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College Basketball / Men

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With Four Teams Remaining, Big East Proves Its Merit

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By Zach Berman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 28, 2009

BOSTON, March 27 -- Jay Wright became an assistant coach at Villanova in 1987, two years after the Wildcats won an improbable national championship by surviving a Final Four that included three Big East teams. Wright remembers when the Big East was a nine-team league -- and all the schools were actually in the east -- that featured a handful of future professional players on every roster and was the elite conference in college basketball.

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Defections, expansion and time have changed the complexion of the conference and the sport. Yet more than two decades later, the Big East has established itself again as the top conference -- at least for this season.

Wright is now the head coach of Villanova, which faces Big East rival Pittsburgh on Saturday night in the East Region final. The winner will guarantee at least one Big East team will reach the Final Four. Five Big East teams made it to the region semifinals, and four of them advanced to the region finals.

"As coaches and promoters of our leagues, sometimes we tend to over-exaggerate and inflate some things that never really come to fruition," Pittsburgh Coach Jamie Dixon said. "But if anything has lived up to it, it would be this conference and what's happened this year."

The claim of conference supremacy between the Big East and ACC made for season-long fodder. Three ACC teams were ranked No. 1. Three Big East teams achieved the same feat. But with North Carolina the ACC's only region finalist, there is little reason for debate.

"We could hear the talk about it," Villanova forward Dwayne Anderson said. "And to answer that question, there are five teams from the Big East in the Sweet 16. That pretty much sums it up."

Anderson grew up in Silver Spring supporting Maryland. He emulated former Terrapins standouts Juan Dixon, Byron Mouton and Chris Wilcox and followed the ACC.

Juan Dixon's younger brother, Jermaine, now starts for the Panthers. He, too, grew up reveling in the rivalry among Maryland, Duke and North Carolina. He only watched the Big East when his brother's friend, Kevin Braswell, played for Georgetown.

When Juan left Maryland following the 2002 national championship, Jermaine opened his eyes to college basketball outside the ACC. Fellow Baltimore natives starred in the Big East, such as Carmelo Anthony at Syracuse and Rudy Gay at Connecticut. By that point, Jermaine realized that the Big East was equal to the ACC.

"I started to get a sense of what the Big East was like and how physical it was," Jermaine Dixon said. "Personally, I thought the Big East was the best conference. We've definitely shown it now. It definitely shows that the coaches in the Big East are doing a great job recruiting players and getting players in, mainly from the New York, Maryland-D.C and Philadelphia area. It has the better players coming out of high school."

Nine of the 10 starters on the court in Saturday's game will be from the areas Dixon mentioned.

Three Villanova starters are from the Washington area -- Anderson (St. John's and St. Thomas More), forward Dante Cunningham (St. John's and Potomac) and guard Scottie Reynolds (Herndon). The other two -- forwards Shane Clark and Reggie Redding -- are from Philadelphia.

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