New Big East looks more like old Big East as tourney opens

NEW YORK (AP) It’s Big East Tournament time in Madison Square Garden, and more than half of the conference’s teams are projected to earn NCAA bids.

When the reconfigured league debuted last season, some traditionally strong members new and old happened to have down years at the same time. This March, the Big East is projected to receive six NCAA berths, two more than 2014, no matter what happens once the conference tourney opens Wednesday.

”The Big East is the Big East,” Georgetown coach John Thompson III said. ”You go through a stretch where the perception of the league is beat up. We said from the beginning that once the smoke clears, we’re going to be the best or one of the best basketball conferences out there. In Year 2, you see that has come to fruition.

”The second-ranked conference in Year 2 – is that a surprise? No, not a surprise at all. That’s what this league was built for. That’s what the programs and the traditions and the coaches and the players and the administrations have been built for, playing for.”

They’re 10 basketball schools – private universities that don’t play football at the top level, happy to join together with like-minded institutions. The Big East is still playing big-time hoops, but with smaller alumni bases, fewer members and different rivalries.

Under the lucrative new television contract with Fox, viewership has shrunk with games airing on fledging cable sports network Fox Sports 1. During the 2012-13 season, the conference’s 7 p.m. Monday slot on ESPN averaged 1.2 million viewers, according to Nielsen. This season, the 7 p.m. Tuesday matchups on FS1 average 113,000 viewers.

Thompson said he’s not concerned about the ratings because what recruits and their families care about is that every game is televised nationally, which wasn’t the case before.

After selling out eight straight years, the average attendance at the Big East Tournament per session dropped from 20,057 to 14,556 last season, according to STATS.

Longtime Big East broadcaster Bill Raftery said he thought the atmosphere "was as good as ever.”

”I was pleasantly surprised, to be honest with you,” he added.

And this year, the league is deeper heading into the conference tourney. Fourth-ranked Villanova is seeking to lock up a No. 1 NCAA seed. No. 22-ranked Butler, No. 23 Georgetown, Providence, St. John’s and Xavier will also be looking to improve their NCAA seeding.

”A lot of people thought we took a huge hit,” Hoyas guard D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera said, ”but the conference is just as powerful now as it was then.”

AP Contributor Benjamin Standig in Washington contributed to this report.