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Big East becomes Big Beast

Four years ago, Jim Boeheim got a phone call from a member of the committee searching for a new basketball coach at West Virginia. The man wanted to know what Boeheim thought of John Beilein -- "the guy at Richmond."

"I think it was my best call of all time," Boeheim said Tuesday from Syracuse. "I said, 'Listen, do yourself a favor. Hang up the phone right now and go wherever you need to go to sign him as your coach.' He's never stopped thanking me."

Beilein has more than lived up to Boeheim's recommendation. But the veteran SU coach might think twice the next time another Big East school calls looking for advice. The competition is murderous enough in the league right now. What coach in his right mind would want to help one of his rivals get better?

The Big East has been an elite conference for a quarter-century. But this season, with its membership swelled to 16 teams, it's a monster. The league has three teams (Villanova, Connecticut and Pittsburgh) ranked in the top 10 of the AP poll. Three others (West Virginia, Georgetown and Marquette) are in the top 30.

One week ago, West Virginia was ranked ninth in the country. But after dropping three straight league games, the Mountaineers are only eighth among Big East teams in the latest national power rankings (RPI).

"I think the league is so deep, it makes everybody better," said Boeheim.

The question is, how many teams will the Big East get into the NCAA Tournament? No conference has ever put more than seven teams in the Big Dance. Then again, no league has ever been so deep and strong as the expanded Big East.

Boeheim sees no reason the Big East couldn't get nine or even 10 teams in the Dance. Last year, the Big East had six NCAA teams and Conference USA had four. The Big East absorbed five Conference USA teams in the expansion. Its existing teams got better. So why wouldn't the league get more more bids?

"In the old days, when the Big East and ACC had nine teams, we'd get six in," Boeheim said. "That's 66 percent. I'm not good at math, but nine out of 16 is less than 66 percent."

The Big East is so tough that Louisville, which made the Final Four a year ago, is 4-8 in the league and in danger of missing the NCAA. Notre Dame, which has lost seven conference games by one or two points or in overtime, is 14th in the league.

This year, only 12 of 16 teams will qualify for the Big East Tournament, one of the great college hoop traditions. As of Wednesday, Louisville and Notre Dame were out. St. John's was on the bubble. Imagine, a Big East tourney at Madison Square Garden without the Johnnies.

"I just don't think you can have four teams not go to your tournament," Boeheim said. "It's not healthy. I tried to convince the people in the league and our coaches. We had a halfhearted fight about it. This year, it'll be an all-out fight."

Boeheim said league coaches worry about playing four games in a 16-team conference tourney, which will weaken them for the NCAAs. But at the most, two teams would have to play four games. That didn't seem to hurt West Virginia last year. It nearly rode the momentum of its Big East run to a Final Four.

At any rate, Boeheim figures it could be a big year for the Big East, which could send more than one team to the Final Four for the first time since 1987.

"We've got some really good teams," said Boeheim. "It's going to take a major upset for somebody to beat Connecticut. And three or four of our other teams are good enough to make a Final Four, maybe five."

Boeheim said the league could even repeat its magical run of 1985, when the Big East put three teams into the Final Four.

"It's possible," he said, "because the rest of the country isn't that strong. Anybody could get on a roll and make the Final Four. That's college basketball today."


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