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Big East tournament preview: A new era

3/12/2014

NEW YORK -- The 35th annual Big East tournament begins Wednesday, and while it will once again be held at Madison Square Garden, it’ll look very different than it ever has before.

Gone are some old friends, and here are some new ones. The question is, will this tournament continue to capture the Big Apple's attention, as it has for so many years?

The new conference has delivered in the regular season. It’s currently ranked fourth in the RPI, ahead of, among others, the ACC -- the league that poached some of its most prominent members.

And it has provided plenty of excitement already. Twelve of the conference’s 90 regular-season games went to overtime (13.3 percent), and eight of its 10 teams played at least one overtime game.

It should be a fun four days at the Garden. Here are three reasons to be a little nostalgic, and three reasons to look forward:

THE NEGATIVES

Missing Pieces: Syracuse. Pittsburgh. Louisville. Connecticut. Cincinnati. Notre Dame. Rutgers. South Florida.

Eight members of the Big East in 2013 won’t be a part of this year’s Garden party, and many of them will be missed. Three of last year’s four Big East tournament semifinalists are on that list, and four of those eight schools are currently ranked in the Associated Press Top 25.

The Big East tournament is no longer the pre-eminent conference tournament in college basketball -- not without those programs, and legendary coaches like Jim Boeheim and Rick Pitino.

But it can still be among the best.

Short Circuit: We’ll never see another run like Kemba Walker’s UConn squad pulled off in 2011, winning five games in five days to cut down the nets.

Why? Fewer teams means fewer games.

The tournament is now a day shorter than it has been in recent years, and we’ll get only one day of wall-to-wall basketball, with both an afternoon and evening doubleheader.

A little less Madness. But we’ll take what we can get.

Pump Up The Volume: The Big East didn’t just lose some outstanding teams and coaches in realignment. It also lost some of its most passionate fan bases -- fan bases that showed up at the Garden in droves, particularly Syracuse, UConn and Notre Dame supporters.

It remains to be seen whether the Garden will look, or sound, quite like it used to in March.

That being said, Creighton ranked sixth in Division I in home attendance in 2013 -- behind only Kentucky, Syracuse, Louisville, North Carolina and Indiana -- averaging 17,155 fans per game. And coach Greg McDermott said Monday that Creighton has sold out its Big East tournament ticket allotment, with even more in demand, and expects to have between 3,000 and 4,000 fans in New York.

Xavier and Butler, the other two Big East newcomers, were also ranked in the top 60 in home attendance last season -- Xavier was 43rd (9,781 per game) and Butler was 58th (7,899).

With this being their first Big East tournament, all three schools should be well represented in the Big Apple.

THE POSITIVES

High Drama: Last season, the Big East had eight teams in the NCAA tournament field of 68, and most had already locked up bids before even arriving in New York.

This season, the Big East has just two locks -- Villanova and Creighton -- and four more teams squarely on the bubble.

ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi currently projects Xavier in the NCAA field, and Providence, St. John’s and Georgetown among the first eight teams on the outside. The Big East could get as few as two bids, or perhaps as many as five -- the stakes couldn’t be much higher.

And top seed Villanova has a chance to earn a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament if it can run the table.

Man Of The Hour: Creighton forward Doug McDermott, the leading scorer in the country (26.5 PPG), just passed the 3,000-point mark for his career and is now the seventh-leading scorer in NCAA Division I history.

What a treat for New Yorkers to get to watch him play in person, near the end of his remarkable college career.

McDermott is the leading candidate to take home the national player of the year awards later this month. And despite how good the Big East has been over the years, the last Associated Press Player of the Year from the conference was St. John’s forward Walter Berry in 1986.

Hometown Heroes? Speaking of St. John’s, the Red Storm have a legitimate chance to win the Big East tournament this year. That should give this year’s edition a little extra juice.

St. John’s (20-11, 10-8) finished the regular season tied for third with Xavier and Providence -- good enough to bypass Wednesday night’s opening doubleheader and advance straight to the quarterfinals. The Red Storm are seeded fifth due to tiebreakers, and will open against No. 4 seed Providence on Thursday at 2:30 p.m.

Believe it or not, St. John’s has made the Big East quarterfinals only once since 2003, in coach Steve Lavin’s first season (2011). And it hasn’t won the Big East tournament since 2000.

The Red Storm lost to Villanova twice by a combined 10 points in the regular season, and have a win and a three-point loss against Creighton. Playing on their home floor at the Garden, they have a legitimate chance -- but first they need to tackle the Friars.