Big East Conference Has Few Weak Links in Men's Basketball

By Liz Clarke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 11, 2008

It may not be sporting, but as the 2008-09 college basketball season approaches, Connecticut Coach Jim Calhoun finds himself wishing the Big East had a few more of what might be called bottom feeders.

Season ticket holders are sure to revel in the parade of NCAA tournament-worthy teams scheduled to visit Connecticut in the coming months -- Georgetown, Villanova, Pittsburgh and Notre Dame among them. But the stress, Calhoun said, is relentless for the players and coaches involved.

"I'd much rather have some lousy teams down at the bottom we could beat bad," Calhoun said last month. "I don't mind there being four or five really good teams. That's okay. I just don't want 12 or 13 really good teams. I deserve a night off every once in a while."

With Connecticut the heavy favorite to win the Big East title this season, Calhoun admitted he was half-joking with the complaint. Still, he plowed on, pointing to the issue of seeding for NCAA tournament-bound teams.

Calhoun asserts that the NCAA tournament selection committee looks more favorably at teams with near-perfect records than at a squad that might finish 22-8, which he argues would represent a significant achievement in the Big East.

"For a league to really work sometimes, you kind of need some people that are going to cooperate, so your good teams can get higher seeds," Calhoun said.

Few will shed tears for a coach with two NCAA championships, Hall of Fame membership and a pair of players taller than 7 feet on his roster. But Calhoun's statement highlighted the downside of belonging to the Big East -- particularly in what many predict will be its most competitive season.

"I don't think I'm overstating this," Louisville Coach Rick Pitino said. "Since I've been a coach, 30-some odd years, I think this is the strongest league in the history of college basketball. In terms of depth, in terms of returning players, I've never seen a league with 11 teams that could be ranked in the top 30."

The Big East returns 13 of its 18 top scorers, 10 of its top 11 rebounders and the top nine players in assists.

Among them: Notre Dame's Luke Harangody, last season's conference player of the year; Connecticut's 7-foot-3 center Hasheem Thabeet, arguably the nation's best defensive player; Sam Young, who led Pittsburgh to the Big East tournament title; and Marquette's Jerel McNeal.

In addition, new talent has surged into the league in the form of massive freshmen -- 6-8 Samardo Samuels of Louisville and 6-10 Greg Monroe of Georgetown -- and gifted transfers, including former Georgia guard Mike Mercer (South Florida) and Julian Vaughn, who left Florida State for Georgetown.

"It's brutal," Hoyas senior guard Jessie Sapp said. "All these teams are good. You can't go to sleep on anybody."

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