- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 25, 2003

The first two rounds of the NCAA basketball tournament are great for separating the wheat from the Conference USAs. Wasn't it just six weeks ago that Louisville was ranked second in the AP poll, receiving nearly half of the first-place votes? Arrivederci, Rick Pitino. Your Cardinals may have the best college coach money can buy, but they aren't good enough to beat Butler, champion of the let me make sure I've got this right Horizon League.

(Of course, these are the same AP sages who had Alabama No. 1 in late December. The Tide played more like an NIT team thereafter, but then Tony Cole spilled his guts about Georgia basketball and knocked the Bulldogs out of the NCAA picture, opening the door for 'Bama.)

It has, indeed, been a strange season in college hoops. But now the smoke has been dispersed, the mirrors turned to the wall, and we're left with 16 teams four, believe it or not, from the Big East. Yes, for all the talk about the Big 12 and the SEC, the Big East has more tickets in the lottery than any other conference. In fact, only one other time in its 24-year history has the Big East had four teams get this far. That was in the magical year of 1985, when Villanova, Georgetown and St. John's made the Final Four and Boston College reached the regional semis.

Does this mean the Big East is back? Uh, no. No conference is "back" in just one year. It simply means that the best college basketball in the country this season might have been played right under our noses at MCI Center, among other places. Georgetown's 15-14 regular-season record, with umpteen narrow losses, doesn't seem nearly as disappointing now that Pittsburgh, Syracuse, Notre Dame and Connecticut are in the Sweet 16. Heck, if they'd been better closers, the Hoyas probably would have been in the NCAAs, too. They might even still be alive.

How did we overlook this Big East renaissance? Well, for one thing, we were blinded by the ACC's light. Duke and Maryland have won the last two NCAA championships. The Big East, on the other hand, has produced only two Final Four teams since 1990 Syracuse in '96 and UConn (which took the title) in '99. And, let's face it, the Hobbesian style of basketball the conference has traditionally peddled isn't as pretty as the Mike Krzyzewski/Gary Williams version.

We're hardly the only ones, though, who have sold the Big East short. The NCAA tournament selection committee showed it little respect by not extending bids to Boston College and Seton Hall, both of whom went 10-6 in conference play. The biggest joke, though, might have making Pitt a No. 2 seed and putting it in the same bracket with Kentucky, the top-ranked team in the nation. The Panthers tied for first in the Big East's West Division and won the conference tournament. But the selection committee, for its usual byzantine reasons, opted to give Texas a one-seed, even though the Longhorns didn't finish in first place in their conference and didn't win the Big 12 tournament.

We should have sensed something was amiss when St. John's, a middling Big East team, rallied to upset Duke late in the season. But here's perhaps the best indication of the conference's newfound strength: Three of the six members of the all-Big East squad BC's Troy Bell, G-town's Mike Sweetney and St. John's Marcus Hatten played for teams that didn't even make the NCAA tournament. (And Bell and Sweetney were the top two vote-getters.)

Or how about this: Brandin Knight, Pittsburgh's stealth guard, was a second team selection. Pretty good depth in the backcourt, wouldn't you say?

The Big East isn't quite as flush as it was in the mid-'80s, when Patrick Ewing and Chris Mullin prowled the hardwood, but it has bounced back nicely from its '92-93 nadir. Plenty of NBA general managers would love to start a team with Sweetney, Bell, Hatten, UConn shot-botherer Emeka Okafor and Syracuse wonderfrosh Carmelo Anthony.

As far as the tournament goes, Pittsburgh might be the most impressive team so far, along with Kentucky. If the Panthers and Wildcats meet in the Elite Eight, they could render the Final Four anticlimactic. And I, for one, am picking UConn to expose Texas on Friday night and set up a matchup with Maryland for the second straight year. Wouldn't that be tasty?

Notre Dame has a tough road, having to go through Arizona and either Kansas or Duke, but Syracuse (Auburn, then probably Oklahoma) could be Bourbon Street-bound if the Sooners don't bring their A-game. Then maybe the tournament committee will break down and give the Big East a No. 1 seed next year so media in other parts of the land can get back to doing what they do best: East Coast bias stories.

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