How many get in? APBig East commissioner Mike Tranghese (center) feels the new 16-team conference will get a fair selection shake.
The 16-team Big East will be judged as a first-year success if the league gets nearly 50 percent of its membership in the 2006 NCAA Tournament.
If not, then the members could ultimately have second thoughts as to the viability of the largest basketball conference in the country.
The Big East once had seven of its nine members make the NCAA Tournament (in 1991) and has gotten six in on five other occasions (three of which were in a nine-team league). It's had two of the last three national champions (Syracuse, 2003 and Connecticut, 2004). Two of its members -- Louisville, then of Conference USA, and West Virginia -- met in an Elite Eight game last March in Albuquerque, N.M.
So, this league is hardly hurting for national recognition and clearly is more ready to handle the stress of a having 16 member teams than the WAC was in the late '90s.
But how many members earn coveted NCAA slots is going to be up to the teams themselves, not the selection committee, according to Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese.
"I'm convinced that if the teams deserve to get in, then they will," said Tranghese, a former chair of the committee. "The committee will take as many teams from our league that they feel have the credentials to get in."
Utah athletic director Chris Hill, a member of the NCAA Tournament selection committee, concurs, saying that the best teams get in "and that's what I love about the committee. If you're doing it right [in selecting the teams], it doesn't matter how many teams come from the Big East."
Revenue sharing isn't the major issue facing this conglomerate. Tranghese said there has been very little disagreement. The football-basketball split (eight play Division I-A football) hasn't been a problem, either. The biggest issue is tournament access.
"That's what we're all concerned about, getting the most teams in the tournament," Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said.
"There's anxiety with everybody about how many teams we can get in, because that's how we'll be judged," said Notre Dame coach Mike Brey, whose Irish have missed the last two NCAA Tournaments. "All of us are looking around saying can we get eight or nine teams in, but no one can say that until it plays out."
"They [the NCAA Tournament selection committee] have to make a concession for how big the conference is," Rutgers coach Gary Waters said. "They have to omit the previous way they select teams and look at ours as a different conference altogether. I think we'll set a precedent."
Tranghese made it very simple when he spoke to the coaches last month at their annual meeting in Florida. Follow his plan and you have a shot to get into the Dance.
"If the upper-tier teams win in our league, then they'll get in," Tranghese said. "What we're concerned about are the bubble teams. There's only three ways the bubble teams will get in: one, have real quality wins within the league; two, have real quality wins outside the league; three, play a great schedule and get the benefit of playing in our league."
Tranghese said he told the coaches a lot of 7-9, 8-8 and 9-7 teams would make the tournament.
Greg Shaheen, the director of the men's basketball championship for the NCAA, also met with the Big East coaches and told them that the committee will dissect their schedules, noting who the wins are against, regardless of conference affiliation.
"You can't say we play in a great league and not play any nonconference games [of note]," Tranghese said. "I don't know the right number, but if you choose to play no one, then you'll pay the price. The only way you'll get in doing it that way is to dominate the conference."
Tranghese said the teams in the middle have to play quality nonconference teams. He understands there are rebuilding seasons, but he's convinced the recipe to get a bid would be to play four home-and-home nonconference series: two at home, two on the road.
But that's not necessarily how coaches who could be in that middle of the league are looking at their nonconference scheduling for next season.
"We're looking at playing no more than one road game in the nonconference [schedule]," Marquette coach Tom Crean said. "We've got two contracted for next season at Wisconsin and at Nebraska, but we've got to be smart about how many high-powered games we play."
Brey said he'll still play a tough schedule, but he doesn't want to go "crazy" with it since he "doesn't know what's coming in the league."
Boeheim said he would get his high-major nonconference games next season in the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic semifinals and finals in New York, assuming he wins two home games against lower-rated teams. The CVC semifinalists could be Wake Forest, Texas Tech and Florida.
"We're going to be one of the teams that plays a Connecticut or Louisville twice so I don't need to add Michigan State on my schedule," Boeheim said. "We're playing good teams with other games like Baylor, TCU and Manhattan."
