From the Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) You again? Already?
The Big East is just too big and too good to fit into the usual tidy constraints of the NCAA tournament bracket. Comprising nearly one-sixth of the field – 11 of the 68 teams – it was impossible to adhere to the preferred norm of keeping teams from the same conference from beating up on each other until the Elite Eight.
So it will come about on Saturday that Connecticut and Cincinnati will meet in the round of 32, the first time in NCAA tournament history an intraconference game has been played before the round of 16.
“We saw everybody early in the season and know how crazy the Big East is – anything can happen,” UConn center Alex Oriakhi said. “I kind of want to play some somebody new, somebody we haven’t seen before.”
That’s the prevalent feeling on both sides. After all, Connecticut has already played 23 Big East games this season – including five in five nights during its incredible run to the conference tournament championship – and Cincinnati has played 20. That’s a lot of pounding in a league that prides itself on physical play.
“The matchup obviously with UConn is something that is tough to do, having to play a conference foe in the NCAA tournament,” Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin said. “But you’ve got to play who they match you up against. Probably the tougher part is playing the hottest team in America, which I don’t think I’d get much argument that UConn is probably the hottest team in America.”
Big East lovers will get yet another dose of early round familiarity on Sunday when Marquette and Syracuse meet in Cleveland. UConn coach Jim Calhoun spoke for a conference Friday when he said: “My preference probably would be I want any Big East team to win, but I didn’t want to face any.”
The Huskies (27-9), a No. 3 seed, handled Bucknell easily in their opening game on Thursday, while Cronin’s sixth-seeded Bearcats (26-8) pulled away for a convincing over Missouri. The more notable game to reference is the one Cincy-UConn meeting from this season, a 67-59 road win for the Huskies on Feb. 27 that prompted Cronin to meet with his players for an hour and 45 minutes in the locker room before finally emerging for his postgame news conference.
“I always say it’s tougher to beat a team a second time,” Oriakhi said, “because in the Big East tournament, (the last three) teams we beat, they beat us the first time and we wanted to get revenge. So I expect them to be hungry and be real aggressive to get a win knowing that we beat them at home last time we played them.”
Bearcats forward Yancy Gates figures there’s good and bad in having such a familiar foe.
“We’ve only got one day to prepare for them, but we pretty much already know UConn,” Gates said. “But it’s also the same for them, they pretty much already know us. But we don’t feel they got the best UC team the first time.”
The teams met only once in the regular season because the Big East’s expansion to 16 teams in 2005 made it impractical to play everyone home-and-home. While a larger league obviously has a better chance of getting more teams in the NCAA tournament, Calhoun is a bit wistful for the days when things were a bit more intimate.
“Personally, I’d probably like nine teams, playing everybody home,” Calhoun said. “Play 16 games. I don’t like 18 at all.”
Calhoun questioned whether the Big East has “lost some of its romance” because it’s tougher to get on a first-name basis with other coaches, such as Cronin.
“We only play Syracuse once,” Calhoun said. “I miss some of those things, but beyond that, it’s a schedule. We’ll play it and do the best we possibly can. But if you asked me, would I love to be able to play in a smaller conference? Yeah, I would.”
Cincinnati was part of that 2005 expansion, making the jump from Conference USA. Cronin remembers those C-USA days as an assistant under Bob Huggins.
“Well, obviously it’s night and day,” Cronin said. “When I was with coach Huggins, we had great teams, but the question was always: ‘Cincinnati is good, but how good are they because of the Conference USA?’
“You don’t have ever have to worry about that anymore because when you play top 20 teams on a weekly basis, that’s the biggest difference. The Big East conference tells the truth.”
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