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Big East deserves 11 spots in NCAA Tourney

Call it hype, call it New York-centricity, call it whatever you like. But Madison Square Garden really is the Mecca when it comes to college basketball, and that's especially true when 16 teams converge at Penn Plaza for this week's Big East Conference Tournament.

All due respect to the tournament on Tobacco Road, but no conference tournament in America can hold a candle to the one the Big East will stage, starting Tuesday. At least two teams that have been ranked in the top 25 this season will be forced to play one of the first-round games matching the bottom eight in the league.

Halfway across the country in Kansas City, the NCAA Tournament selection committee will be following the Big East tourney closely as it wrestles with the political football of whether to award one conference a record 11 berths in its 68-team field.

In expanding the field by three teams this year, the idea was to make room for more mid-majors, not the power conference teams.

But the Big East has dominated the national rankings all season. It held eight of the top 19 spots in The Associated Press writers' poll and the ESPN/USA Today coaches' poll last week, and 10 Big East teams have appeared in the top 25 this season. If there's a Big East team on the proverbial bubble, it's Marquette, which dropped to 18-13 with a loss Saturday night at Seton Hall.

The Golden Eagles' first 12 losses were to teams ranked in the top 25 at some point this season, and the only previous double-digit loss was to St. John's. But they also have four wins this season against ranked teams. Stack that resume up against bubble teams from the rest of the country.

With 11 teams assured of finishing with at least a .500 record in the toughest conference in the country and with at least 18 overall wins, how do you not include all 11 in the NCAA field despite the hue and cry that is sure to follow on Selection Sunday?

The only other Big East team whose NCAA status might be in doubt is Villanova, which struggled down the stretch, going 5-9 in its last 14 games, including Saturday's loss at Pitt (No. 4 AP/No. 5 ESPN/USA Today). Seven of those losses were to nationally ranked teams, which is the story of life in the Big East.

West Virginia and Cincinnati, which received AP votes last week but weren't ranked, both reached double-digit victories in conference play. Connecticut is undefeated outside the Big East, including wins over Texas, Kentucky and Michigan State, all of which were ranked. Georgetown has five wins over ranked teams, including non-conference Missouri and Memphis.

And of course, there can be no question about the top five teams in the Big East: Pitt, Notre Dame, Louisville, Syracuse and St. John's. The Red Storm had 10 losses going into its home finale against South Florida Saturday night, but its six wins over ranked teams was tied for best in the country, and it actually has eight wins over teams ranked at some point this season.

With the exception of last-place DePaul, even the bottom-dwelling Big East teams aren't toothless. Seton Hall, Rutgers and Providence totaled five wins over ranked conference opponents, and South Florida went to double overtime before losing to BYU, which was in the running for a No. 1 NCAA regional seed until a loss last week.

Guard play supposedly is the key to NCAA success, and it's off the hook in the Big East with the likes of Pitt combo Ashton Gibbs and Brad Wanamaker, Georgetown's Austin Freeman and Chris Wright, UConn's Kemba Walker, Syracuse's Scoop Jardine, Seton Hall's Jeremy Hazell, Providence swingman Marshon Brooks and St. John's Dwight Hardy, who has been hottest of all down the stretch.

There simply is no greater basketball feast than the Big East.

New York Sports