Big East has big week in two big sports

This week might have belonged to the Texas football team, but Pat Forde writes that the week's events also showed that the Big East is a conference on the rise.

Originally Published: January 5, 2006
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Mike Tranghese announced Thursday night that he's starting basketball season "with a big smile." It's more of a Jimmy Carter monster grin.

The smile on the Big East commissioner's face is big enough to be seen from space.

Steve Slaton
Bill Haber-Pool/Getty imagesWest Virginia represented the Big East in style, beating Georgia 38-35 in the Sugar Bowl.

On Monday, Tranghese watched his maligned football champion, West Virginia, utterly justify its BCS bid by shocking Georgia in the Sugar Bowl -- in Atlanta, a de facto home game for the SEC champions.

On Tuesday, Tranghese was in Milwaukee to see Marquette stun Connecticut in its first-ever Big East game, a remarkable statement that the five émigrés from Conference USA weren't just here for the television contract. They're coming to play.

On Wednesday, Tranghese stopped in Cincinnati to see the Bearcats continue to prove that there is life after Bob Huggins. Cincy ripped fellow C-USA alum DePaul for its ninth straight win, improving to 12-2.

And Thursday night Tranghese was in Freedom Hall to see more than 20,000 fans stand and roar with appreciation in anticipation of Louisville's Big East debut. It's been a big week for a rebuilt league, which survived the acrimonious departure of three football powers and has now assembled the best basketball league on Earth.

"It was as bad a time as a lot of us have ever been through," Tranghese said of the big split. "There were times we weren't sure we'd have a league anymore. To put it back together again has been very rewarding."

Part of the reward will be watching this 16-team ballapalooza league sort itself out over two high-intensity months. Right now, the leader of the monster pack is Villanova. Tranghese capped off his big week by watching the Wildcats' wonderfully entertaining production: Adventures In Small Ball.

Coach Jay Wright's experimental work with a four-guard lineup that goes 6-8, 6-4, 6-2, 6-2, and 6-1 has produced the Big East's best team to date. The undefeated Wildcats certainly were the better team this night, never trailing in a 76-67 road victory.

Wright wound up with this lineup last March, after power forward Curtis Sumpter hurt his knee in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Figuring to be hopelessly outmanned in the Sweet Sixteen, 'Nova instead lost to eventual national champion North Carolina by a single point.

Villanova
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesVillanova coach Jay Wright (left) guided his Wildcats to a nine-point road win on Thursday.

So when Sumpter went down again this year in the preseason, Wright went back to ShortyBall. The result is a 10-0 start.

This fearless pack of puny piranha swarmed Louisville with quickness on defense, using traps and presses and zones and old-fashioned man defense to swat away the ball and clog up passing lanes. They attacked with borderline arrogance on offense, daring the Cardinals to stop them off the dribble. And they simply never blinked upon encountering its first legitimate road atmosphere -- even though the Freedom Hall crowd was more than double the largest they've encountered yet this year.

This is an experienced bunch of big-city ballers, with all the key players hailing from greater New York or Philadelphia. In other words, they don't scare easily.

Wright said he's not yet seen the basketball circumstances that could cow Bronx product Alan Ray (20.1 points per game) and Newark native Randy Foye (20.7 points, 6.1 rebounds, 3.9 assists).

"And I've had Ray and Foye for four years," Wright said. "I thought we won tonight on their individual toughness and caring for each other."

Asked if he'd ever been intimidated on the court, Foye almost sounded offended.

"Come on, man," he said. "Everyone's their own man. You breathe like me, take a shower like me -- you're the same. You can't back down from someone under any circumstances."

How's this for not backing down? In a gym that has seen more than a few opponents shrink during the Pitino years, Villanova exploded out to an 8-0 lead in less than three minutes.

Foye scored the first six points himself and finished with 24 and nine rebounds, furthering his All-America candidacy. At 6-feet-4 he's the giant of the perimeter quartet, which means he finds himself in some odd matchups from time to time -- Thursday night included.

Foye spent time guarding -- and being guarded by -- Louisville's 6-8, 255-pound power forward, Juan Palacios. Consider the matchup won in a landslide by Foye, as Palacios went 1-for-9 from the field and rarely found his way down to where he could be most effective: the low block.

But that's the thing with these Wildcats: their weaknesses are not as easily exploited as you might think they'd be. They came into this game outrebounding opponents by a fat 5.6 per game, then pasted the Cardinals on the glass 42-34.

"They have great athleticism," Louisville coach Rick Pitino said. "Size doesn't make you a great rebounder; some of the greatest rebounders can't jump. Villanova rebounds because they scramble so much. They always get that athletic step when they rebound."

Still, 'Nova is going to need to bang with teams eventually, which means they're going to need something from senior center Jason Fraser. They got it on Thursday.

The chronically injured big man (who strongly considered Louisville coming out of school) had his best game of the season against the Cardinals, racking up 13 points and 10 rebounds in 20 minutes. Of course, it came with some more pain involved, after a shot to the nose left Fraser spreading droplets of blood all over the court.

"His whole inside of his mouth and nose is ripped up," Wright said. "He's such a warrior. With all the injuries he's had, that's probably nothing."

Keeping Fraser in one piece could be all that Villanova needs. Just surround him with amped-up Lilliputians and let them go.

In fact, if you listen to the only coach ever to take three teams to the Final Four, Villanova's presumed weakness is actually a strength.

"[The four-guard lineup] is a major positive," Pitino said. "It's not a negative at all, because you can switch everything [defensively]. Even when you throw it in the post, they can dig on the ball.

"If they play two big guys, I don't think they're as good. They cause so many problems offensively and defensively, they become unique. They could definitely win the national championship."

First step will be winning a Big East championship. As this week showed, it won't be easy. But watching it will sure be entertaining.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.