In MEDIA SOUND BITES Leonard Shapiro on March 15, 2011 at 10:14 am

March 21st

The Big East may just have turned in the most embarrassing effort in the history of the NCAA Tournament… at least since the field expanded to 64 back in ’85.

Eleven teams got bids.  Count ‘em.  11 !!!

Only two survived the first two rounds, and frankly, we’re not talking the Big East’s best here.  U-Conn and Marquette are the standard bearers for a league that planned on making a statement with two, maybe even three, teams in the Final Four in Houston.  Now, it would be a miracle if it had one in the Final Four.  Heck, it’s gonna take a miracle for either U-Conn or Marquette to reach the Elite Eight.

Only two Big East schools in the Sweet 16!?!  The supposedly “down” ACC has three including its very best in Duke and Carolina.  And three other conferences, including the Mountain West have matched the Big East with two in the 16.  Even the city of Richmond, Va. has two teams still dancing (Richmond and VCU).   And, to be honest, I’d take the two Richmond schools over U-Conn and Marquette right now.  And, I’ll bet I’m not alone.

So, what went wrong?

I guess the ugly truth is that the Big East isn’t “all that.”   The anointed “BEST CONFERENCE” in college basketball can’t seem to get out of its own way.  Villanova, Georgetown, St. John’s, and Louisville were one and done.  One and done!!!  The Hoyas and Red Storm were blown away by lower seeds.  Double-digit losses.  Shockingly, Georgetown was crushed by one of the First Four, VCU, for heaven’s sake.  Everybody said VCU didn’t belong, but it’s the Hoyas that probably should have been sent to the NIT after stumbling into the tournament on the heels of an injury to star player, Chris Wright.  All that Hoya talent, and G-town couldn’t overcome the temporary loss of one player who, in fact, returned just in time to get hammered by VCU.  That’s the kind of performance that can put a coach on the hot seat.  He’s lucky his name is Thompson.

Louisville’s loss was a real bracket buster for folks in the tournament “pools” at work.  The fourth-seeded Cardinals were one of the Final Four favorites.  It’s that Rick Pitino thing.  But, somebody forgot to tell 13th-seeded Morehead State about how great a coach Pitino is.

Villanova was the lone Big East squad to lose in the first round to a higher seed, George Mason.  I know Mason is a known quantity; five years separated from its Cinderella days.  But, the Big East should be able to handle a team from the C.A.A. in the 8-9 game.  No excuses, Wildcats.  I just love it when the team I highlight in an earlier column as the least worthy of all the Big Easters to get a bid proves my point in spades by blowing a double-digit second half lead to a mid-major.  Thank you, very much!

As bad as Thursday and Friday were, the second round was even uglier for the Big East.  Five losses; two of them self-inflicted.  First-seed Pitt, second- seed Notre Dame, and third-seed Syracuse all went down.  The victors:  a mid-major power in Butler, a middle-of-the-pack ACC team in Florida State, and the 10th-best team in the Big East itself, Marquette.

Yeah, Butler might be on its way to a second-straight Final Four appearance, but Pitt should never have let that happen in such a sloppy fashion.  Once again, Pitt enhances its terrible tournament reputation.

Notre Dame and its five seniors (including Big East Player of the Year Ben Hansbrough) were technically the fifth number one seed.  But, the Irish were outplayed and outhustled in every phase of the game by a Florida State team that was only getting limited minutes from its best player, Chris Singleton.

And, what can you say about Syracuse losing to Marquette?  Sure, it’s a Big East win.  But, this can’t be what commissioner John Marinatto had in mind when he finagled and cajoled the NCAA selection committee into taking 11 of his teams.  On Sunday, Marinatto told the New York Times, “The body of work that our schools created over the course of the year certainly overshadows what happens in the tournament.”

Say what???

No way, Johnny boy.  You’re not getting off that easy.   The Big East regular season and tournament are supposed to create an atmosphere of physical play and top-drawer competition which will prepare all the league’s schools for the NCAA’s.  Except, it clearly didn’t do that.  And, we’re not talking about the bottom half of the 11 entrants.  We’re talking pretty much everybody here.  I know that U-Conn and Marquette are still alive and kicking, but honestly, they each beat other Big East underachievers to get where they are.  I have to wonder if a Virginia Tech, or a Colorado, or an Alabama, or even a Harvard had been waiting for them in round two that the entire Big East would be history as far the Road to Houston is concerned.

