NEW YORK - After his Connecticut basketball team lost at West Virginia last week, Jim Calhoun made a crack that he was looking forward to the end of the regular season and the start of tournament play, but he would prefer one slight twist.
"I want to skip the Big East tournament and go right to an easier one,'' he said.
And which one would that be?
"The NCAAs,'' he said.
He was kidding. He admitted as much.
Some would beg to differ, though. Not with the premise that the Big East tournament is more difficult than the NCAAs, but that Calhoun shouldn't have said he was joking.
This Big East tournament is tougher than the NCAAs. And the point really isn't even arguable.
"I think there's a chance you're going to play four really good teams that you're not going to face in the NCAA tournament,'' said West Virginia senior Cam Thoroughman, who has seen his share of both events the last four years. "In the first round of the NCAA tournament, a lot of the top seeds are going to face somebody that's cake. And then if there's an upset [elsewhere in the bracket], who knows?
"In the Big East you're going to play four tough opponents, maybe four ranked teams, in four days, and they're all going to be good.''
The truth is, the only thing harder about the NCAA tournament is the quality of the competition at the very top. In that regard, the NCAA tournament is deeper. In a perfect world, the 16 best teams in the country are playing the second week of the event. The eight best survive to the weekend. The four best make it to the Final Four.
And even if the best don't make it there, the teams that do are ones that beat the best. At that point, that field is undeniably the best in college basketball.
From that standpoint, there might even be better conference tournaments at the end than the Big East, although that's purely opinion based. Maybe you think Duke-North Carolina or Kansas-Texas or Ohio State-Purdue is a better potential final than, say, Pitt-Notre Dame. Fine. Whatever you believe.
We're not talking about the end game here, though. We're talking about the tournament as a whole, the field on balance and how difficult it is to navigate.