Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese (center) feels the new 16-team conference will get a fair selection shake.
The 16-team Big East will be judged as a first-year success if the league gets nearly 50 percent of its membership in the 2006 NCAA Tournament.
If not, then the members could ultimately have second thoughts as to the viability of the largest basketball conference in the country.
The Big East once had seven of its nine members make the NCAA Tournament (in 1991) and has gotten six in on five other occasions (three of which were in a nine-team league). It's had two of the last three national champions (Syracuse, 2003 and Connecticut, 2004). Two of its members -- Louisville, then of Conference USA, and West Virginia -- met in an Elite Eight game last March in Albuquerque, N.M.
So, this league is hardly hurting for national recognition and clearly is more ready to handle the stress of a having 16 member teams than the WAC was in the late '90s.
But how many members earn coveted NCAA slots is going to be up to the teams themselves, not the selection committee, according to Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese.
"I'm convinced that if the teams deserve to get in, then they will," said Tranghese, a former chair of the committee. "The committee will take as many teams from our league that they feel have the credentials to get in."
Utah athletic director Chris Hill, a member of the NCAA Tournament selection committee, concurs, saying that the best teams get in "and that's what I love about the committee. If you're doing it right [in selecting the teams], it doesn't matter how many teams come from the Big East."
Revenue sharing isn't the major issue facing this conglomerate. Tranghese said there has been very little disagreement. The football-basketball split (eight play Division I-A football) hasn't been a problem, either. The biggest issue is tournament access.
"That's what we're all concerned about, getting the most teams in the tournament," Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said.
"There's anxiety with everybody about how many teams we can get in, because that's how we'll be judged," said Notre Dame coach Mike Brey, whose Irish have missed the last two NCAA Tournaments. "All of us are looking around saying can we get eight or nine teams in, but no one can say that until it plays out."
"They [the NCAA Tournament selection committee] have to make a concession for how big the conference is," Rutgers coach Gary Waters said. "They have to omit the previous way they select teams and look at ours as a different conference altogether. I think we'll set a precedent."
Tranghese made it very simple when he spoke to the coaches last month at their annual meeting in Florida. Follow his plan and you have a shot to get into the Dance.
"If the upper-tier teams win in our league, then they'll get in," Tranghese said. "What we're concerned about are the bubble teams. There's only three ways the bubble teams will get in: one, have real quality wins within the league; two, have real quality wins outside the league; three, play a great schedule and get the benefit of playing in our league."
Tranghese said he told the coaches a lot of 7-9, 8-8 and 9-7 teams would make the tournament.
Greg Shaheen, the director of the men's basketball championship for the NCAA, also met with the Big East coaches and told them that the committee will dissect their schedules, noting who the wins are against, regardless of conference affiliation.
"You can't say we play in a great league and not play any nonconference games [of note]," Tranghese said. "I don't know the right number, but if you choose to play no one, then you'll pay the price. The only way you'll get in doing it that way is to dominate the conference."
Tranghese said the teams in the middle have to play quality nonconference teams. He understands there are rebuilding seasons, but he's convinced the recipe to get a bid would be to play four home-and-home nonconference series: two at home, two on the road.
But that's not necessarily how coaches who could be in that middle of the league are looking at their nonconference scheduling for next season.
"We're looking at playing no more than one road game in the nonconference [schedule]," Marquette coach Tom Crean said. "We've got two contracted for next season at Wisconsin and at Nebraska, but we've got to be smart about how many high-powered games we play."
Brey said he'll still play a tough schedule, but he doesn't want to go "crazy" with it since he "doesn't know what's coming in the league."
Boeheim said he would get his high-major nonconference games next season in the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic semifinals and finals in New York, assuming he wins two home games against lower-rated teams. The CVC semifinalists could be Wake Forest, Texas Tech and Florida.
"We're going to be one of the teams that plays a Connecticut or Louisville twice so I don't need to add Michigan State on my schedule," Boeheim said. "We're playing good teams with other games like Baylor, TCU and Manhattan."
Tranghese doesn't buy that the 16-team Big East will be any harder than the 12- or 14-team Big Easts were. West Virginia finished tied for seventh last season and finished in the Elite Eight. The Mountaineers are taking advantage of their 2005 run (and are happy to have Kevin Pittsnogle back), playing their toughest nonconference schedule under John Beilein, including games against LSU, N.C. State and UCLA.
Aside for the NCAA bid angst, the coaches also are concerned about the league schedule format and the Big East tournament being limited to 12 of the 16 members.
Big East teams will play a total of 16 conference games, but under the final two years of a television agreement with CBS and ESPN, each team will play 13 teams once and three of those teams again, missing two teams each season. The reason for this is if CBS chooses a matchup, say Louisville-Connecticut, then ESPN has the right to ask for that game, as well.
But the coaches want a schedule where the teams play each other school once and then one team again to get to 16. That could occur once the league has a new television deal.
If the Big East went to 18 games, then the teams could play all 15 conference foes once and three of them again to satisfy the television networks.
"We will never go to 18 games unless the other so-called major players [Big Ten, Big 12, ACC, SEC] go to 18 games [the Pac-10 plays 18]," Tranghese said. "We have to honor the contract and the only way to honor it is with 16. We need to get through the next two years and take a deep breath."
With Rick Pitino and Co. in from C-USA, the competition for NCAA bids just got steeper.
Boeheim said going to 18 games would be palatable if the NCAA were to adopt a 30-game (up from 29) schedule, which is one of the proposals hung up in the legislative process.
The Big East tournament format is the most contentious item that doesn't have much chance of changing.
Tranghese said it's the first time he can remember where he's against something the coaches endorsed. Coaches fear that the four coaches who don't make the Big East tournament will be exposed to getting fired. There could also be a quality team that doesn't qualify for the Big East tournament, which could need it for the NIT or even the NCAA Tournament if it had quality nonconference and conference wins but lost a tiebreaker to get in the field.
"I know we can't do anything about it," Waters said.
"It's certainly held against you," South Florida coach Robert McCullum said of a coach not making the conference tournament.
Tranghese said unless the coaches can convince him that 16 teams in New York would help win a national championship for the Big East, then he's not budging on this issue.
He said he's not about to make every team play four games in New York because "that's not going to be good for them and would expose our teams to injuries and fatigue. I want to protect our teams and not make them all play four days in a row. History has shown that teams that do that don't get very far in the [NCAA] Tournament."
The Big East does have schools with varied interests. The football-basketball marriage might not hold beyond five years, but Tranghese disagrees, saying Syracuse's football program isn't adversely affected by Providence's basketball program. The basketball programs in the league, like Georgetown, St. John's, Marquette and DePaul, have rich histories. If the Big East can hit its magic 50 percent number (8) on a consistent basis for the NCAA Tournament, then this league does have a chance for long-term survival.
"There are certainly some teams that aren't going to have that cyclical nature of going down, teams like Syracuse and Connecticut," Beilein said. "But the rest of us will probably trade places and have rebuilding years. Two leagues have merged here. I have a lot of faith that the committee won't put a number on how many bids. If 10 or 12 out of 16 are worthy, then we'll get that."
The selection committee will pass its judgment in March 2006 as to whether the 16-team Big East deserves its fair share.