The Big East was the best college basketball conference in the country this season, and the next two weeks will ultimately decide whether this version of the 16-team league is one of the best of all time.
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesSam Young and the Big East are flying to the Sweet 16.
For the first time in the history of the NCAA tournament, five teams from one league advanced to the Sweet 16. Big East members Connecticut, Louisville, Pittsburgh, Syracuse and Villanova will play in the region semifinals, making up nearly one-third of the remaining field when games begin again on Thursday evening.
Surprisingly, the Big East's best team had the most difficulty in advancing.
Louisville, the NCAA's overall No. 1 seed after winning both the Big East regular-season and tournament titles, survived a mighty scare from No. 9 seed Siena on Sunday. The Cardinals blew a 12-point lead and actually trailed the Saints 63-59 with 7:20 to go.
But Louisville forward Terrence Williams scored nine points and grabbed five rebounds the rest of the way, leading the Cardinals to a 79-72 victory in Dayton.
Louisville advanced to play No. 12 seed Arizona in the Midwest Region semifinals in Indianapolis on Friday. The Wildcats, who were probably the last at-large team invited to the NCAA's 65-team field, beat No. 13 seed Cleveland State 71-57 in Miami on Sunday.
Louisville coach Rick Pitino, the only coach to take three different schools to the Final Four, said the Cardinals' arduous Big East schedule, in which they played eight nationally ranked teams, prepared them for the pressure they faced from Siena.
Big East teams went a whopping 11-2 in the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament.
"I'm real proud of the guys, because this Big East was tough this year," Pitino told reporters in Dayton on Sunday. "But it prepared us. As I look back on it, it prepared us for everything. Tonight Villanova and Marquette prepared us for Siena. And I'm sure the next game, when we play [Arizona], I'm sure Pittsburgh and teams like that will get us ready. That's what's great about the Big East, you get ready for so many styles."
Pittsburgh, the No. 1 seed in the East, had to work hard through each of its first two NCAA games. After beating No. 16 seed East Tennessee State by 10 points in the opening round, the Panthers were tied at 49 at halftime of Sunday's game against No. 8 seed Oklahoma State.
Pittsburgh will play No. 4 seed Xavier in the East Region semifinals in Boston on Thursday. The Musketeers beat No. 12 seed Wisconsin 60-49 in Boise on Sunday.
How are conferences faring?
The Sweet 16 will feature some serious chalk, including the remaining Big East teams, which are each seeded No. 3 or better. For the first time since the NCAA expanded the tournament field in 1985, each of the 12 teams seeded Nos. 1-3 advanced to the Sweet 16 (all of the 1s and 2s hadn't even made the round of 16 since 1995).
In fact, this season's combined seeding total of 49 is the smallest ever in the Sweet 16.
The ACC, which rivaled the Big East as the sport's best conference this season, had seven teams in the NCAA's 65-team field. But only traditional powers Duke and North Carolina advanced to the Sweet 16. ACC teams went 5-5 in the first two rounds, with Boston College, Clemson, Florida State and Wake Forest losing their opening games.
The Big 12 has the second-most teams in the Sweet 16, with defending national champion Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma advancing.
The Jayhawks, the No. 3 seed in the Midwest Region, got a triple-double from sophomore center Cole Aldrich in Sunday's 60-43 rout of No. 11 seed Dayton in Minneapolis. Aldrich recorded only the sixth triple-double in NCAA tournament history, finishing with 13 points, 20 rebounds and 10 blocked shots.
Kansas will play No. 2 seed Michigan State in the Midwest Regional semifinals in Indianapolis on Friday. The Spartans -- one of two Big Ten teams left in the tournament -- defeated No. 10 seed Southern California 74-69 in Minneapolis on Sunday.
Missouri cost the Big East a sixth Sweet 16 team when it beat No. 6 seed Marquette 83-79 in a West Regional game that featured a bizarre finish in Boise. With the score tied at 79 in the final seconds, Missouri's J.T. Tiller injured his right wrist while being fouled. Tigers coach Mike Anderson took advantage of an NCAA rule that allowed him to substitute an injured foul shooter, and freshman Kim English calmly made two free throws for an 81-79 lead with 5.5 seconds to play.
On the ensuing in-bounds play, Marquette's Lazar Hayward stepped on the baseline, turning the ball over to the Tigers. The Golden Eagles were forced to foul, and Leo Lyons made two foul shots for a four-point victory.
While Big East teams dot the remaining brackets, you won't find an SEC team in the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1989. LSU, Mississippi State and Tennessee went a combined 1-3 in NCAA games. Arizona is the Pac-10's lone remaining team, after USC, Washington, UCLA and Arizona State each lost in the second round.
While the Big East teams seem to be the ones to beat, Williams knows you're still capable of losing on any given night.
Just like during the nine weeks of Big East play.
"We underestimate no team," Williams told reporters in Dayton. "That's why it's called March Madness -- you can lose any given night. And coming from the Big East, we know we could lose any night playing 18 games."