Tranghese doesn't buy that the 16-team Big East will be any harder than the 12- or 14-team Big Easts were. West Virginia finished tied for seventh last season and finished in the Elite Eight. The Mountaineers are taking advantage of their 2005 run (and are happy to have Kevin Pittsnogle back), playing their toughest nonconference schedule under John Beilein, including games against LSU, N.C. State and UCLA.
Aside for the NCAA bid angst, the coaches also are concerned about the league schedule format and the Big East tournament being limited to 12 of the 16 members.
Big East teams will play a total of 16 conference games, but under the final two years of a television agreement with CBS and ESPN, each team will play 13 teams once and three of those teams again, missing two teams each season. The reason for this is if CBS chooses a matchup, say Louisville-Connecticut, then ESPN has the right to ask for that game, as well.
But the coaches want a schedule where the teams play each other school once and then one team again to get to 16. That could occur once the league has a new television deal.
If the Big East went to 18 games, then the teams could play all 15 conference foes once and three of them again to satisfy the television networks.
"We will never go to 18 games unless the other so-called major players [Big Ten, Big 12, ACC, SEC] go to 18 games [the Pac-10 plays 18]," Tranghese said. "We have to honor the contract and the only way to honor it is with 16. We need to get through the next two years and take a deep breath."
APWith Rick Pitino and Co. in from C-USA, the competition for NCAA bids just got steeper.
Boeheim said going to 18 games would be palatable if the NCAA were to adopt a 30-game (up from 29) schedule, which is one of the proposals hung up in the legislative process.
The Big East tournament format is the most contentious item that doesn't have much chance of changing.
Tranghese said it's the first time he can remember where he's against something the coaches endorsed. Coaches fear that the four coaches who don't make the Big East tournament will be exposed to getting fired. There could also be a quality team that doesn't qualify for the Big East tournament, which could need it for the NIT or even the NCAA Tournament if it had quality nonconference and conference wins but lost a tiebreaker to get in the field.
"I know we can't do anything about it," Waters said.
"It's certainly held against you," South Florida coach Robert McCullum said of a coach not making the conference tournament.
Tranghese said unless the coaches can convince him that 16 teams in New York would help win a national championship for the Big East, then he's not budging on this issue.
He said he's not about to make every team play four games in New York because "that's not going to be good for them and would expose our teams to injuries and fatigue. I want to protect our teams and not make them all play four days in a row. History has shown that teams that do that don't get very far in the [NCAA] Tournament."
The Big East does have schools with varied interests. The football-basketball marriage might not hold beyond five years, but Tranghese disagrees, saying Syracuse's football program isn't adversely affected by Providence's basketball program. The basketball programs in the league, like Georgetown, St. John's, Marquette and DePaul, have rich histories. If the Big East can hit its magic 50 percent number (8) on a consistent basis for the NCAA Tournament, then this league does have a chance for long-term survival.
"There are certainly some teams that aren't going to have that cyclical nature of going down, teams like Syracuse and Connecticut," Beilein said. "But the rest of us will probably trade places and have rebuilding years. Two leagues have merged here. I have a lot of faith that the committee won't put a number on how many bids. If 10 or 12 out of 16 are worthy, then we'll get that."
The selection committee will pass its judgment in March 2006 as to whether the 16-team Big East deserves its fair share.
If the number of NCAA bids will determine the overall success of the new 16-team Big East, year one could be a mixed bag if resident bracketologist Joe Lunardi is correct.
Joe's early (early, early) look at the 2006 bracket sees eight of the league's 16 teams making it into the NCAA Tournament. That would set a record for most bids earned by a conference, but could fall a bid short of what some Big East supporters would like.
Joe sees both Connecticut and Villanova earning No. 1 seeds. The other "protected" seeds are West Virginia (No. 3) and Cincinnati (No. 4).
Rick Pitino served as an assistant coach under Jim Boeheim at Syracuse from 1976-78. Their careers have taken very different directions since then as Pitino accepted his first of many head-coaching jobs at age 25 in 1978.
