Big East: Bigger, badder in '05-'06

If you think the Big East is a merciless basketball meat grinder right now, wait until next year.

It's already the kind of place that can turn a pretty talented Providence team into a 13-16 disappointment, or an improving St. John's program into a 9-17 wreck. It's already a league powerful enough to still have eight teams in the NCAA Tournament discussion here in early March. It's already a league that should feature the finest quarterfinal games of any conference tournament next week in Madison Square Garden.

Then you add Louisville, Cincinnati, DePaul, Marquette and (yes, you can come along, too) South Florida. Then you have Godzilla.

The Conference USA refugees bring five national titles and 17 Final Four appearances with them into an already-stacked league. More pertinently, at least three of them -- the Cardinals, Bearcats and Blue Demons -- figure to be coming off NCAA Tournament appearances this season.

Bottom line: some big-name schools (and their big-name coaches) are probably going to be dealing with worse records than they're accustomed to. They'll simply have to hope that the 2006 NCAA Tournament selection committee keeps that in mind, and is prepared to offer an unprecedented number of bids to what could be a league of unprecedented power.

"I think nine teams definitely would be a possibility," said Louisville coach Rick Pitino. "It changes from year to year, but Connecticut is still going to be great next year, Cincinnati will be very good, Syracuse, Pittsburgh, Villanova -- you can keep going down the list."

The list is long enough that you can forgive the current Big East coaches for not wanting to even go there right now.

"Everyone keeps talking about the Big East next year," said Pittsburgh's Jamie Dixon. "The names are great, but I don't know how it's going to be better than this year. We don't have any easy games."

There will be even fewer next season. Which is why all 16 coaches are curious about how the league schedule will unfold.

The plan calls for each team to have three home-and-home opponents -- one likely a long-standing or geographic rival. Television will play a big part in selecting the other two.

Pitino, for instance, feels sure that his Louisville team will play fellow league newbie Cincinnati twice as its rival. He's sweating out the possibility of made-for-TV home-and-home matchups with heavyweights Connecticut and Syracuse.

"I'm hoping it's one or the other, but not both," Pitino said with a laugh. "We'll be rebuilding, so they shouldn't even consider us for some of these matchups."

In addition to those six home-and-home games, teams will then play 10 league opponents once, and will not play two teams at all each year.

It's far from an ideal setup, but no scheduling is going to be ideal in a 16-team conference. Associate commissioner John Paquette said the Big East is committed to that scheduling format for two more years, until the league's television contracts with ESPN and CBS are up.

"No question, how the schedule is set up will determine how the league unfolds," Dixon said.

Coaches and athletic directors hoping for a break can send cases of fine wine and offers of free rounds of golf to commissioner Mike Tranghese, care of the Big East office in Providence. Let the lobbying commence.

"It's going to be so competitive and so difficult to make the NCAA Tournament with a league that size that [scheduling] fairness has to come into play," Pitino said. "Fortunately, we have a strong commissioner."

In the meantime, for coaches hoping to find out their scheduling fate by mid-summer, Paquette has this programming update: "I'd say that's overly optimistic."

Of course, both the current Big East membership and the incoming crew from C-USA are already accustomed to playing uneven schedules.

While Memphis recently has been proclaiming itself the winningest C-USA school in league games over the last four-plus seasons, it doesn't mention that Louisville, Marquette, Cincinnati, DePaul and Charlotte spent several years beating each other up twice within the same division. Memphis was on the other side, with most of the league's weak sisters.

And in the Big East, uneven scheduling played out very favorably this year for Boston College. The Eagles have benefited from playing Syracuse, UConn and Pitt just once apiece. Meanwhile, Pittsburgh has endured home-and-home matchups with both the Orange and the Huskies, and nine of Pitt's last 11 games have been against probable or possible NCAA Tourney teams.

Whether that played a factor or not, the Panthers certainly looked more like a team toughened by their schedule than the Eagles did Monday night. Pitt pounded BC by 22 points in Conte Forum on the Eagles' senior night.

"There is no perfect system," Dixon said. "There is no balanced way to do it. There are going to be a lot of people who don't agree with it, but you have to look at the positives as well. Our schedule this year got us a lot more national exposure. We've been on TV a lot."

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.