- Andy Katz, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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Notre Dame's Mike Brey sat at the Big East pre-tournament banquet in New York City in early March, anticipating his team's upcoming game and expected NCAA tournament appearance, and yet he still couldn't help thinking ahead to the 2008-09 season.
"Part of the banquet is to honor the seniors," Brey said this week. "In a normal year it takes a while. This year it was maybe 15 minutes long. All the coaches were sitting around saying that we're going to have one helluva league next year."
Having teams dominated by underclassmen in this era of one-and-done normally doesn't guarantee anything for the following season.
But the Big East came through the early-entry NBA draft deadline better than anyone anticipated. The Big East had only three players declare early -- West Virginia junior Joe Alexander, Marquette junior Jerel McNeal and Syracuse freshman Donte Greene.
So far none have signed with an agent, meaning they all retain their amateur eligibility. Alexander and Greene are projected to go in the first round, with the chance that they could still slide to the second round. That means they may ride it out until the June 16 deadline to withdraw from the draft. McNeal is likely going to return to Marquette.
Connecticut's Hasheem Thabeet stayed in school, a decision that Villanova coach Jay Wright said amazed him. So, too, did Louisville's Earl Clark. Pitt's Sam Young decided against leaving. Marquette's Dominic James and Syracuse's Jonny Flynn opted to remain as well. Notre Dame's Luke Harangody, the Big East's Player of the Year, didn't give leaving much of a thought.
"We could have easily lost two or three more guys," Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said. "We're not losing guys. It's going to be a superstrong league again."
Of the 15 underclassmen on the first two All-Big East teams last season, 12 are coming back. Seniors accounted for only four of the conference's top 25 scorers and three of its top 20 rebounders. And there were no seniors among the top nine leaders in assists.
The projected favorites of the league -- Connecticut, Louisville, Notre Dame and Pitt -- are all potential Final Four teams.
"You could have a really good year and still be in the middle of the pack," Georgetown coach John Thompson III said. "But I do have a feeling that we'll have a number of elite teams in the country next season."
The teams projected to occupy spots five through nine -- Georgetown, Marquette, Syracuse, Villanova and West Virginia (if Alexander returns) -- all harbor legitimate NCAA prospects. And if former Drake coach Keno Davis can push the right buttons with his new Providence team that returns its top nine scorers and adds injured point guard Sharaud Curry, the Friars are the league's 10th team that enters the summer with a legitimate NCAA chance. Cincinnati shouldn't be counted out, either.
"This past year I thought going in that we had nine or 10 teams that could make it," Boeheim said. "And next year, for sure, we have 10."
The NCAA tournament selection committee doesn't take into account conference affiliation, a fact that has been stated over and over and over again. That's part of why the Big East tied a record with eight teams this past season: It deserved eight, so it got eight.
Next season, if it deserves nine or 10 -- either of which would be an NCAA record -- then it should receive that number. The Big East and the Big Ten are the only conferences that have had as many as seven teams in the field. The Big Ten had seven in 1990, '94, '99 and 2001. The Big East had seven in 1991 and eight in 2006 and '08.
"They took eight teams out of our league this year, and there wasn't much dispute," Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun said. "If everyone schedules properly and everything falls into place and we have all these top 50 teams but beat each other up and a team goes 10-8 or 11-7 [in Big East play], then they should still go to the NCAA.
"The bottom line is that it's hard, really, really hard, and it's only going to be harder next year."
One of the key in-conference scheduling decisions will come this spring. The Big East moved to an 18-game league schedule this past season. Every team played each team once and three teams twice.
The Big East, along with ESPN and CBS -- the two TV partners for the Big East -- will determine which three teams that each team will play twice.
Big East associate commissioner Tom Odjakjian said the league will wait until the early-entry withdrawal deadline to make final scheduling decisions -- just like it did two years ago when West Virginia's Kevin Pittsnogle, Marquette's Dominic James and Pitt's Aaron Gray all tested the draft.
Odjakjian said the league will take an exhaustive look at how to be most equitable in scheduling the opponents that teams play twice. But as long as none of the top four to six teams get home-and-homes against the supposed bottom teams -- i.e., South Florida and St. John's -- then it will be hard to argue.
"We'll find a way to complain," Thompson III said in jest.
But it would be difficult to make much of a case at the spring meetings outside of Jacksonville, Fla., later this month.
Wright said he never thinks twice about who plays whom twice.
"The repeat opponents will likely be fairer over 18 games," Brey said. "The 18 league games helped us get more NCAA bids, so not one coach in our league should say a word.
"I like the 18-game schedule. I know I was in the minority. We got eight bids with 18 league games. We got six bids with 16 league games. We're going to have to trust this."
Like Brey, Wright said he felt the same way about next season, while sitting at the Big East banquet. He said that once the early-entry list came out, it reinforced his thinking about how good the Big East was going to be next season.
"It's not going to be unusual for nine or 10 teams to make it from the Big East," Wright said. "When it's a great year in the Big East, like it was in the Pac-10 last season, that's what it can be."
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.
In this age of college players leaving early, the Big East didn't see many defections. And that's bad news for coaches in the mega-league, which will boast four Final Four favorites and 10 squads with realistic NCAA tournament hopes, writes Andy Katz.