Week to Week, Big East Has Few Weak Links

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."

The Big East tied its record by placing eight teams in the NCAA tournament last season. Many coaches think that number could be higher. Pitino predicts 10.

But with each Big East team having to play 18 conference games (facing every other squad once and three teams twice), the math is tricky. Winning records will be hard to come by.

"It'll be interesting to see how this year turns out," said Georgetown Coach John Thompson III, whose Hoyas were picked to finish seventh in the preseason coaches' poll, after the departure of much of the nucleus of the teams that won back-to-back regular season titles.

"I think there's going to be a lot of beating each other up. Look at the teams that are projected near the bottom of our league [from 12th to 16th, Rutgers, Seton Hall, St. John's, DePaul and South Florida]. They are some . . . good teams that could beat everyone at the top of the projections."

Connecticut returns every key player from the team that finished 24-9 overall and 13-5 in the league. And with guard A.J. Price fully healed from the torn anterior cruciate ligament he suffered in the NCAA tournament, the Huskies have every position covered, with a particularly daunting presence inside.

Cincinnati Coach Mick Cronin calls the Huskies the best defensive team in the league -- a distinction that often translates into the conference championship.

"It's going to be very tough to score on them this year," Cronin said.

Louisville, which advanced to the NCAA tournament's East Region final, has four starters back. And Pittsburgh and Notre Dame are also bolstered by experience.

That logjam at the top explains how Villanova, which returns everyone from a round-of-16 team, is projected to finish fifth in the conference.

But the Big East is hardly alone in claiming to be the country's strongest conference. The Atlantic Coast Conference sings a similar refrain.

"There are many strong teams in the Big East," Maryland Coach Gary Williams said. "However, there are teams that the 'strong' teams look at as 'sure wins.' That's not true in the ACC."

The ACC, Williams noted, boasts the nation's No. 1 team in North Carolina. In addition, Duke, Miami and Wake Forest are ranked among the top 25 in the coaches' preseason poll.

If there's a benefit to such heated in-conference competition, it's the athletic equivalent of "tough love." And Georgetown's Thompson says he has come to embrace it in his four seasons in the Big East.

"One thing I know: Once you get to postseason play, you're prepared. You're ready," said Thompson, who has led the Hoyas to three consecutive NCAA tournament appearances. "You've competed against, played against, and hopefully had some success against many different styles of play and many different styles of coaching at a very high level."

Calhoun agrees, adding: "Good games don't wear you out; they prepare you. Anybody who says otherwise is using it as an excuse."

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