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Big East now nation’s premier basketball conference, say coaches

Andrew Soukup | Monday, July 19, 2004

Mike Brey always thought the Big East men’s basketball conference was among the best in the country.

But the addition of Louisville, Marquette, Cincinnati, DePaul and South Florida to a league that sent four teams to the NCAA Tournament last year just made the league a whole lot tougher.

“Now that it’s official, it’s the best basketball league in the country,” the Irish men’s basketball coach said. “The first part of me says it’s exciting. Then I say, ‘I hope we get nine bids [to the NCAA Tournament].'”

Just what is the Big East getting? Louisville and Cincinnati are coached by Rick Pitino and Bob Huggins, respectively – two of the most highly regarded head coaches in college basketball. Marquette made it to the Final Four in April. DePaul is a traditional rival of Notre Dame.

And that’s just the new teams.

Syracuse won the national title last year, and Connecticut is ranked No. 1 this preseason. Notre Dame and Pittsburgh are both preseason top-25 teams. Oh, and all four teams made the Sweet Sixteen last March.

“I’ll tell you what, we’ll ratchet down our non-league schedule when the re-alignment takes effect in two years,” Brey said. “We’re covering non-league and league toughness all at once.”

Muffet McGraw’s attitude is similar. While a loaded 14-team conference got even better, especially with the addition of DePaul, the women’s basketball team coach doesn’t significantly plan to adjust her scheduling.

“Our approach has always been to play a tough schedule to prepare us for the NCAA Tournament,” she said.

The nuts and bolts of the league’s re-alignment are still getting worked out, and Brey and McGraw both have very strong opinions on what they want the future Big East to look like.

On the men’s side, Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese said the league would be split into two eight-team divisions, but the Big East Tournament would still remain at 12 teams. Tranghese favored a conference schedule that was either 16 or 18 games, and the exact number would depend on what worked best for the league’s television contract negotiation.

But Brey said he would prefer a 16-game slate because it would give teams more flexibility. He envisions a scenario similar to how the league scheduled teams this year – one where each team would play every team in the conference at least once, and then play other teams twice to set up glamorous television matchups. Brey said he also hopes the league’s divisions aren’t split into Midwest and East Coast leagues.

“I don’t think anything is etched in stone right now,” he added.

McGraw, on the other hand, favors a conference schedule where all teams are in one massive league and play each other once – thus turning what is now a 16-game schedule into a 15-game one. She expects the conference tournament to stay the same.

But both coaches are excited by the addition of Midwest schools, which they say will make travel and recruiting easier.

“It’s great for us to get fans to travel,” she said.

Tranghese said the five teams wouldn’t join the conference until 2005-06, at the latest. Only current freshmen and sophomores will play in the realigned Big East. But Chicago native Colin Falls is looking forward to playing regional powers Marquette and DePaul.

“It’s nice to have a local team where I live in the conference,” he said. “It’ll be a rivalry game.”

The departure of Miami and Virginia Tech to the ACC will only strengthen the Big East men’s basketball division. While Boston College – which is also joining the ACC – was among the Big East’s top teams, Miami and Virginia Tech were perennial cellar-dwellers. Their absence will turn the Big East back into the basketball powerhouse that originally drove its creation.

“They kind of played around with that football stuff,” Brey said. “Now we’re back to where we belong and back to our identity.”