In defense of the Big East’s glob of mush

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The Big East Conference, with an expected 18 members playing basketball beginning in the 2013-14 season, announced last week that the conference tournament, held the week before the NCAA tournament and which determines the league's automatic bid, will include every conference member.

The change in format will be negligible. Instead of the current 16-team format, which includes a series of byes depending on seeding, and begins with 9 playing 16, 10 playing 15, etc., on Tuesday, the 15 seed would play the 18 seed, 16 would play 17 in a pair of play-in games Monday night.

The response from the media has been highly negative. The estimable Dana O'Neil writes at ESPN.com:

We’re all crying uncle here, so please stop.
Big East basketball already has watered down its product to an unrecognizable glob of mush. Let’s not roll the tournament into the sewer, too.

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But there's a reason the coaches voted unanimously to extend the tournament. Even losing programs want a chance to extend their seasons. Players, most of whom won't make the professional ranks, want a chance to play at Madison Square Garden. And that is the essence of March Madness, after all.

O'Neil writes that the inclusion of "teams with abominable records whose only hope at the postseason is a national pandemic that afflicts only the top 100 basketball rosters in the country." But at 16 teams, the Big East Tournament included bottom-feeders like DePaul, whose only chance at a postseason bid was to defeat a series of giants and earn an automatic bid. It didn't stop the Big East Tournament from providing the greatest drama in the sport, with a collection of concentrated talent greater than even the NCAA event that determines the national champion.

The inclusion of another two teams increases the length of the tournament from five to six days. But the Big East Tournament hasn't suffered from the expansion in the past (it originally ran three days for eight teams). In fact, arguably the most compelling of all the tournaments came because of an expanded format in 2011, when ninth-seeded Connecticut ran through the gauntlet of winning five games in five days, then went on to win the national title.

As for the relatively small chance that a low seed could play straight through from Monday to Saturday, the same is certainly true of those who participate in the play-in game of the NCAA event as well. It didn't stop Virginia Commonwealth University from doing just that in 2011, winning a play-in game and extending its run all the way to the Final Four. That was only the greatest event in the NCAA tournament of the past decade.

A play-in Big East team advancing would be a darling of the gradually increasing MSG crowd. It would take over New York because it had been playing since Monday.

That seems like a good enough reason to make hard-working reporters stick around one more day.