BY Roger Rubin
NY DAILY NEWS SPORTS WRITER
The Big East was considered the strongest conference in the country - maybe in history - all season long. Selection Sunday only validated that.
The Big East had a record three teams anointed with No. 1 seeds, and seven overall bids, for this year's NCAA Tournament when the 65-team draw was announced yesterday. Louisville won the Big East regular season and tournament titles, and is the tournament's overall No. 1 seed in the Midwest Region. Pittsburgh is the No. 1 seed in the East Region. Connecticut is the No. 1 seed in the West Region.
If form were to hold, the Big East would duplicate its feat of landing three teams in the Final Four as it did in 1985 with Villanova, Georgetown and St. John's. Louisville and UConn could be paired in a national semifinal game in Detroit.
“It speaks volumes for what it means to win the Big East regular season and tournament championships,” said Louisville coach Rick Pitino.
“We've sat here in other years when we were in Conference USA, thinking we deserved a number two or three seed when it didn't come to fruition, so this is very exciting for our team.”
North Carolina was given the top seed in the South Region. Of the four No. 1 seeds, only Louisville goes into the tournament having won its last game. The Cardinals have won 10 in a row. This is the first time since 1983 that the Cardinals have entered the tournament a top seed.
“With Louisville, it's when you win the conference championship and the tournament and have the number of wins over the year, especially in the second half,” said Mike Slive, the Southeastern Conference commissioner and chairman of the selection committee. “The committee looked and saw the level of their competition and the wins.”
Louisville was nationally ranked No. 1 when the USA Today/ESPN poll of coaches came out last night despite not receiving a single first-place vote. Memphis received three first-place votes and was ranked second, UNC got 23 and was ranked third and Pitt got five and was ranked fourth.
The Big East landed five teams among the top 12 spots. Villanova is No. 3 in the East and Syracuse is No. 3 in the South. Marquette and West Virginia garnered No. 6 seedings in the West and Midwest, respectively. Syracuse returns to tourney play after missing the last two years.
“Obviously, we're so pleased to be back in the tournament,” Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said.
“You don't realize how much you miss the tournament until you miss it.''
While Louisville, Pitt and North Carolina all figured to land atop a branch of the bracket, there was debate about UConn. After the Huskies lost to Syracuse in the six-overtime epic Big East quarterfinal Thursday, Memphis became a player in discussions about the last top seed.
The Tigers won an NCAA-best 31 games, are on a 25-game winning streak and won the regular season and tournament titles in Conference USA. UConn has lost twice to Pitt. UConn ended up the choice, but because of the early exit in the conference tournament it lost any chance to be in Boston for the East Regional semis and championship game.
That should not matter to the Huskies. When they won their national championships in 1999 and 2004, they were West Regional champions.
And they have the favorable location of Philadelphia for their first and second-round games.
“It was not just about Memphis,” Slive said of last season's runner-up. “It wasn't what Memphis didn't do. It's what other teams did.”
Because UConn was the weakest of the No.1s and Memphis was the best of the No. 2s, they are both in the West Region for a potential regional championship meeting in Glendale, Ariz. There is no love lost between UConn coach Jim Calhoun and Memphis coach John Calipari, dating back to when Calipari coached UConn rival UMass.
The other No. 2 seeds were Duke, Michigan State and Oklahoma.
The ACC and the Big Ten matched the Big East with seven teams in the tournament. But the Big 10 just barely did it. Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin were three of the last six teams to receive at-large bids.
The other three in the last six were Maryland, Dayton and Arizona, which is making its 25th consecutive tournament appearance despite a 19-13 record and a run of five losses in its last six games.
Several unexpected results in conference tournament play since Thursday shaped the way the last at-large bids were doled out.
Mississippi State won the Southeastern Conference title, Temple won the Atlantic 10 and USC won the Pac-10, meaning three teams that were not expected to make the field ended up with automatic bids.
Bubble teams left out included a 26-win Saint Mary's team, San Diego State, Creighton and Penn State.
The mid-majors were hurt worst, getting only four of the 34 at-large bids, the fewest they've earned since 2003. Each of the last two years, six mid-majors landed at-large bids.