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Big Dance: Record Showing Expected By Big East

ARI SHAPIRO, Host:

The Big East conference will be well represented at this year's NCAA men's basketball tournament. The Big East could send a record 11 teams to March Madness. NPR's Mike Pesca tells us what makes this conference so good.

MIKE PESCA: Every league except the Ivy plays a conference tournament and every conference except the Great West automatically earns its winner an invitation to the big dance. This means that 37 teams must appeal to the good will of committee members to qualify for an at-large bid. They may qualify by dint of their records or glint of their coach's smiles - whatever little bit helps.

PESCA: the Big East. Some are questioning how one conference can supply more than a quarter of the at-large teams. Oliver Purnell, who coached at ACC school Clemson before becoming a head coach in the Big East, says no one should look askance at the quality throughout his new league.

OLIVER PURNELL: I don't think there's much of a question that the Big East, you know, should have 11 teams in. As I've observed, college basketball, the last 25 years or so, it's the deepest league that, you know, I've ever seen.

PESCA: Purnell should know. His DePaul Blue Demons lost to every team in the league except one. They were last, but even the Big East's second-worst team, the University of South Florida, was pretty good. They won't make the NCAA tournament...

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

PESCA: ...but they set off this celebration when they staged an upset in the first round of the Big East tournament by defeating Villanova, a team ranked in the top 10 as recently as a month ago. The University of Connecticut's Jim Calhoun has won 300 Big East games in his career. He says this season has been among his toughest.

JIM CALHOUN: I've never seen it where every team can beat you. I truly believe every team in this league can be you. And that's - we may not ever see that again. I mean, we have really, really good teams, but everybody's had to work for every win, every point, everything they've done. No, I've never seen that in 25 years.

PESCA: Calhoun calls the Big East a meat grinder. Marquette coach Buzz Williams might add tenderizer, pulverizer and pressure cooker.

BUZZ WILLIAMS: It's in addition to the depth of the league. It's the depth of the talent on each of those teams in the league. And that's what grinds you up and that's what wears you out. And you age and you gain bad weight and you have trouble sleeping as a coach.

PESCA: And Williams is a coach who will be making the NCAA tournament. But Ken Pomeroy, perhaps the premier college basketball statistical researcher in America, points out that while every Big East game is a battle, it's also an opportunity.

KEN POMEROY: Just to say that a team in the Big East, you know, had six or seven quality wins, you can't look at that in a vacuum. You know, you have 15, 20 chances maybe to get a quality win.

PESCA: Pomeroy does think the Big East should get 10 and maybe even 11 teams into the NCAA tournament. And while that might seem like a questionable concentration of wealth, consider this: The Big East is the only major conference that was designed with basketball in mind. As the Big 10, for instance, has expanded to 11 and soon 12 teams, they do so for the sake of football. But the Big East has bulked up to 16 teams with additions like DePaul and Marquette, which don't even play Division 1 football. And, by the way, 16 teams.

POMEROY: They have more darts to throw at the dartboard and hit the bull's- eye with.

PESCA: Mike Pesca, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mike Pesca first reached the airwaves as a 10-year-old caller to a New York Jets-themed radio show and has since been able to parlay his interests in sports coverage as a National Desk correspondent for NPR based in New York City.