NEW YORK – Jay Wright loves the Big East tournament. Really loves it. You won’t believe how much he loves it.
Really, you won’t.
“Winning this to me … we’ve never won, but winning this to me, because this is where I’m from, the East, is almost as important as going to the Final 4,” Wright said.
Umm … Jay?
“I know I’ll get in trouble for that, but it’s the truth,” Wright said. “I just love what it stands for. Everybody from the Northeast being in New York for this tournament. …
“The Big East tournament is one of the greatest basketball tournaments in the country.”
Seems like crazy talk. But Wright is trying to get across the point that he sees the Big East tournament as an important, fun, exciting few days in New York, not just a meaningless exercise that does little except cement a team’s seeding in the NCAA tournament.
Villanova opens play in the Big East tournament at noon Thursday at Madison Square Garden against Seton Hall, a 51-50 winner over Butler Wednesday night. Villanova beat Seton Hall by 16 and 17 points this year.
“This time of year is always fun, because you get a new start,” Wright said. “When you’re having a bad year and you get to this tournament, it’s not about your season, it’s about, ‘We’re going to go play in a three-day tournament and that’s fun.’ And when you have a good team it’s even more fun.”
Wright has one of his best teams ever this year. Villanova, 28-3 and ranked No. 3 in the country, is the top seed in the Big East tournament for the first time since 1997.
The conference has undergone monumental changes, losing Syracuse, UConn, Pitt and several other big-time programs and adding Creighton -- which handed the Wildcats their only two conference losses -- along with Xavier and Butler.
Villanova last won the Big East tourney in 1995. The Wildcats haven’t even made the championship game since 2004. They’re 2-5 in their last seven conference tourney games.
Although conventional wisdom has Villanova meeting No. 14 Creighton Saturday night in the title game, there are several other formidable teams in the 10-team tournament.
Providence, Xavier and St. John’s have 20 wins each and are NCAA bubble teams. They need wins in New York more than Villanova and Creighton.
“I think this tournament is going to be pretty wide open,” Wright said. “The chance of us getting to the final is going to be tough, the chance of Creighton getting to the final is tough.
“I’ve heard people talking about that, but there’s a lot of really good teams in between.”
Clearly, the new Big East conference isn’t as powerful as the old Big East, but Wright said the new conference is strong in its own way, presenting different kinds of challenges for Villanova.
Wright points to the conference’s No. 4 composite RPI, even without Pitt, UConn, Syracuse, etc.
“This was just as difficult a league in a different way,” Wright said. “Going to Creighton … Creighton was just a style we’ve never really played against. Going at Butler and at Xavier were really different environments that we hadn’t seen and different styles of play.
“It was a challenging year, it was just different. Like when we would go at Louisville or at Connecticut, we were used to that kind of play. We were built to play against that. We struggled with Butler at Butler, we won at overtime.
“It’s just a different basketball philosophy, and they play a different style. They play very cerebral, close-to-the-vest, they keep you in a close game. It was challenging in a different way.
“Playing everybody twice was really cool, but there’s a new challenge to that. By the end of the year, we all knew each other really well. I think the fans knew the teams really well.”