A Premier Matchup: Big Monday and the BIG EAST.

EDITOR'S NOTE - Dan Hoard is the play-by-play announcer for the University of Cincinnati football and basketball and a contributor to BIGEAST.org
By Dan Hoard
ESPN's Big Monday schedule officially begins with a BIG EAST doubleheader on Martin Luther King Jr., Day as #7 Villanova plays at #10 Connecticut at 3:30 p.m., followed by #4 Syracuse at #5 Pittsburgh at 7:30 p.m.
Having four Top 10 teams square off is an appropriate start for the BIG EAST's weekly regular season showcase. Each Monday a premier conference contest is featured.
"The BIG EAST Conference and ESPN have made Big Monday our version of Monday Night Football," said BIG EAST Commissioner John Marinatto. "Having an ESPN platform on a consistent primetime basis each Monday to feature some of our most premier matchups has provided us with unprecedented exposure and has become a staple for college basketball fans across the country."
"The BIG EAST is a TV conference," said Louisville coach Rick Pitino. "Every few years I think we sign the largest TV package and Big Monday is a big part of that." 
"We never recruited outside of the northeast until Big Monday and all of the sudden we had players from Louisiana, Texas, California, and Florida," said Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim. "There's no question that it raised the profile for the league and for us."
"I think Big Monday is special for all of the followers of the BIG EAST even if your team isn't involved in it," ESPN's Bill Raftery said. "You want to see who is on and how good they happen to be. I think it's become a night that the rest of the league watches." 
For the eighth straight year, ESPN's broadcasting crew for BIG EAST games on Big Monday features the knowledegable and fun-loving trio of Raftery, Jay Bilas, and Sean McDonough.
"Big Monday means great exposure for your program and you get to be part of the comedy routine of Bilas, McDonough, and Raf as they beat up on each other," said Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin. "It's one of those nights that if you're not playing, you definitely want to be watching because it's pure entertainment. Those guys are the class of college basketball and they shed a great light on our league."
"Our role is to enhance peoples' enjoyment of the game and not detract from it and I think there's a fine line between the two," McDonough said. "I think if people tune in, they learn things that they didn't know about the players and the league, and they get a chuckle or two along the way. Hopefully, we don't cross the line. We fool around, but we're also very cognizant of the fact that the game is the show."
Dan Steir, ESPN's senior coordinating producer for college basketball, put the trio together in 2003.
"I felt that the three of them would be a good team," Steir said. "They all get along so well, respect each other so well, and frankly, they're able to make fun of each other and themselves. Not only will they cover the game and miss no details and be on top of everything, but they call it as it is, and they are not afraid to point out the good and the bad. They're a terrific listen."
"The first time that we did a game together, it was Notre Dame and Connecticut," Bilas recalled. "It was in South Bend and there was a kid named Danny Miller playing for Notre Dame at the time. Danny Miller makes a great play and Raftery says, `It's Miller Time and you know how I love hearing that.' And without missing a beat, Sean said, `Except on Big Monday brought to you by Bud Light.' I just about fell out of my chair."
All three announcers say the key to their on-air chemistry is their off-air friendship.
"We joke that the game is just a pretense for us to get together afterwards," Bilas said. "We spend so much time together on the road and there aren't two better guys on the planet."
"They are two of my closest friends and I think it comes across on TV the way that it really is," McDonough said. "It's almost like if you were sitting there with two of your closest friends watching the game and jabbing each other while you're doing it. It is sometimes harder in a three man booth to make the point you would like to make or tell a story that you would like to tell so everybody has to sacrifice a little bit, and I think since none of us has an ego about it - except for Jay - it works."
McDonough, a Syracuse University grad, is the play-by-play announcer and traffic cop.  
"I think Sean would rather work alone, but having said that, I think his orchestration of the evening is what makes it work," Raftery said. "We all have different ideas and insight - or lack of insight - but I think we all really enjoy getting together. We appreciate each other a lot."
"Sean is a machine," Bilas said. "He not only has a great work ethic, but he has a magnificent feel for `the moment.' I sat in awe of him during that six overtime game between Connecticut and Syracuse in the Garden. There were so many big moments and he captured every one of them perfectly. He's also about as quick-witted as you can be. We don't get away with anything with Sean."
Bilas was a four-year starter at Duke before serving as an assistant coach under Mike Krzyzewski.
"He has a tremendous appreciation for what the coaches go through and what the players go through," Raftery said. "He works at knowing as much about basketball as he can and he's embraced the sport. I think he loves the game and in the off-season spends a lot of time learning just a little bit more about it."
Raftery was the head coach at Seton Hall when BIG EAST play began in 1979 before trading in his whistle for a microphone.
"Bill Raftery is the best there's ever been in this business," Bilas said. "It comes through the screen - if you've never met him he's your friend anyway. I have pawned off so many of my friends on him saying, `Hey, you have to go out with Bill one night.' By the end of the night, they've exchanged phone numbers with Raftery and they're going to get together. Everybody loves him." 
Bilas, McDonough, and Raftery will be in Storrs, Conn., on Monday for the first game of the Big Monday doubleheader between Villanova and UConn.
"Big Monday is truly a cornerstone of our content," ESPN's Steir said. "It's a signature night during the college basketball season. There are very few games on Monday, so it comes across as the only game in town. And that trio just makes it feel big."
"There are all kinds of games that have similar television platforms, but they don't resonate like the BIG EAST," Bilas said. "Television has provided a window, but what's going on inside when people look through that window is all the BIG EAST. There's no network that can make something bigger than it is - people aren't stupid. They know the real thing when they see it, and the BIG EAST is the real thing."