March 19, 2014

Big East Needs Big Showing In NCAA's

It's that time of year. Conference tournament week is over, selection Sunday has passed, and we are 24 hours away from kicking off the best four day run in sports: the opening weekend of the NCAA Tournament. No-names become household names (Florida Gulf Coast), top seeds will undoubtedly fall (Georgetown), and odds are no one will win Warren Buffett's Billion Dollar Bracket Challenge. The Big 12 led all conferences with seven teams making the Big Dance. Meantime, the Big East had four teams punch tickets, less than the Big 12, A-10, ACC, Pac 12, and Big Ten. With this being the first NCAA Tournament since major conference realignment, the Big East would be well served to make their mark on March Madness.

I had the opportunity to go to the Big East semifinals last Friday night. I was expecting, and hoping to see Villanova, my alma mater, face St. John's. Instead, we got Seton Hall versus Providence.

As I got to my seat on press row, I looked up and was disappointed to see the Garden was, at best, half full just ten minutes before tipoff. It seemed surreal. The Big East semifinals on a Friday night at the Garden used to be the hottest ticket in town. But, when the four teams involved are Seton Hall, Providence, Creighton and Xavier, I should have expected this.

Thankfully, the arena quickly filled up, about 70 percent full, and was close to capacity for the second semifinal featuring Creighton against Xavier. Also, credit the Creighton fans for a fantastic showing. They had a massive fan base that made the 1,200 mile trek east to support their Blue Jays.

The Big East Tournament final between Providence and Creighton was a tight game, won by the Friars, and it helped save what was otherwise a lackluster week of basketball at the Garden.

Big East teams in the NCAA Tournament include Villanova, Creighton, Providence and Xavier. The Conference would be well served getting two, if not three teams, to the Sweet 16. As is deserved, the Big East has clearly lost some credibility on a national level after losing the likes of Syracuse, UConn, Louisville and Pittsburgh. But, if the Big East is going to rebrand itself as the best "basketball centric" conference, they need to at least do just as well, if not better than the A-10, who got six teams in the Big Dance.

Locally, St. John's could help the Big East regain national prominence by taking the next step in the program's ascendance. Steve Lavin has dug the team out from the Norm Roberts days, but his resume doesn't lie, they've still only been to one NCAA Tournament on his watch (ironically with Norm Roberts' players in Lavin's first season 2010-11).

Also, the Conference will be in serious trouble if Georgetown doesn't quickly return to being a national power. The Hoyas have, arguably, the most prominent history in the Big East, and the biggest national brand. They were counted on to help carry the "new" Big East.

As for the upcoming Big Dance, Xavier was in a play-in game, Providence drew North Carolina in the first round, with a win Creighton may need to face Baylor this weekend, and Villanova will face a rival in the round of 32 (UConn/St. Joe's). There is a worst case scenario for the Big East this weekend: nobody makes it to the Sweet 16. That would be a massive blow to the Conference's legitimacy going forward.

Here's to hoping us Big East fans can avoid such embarrassment.

Pete is a lifelong Montauk resident and former sports talk host at 88.7FM WEER. He's currently a Sports Anchor at WCBS 880 and WFAN radio in NYC. He can be reached via email at peterfmundo@gmail.com.

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