It began in the hallways of arenas after games where the people who play, coach or follow Big East basketball night after night risked rotator-cuff injuries patting each other on the back.
Few could recall the conference being deeper.
None remembered it being tougher.
Forced to choose between quality and quantity, the NCAA tournament committee selected “only” seven Big East teams, but made the conference the first ever to be awarded three of the four No. 1 seeds. Louisville, Pittsburgh and Connecticut topped their respective regions, Syracuse and Villanova were slotted at No. 3 and followed by Marquette and West Virginia at No. 6.
Any worries that the coaches who got in would lobby for Big East colleagues left behind never materialized, either because they were too complacent — five teams in the top dozen should be enough, even for a 16-team megaconference — or too tired.
“It just gives you an idea, if theoretically half the top teams in America are coming out of one conference, how difficult it was for anybody,” UConn coach Jim Calhoun said
Yet it was that way all season.
The league lacked the usual cast of superstar players, but still boasted three coaches who owned national titles; two of them, Calhoun and Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim, were already in the Hall of Fame, and the third, Louisville’s Rick Pitino, will be soon enough. Maybe that explains how fortunes turned so fast.
Connecticut was No. 1 in the Associated Press poll at the start of last week, but only the No. 3 seed by the time it began the conference tournament. More than a few times during the season, the Big East boasted four teams ranked among the Top 10 and traded places faster than a game of musical chairs.
Louisville was supposed to be out of the picture after a crushing loss on New Year’s Eve to UNLV. Instead, the Cardinals wound up going 16-2 in the league, winning 20 of their last 22 and both the regular-season and conference-tournament titles. Small wonder the selection committee gave Louisville the No. 1 overall seed in the tournament.
“It speaks volumes,” Pitino said, “for what it means to win the Big East.”
The more important question, though, might be whether just advancing out of the Big East this season meant sacrificing too much. UConn lost its most consistent starter, Jerome Dyson, then went to six overtimes before losing to Syracuse in the conference tournament. Without saying as much, Pitt coach Jamie Dixon suggested an early loss in the same tourney wasn’t the worst thing that could happen. Blessing in disguise.
“We’re a little banged-up,” he conceded during an interview Sunday on CBS. “This will be good healing time for us.”
A moment later, Dixon was asked whether even those extra days off would be enough. He hardly sounded convinced.
“This league wears you down,” he said quietly. “It wears you down.”
No conference plays a more physical game, even if the contests aren’t as routinely brutal as they were in the late 1980s, when league officials considered allowing players to collect six personals before fouling out. Rough as those days seemed, the league faced an even-tougher challenge only a half-dozen years ago. That’s when the rival Atlantic Coast Conference raided the Big East to bulk up its own football credentials, eventually siphoning off Miami, Boston College and Virginia Tech.
The Big East, in turn, dipped into Conference USA and stole Louisville and Marquette, among others. It’s still not much of a football league, but the new blood restored its reputation for basketball.
“We’ve sat here in other years when we were in Conference USA,” Pitino recalled, “thinking we deserved a number two or three seed when it didn’t come to fruition, so this is very exciting for our team.”
Just as excited, no doubt, is Big East commissioner Mike Traghese. While other conferences cut deals or considered others that would make them more attractive across the bargaining table, he stuck to the principle the Big East was founded on: good basketball.
He plans to retire soon, but could hardly hide his satisfaction walking around Madison Square Garden after the Big East tournament concluded Saturday night, when the possibility of three No. 1 seeds from his league was raised.
“We’re good,” he said. “Everybody knows it. That would be another display of it.”
The most memorable display previously was 24 years ago, when the league became the first league to have three teams — Georgetown, Villanova and St. John’s — reach the Final Four.
“You can’t predict ’85,” Tranghese said. “It hasn’t happened since. It may never happen again.”
But if it does, all those people who exchanged knowing glances in the hallway a few months ago shouldn’t pretend to be surprised.
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitkeap.org