The Beast of the East

Published 1:27 am Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The three No. 1 seeds were only a start. The bruising, behemoth Big East has lived up to the hype as the beast of the NCAA tournament.

The Big East tournament officially ended two weeks ago in New York. Take a look at those office brackets, and the teams still standing entering the NCAA tournament’s second weekend make it seem like the party is still going long after the lights were dimmed at Madison Square Garden.

Five teams still playing and a shot at placing four teams in the Final Four have put the rest of the field on notice that the path to a national championship goes through this overpowering conference.

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‘‘I would have been really shocked if some of these guys got upset,’’ Villanova coach Jay Wright said.

Connecticut, Louisville and Pittsburgh are the three top seeds still playing. Villanova and Syracuse are No. 3 seeds as a record five teams from one conference in the Sweet 16 have given the tournament a decided Big East flavor.

The Panthers and Wildcats could meet in the East Regional final, while the Orange (South), Cardinals (Midwest) and Huskies (West) are spread among the other three regionals, making a rugged all-conference Final Four a legitimate possibility.

‘‘There’s no other league in the country like the Big East,’’ UConn forward Jeff Adrien said. ‘‘We just go out there every game and try to take each other’s heads off. I’m for real when I say that.’’

The Big East, which has 16 basketball members, could send three teams to the Final Four for the first time since Villanova, Georgetown and St. John’s got there in 1985. Memphis State was the only party crasher that season.

Led by coach Rollie Massimino and his appetizing use of pasta and clam sauce as a motivational tool, the 1985 Wildcats beat Georgetown in ‘‘The Perfect Game’’ for their only national championship.

Massimino said on Tuesday that he was rooting for another Big East battle in Detroit.

‘‘It very likely could happen,’’ Massimino said. ‘‘I think it’s very comparable. Back in ’85, there were just some really great players that were playing. There are great players now, but we had (Chris) Mullin and (Patrick) Ewing and (Ed) Pinckney and (Harold) Pressley and that kind of group. Just a great conglomerate of people. It would be a tremendous tribute.’’

The ’85 Final Four remains the benchmark for any conference.

‘‘The standard for the tournament right now is what we did in 1985 and until someone surpasses that, I would have to say that ’85 is the best that we’ve ever been,’’ said Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese.

Still, Tranghese was quick to note that sending anything less would not diminish the season.

‘‘It’s only happened once in the history of college basketball, so why should we all of a sudden be held to that standard? It’s ridiculous,’’ he said. ‘‘I just want us to play well and if we play well, we’ll get a team there.’’

Louisville coach Rick Pitino called the 2008-09 season the best in the Big East’s 30-year history.

‘‘You have so many teams that potentially could get to the Final Four and win a national championship,’’ he said.

Unlike UConn’s lopsided smackdown of Chattanooga, this week’s Big East showdown is no slam dunk.

With three teams left in three regionals (Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma), the Big 12 has a 9-3 record and a shot at sending three to the Final Four. Both the Atlantic Coast and Big Ten conferences started with seven teams and each has two still playing.

Kansas coach Bill Self, who led the Jayhawks to the national championship last season, believes other contenders are ready to crash the Big East party.

‘‘In order for our league to really put a stamp on it and not have everybody talking about other leagues going into next year, we need to go ahead and validate that by performing well this weekend,’’ Self said.

The Big East was nearly as flawless as Villanova was in that ’85 title game. Marquette was knocked out in the second round and West Virginia was bounced in the first, making the Big East a sparkling 11-2. Eight of the Big East’s 11 victories have been by double digits.

‘‘This year, rightfully so, the talk has been Big East, and it should be the Big East,’’ Self said. ‘‘It was by far the superior league in our country, no question.’’

It’s not just the number of wins the Big East racked up, but how they’ve mostly romped. Take a look at all those ‘‘W’s’’ marked in ink on your brackets and you’ll see scores more appropriate for non-conference tuneup games than ‘‘One Shining Moment’’ highlights.

UConn dominated its two games by a combined 82 points and blasted Chattanooga in the third-largest blowout in tournament history. Villanova was threatened by American before turning on the pressure and taking two games by 43 points. Syracuse also won both games by double digits to advance into the round of 16.

Of the Big East teams left playing, only Pittsburgh and Louisville survived major scares. The Panthers were nearly shocked by No. 16 seed East Tennessee State in the first round and beat Oklahoma State by eight points.

The Cardinals, the overall No. 1 seed, had to work to hold off a talented Siena team in the second round. Pitino believed the close call only made Louisville more tournament tough the rest of the way.

‘‘You never know with the teams that are getting (blowout wins) how they’re going to feel in a close game and that’s why I thought Siena was good for us,’’ Pitino said.

Slugging it out every game in the Big East was almost like trying to get through a regional. The Wildcats are a three seed, but went 1-3 against the other conference top seeds. They knocked off Pittsburgh, lost twice to Louisville and lost to Connecticut. Still, they haven’t had a two-game losing streak all season.

‘‘Going in every night, knowing that if you don’t come out ready to play you could go on a big-time losing streak, it gives you that elimination mentality,’’ Villanova guard Scottie Reynolds said.

That mentality also worked for the Cardinals, who won the regular season and conference tournament championship.

‘‘It was sort of like NCAA play for two months instead of just three weeks,’’ Louisville guard Andre McGee said.

All the teams left will need that reasoning if they want to play in Detroit — or even Saturday and Sunday.

Louisville might have the easiest path with a game against 12th-seeded Arizona, Pittsburgh has fourth-seeded Xavier, and the Huskies play fifth-seeded Purdue. The marquee games involving Big East teams in the regional semis are the pair of 2 vs. 3 matchups: Villanova vs. Duke and Syracuse vs. Oklahoma.

Tranghese stayed put and watched the games on TV last weekend. He sure wasn’t going to make a prediction on how the Final Four would shake out, but knows it’s a good bet he’ll be watching at least one of his conference’s teams playing on that final weekend in his last season as commissioner.