That's the little piece of history the Big East is gunning for as its season ending tournament kicks off. No conference has ever sent nine teams to the NCAA Tournament. But in today's era of the mega-conference, it's getting easier for a single league to earn a pile of bids.
It's not exactly fair to compare today's 16-team Big East (or 15, if you refuse to consider South Florida a Big East basketball team), to the nine-team league it was in 1991, when seven of the league's nine teams punched tickets to the Big Dance. Still, it would be an impressive accomplishment for nine of them to be dancing when the tournament field is announced on Sunday. In fact, the league will set a record even if it only gets eight bids - no conference has ever received more than seven.
That's not the only goal in mind for the league, of course. As many as four teams harbor legitimate national championship aspirations, including the nation's two top-ranked teams. Connecticut overtook Duke for the no. 1 spot this week after the Blue Devils dropped their final two contests, while no. 2Villanova also moved up. That sets up a potential no. 1 vs. no. 2 match-up in the Bid East tournament final, evoking memories of Chris Mullin vs. Patrick Ewing two decades ago. Besides those two, Pitt (no. 15), and West Virginia (no. 19) are the league's other major powers, and each will be using this weekend as a chance to get a good seeding for the NCAAs and, with luck, a Final Four run.
But before we get to potentially alluring matchups such as a Connecticut-Villanova pairing in the finals, we have to get through the earlier rounds. Thankfully, the Big East has limited its tournament to the league's top 12 teams, sparing us the nuisance of having to watch UConn ambush South Florida 124-53 in the first round.
That leaves four competitive first round matchups today, all of which have important implications for the NCAA Tournament. To start things off, we have Syracuse meeting Cincinnati at noon. Cincinnati figures to be an NCAA Tournament team after beating West Virginia to end its regular season; the Bearcats also have an impressive non-conference win over LSU helping their case. However, a first-round loss to the Orange would have them sweating things out on Sunday.
Jim Boeheim's club probably needs to win this game - and the next one - to snag what would be a ninth invite for the league. The Orange beat Cincy by 19 on the road in the regular season, so the first part is very doable. But should they advance, they would face a daunting task against Connecticut in the second round. After closing the year in a 4-9 tailspin that included a 39-point drubbing by lowly DePaul, Syracuse probably needs to stun the Huskies to grab a bid.
The second game on Wednesday's slate features Georgetown and Notre Dame. The Hoyas looked to be getting a first-round bye until suffering an embarrassing loss to South Florida - the Bulls' only win of the Big East season - on Saturday. It probably hurt Georgetown's NCAA seeding, although with 10 conference wins and a victory of Duke on their resume, the Hoyas still should be a top-five seed.
Notre Dame, meanwhile, is probably NIT-bound. The Irish seemingly play up or down to their competition and end up in playing nailbiters against everybody, whether it's losing by one to UConn or squeezing past Wofford by three. That makes them a dangerous first-round opponent and in truth, the Irish are better than their record. So much better, in fact, that it wouldn't shock me to see them in the tournament semifinals making one last push for NCAA admittance - especially if guards Chris Quinn and Colin Falls, who average an insane 14.4 3-point tries a game between them, can get hot from outside.
To do so, they would have to advance past Marquette in Thursday's quarterfinals. The Golden Eagles fared the best of the league's five new entrants (Louisville, DePaul, Cincinnati, and South Florida were the others), and look to be a team on the rise. Marquette's prize recruiting class of guards Dominic James, Jerel McNeal, and Wes Matthews averages 35 points, 13 rebounds, and 10 assists combined.
In the bottom half of the draw, the evening session starts with the battle of New Jersey: Seton Hall vs. Rutgers. Seton Hall is thought to have a tournament spot wrapped up with its 9-7 league mark, while Rutgers is probably NIT-bound unless it finds some magic at the Garden this week. The bigger test for the Hall might come if it survives the first round and faces Villanova's devastating backcourt in the quarterfinals. The Pirates have been absolutely smeared when they face top-level competition, losing by 53 to Duke and 42 to UConn.
Their matchup with Rutgers is fairly even, however. The two teams split the season series, and several close shaves against good teams have shown that the Scarlet Knights aren't to be taken lightly - especially with guard Quincy Douby (25.1 ppg) lighting up the scoreboard. Incidentally, this also will be the last Big East tournament for Rutgers coach Gary Waters, who accepted a buyout and will leave at the end of the season.
The most interesting part of the bracket, however, features the final game of tonight's slate. Pittsburgh and Louisville meet in this contest, and both slumped badly to end the year. Pitt started the year 15-0 but dropped its final two league games to fall out of the conference's top four. Led by feisty guard Carl Krauser, the Panthers are an incredibly tough defensive team, and they haven't lost a contest by more than five points the entire season. With few of their wins coming against high-caliber opponents, however, they'll need to show well in New York to get a top three seeding in the NCAAs.
Louisville's decline has been even more precipitous. After starting the year 13-2, the Cardinals went 5-9 the rest of the way and probably played themselves out of the NCAA Tournament. As with Notre Dame, a run to the semifinals or finals this week could put them back into the tournament picture, but Louisville played a weak nonconference schedule and doesn't have a single marquee win on which to hang its hat.
The winner will meet last year's tournament darling, West Virginia, on Thursday. A year ago, the Mountaineers came to MSG as a bubble team. But after a run to the tournament final, they easily made the NCAA field and then surprised everyone again by making the Elite Eight. With wins over Villanova, Oklahoma, and UCLA, the Mountaineers don't need to worry about a bid this time around - in fact, they should be among the top four seeds. But their lesson goes to show that things can change very quickly at this time of year.
That could be good news for the conference as a whole. Right now the Big East seems to have eight bids all but locked up, so if a team like Notre Dame, Louisville, or Syracuse can put two or three wins together, the conference will achieve the unprecedented ninespot. Regardless the Big East will be the big winner - they'll get a record number of bids and, with luck, a 1 vs. 2 showdown on Saturday.