The Big East Finds Power In Numbers

Jonathan Wallace
Jonathan Wallace and the Hoyas will face Notre Dame in the first round of the Big East tournament Wednesday afternoon. (Chris O'Meara - AP)
By Camille Powell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 8, 2006

NEW YORK, March 7 -- The first day of any conference tournament often is nothing more than a diversion, three or four games that need to be endured in order to get to the quarterfinals, when the top teams take the court.

But no conference tournament will have a first round like the Big East will Wednesday.

"Every year I come here and I look at the first-round games, and I have a thousand things to do, and I look at a particular game and say, maybe I can sneak out of that game for 10 minutes and go do something," Big East Commissioner Mike Tranghese said. "That's not the case anymore. I just look at the first-round games, and it's scary. I don't know if we've ever seen games like these in the first round. These are wars."

None will be more fiercely contested than Wednesday's first game, a noon tip-off that pits eighth-seeded Cincinnati (19-11) against ninth-seeded Syracuse (19-11) in what essentially amounts to a play-in game for NCAA tournament consideration. Fifth-seeded Georgetown (19-8) plays 12th-seeded Notre Dame (15-12), a team that lost 10 conference games by an average margin of 3.5 points.

Seventh-seeded Seton Hall (18-10), another bubble team, faces 10th-seeded Rutgers (17-12), an in-state rival. And sixth-seeded Pittsburgh (21-6) -- the 15th-ranked team in the country -- plays 11th-seeded Louisville (18-11) in the final game.

If the higher-seeded teams win, then Thursday's four quarterfinals will involve seven 20-win teams.

"You could have the four games on Thursday, at least in theory, involve eight NCAA tournament teams," Connecticut Coach Jim Calhoun said. "You don't get that. Very few leagues ever get that. There are no easy openers. I look at some of the openers tomorrow, and it's nightmarish. But that's the league we created. . . .

"I think that all 12 teams are capable of playing in the NCAA tournament and doing well in the NCAA tournament, and that's an incredible rarity. I really believe that."

Only the top 12 teams in the conference are invited to Madison Square Garden, which means that the four Big East teams with losing records -- Providence, DePaul, St. John's and South Florida -- are at home.

Not only does every team here have a winning overall record; each has at least 15 victories. Six teams -- Connecticut, Villanova, West Virginia, Marquette, Georgetown and Pittsburgh -- have essentially wrapped up NCAA tournament bids. Top-ranked Connecticut (27-2) and second-ranked Villanova (24-3) are hoping to lock down number one seeds.

"Throughout the whole season, you're talking about all of these teams that can beat anyone," Georgetown senior forward Brandon Bowman said. "I think that's pretty much been shown throughout the whole season so far. Now it's a new season, every team in it has new life. It's like everyone is 0-0. Every team is going to be gunning for that championship, and everyone is capable of winning it."

The Hoyas wasted an opportunity to give themselves an easier path in the Big East tournament; a win over South Florida, the league's last-place team, on Saturday would have given Georgetown the fourth seed and a first-round bye. But Georgetown lost, 63-56, and dropped to the fifth seed and a Wednesday afternoon game with Notre Dame.

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