Commentary

All eyes on Big East to perform

Updated: March 19, 2009, 12:07 PM ET
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

Tyler Hansbrough is the best player in the country.

North Carolina will waltz to the national championship, maybe even go undefeated.

[+] EnlargeJay Wright
Mitchell Layton/Getty ImagesVillanova coach Jay Wright knows all eyes will be on the performance of the Big East.

Stephen Curry has a chance to turn Davidson into the next George Mason.

There is nothing like the preseason for blanket statements and bold predictions.

There is nothing like the actual season to turn those statements into mush.

But as college basketball rockets into its moment in the sun, one preseason presumption remains alive: The Big East is the best league in the country. With three No. 1 seeds and seven bids overall, the league was clearly the apple of the selection committee's eye.

The Big Ten and ACC might have matched the Big East team for team, but they couldn't match the seeding.

If you average the seeding for each conference's seven teams, the Big East wins by a mile -- maybe a trite endeavor but it gets the point across. The Big Ten is right between a 7 and 8 seed (7.4) and the ACC is just closing in on a 5 (5.1).

The Big East comes in at a solid 3.

Now for the catch …

Prove it.

"When you're on top or the best, everybody wants to see you fail," Villanova coach Jay Wright said. "People will be looking to see when we lose, where we lose. We know it's out there so we might as well get ready for it."

Eyeing the Big East's progress -- and waiting to pounce on its failure -- will be as much a sport in this NCAA tournament as trying to pick the Cinderellas.

For the Big East, the top-heavy bids come with equally burdensome expectations. Anything less than four or five teams in the Sweet 16 will be a disaster, a Final Four without Big East representation a travesty.

And don't even think about a first-round upset.

[+] EnlargeAJ Price
Rich Kane/US PresswireUConn bowed out early, albeit in six OTs, in the Big East tournament.

But the Big East will not only be judged on how it performs against itself. How it performs compared to the other leagues will be equally dissected.

Coaches from the Big East and ACC have spent an entire regular season in a mine-is-better battle, with Mike Krzyzewski banging the drum loudest for his league. On his radio show and in postgame press conferences, the Duke coach has repeatedly stumped for the ACC, arguing that it was better, pound for pound, than the Big East.

On April 6, not only will a national champion be crowned, but the ultimate conference will also be decided, based on which league sent the most teams the furthest.

"I'm sure that CBS and a lot of other people will be tracking how we do," commissioner Mike Tranghese said. "There is definitely going to be a pressure to perform."

Critics will argue that the league already failed to deliver on its preseason hype. Scanning the room at Big East Media Day in October and considering the talent and experience of the rosters, it was easy to make a case for as many as 10 teams to make the tournament and impossible not to imagine at least nine.

In October, no one envisioned Notre Dame crumbling through a seven-game skid and falling to 8-10 in the league, nor did anyone expect Georgetown, after its 12-3 start, to spiral to a 16-13 finish.

Providence, the wild card, finished as a classic bubble team. The Friars beat who they were supposed to beat and lost games they needed to win in order to distinguish themselves. Unable to get past Louisville in the quarterfinals of the Big East tournament, Providence's fate was sealed when the upset winners started snatching up bids from the other conferences.

It all added up to the ultimate irony: The Big East actually got more bids last year, sending eight teams on the road to San Antonio.

Jim Calhoun has a simple explanation for what happened this year: mathematics.

[+] EnlargeSamardo Samuels
Mitchell Layton/Getty ImagesLouisville was the third Big East team to reach No. 1 in the polls.

Still irritable after his team's six-overtime loss to Syracuse, Calhoun went on an impassioned, unprompted riff about the strength of the Big East. The Connecticut coach was miffed, ticked at people for questioning the league's worth because it might get only seven bids out of 16 teams.

"Someone's got to lose," he said. "Mathematically it's impossible if you play all the right teams to have a good record. We're 15-3, but everybody is supposed to be 15-3. That can't happen. One team will win and one team will lose. Georgetown got caught in the washer and the rinse cycle and the same thing happened to Notre Dame. They played five straight top-20 teams. Try that on for size. The idea this is not a great, maybe the greatest conference for one year, is ludicrous."

In his defense of the league, Calhoun also exposed the Big East's biggest fault.

It was a good year to be a great team. Great teams were rewarded with lofty seeds -- "I think the seeds are well deserved," Louisville coach Rick Pitino said. "There are a lot of NBA prospects on these teams."

It wasn't a good year to be average, though. To be average meant you dropped to the middle of the Big East pack. To be average meant you struggled to get quality wins, walloped instead with quality losses.

To be average meant you were eaten up by your own conference.

"I think in some instances the size of this league worked against some of our teams," Tranghese said. "But that's the price you pay for all of this. That's the price you pay for the benefits of being in this league."

The question for the seven teams representing the league now is will they be exhausted or invigorated for having survived the 16-team brutality? There's no denying that as disappointed as they were to lose, neither Connecticut nor Pittsburgh was upset with the prospect of a few extra days' rest.

Most coaches, though, don't ascribe to the notion that their teams will be too worn out from the regular season to survive the postseason. Flipping it around, some even find a benefit to the gargantuan league.

"You play so many unique styles that I don't think it hurts you," Marquette coach Buzz Williams said. "And it's not just games, it's the practices. Think about how many practices you get preparing for all of these unique styles. There really isn't much we're going to see in the NCAA tournament that we haven't already seen in the Big East."

There is no arguing that what the Big East did in this regular season is downright astonishing. At one point, nine member schools were in the Top 25. In the last week of the regular season, the Big East accounted for the No. 1 and No. 3 teams in the nation and neither of those teams (Connecticut and Pittsburgh) even won the regular-season title.

That honor went to Louisville, which became the third Big East team to ascend to the top of the rankings after it won the conference tournament and overall No. 1 seed.

And as of lunchtime Thursday, it's all ancient history.

"This isn't football," Tranghese said. "We have this event and ultimately that's what you're judged on. It's how you do in the end."

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com.

Dana O'Neil | email

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