Big East stakes its claim for nine NCAA bids

NEW YORK -- Pick Pitt and Syracuse to advance in the NCAA Tournament bracket next week and you would probably be making a smart move.

The thinking here is that no set of teams will be better prepared for the NCAAs after this grueling four days.

Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said unequivocally that the Big East conference was the best, the toughest, not even close.

Pitt's Jamie Dixon echoed those thoughts.

Think about it: Two teams that played on the first day of this 12-team tournament are in the Big East tournament final.

Gone are the top two teams in the country in Connecticut and Villanova. The next two top seeds -- West Virginia and Marquette -- are also gone. The Big East has never crowned a tournament champ that played on the first day, a team that had to win four games for a title. That streak will end Saturday night.

"Our conference has prepared us better than any other conference since I've been around the Big East," Dixon said. "I'm not surprised how it has played out because of how many good teams there are here."

A year ago, prior to the Big East going to 16 teams, West Virginia came in on the bubble, played its way into the final and then earned a No. 10 seed. The Mountaineers then went to the Elite Eight.

Syracuse's Gerry McNamara, who has been nothing short of heroic during these first three days by dragging a groin injury around and hitting game-winning, game-tying and simply thrilling 3-pointers, said he'd take a Syracuse-West Virginia comparison any day if that means the Orange will reach the Elite Eight.

The Panthers, who seemed to be offensively challenged earlier in the tournament, found a way to make seven 3s against 'Nova, crush the Wildcats on the boards and control the game throughout.

"These guys don't faze me," Dixon said. "We've had a great year."

"We have great players who compete," Pitt senior Carl Krauser said. "Everyone earns their keep in this year."

The beauty of the Big East is that it actually could have two No. 1 seeds (UConn and Villanova) in the NCAAs with neither team getting to the conference title game. Syracuse's seed will certainly get a pop out of reaching the final, and, if the Orange win, could climb higher in the single digits. Pitt's seed is sure to skyrocket after the weekend, as well.

Meanwhile, the strength of the league could push Georgetown and Marquette into solid seeds and possibly carry Cincinnati and Seton Hall into the field for a record nine bids. No conference had ever had more than seven. Getting nine, or even eight -- 50 percent of the league's teams -- would certainly equal the goal of the conference in the preseason. The concern among its coaches was tournament representation. Getting that amount in the field would be a rousing success.

The Big East tournament has not hurt the top seeds, has possibly pushed the conference's number to nine -- and there is still a final to be played Saturday. G-Mac has earned a spot in Syracuse folklore with his performances this week, while Pitt continues to prove it is a team that won't wilt as it establishes itself as one of the powers in the country, let alone the East.

All of this happened in three days in New York and we haven't even reached the NCAAs yet where the Big East could end up sprinkling in its good cheer throughout each region for a few weeks.

Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.