65 Invited to ‘The Big Dance’

Published 2:49 am Monday, March 16, 2009

Built for basketball, the Big East is a big hit in March yet again.

Louisville, Pittsburgh and Connecticut helped the league that was created decades ago for hoops become the first conference to earn three No. 1 seeds in the NCAA tournament.

North Carolina, the regular-season Atlantic Coast Conference champion, was the other top seed.

Email newsletter signup

Still, the headlines on Selection Sunday belonged to the Big East, the league that gave us Patrick Ewing and John Thompson, one of the game’s biggest upsets (Villanova over Georgetown in 1985) and one of its greatest games (Syracuse over UConn in six overtimes just last week).

The coup of placing three teams on the top line comes 24 years after the Big East became the first league to get three teams in the Final Four — Georgetown, Villanova and St. John’s.

So much has changed since then. And so much has stayed the same.

‘‘It speaks volumes for what it means to win the Big East,’’ said Louisville coach Rick Pitino, whose Cardinals are the tournament’s overall top seed and will play in the Midwest.

The Cardinals (28-5), winners of the regular-season and conference championships in the nation’s top-ranked conference, will open against the winner of an opening-round game Tuesday between Alabama State and Morehead State.

The rest of the tournament starts Thursday and Friday.

The Final Four is scheduled for Ford Field in Detroit on April 4 and 6. Last year, all four No. 1 teams made it to the Final Four. But Pitt (East), Carolina (South) and UConn (West) all know its called March Madness for a reason — things rarely go to form.

So, time to break out the brackets, sharpen some pencils and pay into an office pool (or two).

Maybe do a little griping here and there.

Among the aggrieved: Duke and Memphis, both overlooked in the quest for top seeding, settling for No. 2 seeds despite winning their conference tournaments. Memphis is often downgraded for playing in the less-than-steller Conference USA, but John Calipari’s team proved people wrong last year, making it to the national title game.

‘‘I know people in the city are mad,’’ he said. ‘‘That’s OK. Good karma, good will.’’

At least they’re in the big show.

Penn State, San Diego State and St. Mary’s were among those left out despite some impressive credentials. St. Mary’s went 26-6 but lost by 25 to Gonzaga in its conference tournament final.

‘‘I was hoping common sense prevailed,’’ coach Randy Bennett said. ‘‘Using common sense, we’re one of the top 34 (at-large) teams. This was the best team we’ve ever had, so it’s just disappointing to be in this situation.’’

Feeling much differently was Arizona, which extended its NCAA-leading streak of tournament appearances to 25. But this one might be the most hotly debated. The Wildcats finished 19-13 and were all but written off after a first-round loss in the Pac-10 tournament.

‘‘They beat UCLA, they beat Gonzaga, they beat us,’’ said Washington coach Lorenzo Romar, whose team won the Pac-10 regular-season title. ‘‘I think people missed the boat on our conference this year. The selection committee understood the Pac-10 is better than people thought.’’

Thrilled as Arizona was, maybe nobody got a bigger kick out of hearing their names called than the North Dakota State Bisons. New players on the Division I level, the ND State seniors all committed to a redshirt year when they arrived, knowing this would be the first year they’d be eligible for the tournament.

‘‘We all talked about it and said we have to have the opportunity to go to the biggest basketball tournament our senior year,’’ guard Ben Woodside said.

Welcome to the party, fellas: Your first game is against defending national champion Kansas, the No. 3 seed in the Midwest.

Not surprisingly, the Big East also tied for the lead with seven teams in the tournament, along with the ACC and Big Ten.

The selection committee went with some travel arrangements that weren’t ideal but couldn’t be avoided. For instance, Arizona, Arizona State and Utah all travel to Miami, while Florida State goes to Boise, Idaho.

Whether Utah State’s Blue Bull mascot will also make it to Boise to square off with the Marquette Golden Eagle is still an unknown; the bull got in a fight with New Mexico State’s cowboy at the conference tournament and was suspended for the final.

It should be interesting to see if there’s any long-term effect from the six-overtime classic that Syracuse, third seed in the South, and UConn put on in the quarterfinals of the Big East tournament — just another wonderful chapter in that conference’s storied history.

Founded in 1979, the Big East enjoyed all kinds of success in the early years. Yet football came into the mix and the league found itself on the verge of extinction only six years ago when Miami, Boston College and Virginia Tech bailed for the ACC and a better situation on the gridiron.

The Big East went out and recruited Louisville, among other teams, and this year had five of the top 12 spots on the sport’s biggest stage (Villanova was also a No. 3)

Who’s laughing now?

‘‘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.

Although the Big East had no problem with numbers, the Southeastern Conference placed only three teams in the tournament — the third coming only because Mississippi State won the conference tournament and earned the automatic bid.

That result, plus Southern California’s championship in the Pac-10 tournament, cost a couple of bubble teams spots among in the 65.

Among the last teams to make it were: Wisconsin, a 12th seed in the East; Maryland, a surprisingly high 10th seed in the Midwest; and Dayton, one of only four teams from small conferences to earn an at-large bid.

The so-called mid-major conferences have gone from nine at-large bids in 2005 to four this year. Besides St. Mary’s, Creighton got left out, as did New Mexico, UNLV and San Diego State, all from the Mountain West.

‘‘We look at teams, we don’t use a label,’’ said Mike Slive, chairman of the selection committee. ‘‘It’s not about mid-major teams and major teams. It’s about teams. In the final analysis, it’s about who you play, where you play and how you do. It’s about teams, not about conferences.’’

Penn State also got left out. The Nittany Lions had the 311th-ranked non-conference strength of schedule — certainly not a help in the selection group’s meeting room.

‘‘We tried to deliver a message that it’s the entire body of work,’’ Slive said. ‘‘It starts in November and December and goes through the conference tournament.’’

Also absent will be Indiana and Kentucky — the first time both traditional powerhouses have been missing in the tournament since 1979.