Big East No. 1 Hoop Conference
For years the Southeastern Conference was the gold standard in women’s college basketball. Fifteen years ago when Tennessee was frequently winning national titles, SEC women’s basketball was the measuring stick for all other women’s programs around the country.
Can we compete against the SEC?
Tennessee was far and away the dominant program in the country, winning eight national titles from 1987 to 2008 under veteran coach Pat Summitt. Twice in 1989 and 1996, the SEC had teams in the national title game – Tennessee-Auburn in 1989 and Tennessee-Georgia in 1996.
Tennessee became so good that other programs in the SEC had to step up their games just to remain competitive.
Now the same thing is happening in the Big East with Connecticut. The Huskies have won two straight national titles, six since 2000 and seven overall. Connecticut is making the rest of the Big East better, even while still dominating league play.
The last conference to have both of its teams in the national finals? The Big East in 2009 when Connecticut defeated Louisville.
The Big East is also the only conference since 2000 to have two different teams claim women’s national championships (Notre Dame also won one in 2001). Four different programs – Connecticut, Notre Dame, Rutgers and Louisville – have reached the Final Four since 2000, and the conference has a combined 129-63 record in NCAA tournament games during that span of time.
Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw believes other Big East schools are now bearing the fruits of recruiting against Connecticut.
“Connecticut set the bar pretty high on getting good players, and if you want to compete with them, that’s what you’ve got to do,” she said.
The Big East got a women’s-tournament-record nine teams into this year’s dance and all nine are still alive after first-round action. And although only two teams – St. John’s and West Virginia – defeated higher seeded teams, the conference is on track to get as many as four or five teams into the Sweet 16 next weekend.
Connecticut faces ninth-seeded Purdue, Notre Dame has 10th-seeded Temple and DePaul plays sixth-seeded Penn State in second round action. All three are favored to win those games. Five-seed Georgetown is another possibility, taking on fourth-seeded Maryland in College Park - not far from Georgetown’s campus.
Much tougher matchups pit ninth-seeded West Virginia against No. 1 seed Baylor on their home floor, eighth-seeded Marquette against No. 1 seed Tennessee in Knoxville, ninth-seeded St. John’s at No. 1 seed Stanford, seventh-seeded Louisville against two-seed Xavier in Cincinnati, and seventh-seeded Rutgers facing two-seed Texas A&M in Shreveport, La.
But anyone who follows women’s basketball won’t be surprised by an upset or two from this group.
“This weekend, we again made a statement about our conference’s strength as all nine advanced to the second round,” Big East commissioner John Marinatto said. “Although such an accomplishment requires some degree of good fortune, it also clearly illustrates the quality and depth of our programs and is why the Big East Conference is considered one of the nation’s premier leaders in women’s basketball.”
With Rutgers’ first-round win over Louisiana Tech, the Big East now has 10 programs with at least 20 victories this year, including 24-9 West Virginia, which faces No. 3-ranked Baylor on their home floor Tuesday night. A crowd of more than 9,000 is expected to greet the Mountaineers.
“We played the Big East tournament in Hartford,” said Mike Carey, making his fifth NCAA appearance at West Virginia. “We’re playing in front of Connecticut’s home crowd. We’ve played in front of large crowds and our girls won’t be intimidated.”
What makes the Big East so difficult and so beneficial when teams advance to the NCAA tournament is the variety of styles they face in a 16-team conference.
“The Big East, you’ve got teams that slow it down and run five-out spread,” Carey explained. “You’ve got teams that run power and a lot of teams that will press, so you see a lot of different things during the course of the year within the Big East.”
And of course, the best prep any team can get is facing Connecticut, which, with the help of ESPN, has replaced Tennessee as the most recognizable women’s program in the country.
“When they say UConn, they have to say Big East Conference,” Georgetown coach Terri Williams-Flournoy was quoted in Monday’s Washington Post. “Although they go undefeated (in league play), still for some players, the mindset is, ‘If I can’t play at UConn, then I’m going to pay against UConn, and we’re going to beat them.’”
Pitt coach Agnus Berenato spent 15 years coaching in the Atlantic Coast Conference at Georgia Tech and she is firm in her belief that the Big East has no equals right now.
“We’re the best basketball conference,” she said. “I don’t think there’s a question. I’ve been to the other best conference. It’s not even a comparison.”
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