Sunday, March 28, 2010

Big East to the Final Four

Only a few weeks ago, I was jeering West Virginia and hoping that my UCONN Huskies would deliver them a whooping (they did). Yesterday, I was hoping like heck that same West Virginia team would find a victory against Kentucky (they did).

I root for the UCONN Huskies during the season, but once they are out of the running, I root for UCONN's conference, the Big East. I can't really understand why one night I am against various teams that are UCONN foes in the trenches of the season-- teams like Georgetown, Syracuse, Notre Dame, St. John's, Villanova and West Virginia-- and the next night I am cheering for those same enemies. To college basketball fans, it makes sense. You are loyal to your team first, and your conference second.

The Big East conference is the best conference in college basketball. During a couple weeks this season, four teams from the Big East were among the top ten ranked teams in the country. Syracuse and West Virginia almost occupied two of the four coveted No. 1 seeds in the NCAA tournament. Eight Big East teams made it to the big dance, more than any other conference.

Yet, the Big East's performance in the NCAA tournament has not been superb. Only two of the original eight Big East tournament entrants made it to the second weekend (the Sweet Sixteen, in insider parlance). The team that played the best during weekend one, Syracuse, could not get past a surging Butler Bulldog team-- which is from the Horizon Conference, arguably far inferior to the mighty Big East.

Why the disappointing tournament performance? My brother Brett puts forth a theory that the Big East conference is perhaps too good. The conventional wisdom is that playing in a difficult conference helps you at the end of the season; playing challenging opponents all year long hones a team's skills and allows it to see where problems are against high-class competition. It's kind of like training for a marathon by always pushing yourself to get beyond where you've been before, as opposed to training by running a mile during each training run.

Brett's theory is that there is a conference strength threshold that, when passed, becomes detrimental to the conference's teams. On more than one occasion this year, analysts have said the Big East "is eating its own." Playing a top-ten opponent each night for several weeks would wear even the best trained athletes. The Big East teams in the tournament this year have simply looked pooped.

I accept Brett's theory over the comments of many other non-Big East fans that say the conference is overrated. As someone who has watched many Big East games this year, and saw how the teams looked in the NCAA tournament, I still believe strongly the Big East is legit. But then again, I do admit I am biased.

And then, amid my concerns and theories of conference fatigue, there's West Virginia. The Mountaineers were not the best team in the Big East conference this year, but they are the best team now. They won the Big East conference tournament, and they have not looked back. Yesterday, they defeated Kentucky, a No. 1 seed, to earn a spot in the Final Four.

The Big East conference is now 8-7 in the NCAA tournament, with one team left. Most importantly, the Big East conference is headed to the Final Four, where it belongs.

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