Bruising Big East
By Jason King
PHILADELPHIA – They’re the top team in college basketball’s toughest conference.
So Saturday – after Pittsburgh defeated Villanova 57-54 – it was only natural to ask the Panthers if they should catapult into the No. 1 spot in the next Associated Press poll. Ohio State will likely surrender the position following its loss to Wisconsin.
“I think we should be mentioned,” forward Nasir Robinson said. “But we want to be the elite team when all is said and done. A Final Four and a national championship … we want to make it that far.”
Six years have passed since a Big East squad advanced to the national title game. In a few more months, that streak will likely extend to seven. Impressive as they may look now, not one of the 10 – or maybe even 11 – conference schools who will receive well-earned NCAA tournament bids will win the title.
That’s not a knock on the Big East.
It’s actually just the opposite.
“We’re beating each other up,” Pittsburgh’s Gilbert Brown said. “There are so many days when you wake up and you’re body is aching. You’ve got to find a way to keep going.”
More than any team, Pittsburgh has found a way to persevere in the nation’s deepest, most competitive conference. The Panthers sit atop the league standings with an 11-1 record, including a 6-0 mark on the road.
The Panthers will no doubt feel an overwhelming sense of satisfaction if they continue this pace and capture conference championship outright. A Big East regular-season trophy may not be as impressive as an NCAA championship.
But it’s close.
Or at least it should be.
“Look at all the teams in our league with rankings next to their names,” Panthers coach Jamie Dixon said. “Here, you’re facing the type of opponents that no one else is going to face any time during the year. Even in the NCAA tournament, you’re not going to face this many ranked teams.
“Our regular season is as tough as there is in America.”
And that’s the problem.
Eventually the mental and physical beatings it suffers each night will catch up with Pittsburgh the same way they have with other elite Big East squads of the past. Some teams wear down at the end of the conference season or in the league tournament at Madison Square Garden.
Other schools hit the wall during March Madness.
In 2009 the Big East was awarded three of the NCAA tournament’s four No. 1 seeds, but only one of them (Connecticut) reached the Final Four. Only two of the eight schools that received bids in 2010 were around for the second weekend.
Connecticut’s NCAA title in 2004 marks the last time a Big East school played in the championship game. Heck, only four schools since that year have even advanced to the Final Four.
Dixon pointed to a number of potential reasons for the league’s postseason struggles.
Because the Big East is so deep, it’s difficult to build a gaudy win-loss record, so teams are often given seeds lower than they deserve. Also, because so many schools receive bids, Dixon said it’s tough for the committee to place them all at opening-round sites that are near their campus, which often puts teams at a disadvantage that other good programs don’t face.
Mostly, though, players feel like they’ve been through a meat grinder by the end of the Big East tournament. Once March Madness begins, there simply isn’t much left in the tank.
“It can happen,” Dixon said. “You want everyone to stay healthy so that everyone has their best team at the end of the year when everyone gets together [for the tournament], but sometimes that occurs.”
The strain of the Big East season is already beginning to catch up with some teams, many of which look great one night before floundering the next.
St. John’s, for instance, pulled off one of the most shocking wins of the season by defeating Duke at Madison Square Garden two weeks ago. But then the Red Storm eked out a two-point win against Rutgers before losing to UCLA.
Syracuse opened the season with 18 straight wins but has now lost six of its last eight. Marquette, a perennial NCAA tournament team, almost fell to South Florida Saturday before holding on for a one-point win.
Once ranked fifth in the country, Connecticut has dropped three of its last four games mainly because national player of the year candidate Kemba Walker – actually, make that former national player of the year candidate Kemba Walker – is mired in a terrible shooting slump. Clearly out of gas, Walker made just four of his 16 field goal attempts in an 89-72 loss to St. John’s on Thursday.
“It’s tough, but you’ve got to be mentally focused,” Robinson said. “You have to come out and execute and play smart each and every game. There are going to be some bumps and bruises and some punches. You just have to get your rest and take care of your body.”
All players have played through pain, and there isn’t a coach in the country that hasn’t spewed the “every conference game is a dogfight” cliche at some point in his career.
But in the Big East it actually holds true.
Unless it involves rebuilding DePaul, every league game is a physical and mental beating that leaves its participants drained. It’s simply not like that in other conferences.
Kansas, for instance, faces Texas once a year. But the Jayhawks also play a pair games against a Colorado squad it has defeated 43 of the last 44 times. Last week Kansas notched its 17th straight win against Nebraska before beating Iowa State for the 19th time in 21 meetings on Saturday.
In the Big East there are no easy games.
Pittsburgh leads the conference with an 11-1 record, but seven of its games have been decided by single digits. Meanwhile, when Big 12 leader Texas defeated Baylor 69-60 on Saturday, it marked the first time all season that the Longhorns failed to defeat a league foe by double figures.
“In the Big East,” Brown said, “a regular-season title has a lot of value.”
Even if the team that wins it comes up short in the postseason.
With strong senior leadership and some of the best depth and athleticism in the country, Pittsburgh hopes it can reverse that trend this spring. The Panthers know winning the NCAA title will be difficult.
But then again, so is winning the Big East.
“It would be a great accomplishment,” Brown said. “To maintain our success and pull out win after win in this league and separate ourselves … it’s something we’d be proud of. Very proud.”