published Tuesday, March 1st, 2011

WIEDMER: Big East could have 11

It could have been the wackiest college basketball ending of this season or any season. With 0.5 second left in Louisville’s eventual 62-59 overtime victory over visiting Pittsburgh on Sunday, Louisville male cheerleader Jordan Alcazar decided to throw the ball into the air to celebrate the Cardinals’ big win.

Only trouble was, that half-second meant the game wasn’t over. Which meant the Cards received a technical foul, which the Panthers quickly turned into two points. Then Pitt launched a 45-foot 3-pointer that just missed.

Said Cardinals coach Rick Pitino afterward: “All good things must come to an end, and the male cheerleader [at Louisville] has come to an end.”

Welcome to the Big (B)East. Or as most college basketball experts believe, the league that will probably send 11 teams to the NCAA tournament, or roughly 16 percent of the 68-team field.

“Top to bottom, the Big East is clearly the best conference, and has been all season,” ESPN analyst Jay Bilas said last month. “That doesn’t mean they’ll have a single team in the Final Four, but they could easily have 11 teams in the field.”

As long as neither Marquette nor Cincinnati falls apart in the 12 days from today until Selection Sunday, it’s almost impossible to see anything less than 11 Big East teams participating in the Big Dance.

After all, only Marquette (50) had an RPI outside the top 37 as of Monday, and the Golden Eagles have the 29th toughest strength of schedule. Cincinnati’s 84th-ranked schedule is a bubble buster, but the Bearcats’ RPI is 37th, they recently won three league games in a row, and they own a huge road victory at Georgetown.

They also finish the regular season with a Wednesday game at Marquette, a home finale against Georgetown and the annual pilgrimage to Madison Square Garden for the Big East tournament, which could have better TV ratings than the early rounds of the NCAA tourney.

Or as Rutgers coach Mike Rice noted during last week’s league teleconference: “What’s so exciting for the college basketball fan right now, even sometimes more than the NCAA tournament, is the Big East tournament because you can’t predict what’s going to happen, especially this year.”

How could you? Eight teams are ranked in the newest Associated Press poll, none lower than 19th. The league has the highest conference RPI rating. In Joe Lunardi’s latest NCAA bracket assessment for ESPN, only Marquette among the 11 projected Big East entrants is seeded lower than seventh, the Eagles drawing a No. 10.

“It was easier to understand back in 1987 when I was at Providence,” said Pitino, who took that Friars team to the Final Four. “Now it’s just so difficult. It’s so big. You just don’t know where to turn.”

Indeed, the 16-team league is the biggest in the land for basketball. And staging its conference tournament in Madison Square Garden only adds to its mystique and glamour.

But even if Pitt (tied for fourth with Duke in the AP poll), Notre Dame (8), Louisville (11), Syracuse (12), St. John’s (15), Connecticut (16), Georgetown (17), Villanova (19) West Virginia, Cincy and Marquette all get in the NCAA tourney, there is at least some evidence that the Big East might be overrated.

Especially if you compare it to the SEC, which will struggle to get six teams in the NCAA field.

For instance, Kentucky has beaten Notre Dame on a neutral court and Louisville on its home court. Tennessee has knocked off Villanova in Madison Square Garden and Pitt on a neutral court in Pittsburgh. Vanderbilt beat Marquette.

So maybe the Big (B)East isn’t perfect.

“They’re beatable; we’ve proven it,” Tennessee point guard Melvin Goins said earlier this season. “But you have to bring your ‘A’ game, because they play tough, physical ball in that league. You’ve got to match their intensity for 40 minutes.”

Perhaps that’s why UConn coach Jim Calhoun said of the Vols after the Huskies’ January win over UT, “That was probably the best game we’ve played all year, and we needed it.”

But that’s the thing with the Big East teams. They tend to play at their best when it matters most, as witness the league’s three NCAA titles and eight Final Four berths since 1999.

“It’s just so hard,” said Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim, who guided the Orangemen to the 2003 NCAA title. “The ninth- or 10th-place team in our league (or 11th) is going to be an NCAA tournament team. You’re probably going to have to beat three ranked teams in three days to win our league tournament. It’s kind of ridiculous.”

Almost as ridiculous as a cheerleader drawing a technical foul with half a second to go to almost cost his team a game against one of those ranked teams. Almost.

about Mark Wiedmer...

Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...

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