at Connecticut last Saturday, in which the Irish prevailed despite star Ben Hansbrough fouling out with 8:30 remaining and having to endure a 15-0 UConn run, talk has turned to the Irish potentially earning a No. 1 seed in the NCAAs. That in turn would garner an expectation that Mike Brey's team reach the Final Four.

But Notre Dame, while extremely adept on offense, ranks just 64th in Pomeroy's adjusted defensive efficiency ratings. Over the past six years, no team lower than 30th in that stat has reached the Final Four, and more than half placed in the top 10. In other words, there's nothing to suggest the Irish are more poised for a tourney run than many of the teams they bested in the standings.

Over the years, Pomeroy's ratings have proved more predictive of NCAA tournament results than either the conventional polls or the RPI. Last year, many believed Duke to be undeserving of a No. 1 seed, but the eventual national champion was Pomeroy's top-rated team. Runner-up and tourney darling Butler was 12th.

It will be interesting to see where the teams stand come the end of this week's Garden gauntlet, because right now there's not an obvious Final Four team in the bunch.

The favorite, of course, is regular-season champ Pitt, which, in a reversal of sorts from Jamie Dixon's previous teams, is actually a better offensive team (fifth in Pomeroy's ratings) than defensive (16th). It has one of the nation's best backcourts in clutch scorer Ashton Gibbs and versatile playmaker Brad Wanamaker, as well as a deep frontcourt (headlined by seniors Gary McGhee and Gilbert Brown) with tourney experience. But there will always be a slight hesitation with Jamie Dixon's teams until proven otherwise, because despite holding a top three seed six times since 2002, the Panthers have never reached the Final Four.

Perhaps the conference's best hope is a team many gave up on a month ago: Syracuse. The Orange are Pomeroy's second-highest-rated Big East team (11th), equally efficient on offense (15th) and defense (17th). But they're also incredibly streaky, starting 18-0 before losing six of their next eight, then ending the year on a five-game win streak.

Louisville is a bit of an undervalued commodity: Despite holding the No. 3 seed in New York, the Cardinals are seemingly one of the few Big East teams that hasn't cracked the top 10 this season. Rick Pitino's team is stingy defensively (No. 9 in Pomeroy), but is sometimes prone to scoring droughts.

Meanwhile, Georgetown is a wild card, because Chris Wright, a senior who was averaging 13.1 points before he broke his left hand, may return in time for the NCAAs. Senior-led St. John's has proved capable of beating anyone, but like Steve Lavin's UCLA teams, plays down to its competition as well.

Ultimately, the 2011 Big East will be remembered solely by how it does in the Big Dance, where it's currently projected to comprise nearly one-sixth of the field and as many as one-fourth of the top-four seeds. If say, eight of those 11 fail to make it out of the first weekend, the backlash will be immense.

So soak up the next five days, Big East watchers. There's a far better chance of this event living up to the hype.

 
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