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Irish Big East victory not just a trophy

Pat Leonard | Monday, November 17, 2003

Winning the conference means nothing.Hang around college sports and you will hear such criticism more often than you should. And it is a fact that a conference championship between two highly ranked teams often has little to no significance in the grand scheme of things – just another piece of information for next season’s stat book.That was not the case, however, in the Big East championship game between Notre Dame and St. John’s Sunday.In fact, the belief that a conference championship means nothing only spawns from March Madness fans and analysts who want to see the Cinderella story, the below .500 seven-seed defeating the one-seed in the final game to collect an automatic NCAA tournament bid.Notre Dame and St. John’s had already clinched a berth to the NCAA’s before Friday, so why did it matter who won the conference?Well, following a 1-0 victory over Providence Friday night, Irish captain Greg Martin was asked who he would rather play in the final, Rutgers or St. John’s – both teams beat Notre Dame by three goals in their matches this season.”Either one would be great, because they both got us earlier, but I think we’d like to play Saint John’s,” senior captain Greg Martin said. “They’ve got the four-seed national ranking and we’ve got the five. It’d be nice to be No. 1 [in the Big East], and we really want to take home the hardware this weekend, but it’d be nice to have a shot at St. John’s and prove who the real number four seed is.”And there it was. By winning Sunday, Notre Dame would put themselves closer to achieving that fourth-seed national ranking, which would in turn give the Irish a bye in the first round of the NCAA’s and home field advantage until the Final Four.Kevin Richards helped Notre Dame’s cause with his first goal since Oct. 8, 2000.Does Notre Dame absolutely need to play on the friendly confines of Alumni Field to advance in the NCAA tournament? Not the way the team is playing right now, giving up no goals in the entire Big East tournament. But the Big East championship means even more this year because of the strength of the conference.The Big East is one of the best all-around conferences in the nation. Big East teams are a commanding 53-31-12 versus other conferences, a record that shows the depth of the conference and not just the quality of its top teams.Seven Big East teams are in the top eight of their respective regions. Notre Dame holds first in the Great Lakes region, and St. John’s is number one in New York. Connecticut sits at third in all of New England. Rutgers (3), Seton Hall (5) and Villanova (8) are scattered among the top teams in the Middle-Atlantic region, and Virginia Tech – a cellar-dweller for many years – is now fifth in the South Atlantic.Though Notre Dame and St. John’s were the only two teams in the top 25 as of Nov. 10, Virginia Tech, Rutgers and Connecticut all received votes.”The great thing about our league is the Big East is a tremendous conference, top to bottom,” coach Bobby Clark said. “Some of the teams that used to be weaker have improved. The classic is Virginia Tech, who has come up from being a cellar team to being one of the top teams. Providence has done well, and Villanova is another team that has had a tremendous season. In the Big East you cannot take any team for granted.”Strength of schedule and a huge effort in Connecticut this weekend have the men excited about their achievements and prepared, especially if they do get the No. 4 seed, to make a serious run at the national championship.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer. Contact Pat Leonard at pleonard@nd.edu.