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NCAA expansion to 96: What would it mean to Big East Tournament?

Georgetown's Jason Clark and Hollis Thompson celebrate after

Georgetown's Jason Clark and Hollis Thompson celebrate after a play late in their game against Syracuse during a Big East quarterfinal at Madison Square Garden. (Mar. 11, 2010) Photo Credit: Getty Images

If some influential basketball people get their way and The Big Dance does become much bigger, there could be huge drama at the Big East Tournament next year - to see who can come in 12th or 13th.

It stands to reason that if the NCAA Tournament expands from 65 to 96 teams, as many coaches are suggesting, the Big East could receive a dozen or more bids. That would be great news for all those teams, but it is anyone's guess what it might mean for conference tournaments, which have thrived on the tension about who is on the bubble and who isn't.

With a 96-team field, there might not be much of a bubble. So what would it do to the buzz, the tradition and the aura for the first week of March at the Garden?

"That's a very good question," said Dan Gavitt, the Big East's associate commissioner in charge of men's basketball. "Clearly our coaches are in favor of expansion of the NCAA Tournament. We haven't developed a conference-wide position yet among the athletic directors and presidents.

"Certainly, if it were to happen, we would have to seriously discuss the format of our conference championship, as well as the end of our regular season, because we have always been concerned about having a format that sets up our teams for success in the NCAA Tournament."

But Gavitt and others who have been at the Garden this week are convinced that the Big East Tournament has developed such an electric life of its own that it probably wouldn't be affected at all.

Here is how Villanova coach Jay Wright put it after his team was upset by Marquette on Thursday: "I'll probably get in trouble for saying this, but I like the Big East Tournament more than the NCAA Tournament.

"We're all here, all our alums are here. Everybody lives for this in New York. We love playing in New York. Sometimes [in the NCAAs], you can get shipped to Utah, which is fine, but nobody knows you out there. This is what you live for. You've got all Northeast guys on your team. We love this."

West Virginia, which faced Georgetown in the final last night, had an NCAA berth wrapped up long ago and a pretty good seed in its pocket as well. Still, the Mountaineers referred to the Big East title as a massive prize. "It would mean the world to me," Da'Sean Butler, a senior forward from Newark, said after the semifinal win over Notre Dame. "It would be our first one and that I was part of something special."

A tournament brings in revenue and reinforces a conference's brand. And at least so far, there has been a level of intangibles that draws people in. "I think it comes from our coaches and our kids," Gavitt said. "They want to win this thing."

Gavitt found it telling last May, during discussion of a proposed new Big East Tournament format, that two of the most outspoken supporters were Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun and Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim. They didn't want to make it easier to get ready for the NCAAs. They wanted a better shot at winning the Big East.

"You would think, with guys who have won national championships and are Hall of Famers, that they might not value the conference tournament as much as clearly those two guys do," Gavitt said. "Win this thing and it's a lifetime memory."

The future will tell if there's a lasting memory for finishing 12th, too.

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