In reality, it’s already over for the Big East.   I doubt seriously that anybody, save for the totally deluded, has U-Conn or Marquette surviving the coming weekend.  Eleventh-seeded Marquette faces North Carolina next.  Then it’s Ohio State.  Good luck with that.  U-Conn is a three seed based on its run through the Big East Tournament, not on its mediocre .500 performance in the regular season.  The Huskies face San Diego State and then, if they’re lucky, Duke.  I’m sure that Marinatto pictured a potential U-Conn/Duke regional final on Selection Sunday, but I’ll guarantee you he wasn’t thinking that it would be his best and probably only hope of sending a Big East team to the Final Four.

What a waste of 11 cherished NCAA Tournament berths.

March 15th

I guess they couldn’t invite everybody from the Big East, but it doesn’t mean they didn’t try. Eleven members of that conference are in the NCAA Tournament. That’s a record for any single league. And, frankly, it’s overkill. Okay, okay, I get it. The Big East is the best in the business right now. But, I don’t think that all 11 invitees should be dancing at the expense of the likes of Alabama, Virginia Tech, Harvard, and so on.  Look, if you can’t finish in the upper half of your conference, how good are you? Let me channel Harry Truman for a second here, “If you can’t stand the heat, find an easier conference.”

Would it hurt a Marquette or Villanova or even a U-Conn to stay home after a 20-win season in a tough conference? Sure it would. But, save the tears. You’ll get no sympathy from the 23 twenty-game winners whose next scheduled game is in the NIT. Five of those won 25 or more and simply had the misfortune of not winning a conference title game in a conference that only rates one dancer.

So, which Big East team do you leave out. Marquette? I could live with that. But, here’s a better idea – Villanova.

I can hear you now. “Are you insane?” “Great team.” But, they ain’t playing anything close to great right now. The Wildcats were a hot ticket back in the late fall, but it’s been quite a fall since then.  Five straight losses to close the season, and losses in 7 of their last 9. Only five wins in their last 15 games. What happened to all that talk from the NCAA selection committee where they claim it’s “how you finish”? Since the field expanded in 1985, no team with 5 straight losses to end a season has been given an at-large berth until Villanova. Their two wins in the final nine games were by 3 and 2 points over Seton Hall and DePaul. Not exactly impressive in any league.

Folks at the various schools snubbed by the selection committee were quick to target VCU and UAB for their jealous scorn instead of any of the Big East 11. VCU and UAB were certainly among the very last to make the field and were dutifully relegated to the opening round or the so-called “First Four.” But, at least the Rams and Blazers have won in the month of March. UAB won the Conference USA regular season title. VCU made a serious run at the Colonial Athletic Association Tournament title losing the championship to Old Dominion. And, the CAA might be the best mid-major conference going. Furthermore, UAB’s R.P.I. was higher than three of the Big East’s 11 tournament teams, including Villanova. Yes, UAB got upset in their conference tourney opener, but Villanova’s lone Big East tournament outing was a loss to South Florida; one of the true bottom feeders in the Big East.

The selection committee says it bases its decisions on the individual team’s complete body of work. Here’s some of the Wildcats work: 5-7 versus the tournament-bound Big East members, and none of their 4 “quality” non-conference wins was a true road game.

The selection committee always claims it has no quota of teams from any particular conference. And yet, when does the Ivy League get more than one? But, you know somebody had to realize that the Big East was close to filling an entire region by itself. Haven’t we already seen the 2011 Big East Tournament?

I think we can all agree that 11 from one league is too many, and so is 10, and even 9 is a bit much. But, if just one of the Big East’s 11 had been left out, it might have been an easier pill for the Hokies and the Tide and the other complainants to swallow. It would have, at the very least, shown that the NCAA selection process is equally unfair. And, I guess we all have to live with that.

One bright spot for all the snubbed teams, Villanova was given a tough first round assignment in George Mason. So, their free and easy ride to the big dance on the Big East bandwagon might be a short trip.

Ross, the creator of Throwback Baseball 1.0, also blogs about sports memorabilia at:

  1. On the other hand Ross, name another conference where the 9th best team is still alive in the NCAA tournament.. It happens every year because the BIG EAST teams are pummeled from playing ranked competition night in and night out – one of the curses of the so-called super conference..

    • On the other hand, would the 9th best team from the CAA be still alive at this stage? We won’t lnow until we invite them to the dance. It might not simply be the Big East effect. There be some luck of the draw, too.

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