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Six Big East Teams Advance in NCAA Tournament; Questions Follow UConn Home

The Big East Conference began the NCAA Tournament with nine teams among the 68 invited. After the play-in round and first full round of play the conference has a 7-3 record and six teams still in contention.

The Syracuse Orange, Marquette Golden Eagles, Georgetown Hoyas, Louisville Cardinals, Cincinnati Bearcats and South Florida Bulls have advanced, while the Connecticut Huskies, West Virginia Mountaineers and Notre Dame Fighting Irish have headed home.

In Round-of-32 action today, top-seeded Syracuse faces the eighth-seeded Kansas St. Wildcats in the East Region, while third-seeded Marquette battles the sixth-seeded Murray St. Racers and fourth seeded Louisville meets the fifth-seeded New Mexico Lobos in the South Region. Tomorrow, sixth-seeded Cincinnati squares off against the third seeded Florida St. Seminoles in the East Region, while third-seeded Georgetown takes on the 11th-seeded N.C. State Wolfpack and 12th-seeded South Florida meets the 13th-seeded Ohio Bobcats.

Despite overall success for the conference, the losses are notable disappointments.

West Virginia’s loss came in Pittsburgh, just a short distance from its Morgantown campus. Its opponent, the Gonzaga Bulldogs, traveled across three time zones but beat the Mountaineers handily, 77-54. Though the university is focused on beginning play in the Big 12 Conference next year, it certainly would have preferred a better ending to its Big East history than first-game loses in both the conference and NCAA tournaments.

Notre Dame had a frustrating season. Though the Irish notched a 13-5 conference record and third place in the regular season, the team did not impose the same fear on opponents as in recent seasons and showed vulnerability away from home. Its loss yesterday to the Xavier Musketeers came late in the game. Depsite a reputation for strong defensive play, the Irish could not hold off Xavier, losing a lead in the closing minutes.

UConn, however, has the greatest issues to contend with in the offseason.

The defending NCAA tournament champion, Connecticut was seeded ninth in the South Region. The Huskies were easily dispatched by the eighth-seeded Iowa St. Cyclones though. While UConn enjoyed a decided advantage in size, the Cyclones perimeter shooting proved too much for them to defend.

The departure raises interesting questions about the team’s future. Unless it receives a late reprieve from the NCAA, the Huskies will be ineligible for postseason play next year due to poor academic performance in the past. This raises an obvious question: Without the opportunity to play in either the conference or NCAA tournaments next year, will current players stick around?

Also, Hall of Fame head coach Jim Calhoun has battled bouts of poor heath in recent seasons. He missed a month earlier this season due to spinal stenosis, not to mention a three-game suspension (for past recruiting infractions) at the beginning of regular-season conference play.

Calhoun has been on the UConn sideline for 26 seasons. In that time he has nine Big East regular-season championships, seven conference tournament championships, an NIT championship, four NCAA Final Fours and three NCAA tournament championships.

His team’s performance was uninspired in the loss to Iowa St., however, and uninspired for much of the 2011-12 season.

UConn has a new president, Susan Herbst, who has shown open support for Calhoun. She hired a new Athletic Director, Warde Manuel, who assumes his duties next week. There is no clear evidence that Calhoun will depart, but the prospects of waiting two years to get back to tournament play could influence a decision.

Connecticut’s mediocre regular season, weak postseason showing, looming NCAA sanctions, new university administration and coaching uncertainty are sure to weigh on the minds of future recruits. All of this has UConn fans wondering how far the team will slide away from Calhoun’s success and glory.

Stay tuned to Big East Cost Bias for more NCAA tournament news. For more on the Connecticut Huskies, visit The UConn Blog.