EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

March 27, 2009

Beasts of the East

Big East continues to flex its muscles as Pitt, 'Nova move onto Elite 8

On College Basketball

¬┬áBOSTON — The old Garden would be a more appropriate venue for tomorrow's match-up. Pittsburgh and Villanova, two snarling Big East monsters would tear the roof off the place.

Last night, both clubs sunk their teeth into the opposition at the new, homogenized building on Causeway Street. The Panthers stalked Xavier before pouncing late and prevailing, 60-55. The Wildcats, on the other hand, didn't even bother to chew, devouring Duke, 77-54.

"The ACC is soft!" Villanova fans screamed as the Blue Devils streamed off the court afterward.

Harsh? Maybe. But they have a point. Third-seeded Villanova made a lot of people at TD Banknorth Garden — and beyond — happy, pounding the second-seeded Blue Devils, 77-54, in front of a near full house.

This was far from a classic. After intermission, it wasn't even close. Villanova outscored the Blue Devils 51-31 in the second half. Duke shot 26.7 percent (16 of 60!) for the game, a season low. It was ugly for Coach K's club.

The two East Regional semifinals, especially 'Nova-Duke, further proved what just about every rational basketball aficionado has said this year: The Big East is by far the best conference in the country.

Like 1985, when three of its teams made the Final Four, 2009 belongs to the rough-and-tumble league. Just look at who's left from the Big East. Pitt, Villanova, UConn, Syracuse and Louisville. They're all national title contenders.

"The Big East is just unbelievable," said Villanova swingman Dwayne Anderson, who scored eight points. "(Villanova-Pitt), it's another Big East game this far in the tournament. It just says a lot about the conference."

The Wildcats, led by guard Scottie Reynolds (16 points) and center Dante Cunningham (15 points), ran roughshod on the Dukies. Gerald Henderson (1 for 14, 7 points) and Jon Scheyer (3 for 18, 13 points) were off. The Wildcats clearly had something to do with that.

"We did not want to play those guys one-on-one," Villanova coach Jay Wright said. "We wanted to always give help on actually the three of them. We didn't do as good a job on (Kyle) Singler (15 points), but those guys, they're really good."

The Wildcats got some help from the crowd too. Let's be honest, nothing galvanizes 18,000 people like the presence of Duke. Yes, portions of the crowd acted like Red Sox fans during a Yankees series. The Blue Devils got booed from the opening tip. Hey, this is Boston. It is, at least for this week, Big East country ... even if Boston College defected to the ACC.

"I think everybody in the Big East likes this, us being in the East and having two Big East teams playing," Wright said. "I know the Big East takes a lot of pride in the conference, we all do."

CBS analyst Bill Raftery, the former coach of Seton Hall — another Big East school — probably went to bed last night with a big grin on his face. He must be excited about tomorrow's (7:05 p.m.) match-up.

In the teams' only meeting of the season, Villanova beat Pitt 67-57.

Anderson knows it's going to be a cage fight. The Panthers are the region's top seed. They have 265-pound DeJuan Blair and clutch point guard Levance Fields, whose late 3-pointer gave Pitt the lead for good against Xavier

"He's a tough kid," said Anderson, who didn't see Fields' shot but heard the resulting roar of the crowd from Villanova's locker room. "He's known for taking big shots like that."

Pitt-Nova, it's old school. So come on. Let's bring back the old Garden. Let's bring back the rats, the shaky balcony and the parquet floor, which if you haven't noticed, has been replaced this week by a plain court emblazoned with a giant blue NCAA logo.

But really, not even the homogenized arena on Causeway Street can tame these Big East beasts.

"You know what," Wright said, "if we're not going to win (in) the final eight and not go to the Final Four, I'll be glad it's Pitt. But I hope it's us."

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E-mail Alan Siegel at asiegel@eagletribune.com.