By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 9, 2011; D01
With less than a month remaining in college basketball's regular season, some are predicting a record 11 teams from the Big East could qualify for the NCAA tournament's field of 68. But some of those same pundits also are pondering something else: How much will the teams in the nation's toughest conference have in reserve come March following a winter spent throwing haymakers at one another?
"The one thing people can agree on is that Pittsburgh has separated itself from the pack," said Jon Rothstein, who covers college basketball for the MSG network and CBS College Sports Network. "As far as everyone else, there's very little separation between the second-best team and the 11th. There's no such thing as looking beyond the next game because the next game could be a loss."
Indeed, a handful of scores that have crawled across the screen in recent weeks required a double take: unranked Providence upsetting Louisville, then ranked 19th, and then-No. 8 Villanova in consecutive games; Seton Hall, which is 10-14, beating Syracuse by 22 points at the Carrier Dome; Louisville upending then-No. 5 Connecticut in Storrs.
There are a couple of schools of thought when it comes to the Big East's rugged regular season and whether it helps or punishes its teams. One is that league play better prepares them for the NCAA tournament because players and coaches are exposed to a wide range of schemes, from Syracuse's 2-3 zone defense to Pittsburgh's patient offense. The other wonders if such a schedule can push a team to mental and physical exhaustion just in time for March, when endurance is a crucial asset.
"By the time the NCAA tournament rolls around, you've seen everything, and there is a point of reference and familiarity with all styles of play," said Georgetown Coach John Thompson III, whose 11th-ranked Hoyas visit No. 12 Syracuse on Wednesday night. "But there's no doubt that battling through this 18-game season, against these opponents, can wear on you. Then you go to New York, and there's nothing like the Big East tournament other than the Final Four. But you go through that grueling process, then you totally have to forget about it and refocus and get ready for the NCAA tournament. It depends on the mental and physical makeup of your team as to whether you're beat up by the time it starts."
Need proof of the toll the Big East exacts? Just look at the first round of last year's NCAA tournament, Rothstein said.
"All anyone talked about last year was how good the Big East was," he said. "And then in the first round of the NCAA tournament, Washington beat Marquette and Cal beat Louisville. So it's obvious teams feel fatigued after the Big East tournament and head into the field of 68."
Rothstein didn't even mention Georgetown's season coming to an abrupt end against unheralded Ohio. But it's impossible to ignore that one week before Georgetown's brief foray into the NCAA tournament, the Hoyas played four contests in as many days at the Big East tournament, including games against what were then the nation's third- and seventh-ranked teams (Syracuse and West Virginia, respectively). The Bobcats, meanwhile, played three Mid-American Conference teams with a combined conference record of 21-28.
"I have said this a couple times recently: It's harder to win a Big East regular season title than it is to get to the Final Four," said Fran Fraschilla, the former St. John's coach and current ESPN analyst who will be calling the Georgetown-Syracuse game for the network. "Playing in this league is 'good news, bad news.' "
Another concern is that the Big East's unprecedented parity this season - and the nearly unavoidable losses accrued as a result - could keep a deserving school out of the NCAA tournament altogether. St. John's, for example, figures to be a close call for the selection committee. The Red Storm beat four teams in the top 18 of the Ratings Percentage Index - a mathematical measurement of teams' strength - including a 15-point blowout of No. 5 Duke. But with a record of 13-9 overall, 5-5 in conference and a difficult schedule ahead, the Red Storm could find itself on the outside looking in.
Conference losses can also negatively impacting the seeding of teams that do get in, making the path to the later rounds all the more challenging.
"I trust the committee, but one thing that I do know is that there will 12 or 13 teams in the Big East that are among the top 68 teams in the country - by far," Thompson said.
While it might not be at the forefront for the Hoyas (18-5, 7-4) and Orange (20-4, 7-4) as they step onto the floor for the first of two meetings in one of the game's fiercest rivalries, postseason ramifications will abound. The winner will take another step toward clinching one of the top eight spots in the conference standings. The top four teams in the standings earn a double bye into the quarterfinals in the Big East tournament, and teams 5-8 earn a single bye. Each will have a little less wear and tear when the NCAA tournament begins.
Thompson, however, said talk of March Madness is far from his mind in the second week of February, and with a hated rival on tap.
"This time of year, everyone wants to start talking about tournaments, seeding, rankings and how many teams are in," Thompson said. "Man, we play Syracuse tomorrow. It's Georgetown-Syracuse. We'll worry about that on Selection Sunday. This is not the time to think about that. We still have a month left before any of that matters."