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In NCAA Tournament, Big East Underscores Bragging Rights Over ACC

Duke, which was drummed out of the NCAA tournament by Villanova of the Big East on Thursday, has been past the round of 16 just once since 2001.
Duke, which was drummed out of the NCAA tournament by Villanova of the Big East on Thursday, has been past the round of 16 just once since 2001. (By Stephan Savoia -- Associated Press)
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By John Feinstein
Saturday, March 28, 2009

BOSTON It was a few minutes past midnight Friday morning when the buzzer mercifully sounded on Villanova's 77-54 dismantling of Duke in the NCAA tournament's round of 16. Blue Devils Coach Mike Krzyzewski was already walking toward Jay Wright as the final seconds ticked off, more than ready to get out of Dodge after his Blue Devils had been blown out of TD Banknorth Garden by the Wildcats in the second half.

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As he shook hands with Wright, Krzyzewski put his arm around him and whispered: "You really kicked our butts tonight. You've got one hell of a team."

He spoke as the losing coach conceding victory to the winning coach. But he might very well have spoken as a representative for the ACC conceding defeat to the Big East.

Villanova was the third Big East team to reach the region finals Thursday, joining Pittsburgh and Connecticut. On Friday night, Louisville joined them. No conference had ever placed more than three teams in the final eight in one season.

The Big East is making it look easy. The conference is 15-3 in this year's tournament. The ACC, which also got seven teams into the tournament, is 6-6 with North Carolina the only team still playing. Even the mediocre Big Ten, also down to one team after Thursday, had a 7-6 record.

Which leads to the question: Is this a trend or is it cyclical? Has the ACC lost its basketball luster, and will it ever again catch up with the Big East?

Wright chose to be gracious when the subject came up.

"I think it goes in cycles," he said. Big East coaches "talked about this before the season began. Just about every significant senior in the league came back and some of the underclassmen, too. It was just one of those years where we have a lot of teams with a lot of experience. That has a lot to do with it."

Certainly it is a factor. Villanova starts three seniors and two juniors. Pittsburgh starts three seniors and a junior. Connecticut starts three seniors and two juniors. Louisville starts two seniors -- one of them, Terrence Williams, probably was the league's best player this season. Syracuse is younger but has a lot of non-seniors -- Jonny Flynn, Eric Devendorf and Andy Rautins -- who played extensively early in their careers. Even Notre Dame, which is in the NIT semifinals, returned conference player of the year Luke Harangody (a junior) and senior shooting guard Kyle McIlarney.

"Especially these days, if you've got seniors, you've definitely got an advantage," said Krzyzewski, who didn't start a senior Thursday and did remarkable work to coax 30 wins and a round of 16 appearance out of his team. "If you look at our league, North Carolina had all their seniors come back and they finished first. The team that improved the most was Florida State; their key guy was a fifth-year senior," Toney Douglas.

All of that makes sense, but while the Big East's current dominance is something not seen since it landed three teams in the 1985 Final Four, this is more than a one-season blip. It dates, ironically, to 2005, when the ACC raided the Big East for three football schools -- Virginia Tech, Miami and Boston College -- forcing the Big East to recruit Louisville, Cincinnati, Marquette, DePaul and South Florida to survive as a conference.

The ACC is as mediocre as it ever was in football, but it has regressed significantly in basketball. Duke's loss Thursday meant for a fifth straight season no ACC team other than North Carolina will reach the region finals. During that same period, six Big East schools have gone at least that far.


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