Who's Big Now?

By Jeff Lippman - March 26, 2008

The Big 12 can eat its heart out.

They may have been 8-0 in the first round, but the second round was a whole other story. Only two Big 12 teams remain - No. 2 Texas A&M and No. 3 Oklahoma State. So what happened to the other six?

The Big East happened.

Top-seeded Maryland beat Nebraska. The other five remaining Big 12 teams were victims of the real best conference in women's hoops.

So after one round, the Big 12 was king. After two, with five remaining teams, two more than any other conference, that title belongs to the beasts from the Big East. Shoot, even the ACC and SEC have more teams left than the Big 12 at three apiece.

But the story here is not even the fact that over 30 percent of the remaining NCAA Tournament teams are from the Big East. It's the fact that those five schools aren't content with just making the Sweet 16. They are some of the hottest teams in America and they all believe they can make it to Tampa.

"We feel like nobody can beat us," said Louisville junior Candyce Bingham, who had 12 points, 10 boards and seven assists in the Cardinals big win over the Big 12's Kansas State.

Louisville's leading scorer and one of the best offensive and defensive players in the nation, Angel McCoughtry, scored 24 points in the 80-63 win and added: "We definitely feel good right now, being a part of history. But we're not going to be content. We are going to try to go as far as we can. We're thinking about Tampa, all the way."

The Cardinals have won 13 of their past 15 games and are simply flying around the court right now. This isn't the same team that lost to Western Carolina and Minnesota back-to-back early in the year. They are fast and tough and they have one of the best players in the game on their side.

Up next for Louisville is a date with top-seeded North Carolina in New Orleans Saturday. The Tar Heels looked mortal in their game against Georgia, but will definitely be the toughest challenge yet for Jeff Walz' team.

And like Louisville's McCoughtry, 5-seeded Notre Dame has a player who can put her team on her shoulders. And she did in their second round game against - again - the Big 12's 4-seed Oklahoma.

The Sooners took Notre Dame to overtime and seemed to have an answer each time the Irish tried to distance themselves. They didn't have any answer for senior Charel Allen, who scored 35 points and made all the big plays down the stretch.

"I just had the mentality that we were not leaving here without a win because I have never been to the Sweet 16," Allen said.

In one of the biggest upsets in the second round, 6th-seeded Pittsburgh showed the Big 12's 3-seed Baylor what being from the Big East is all about.

"I think that our team being from the east, in Pittsburgh, I don't know if they were intimidated as much with Baylor as they would be with Connecticut," said Pitt coach Agnus Berenato. "Now the staff, we know basketball, but I was really confident we were going to the Sweet 16."

The Panthers have several difference makers who can all come up huge for Berenato.

Senior guard Mallorie Winn was named preseason All-Big East first team in 2006-07 before redshirting the season with a knee injury. She's playing the best basketball of her career. Junior guard Shavonte Zellous stepped up in Winn's absence last year and earned Winn's spot on the All-Big East first team. And senior Marcedes Walker was Pitt's first All-American in 16 years. Throw in sophomore guard Sophronia Sallard, who is coming into her own this postseason, and the Panthers are a force to be reckoned with.

They'll need to be in the Sweet 16, as they will be facing Stanford.

As for the other two Big East programs to advance, they don't just have aspirations of making a trip to Tampa in April. Anything less would be the ultimate failure for Rutgers and Connecticut.

And after the Scarlet Knights used their "55" defense to perfection in pasting Iowa State and Connecticut got a Player of the Year-type performance from Maya Moore in their spanking of Texas - both Big 12 teams, mind you - the Big East's best look like exactly what they are.

Because being the best two teams in the Big East means you are more than likely among the best teams in the nation. And this year, if you were any seed from one to six - except for 5-seeded West Virginia in Spokane, who dropped a close one to Vanderbilt - and you played in the Big East, than you are one of the 16 best teams in the nation. And that is pretty sweet.

Posted by Jeff Lippman at 10:41 AM on March 26, 2008

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