NEW YORK (AP) -The best indicator of how mighty the Big East was this season might not come from Detroit, where two of its teams are in the Final Four. It may be how well Notre Dame finishes in the NIT.
After all, the Irish were expected to contend for a national championship this season. Luke Harangody and Kyle McAlarney formed one of the nation's best inside-outside tandems, and there was plenty of depth and experience with three seniors in the starting five.
They didn't even finish in the top half of the league.
``I've been in the Big East nine years, and I've never seen anything like it,'' coach Mike Brey said. ``It was off the charts.''
After losing in the conference tournament to West Virginia, the NCAA tournament long ago removed from the picture, Brey stood before his guys in the locker room and said their new goal should be to return to Madison Square Garden two weeks later for the NIT title game.
They're one step away, playing Penn State in the semifinals Tuesday night. San Diego State and Baylor play in the other semifinal.
y, sounding not the least bit sarcastic. ``Penn State could kick our butt, but I'm glad I don't have to see any Big East teams here.''
Notre Dame (21-14) got caught in the spin cycle of one of the toughest conference schedules anyone can recall, an 18-game grind where the Irish lost seven straight, all but one of them to teams ranked in the top 20. They didn't snap out of that funk until February, when they routed conference champ Louisville by 33.
Yes, that Louisville. The overall top seed in the NCAA tournament.
The Irish wound up playing four games against Final Four teams, including three losses to Big East standard-bearers UConn and Villanova. They played a school-record 12 games against ranked opponents, and won three times against teams ranked in the top 10.
Makes this little 'ol NIT seem like intramurals.
``We had high hopes for the NCAAs early in the year,'' said McAlarney, who grew up on Staten Island. ``But to get back to New York and to win a championship would be a great thing for the program. I've never won a championship like this. This is the closest I've been.''
It's the closest most of the players in the tournament have been.
wins in the NIT.
Then there's Baylor (23-14), the once-downtrodden program that has overcome so much in the past four years. The Bears have never played a game in April and will be playing in New York for the first time since losing in the 1950 Final Four.
Curtis Jerrells, Kevin Rogers, Henry Dugat and Mamadou Diene are the winningest senior class in school history, even though they got to play only half their freshman season.
Baylor was still reeling from the shooting death of a player by his teammate when they arrived on campus in Waco, Texas. The NCAA penalized the program for a number of violations by not allowing the team to play a nonconference schedule their first year.
Slowly, coach Scott Drew rebuilt the program, peaking in last year's NCAA tournament.
Like every other team that ends up in the NIT, things didn't go as planned this season. Baylor lost 10 of its last 12 and was written off heading into the Big 12 tournament, where it upset Kansas and Texas before playing Missouri to the brink in the championship game.
The Bears didn't earn an NCAA tournament bid, but they earned even more respect.
``Scott Drew should be the coach of the decade for what he's done, dragging up a program that was dead in the water,'' said San Diego State coach Steve Fisher, who 20 years ago took over Michigan on the doorstep of the NCAA tournament and won a national championship.
lifer,'' Fisher added. ``He probably knew as a little kid what he was going to do.''
Baylor had arguably the toughest road to New York, beating Georgetown - another of those Big East teams brutalized by its conference schedule - before hitting the road to beat Virginia Tech and Auburn, the 63rd win for that foundation senior class.
One more would have them playing for the school's first NIT title.
``We're excited to be playing here, excited to play for a national tournament championship,'' Drew said. ``This group has come a long way.''

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