Elise Amendola/AP
Villanova's Dwayne Anderson (22)
and Dante Cunningham (33).

Big East Dominance in NCAA Tournament Recalls 1985 Glory

March 27, 2009 04:59 PM
by Denis Cummings
With five teams still alive in the NCAA tournament, the Big East has a chance to match or surpass its historic 1985 season, when it had three teams in the Final Four.

Big East Dominating NCAA Tournament

The Big East has had unprecedented success in this year’s NCAA basketball tournament, becoming the first conference ever to have three No. 1 seeds, and the first to have five teams reach the Sweet 16. Following wins by Connecticut, Pittsburgh and Villanova Thursday night, it has already matched the record for most teams in the Elite Eight, with Louisville and Syracuse yet to play their regional semifinal game.

The Big East’s domination of this year’s tournament reminds many of its performance in 1985, when Villanova, Georgetown and St. John’s reached the Final Four. It remains the only time a conference has had three teams in the Final Four, but the mark could fall this year.

“The standard for the tournament right now is what we did in 1985 and until someone surpasses that, I would have to say that ’85 is the best that we’ve ever been,” said the Big East’s outgoing commissioner Mike Tranghese.
Players and coaches have credited their success in the tournament to the rigorous 18-game schedule in the 16-team mega-conference, the largest in the country. “Going in every night, knowing that if you don’t come out ready to play you could go on a big-time losing streak, it gives you that elimination mentality,” said Villanova guard Scottie Reynolds.

The Big East’s dominance is due in large part to its dedication to basketball, as schools and conferences have increasingly emphasized football over the last decade. As commissioner, Tranghese has remained committed to maintaining the conference’s basketball roots, even as some football schools have protested.

In 2003, after three football schools left for the Atlantic Coast Conference, Tranghese brought in five schools, four of which had a rich basketball tradition, to replace them. One of those schools, Louisville, won the league this year and was awarded the top overall seed in the NCAA tournament.

It is not known how long the Big East will continue to exist in its current form. There has been near constant change over its 30-year history, and there has been debate over further expansion or a split between football and non-football schools. For the time being however, the Big East will remain the undisputed top conference in college basketball.

Historical Context: The Big East in 1985

The Big East has been one of the country’s premier basketball conferences since its formation in 1979, but the league reached its apex in 1985 when three member teams reached the Final Four.

Defending NCAA champion Georgetown and St. John’s dominated the league during the regular season and reached the Final Four as No. 1 seeds. They were joined by Villanova, a No. 8 seed, who beat top-seeded Michigan and second-seeded North Carolina to win their region.

“We knew for a long time our league was this good,” St. John’s coach Lou Carnesecca said. “But this year has been the most competitive ever. Bloodbats every night. Real bloodbats.”

Villanova beat Memphis St. to reach the final, while, in a rematch of the Big East Tournament final, Georgetown beat St. John’s. In the final, Villanova—just the fourth-best team in the Big East that year—played the “perfect” game to upset Georgetown, 66-64.

Background: History of the Big East

The Big East was founded in 1979 by seven colleges in large East Coast markets: St. John’s, Georgetown, Providence, Syracuse, Boston College, Connecticut and Seton Hall. Villanova was added a year later, and Pittsburgh—after Penn State was rejected—was admitted in 1982.

The Big East established itself as a basketball power in the 1980s, but football drove expansion and complicated matters for the league. In 1991, the three 1-A football schools—Syracuse, BC and Pitt—joined Miami, West Virginia, Rutgers, Virginia Tech and Temple in forming the Big East football conference. As a result, the Big East had three classes of schools: those that competed in all sports, those that competed in all sports but football, and those that competed in football only.

These three classes, which became even more complicated as football schools were admitted into other sports and 1-A football school Notre Dame was admitted in all sports but football, had different views on how the league should be run, creating disagreements.

Some football schools called for the conference to be split into football and non-football conferences; after the Big East leadership showed little desire to do so, Miami, Boston College and Virginia Tech—which took a spot originally designated for Syracuse—announced in 2003 that they were joining the ACC.

The Big East responded by replacing the three football schools, but also improving its basketball conference. It added non-football schools Marquette and DePaul, along with football schools South Florida, Louisville and Cincinnati, the latter two known more for their basketball success.

The new structure has caused some problems for football, most notably an unbalanced, seven-game schedule, leading to continued debate over a split. However, incoming commissioner John Marinatto has, like Tranghese, said that he remains committed to keeping the league together.

“Having bonded through the process of rebuilding the conference over the course of the past five years, we’ve actually come together in a stronger way than we’ve ever been,” he said.

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