On the brink of extinction only a few, fretful years ago, the Big East is back in more familiar territory - on top of the college basketball world.
On the brink of extinction only a few, fretful years ago, the Big East is back in more familiar territory — on top of the college basketball world.
Louisville, Pittsburgh and Connecticut helped the league that was created decades ago for hoops, then nearly obliterated because of football, become the first conference to earn three No. 1 seeds in the NCAA tournament.
North Carolina, the regular-season Atlantic Coast Conference champion, was the other top seed in the bracket released Sunday.
"It speaks volumes for what it means to win the Big East," said Louisville coach Rick Pitino, whose Cardinals are the tournament's overall top seed and will play in the Midwest Regional.
The coup of placing three teams on the top line comes 24 years after the Big East became the first league to get three teams in the Final Four — Georgetown, Villanova and St. John's.
So much has changed since then.
So much has stayed the same.
The Cardinals (28-5), winners of the regular-season and conference championships in the nation's top-ranked conference, are one of the newest members of the Big East. They were brought into the fold after Boston College, Miami and Virginia Tech bolted for a better situation on the football field in the ACC.
But they don't play football in March.
Counting No. 3 seeds Syracuse and Villanova, the Big East has five of the top 12 teams in the bracket.
"It just gives you an idea, if theoretically half the top teams in America are coming out of one conference, how difficult it was for anybody," UConn coach Jim Calhoun said.
Louisville will open against the winner of an opening-round game Tuesday between Alabama State and Morehead State.
The rest of the tournament starts Thursday and Friday.
The Final Four is scheduled for Ford Field in Detroit on April 4 and 6. Last year, all four No. 1 teams made it to the Final Four. But Pitt (East), Carolina (South) and UConn (West) all know its called March Madness for a reason — things rarely go to form.
So, time to break out the brackets, sharpen some pencils and pay into an office pool (or two).
Maybe do some bellyaching here and there.
Among the aggrieved: Duke and Memphis, both overlooked in the quest for top seeding, settling for No. 2 seeds despite winning their conference tournaments. Memphis is often downgraded for playing in the less-than-steller Conference USA, but John Calipari's team proved people wrong last year, making it to the national title game.
"I know people in the city are mad," he said. "That's OK. Good karma, good will."
At least they're in the big show.
Penn State, San Diego State and St. Mary's were among those left out despite some impressive credentials. St. Mary's went 26-6 but lost by 25 to Gonzaga in its conference tournament final.
"I was hoping common sense prevailed," coach Randy Bennett said. "Using common sense, we're one of the top 34 (at-large) teams. This was the best team we've ever had, so it's just disappointing to be in this situation."
Arizona, meanwhile, was elated. The Wildcats extended their NCAA-leading streak of tournament appearances to 25. This one might be the most hotly debated. The Wildcats finished 19-13 and were all but written off after a first-round loss in the Pac-10 tournament.
"I kiddingly said, 'Hey, the streak's somebody else's problem now,'" interim coach Russ Pennell said of his conversation with former coach Lute Olson. "He said congratulations on that one. One of the things I told Coach O was, 'You've built a program that's even able to endure a couple of years after you're gone.'"
Thrilled as Arizona was, maybe nobody got a bigger kick out of hearing their names called than the North Dakota State Bison. New players on the Division I level, the ND State seniors all committed to a redshirt year when they arrived, knowing this would be the first year they'd be eligible for the tournament.
"We all talked about it and said we have to have the opportunity to go to the biggest basketball tournament our senior year," guard Ben Woodside said.
Welcome to the party, fellas: Your first game is against defending national champion Kansas, the No. 3 seed in the Midwest.
Not surprisingly, the Big East also tied for the lead with seven teams in the tournament, along with the ACC and Big Ten — and that was without perennial powerhouse Indiana.
It should be interesting to see if there's any long-term effect from the six-overtime classic that Syracuse and UConn put on last week in the quarterfinals of the Big East tournament — just another wonderful chapter in that conference's storied history.
Founded in 1979, the Big East enjoyed all kinds of success in the early years. Later, football came into the mix and in 2003, the league found itself on the verge of extinction when the teams left for the ACC.
Desperate to defend his turf during those dark days, Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese famously said the defection would "be the most disastrous blow to intercollegiate athletics in my lifetime."
OK, well maybe not THAT bad.
The Southeastern Conference wouldn't mind being in the Big East's shoes. A football conference once again, the SEC only got three teams in the tournament — the third coming only when Mississippi State won the conference tournament and earned the automatic bid. Not among those three were Florida, a two-time champion this decade, and Kentucky, the standard-bearer for SEC hoops from the beginning.
The Mississippi State win, plus Southern California's championship in the Pac-10 tournament, cost a couple of bubble teams spots among the 65.
Among the last teams to make it: Wisconsin, a 12th seed in the East; Maryland, a surprisingly high 10th seed in the Midwest; and Dayton, one of only four teams from small conferences to earn an at-large bid.
The so-called mid-major conferences have gone from nine at-large bids in 2005 to four this year. Besides St. Mary's, Creighton got left out, as did New Mexico, UNLV and San Diego State, all from the Mountain West.
"We look at teams, we don't use a label," said Mike Slive, chairman of the selection committee. "It's not about mid-major teams and major teams. It's about teams. In the final analysis, it's about who you play, where you play and how you do. It's about teams, not about conferences."