- Andy Katz, ESPN Senior Writer
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Georgetown closed 2008 with a resounding win at Connecticut. The Hoyas host Pitt on Saturday (ESPN, noon) in a game that is as anticipated as any in the Big East this season.
Illinois closed the calendar year with an impressive overtime win at Purdue. Michigan is up next for the Illini, and that game could provide insight into the Big Ten winner.
This is good for the sport. This is really good.
Georgetown has returned to power status. It proved its strength two seasons ago when it reached the Final Four. The Hoyas are not wilting. They're getting stronger and more firm in their standing as an annual title contender, and those back-to-back regular-season Big East titles are evidence.
A third is hardly out of the question. Pitt has become a new player among the Big East elite this decade. But having Georgetown back is good for the game.
Why? Well, the sport needs the Hoyas. Call me a traditionalist, but name recognition matters. Georgetown, which plays in the nation's capital, is synonymous with college basketball. Having that school's basketball program on television and mattering nationally is good for business.
So, too, is having Illinois and Michigan back. Year in and year out, college basketball is losing more and more freshmen. The players will change, but the programs have to stay strong. Having two of the most recognizable names in the Big Ten elite again will only help.
These two programs were in the Final Four in 1989, and the Wolverines won the title that year. Michigan then became a phenomenon during the Fab Five years. The NCAA violations that came out after that era left a cloud over the program for a decade -- a cloud that has left the Wolverines out of the NCAA tournament for a once-unthinkable 10 straight seasons.
The John Beilein-led revival in Ann Arbor is energizing a fan base that has been thirsty for a reason to boast alongside its neighbor and rival to the north in East Lansing. Getting metro Detroit jazzed about two state school teams, the Wolverines and the Spartans, will create even more enthusiasm for the Final Four.
If Illinois returns to the tournament after a one-year hiatus, the Chicago region will be interested, too. Illinois doesn't have the ready-made stars it had in 2005, but if the Orange Krush fill Assembly Hall with a fevered pitch again, their passion will only enhance the sport.
What else do we need to see in 2009 and beyond to keep the game healthy?
In the ACC: The Maryland-Duke games in the early part of this decade were some of the most intriguing basketball games played since Gary Williams took over the Terps. Williams is doing everything possible to ensure Maryland matters each season. If he can keep his program relevant, return to the NCAA tournament and challenge Duke and North Carolina every season, the league and the sport will be better.
In the Atlantic 10: Temple coach Fran Dunphy made the transition from John Chaney much smoother than most imagined would be possible, but Xavier is still the dominant program in the A-10. For the league's health, the two best-known Philadelphia schools -- Temple and Saint Joseph's -- must challenge the Musketeers. This is good for the country's best college basketball city.
In the Big East: St. John's and DePaul must be players again. These are two storied programs in the sport. There's no question that a strong Red Storm program, with a galvanized fan base filling Madison Square Garden, is a plus for college basketball. Along with a relevant Illinois, having DePaul play meaningful league games against Notre Dame and Marquette in the Chicagoland area would awaken the college hoops fans in that Midwestern media hub as well.
In the Big Ten: Illinois and Michigan appear to be back, at least in the early going. If Minnesota is on board as well, the Big Ten benefits from having a program that has one of the best fan bases and toughest home courts as a national player. Notice there's no harping on Indiana here. The assumption is that head coach Tom Crean will have the Hoosiers mattering again within two years. Indiana's return to Big Ten title contention is a given.
In the Big 12: Iowa State has to be relevant again. Coaches Tim Floyd and Larry Eustachy followed Johnny Orr and made sure the Cyclones' fan base at Hilton Coliseum had a reason to be raucous. Iowa State has struggled lately; there are few signs the Cyclones will turn it around this season, let alone next. But the power in the Big 12 has shifted to the south. Kansas needs a consistent rival that it will play twice. Missouri can be that rival, and its fan base is as obsessive about basketball as any other Big 12 fan base, save KU.
In the Pac-10: Arizona's dip can't be longer than a season or two. The Wildcats' drop will come after this season when a coaching change occurs and Jordan Hill and Chase Budinger likely leave for the NBA. But the Pac-10 must have the Wildcats as a title contender. The program is too valued in the region and to some extent nationally for there to be anything longer than a one- or two-season bump.
In the SEC: Kentucky, Florida and Tennessee are forming quite a rivalry in the SEC East. But it's been years since the West had a consistent set of teams, or even one, consistently rise to the top. That team must be Arkansas. It appears the Hogs are steadily climbing back under John Pelphrey with Tuesday's upset win over Oklahoma. But Arkansas must get Bud Walton Arena back to being a feared house in the league. The SEC needs the Razorbacks to be a consistent national player. The fan base is too strong, the history too rich, the name recognition too familiar for Arkansas to be average.
Andy Katz is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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