Pitino's career has landed him with Boston U., Providence, Kentucky, Louisville and the NBA's New York Knicks and Boston Celtics. Boeheim, meanwhile, has been at Syracuse his entire head-coaching career, spanning 29 years.
Pitino's not the only Boeheim assistant that is now a head man in the league. Seton Hall coach Louis Orr was a Syracuse assistant from 1996-2000 and Providence coach Tim Welsh was one from 1988-91.
So, what does all of this mean to Boeheim?
"I guess that means you're really getting old," he said. "I hope they're nice to me."
They haven't always been nice. Pitino bested Boeheim in the 1996 national championship game when he was the head coach at Kentucky.
Pitino's addition to the league gives the Big East a trio of coaches whose resumes match up with anyone's. An argument can be made that the Big East now has more elite coaching at the top end than the ACC (and we're not even including Bob Huggins in the conversation).
* -- Hall of Famer
Given all that success, who would win a game between teams coached by the Big East trio and the ACC trio? We asked coaches in the two leagues:
Jim Boeheim: "I don't know who would win, but I guess that would sell a lot of tickets."
Chris Collins (Duke asst. coach): "I'm partial to the ACC. I had the opportunity to play for Coach K. He's the best. Any staff he's on, I'm going with that group. But you can't go wrong either way."
Rick Pitino: "It will have nothing to do with the sideline and everything to do with the players."
John Thompson III (Georgetown head coach): "What conference are the refs from?"
In Their Own Words
"Eric Devendorf will be the Big East freshman of the year. Mark it down. He will. He's just what we needed. He'll help out Gerry [McNamara] so much."
-- Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim
The last time Boeheim was so bold about a newcomer was in 2002-03, when he had a kid named Carmelo Anthony.
David Sills could be the sleeper newcomer in the league. The South Florida point guard is a well-traveled player who was once a stud in the Rucker League in New York but has traversed JCs in Texas, Idaho and Massachusetts.
Providence lost Ryan Gomes but the Friars are quietly confident that they will be the surprise in the league. Getting Geoff McDermott, a tough inside presence, could help them survive next season.
Cincinnati coach Bob Huggins is recruiting and coaching as if he's going to be with the Bearcats beyond the next two seasons.
Marquette might end up with the most productive newcomer class, led by Wes Matthews, Dominic James and Jerel McNeal.
Louisville's David Padgett will be counted on heavily to deliver scoring facing the basket with Francisco Garcia and Larry O'Bannon gone.
Now that Brandon Bowman is returning, we'll say Georgetown coach John Thompson III gets the Hoyas into the Dance in year two.
Villanova is a shaky pick for a top-five spot as long as Jason Fraser and Curtis Sumpter are injury plagued. Both need to be healthy for this team to have a special year.
West Virginia got Kevin Pittsnogle back but still doesn't have a trusted backup in the post and that could be an issue all year.
Rutgers can't afford to miss out on the Big East tournament this season after finishing 2-14 last season.
Neither can Seton Hall (4-12 Big East).
Same goes for St. John's, which took itself out of the Big East tournament last season because of alleged rules violations by the previous staff. The tournament's in the Garden. The Red Storm must be there.
DePaul coach Jerry Wainwright could be facing a bigger rebuilding project than he did at Richmond.
If Carl Krauser leaves, Pitt's hardest problem will be replacing the toughness on the team with Chevy Troutman also gone.
Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim still is waiting for his rising juniors to perform up to their ability (that's Demetris Nichols, Terrence Roberts and Louie McCroskey).
Someone up front at UConn, possibly Hilton Armstrong, might have to redshirt if Andrew Bynum withdraws from the NBA draft.
Torin Francis and Chris Quinn better bond quickly since the two of them will have to carry Notre Dame back to the postseason.
Expert Take Due to the ACC's expansion, and the Big East's expansion in reaction to it, the Big East might now be the best and most competitive basketball conference in the country.
From top to bottom, the Big East is filled with more quality teams that can beat you than any other league. With so many quality teams, and the growing importance of making the NCAA Tournament field as a benchmark of success, the expanded Big East will test the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee's mantra of selecting the 34 best teams after the automatic qualifiers are in.
