AP Story - Big East Burnishes Its Strong Résumé

By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

PHILADELPHIA (AP) -- The Big East Conference may just be getting started bullying its competition.

From the beaches of Hawaii to chilly Midwest road games, the conference is putting teams on early notice that it is better than advertised.

Take a look at the Associated Press men's poll: No. 3 Pittsburgh leads six conference teams in the top 25.

Take a look at November tournaments: led by Connecticut, which stormed through the Maui Invitational, six league teams won tournaments and two more were runners-up.

Take a look at the records: seven teams were undefeated entering Friday night's games.

Throw in UConn guard Kemba Walker's scoring average of 30 points a game, first in the nation, and Georgetown's overtime win over No. 9 Missouri in Kansas City, Mo., in front of a pro-Tigers crowd, and it augurs another sensational season for the deep 16-team basketball conference.

"We know we've got the toughest league in the country, the best league in the country," Syracuse guard Scoop Jardine said.

But the only tournament that really counts, the N.C.A.A., starts in March. And no Big East team has won it all since UConn in 2004. Since then, the conference has placed only four teams in the Final Four, and two entries came in the same year, 2009.

The simple explanation for the Big East championship drought is that it is grueling to win a national title.

UConn Coach Jim Calhoun lamented recently that his 2006 team was good enough to cut down the nets had it only managed to beat George Mason in the regional final. The Huskies lost, and Florida went on to win the first of consecutive championships.

Perhaps it is no coincidence that a Big East team has not won a national championship since expansion in 2005-6 added Louisville, Cincinnati, South Florida, DePaul and Marquette to the conference. The demanding schedule against a top-heavy roster of likely tournament teams leaves contenders worn out by the time March brackets are announced. Some coaches say the schedule toughens teams and makes them tournament-ready, but the Big East tournament is a grueling marathon that can take its toll on any team.

The days of loading November and December with softies on the schedule are mostly vanished. Pittsburgh and UConn have already played games more suitable for the later rounds of the N.C.A.A. tournament.

"It's difficult right now, and that's what's fun to see," Louisville Coach Rick Pitino said. "Once we get into league play, and I know the Big Ten is strong this year, but I'm still not sure that we're not the strongest conference in basketball."

The Big East had four teams in the A.P. preseason top 25 and now has six. UConn went from unranked to seventh, and undefeated Notre Dame cracked the poll. The Big 12 has four teams in the first 11; the Big Ten has five total in the poll.

Connecticut beat Michigan State, which was No. 2, and Kentucky, which was No. 8, on the way to winning at Maui. Since the poll expanded to 25 teams in 1989, the only more impressive entrance was Kansas' jump to No. 4 after winning the 1989 Preseason N.I.T.

"UConn was the surprise," Villanova Coach Jay Wright said. "I thought it would take them some time with some younger players to get that good."

Maybe even some of the teams usually dumped in the second tier of the conference will find their fast starts can roll over into January and beyond -- all the way into postseason play. The new coach Steve Lavin has St. John's off to a 6-1 start with a Great Alaska Shootout championship. Entering Saturday's games, Providence was 7-1 and Pitino's Cardinals, picked eighth in the Big East's preseason poll, were 5-0.

"I think the Big East is a lot better than people thought, including myself," Pitino said.

Joining UConn and St. John's as tournament champions were Pittsburgh (2K Sports Classic), Notre Dame (Old Spice Classic), Syracuse (Legends Classic) and Georgetown (Charleston Classic).

Nice achievements, but not worth more than a quick photograph with the trophy before moving on to the next game.

When a Big East team cuts down the nets that first Monday in April, then the conference can really celebrate.

"Winning these tournaments, it's nice," Wright said. "But it doesn't really mean anything."