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The Big East enters the NCAA Tournament needing to prove itself

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After two seasons of postseason disappointment, it's time for a Big East team to make a run in March.

Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

When Ryan Arcidiacono's three-point attempt at the buzzer fell short on Saturday, it sealed a Big East championship for Seton Hall and set off a celebration 23 years in the making.

The Pirates players jumped on each other as security struggled to hold back the student section and Onward Setonia blared, accompanied by the cheers of 19,000 strong at Madison Square Garden.

But as championship Saturday turns to Selection Sunday, the joy of a 69-67 win over No. 3 Villanova dissipates quickly.

Oh, the Pirates are feeling good about their first Big East championship since 1993. Villanova is in a good spot, too. Despite losing, the Wildcats are still in line for at worst a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

The Big East as a whole will likely send half its league to the Dance. That could mean five chances to win a national championship, or it could mean five chances to maintain its reputation of March futility.

You all know how this goes.

It's usually over for Providence before it even starts --€” the Friars haven't won an NCAA Tournament game since 1997. Georgetown won't make it this year, but the Hoyas have made a habit of busting brackets and losing early to double-digit seeds. Xavier routinely makes it to the second weekend, but it hasn't been able to get past the heavyweights.

And don't even start about perennial 1- or 2-seeded Villanova.

"There's a lot of pressure from the outside of this team to get to the second week," Villanova coach Jay Wright said earlier in the week. "We definitely let down the Big East last year. We were a good enough team to advance: we didn't do it."

Over the first two years of the new-look league --€” now made of 10 "basketball schools" without FBS football programs, 10 teams have reached the NCAA Tournament. Last year's Xavier team was the only one to reach the Sweet 16, where the Musketeers lost to Arizona.

Even before realignment swept through the college sports landscape in 2012, these schools had a similar problem. No current Big East program has won a national championship since 1985. They've also combined for only five appearances in the Final Four since 1990.

The Big East talks like it is a true basketball power, and this season, the numbers have backed that up. KenPom ranks the Big East as the fourth-best league in the country with six teams ranked in the top 50 nationally.

"If you watched the level of basketball that these kids play, I'm sorry, it's incomparable," Seton Hall coach Kevin Willard said after the championship game.

In defeat, Wright echoed the thoughts of his opponent.

"If you're a basketball person, there's no conference that matches it anywhere," he said.

But starting Sunday night, it won't matter what the numbers say, and what the coaches say will matter even less. College basketball is criticized sometimes for having only one month that truly captivates the nation. It's that single month where the Big East has failed to perform.

With the league's deal with Fox, it no longer has Big Mondays in January and February to draw in the casual viewer. Its ratings on Fox Sports 1 are pedestrian, to be polite. Until Saturday night, the Big East hadn't sold out a conference tournament game since the league was a 16-team behemoth led by Syracuse, Pittsburgh, UConn, Notre Dame and Louisville.

Since that last sellout, Syracuse and Louisville have both reached the Final Four and UConn has won a national championship. Last year, Notre Dame gave Kentucky all it could handle before falling by two in the Elite Eight. It's not a stretch to say the firepower is gone.

Something needs to change in the current Big East, and with all eyes on college basketball, now is the time it has to happen.

"I really would like us to get to a Final Four for the Big East," Wright said. "We love this league. And we want this league to get respect. But if we don't do it, I would love Xavier or Providence or Seton Hall."

Maybe Seton Hall is the answer for the Big East. The Pirates are making their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2006, but come in with momentum after knocking off two top-10 teams en route to the title. They haven't been infected with the Big East March stigma, simply because they haven't had a chance to.

So now, while the Pirates celebrate, they know they're not done.

"Whoever we play just better watch out," tournament MVP Isaiah Whitehead said. "When we get on the break, it's hard to stop us. It really doesn't matter who we play: we're up for the challenge."

The rest of the league better be up for the challenge, too.

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