As you may have heard by now, the Big East has 11 teams in the NCAA Tournament, while the previous record for entrants from a single conference stood at just eight. A less-discussed aspect of this feat is that none of the Big East entrants qualified as "last four in", meaning that even without an expansion of the field to 68 this tear, the Big East still would have 11 representatives. Pretty impressive stuff.
But as anyone who has followed the tournament will tell you, all it will take is one bad weekend for the conference, and all the stories will be about the "overrated Big East" come next Monday. So is that in the cards? Let's break down how far each of the 11 teams can be expected to go, and what might stand in each team's way.
Pittsburgh, No. 1 seed, Southeast: The Panthers, the best team in the best conference, earned a number one seed, and rightfully so. Their side of the bracket includes a limited Wisconsin team at the four seed, and a Kansas State team, seeded fifth, that has been inconsistent this season. Pitt's biggest test is likely to be the nine seed, Old Dominion, in the second round. ODU can rebound and defend with Pitt. Still, if they get past ODU, Pitt is as good a bet as anyone to get to the Final Four.
Notre Dame, No. 2 seed, Southwest: The Fightin' Irish have overachieved all year, and that has earned them justifiable respect. Unlike your slightly older brother's Notre Dame, this outfit plays excellent defense to go along with strong perimeter shooting. But the bracket hasn't been overly kind to Notre Dame, with a strong three seed, Purdue, waiting in the Sweet 16. Also, if Chris Wright really is as healthy as Georgetown says, a team that would have challenged for a two seed itself could be waiting for the Irish in their Sweet 16 game. And the upper half of the bracket includes a one seed, Kansas, as talented as anyone in the country, along with Louisville, the team who knocked Notre Dame out of the Big East tournament. In other words, don't figure on an extended run, though the Sweet 16 looks like a safe bet.
Syracuse, No. 3 seed, East: The Orange look stronger than ever, thanks to the emergence of Fab Melo as a reasonable inside complement to Rick Jackson. The second round offers a pair of potential challenges in six seed Xavier and 11 seed Marquette, a team that actually beat Syracuse earlier this year. The most difficult challenges are likely to come in the Sweet 16 (second seed North Carolina) and the Elite Eight (top overall seed Ohio State and four seed Kentucky), but Syracuse might just topple them all en route to the Final Four.
Connecticut, No. 3 seed, West: The Huskies managed to conquer four ranked teams in four days (and DePaul) en route to a Big East title. Now the question is, do they continue forward, or fall flat like Gerry McNamara's Syracuse team that ran through the Big East tournament few years back? With apologies to McNamara, Kemba Walker is a much better player, and the UConn success has a lot to do with the development of Jeremy Lamb and Shabazz Napier as well. With a second round matchup against Cincinnati, who Connecticut beat, or Missouri, a team that should struggle to contain Walker, followed by a winnable game in the Sweet 16 against over-seeded San Diego State, Connecticut should be clear into the Elite Eight. I have the Huskies meeting their demise there to Arizona.
Louisville, No. 4 seed, Southwest: The Cardinals defended their way into the Big East title game, and Louisville does several things well that bode well in March- along with stellar defense, Louisville rebounds well and shares the ball extremely well. Despite an average shooting team, that means the Cardinals waste few offensive possessions. Vanderbilt could give them trouble in the second round, particularly if the Commodores shoot the three well. Otherwise, expect Louisville to advance and give Kansas all it can handle-quite possibly more than. My bracket has Louisville in the Final Four.
West Virginia, No. 5 seed, East: Bob Huggins has his Mountaineers well-rested after an early-round loss to Marquette in New York last week. But while WVU figures to survive the winner of UAB/Clemson, Kentucky looms in the second round, and the Wildcats appear to be carrying a sickle.
Georgetown, No. 6 seed, Southwest: Which Georgetown team will this be? With Chris Wright, a potent offense and improving defense would make Georgetown a solid sleeper to head to the Final Four. If Wright isn't 100 percent? This has been a borderline NIT team without him.
Cincinnati, No. 6 seed, West: The Bearcats play solid defense, but with limited rebounding and below-average offense, they rely on teams to become scattered from their pressure defense to win. Missouri, a team that both employs it and therefore practices against it all year, should upset Cincinnati in round one.
St. John's, No. 6 seed, Southeast: The biggest challenge could be No. 11 seed Gonzaga, a team with a pair of seven-footers the Red Storm will have trouble defending. After that, a second round challenge from third-seeded BYU plays much more to St. John's strengths. In the Sweet 16, two seed Florida just fell to a similar pressure defense in Kentucky. Beware, though- if Florida is upset by seven seed UCLA, St. John's will face a team that beat the Red Storm earlier this year. Smart money has St. John's through to an Elite Eight game against Pitt.
Villanova, No. 9 seed, East: You're killing me, Villanova! So talented, and Jay Wright is one of the best coaches in the Big East. What happened here? I figured you'd turn it around in the Big East Tournament, and you dominated South Florida- for a half. Then you blew the game. To South Florida. So I have you losing to George Mason in your first game. Prove me wrong, please. You are making the fall of the original Two Coreys (Feldman and Haim) seem fun by comparison.
Marquette, No. 11 seed, East: I like Marquette to knock off Xavier, as the Golden Eagles have to be the best eleventh-rated conference team by such a wide margin, even a selection committee that included UAB and excluded Harvard would know it. But while Marquette beat Syracuse earlier this year, it isn't the same Orange. The Marquette ride ends in Round Two.