How many teams can the Big East realistically hope to get into the NCAA Tournament? I think the league can easily get nine teams, and perhaps even 10 in a given year.
In 2006, UConn, Villanova, Georgetown, West Virginia, Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Notre Dame all have legitimate shots of making the field, and newcomers Cincinnati and Louisville have been annual selections. Given that these teams will spend all winter beating up on each other, it will be incumbent upon these teams to venture outside of the Big East and collect some quality non-conference wins to rely upon. To me, the number of losses will not be the determining factor for a team, it will be the number of quality wins each team can boast.
This upcoming season signals the age of the superconference in basketball, and we had better learn to live with it and to figure out how to deal with it fairly. If the Big East has nine of the 34 best teams in the nation (after a 10th earns the league's automatic bid), all nine should get in. Period. The same goes for the Big 12 and the ACC.
Superconference or not, the same standard should apply -- who did you play and who did you beat?
Lessons from the WAC
The WAC never had a chance at 16, not with a league spread out over five time zones from Hawaii to Tulsa and with differing school missions from SMU to Fresno State.
The first 16-team megaconference lasted from 1996-99 before eight schools broke away to form the Mountain West.
The effects of the breakup still are being felt at the WAC, which has undergone numerous realignments since, including this year's with SMU, Tulsa, Rice and UTEP leaving for C-USA while New Mexico State and Utah State join.
"It was overwhelming to have that many people in a room," said Utah athletic director Chris Hill, one of the few remaining ADs at any of the 16 schools. "The 16-team league took away some traditional rivalries that we never continued to play. [NCAA] Tournament access wasn't as much an issue. We got access, at least here at Utah. It was just too tough a formula, especially for football."
Utah went to the national title game in 1998 as a member of the 16-team WAC, which received a league-high four bids that season. The Mountain West started in 1999 and has had three bids in three of its first five seasons; the reduced-size WAC hasn't managed three in any season.
"Geography was our big issue, something that the Big East doesn't have to deal with as much," said WAC commissioner Karl Benson, who saw the league through its expansion and realignment. "We were forced to go with a rotating pod system [of four teams] and that's what took the WAC down. We couldn't create the scheduling model that was acceptable to everybody."
At the time, the WAC had basketball programs that were thriving or on the cusp of becoming national players. And there were national figures in the sport at Utah (Rick Majerus), UTEP (Don Haskins), TCU (Billy Tubbs), Fresno State (Jerry Tarkanian) and regional power players at Hawaii (Riley Wallace), Tulsa (Bill Self) and Colorado State (Stew Morrill).
In reality, football is the biggest difference between the 16-team WAC and Big East. Hill said the Big East football model is fine and makes sense with eight members. That means seven league games. In the 16-team football WAC, the league couldn't consistently keep rivalries going and too many teams never knew the others existed in the league.
Benson said he believes the Big East can work, but throws out a cautionary word.
"They have the geography working for them," Benson said. "They have football versus non-football and private versus public [school] issues that we had, but the question will always be how willing will 16 schools be willing to cooperate? There are a lot of conference politics and you need to compromise."
* -- NCAA Tournament
# -- NIT participant
* -- Assuming Pittsburgh's Carl Krauser (16.0 ppg) stays in the NBA draft, Villanova not only could be a top-five preseason team, but also could return three of the Big East's top five scorers.
What's more? Much like the 2004-05 Illinois team, Villanova will be returning its top 10 scorers from last season. As you can see, the Wildcats had no need to reload.
Still, Villanova head coach Jay Wright knows the new Big East will put his team to the test.
"I think our team is capable of winning a national championship and I think, with our league, we are capable of not making the Tournament," he said. "We have to prove ourselves all over again. We know the ability is there, but we have to prove it."
Andy Glockner/Peter Newmann
You often see their members dotting your Big East team's early nonconference schedule, but how much do you really know about the America East and Northeast conferences? Click below to find out:
Next Friday's sessions: Pac-10, West Coast and Big Sky conferences