- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 17, 2011

Nineteen seconds into the second half Thursday, Matt Dickey, a 6-foot-1 guard from Trussville, Ala., scored on a layup to pull itty-bitty UNC-Asheville within three points of powerhouse Pittsburgh. This might not have been such a big deal if Morehead State, earlier in the afternoon in Denver, hadn’t sent Louisville packing, 62-61.

Order was soon restored at Verizon Center, much to the disappointment of the independent voters who had thrown their support behind the underdog. Pitt, the 1-seed in the Southeast Region, was just too talented and too deep – and ultimately ran away to a 74-51 win over the 16-seed Bulldogs. But for about 25 minutes, probably longer than was comfortable for the Panthers and their followers, the competition between the Haves and the Have Nots was quite interesting.

This is what it’s going to be like in this NCAA tournament. We’re trying to determine the national basketball champion, sure, but we’re also trying to determine if the Big East could possibly be as good as its press clippings. The conference earned a record 11 bids this year, officially making it The T-Rex of College Hoops. But, come on, no conference is that good, is it? I mean, the Big East has as many schools in the NCAA tourney as, well, the Big Ten has schools. It all seems a bit extreme – kind of like giving tax breaks to the rich or nominating Meryl Streep for an Oscar for the 16th time.

And when Louisville, which almost won the conference tournament last weekend, goes down in the first round to Morehead State, it just brings all the Big East jealousy (or is it reasonable doubt?) to the surface. Let’s face it, a sizable faction out there likely WANTS the Big East to lay a dinosaur-sized egg – so that no conference will ever be given 11 bids again.

Every NIT team, especially, must look at Villanova (riding a five-game losing streak) and Marquette (14 defeats) and think: Did the NCAAs really need the Wildcats and Golden Eagles? If those two teams follow Louisville out the door Friday, the tournament selection committee might have to go into the Witness Protection Program.

Big East players seem to know what they’re up against, seem to understand they’re under a microscope. And if they don’t come across as particularly concerned about it, maybe it’s because they’ve had to deal with much larger issues this season – like surviving the most brutal conference schedule in college basketball history (and in Connecticut’s case, playing five games in five days in the Big East tourney).

“Everybody’s looking to see if this conference is as good as advertised,” Gary McGee, Pittsburgh’s 6-11 center, said. “It’s understandable, considering how many bids we got. Well, we’re 2 for 3 right now [what with West Virginia taking out Clemson, 84-76]. We’ve just got to get ready for Butler on Saturday and come out strong.”

Until Pitt started acting like a top seed, UNC-Asheville – merely the third-best team in the Big South during the regular season – entertained notions of following Morehead State’s lead. The Bulldogs might have had to go to overtime to beat Arkansas-Little Rock in a play-in game Tuesday, but they had plenty of energy in the early going against the Panthers.

“Pittsburgh has a very good team,” Dickey said, “but I felt like we were right there [with them]. We wanted to hit them in the mouth in the beginning, and I think we were even ahead at the first TV timeout. We just let it slip away at the end. We did everything we could. If we could have gotten a few more shots to drop, gotten a couple of more calls … .”

The thing about Really Good Teams, as he pointed out, is that they might have 10 big-time players, “but they can only put five on the floor at the same time. We can put five on the floor, too. But then they start going to their bench, bringing in fresh guys to guard you – and not really losing a step – and it’s kinda tiring.”

After Louisville took a header, West Virginia grinded out a win and Pittsburgh played perfunctorily for much of the afternoon, the Big East Eleven looked like a bunch of overhyped slackers. But then the Panthers – Aston Gibbs (six three-pointers) specifically – caught fire in the second half, UConn eviscerated Bucknell in the evening session, and suddenly the conference had its swagger back. (The Huskies, behind all-everything Kemba Walker’s 18 points, led by as much as 41 before settling for a more humane 81-52 victory.)

Bucknell guard Bryson Johnson was sufficiently awed. “It is just tough [playing a team like Connecticut],” he said, “especially on the glass. They are bigger than us at every position.”

UConn had a 49-23 rebounding edge over the Bison. Pittsburgh had a similar advantage against UNC-Asheville – 50-27. This is what happens when you’re much, much, MUCH better than the opposition. The question now, of course, is whether the Big East will continue to justify all these bids – enough for an entire Elite Eight (and then some). The basketball world is watching. Very closely.

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