By forming into a conference that exceeded even commissioner Mike Tranghese’s wildest dreams, the Big East faces inherent problems that come with being the best and the biggest. Recent changes may only magnify them.
Mike Brey, like all college basketball coaches, hit the recruiting trail in July. He saw old friends and acquaintances from the Pac-10, the Big Ten, ACC and SEC. They would exchange pleasantries while keeping an eye on the latest game.
Then, they’d get down to what really was on their mind.
“If it wasn’t their first comment, it was their second,’” Brey said. “(They would say), ‘Man, your league ...’ ”
Brey, his Notre Dame banner hanging behind him Wednesday at Big East Media Day, shook his head and laughed.
“It was a little bit like, ‘I’m glad I’m not in it, but I can’t wait to watch it!’ ” he said.
Few will deny it: In its fourth year of existence as a 16-team monster conference, the Big East has never been stronger, deeper or more interesting.
When The Associated Press’ preseason poll is released on Halloween, as few as five teams and as many eight may grace the Top 25.
One coach said he thought it was the strongest conference in the history of the sport. Another said as many as four league teams have Final Four potential. One more said five.
So on Media Day — when the league itself dominates conversation — the discussion naturally turned to the possibility of the conference matching its amazing feat from 1985, when three teams made the national semifinals and two played for the NCAA title.
“I think when it happened in ’85, people sort of understood how incredible it was,” Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese said. “I think as time has gone on, it’s even more incredible. But I don’t know if it will ever be accomplished again.”
That’s not to say three current Big East teams can’t. But in forming into a conference that exceeded even Tranghese’s wildest dreams, there are inherent problems that come with being the best and the biggest. Recent changes may only magnify them.
“As I always say, there are always 16 guys who are screwed up about this league,” Brey said. “They’re the 16 head coaches. Everybody else is loving it.”
Quantity and quality
The Big East tied its own record when eight of its teams made the NCAA tournament last season. Brey joked for Tranghese’s retirement package — he’s leaving in June — the league should get 10 in.
“When you start talking 10 teams, somebody’s going to have a losing record (in the conference),” Pittsburgh coach Jamie Dixon said. “That’s just how the numbers work. I think it makes it tougher for our guys to make it to the NCAA tournament. We have the longest streak (in the league) of seven straight years (making the NCAA tournament). The next longest streak is four. That’s pretty dramatic.”
Having the most teams hasn’t translated into championship success, either. A year before the conference expanded — mostly out of necessity with the departure of three schools to the ACC and the desire to keep Big East football stable — the Big East boasted back-to-back national champions in Syracuse and UConn.
Then in 2006, UConn and Villanova both earned No. 1 seeds and reached the Elite 8. But the last two years, Georgetown (2007) is the only team to emerge from its region, and despite all those teams last March, only Louisville advanced past the Sweet 16.
“The national championship stuff, we don’t have those skins on the wall, so to speak,” Brey said.
No team has earned a No. 1 seed the last two seasons either.
“I think you have a great chance of being a 1 (seed) coming out of this league,” Jay Wright said, “if it doesn’t become cannibalistic.”
But has it? UConn coach Jim Calhoun said he’s “always felt that our league was an asset to us.” Rick Pitino said three to four dominant teams at the top of the league will help stave off parity “bringing about mediocrity.” When it comes to the NCAA tournament selection committee — a fluid, ever-changing body — perception still plays a huge role.
“I would argue if you’re watching this league and you’re saying, ‘This is the best league,’ and that team that wins, it should be a 1 seed,” Wright said. “But we know that sometimes it doesn’t work that way.”
For the kids
The league added another layer to the debate when it decided to include all 16 teams in the Big East tournament field. Coincidentally, it’s a move largely applauded by both coaches and players.
“I think every kid should come to New York,” Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said. “I think it’s bad when four teams, 50 players are left home. I don’t think that’s good.”
In turn, the move starts the tournament a day earlier on Tuesday, pitting teams seeded nine through 16 against one another. In past years, winning four straight games for the tournament title proved difficult but not impossible. Syracuse (2006) and Pittsburgh (2008) both did, but they didn’t have the energy to go much farther, losing in the first and second round of the NCAA tournament, respectively.
If someone were to reel off five straight wins for the Big East championship, what would they have left to compete for a national title? And will anybody even be there to see them start their run?
“The question is,” Tranghese asked of Tuesday’s games, which won’t be televised, “Are the fans going to come?”
And, of course, will the NCAA tournament bids follow?
“And I think it hurts us on sites,” Dixon said. “We have so many teams making it. We’ve been never been in the East. I joke that they think we’re Pittsburgh, Calif., instead of Pittsburgh, Pa. But by sheer numbers, it has to work that way and we understand it. But I don’t think it helps us.”
When the Big East formed in 1979 and grew into a national power through the 1980s and ’90s, fans came to expect East Coast basketball: tough, physical, grind-out-games.
The identity may be gone, though, as coaches, teams — and sometimes both — have changed.
“I don’t see it,” said Boeheim, entering his 33rd year with the Orange. “There are all different kinds of styles in our league. I don’t think there’s one style, not anymore.”
It’s as apparent throughout the conference. UConn will always be known for its rebounding and shot-blocking. West Virginia has its 1-3-1 formation, Villanova its predominant three-guard lineups, Syracuse its 2-3 zone and Notre Dame its high-scoring offense.
The Big Ten largely remains a low-scoring league. The ACC, led by North Carolina, may be the exact opposite. The Big East is something altogether different.
“I felt this going on four or five years now,” Georgetown coach John Thompson III said. “The beauty of this conference and what’s daunting about this conference is you’re going to see every style of play at an extremely high level.”
Some say the league’s classic rivalries have been hurt just as much. For example, the first year the league grew to 16 teams, Providence faced neither Syracuse or Villanova, with whom it founded the conference.
The move to an 18-game league schedule has helped remedy that, as every team will play each other at least once, but “it’s not the same,” Wright said.
“I remember for us Villanova-Georgetown twice in a year was huge,” the Villanova coach said. “Villanova-Syracuse, for us, twice in a year (was big), though it seems we still get Syracuse twice every year.”
Still, the schedule's “not perfect,” Dixon, Pittsburgh’s coach, said. And with the overall depth of the league, the three teams each school plays twice a season may have also lost importance. It’s become more about balance in strength of opponents — which the conference has done well, most coaches say — instead of making sure UConn-Syracuse or UConn-Georgetown, for example, see each other twice.
“For the first time, I don’t think it really matters (who you play twice),” Brey said, referring to the league's strength.
And yet, as Tranghese prepares to leave the conference he helped build, he contends it’s never been stronger from both the product on the court and a recruiting standpoint.
No one will likely disagree.
But that doesn’t mean Tranghese has ever changed his standards.
“How many teams do we get in the tournament and how do we do in the tournament,” he said. “The regular season is going to be successful because we have so many good teams. I just think it’s hard to get a team to the Final Four. So I think any year you do that, it’s a very special year.”