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After near destruction, Big East the king of the hardwood

DETROIT - OK, so maybe it wasn't the end of college sports as we know it.

Six years after commissioner Mike Tranghese predicted doom if his conference lost schools to the Atlantic Coast Conference, the Big East is doing just fine, thank you.

Exhibit A: Take a look at the Final Four, where Big East teams UConn and Villanova make up half the bracket.

'I sat there and basically took a look at what we'd been and what we were about to become, and it wasn't very encouraging,' Tranghese said Thursday. 'A lot of little things happened along the way to hold things together.'

That the Big East exists, let alone thrives, seems like something of a sports miracle given where this league was back in 2003.

Facing the destruction of his conference at league meetings, Tranghese famously said the defections of Miami and Virginia Tech, and later Boston College, would trigger 'the most disastrous blow to intercollegiate athletics in my lifetime.'

He will not touch the subject of who ended up better in that deal. Suffice it to say that when Tranghese sits down Saturday night to watch his last Final Four as commissioner, he'll be the only one with a team in both games.

Connecticut plays Michigan State, and Villanova plays North Carolina.

'They've been tremendous basketball leagues since the Big East was started,' ACC commissioner John Swofford said. 'These were two of the best basketball leagues then, and they are now. That hasn't changed.'

The Big East, in fact, has never been in better shape.

Not as many are saying that about the ACC, which is closing out what many experts said was a weak NCAA tournament, even with the Tar Heels in the Final Four. They sent seven teams to the tourney and have seven wins - a whopping three by the six teams not called North Carolina.

'I don't necessarily think the postseason was reflective of overall play in the league throughout the year, and that's unfortunate,' Swofford said.

But football is where the money's at in college sports, and the ACC has yet to produce the show-stopping results it was hoping for.

Since the expansion, no ACC football team has been in serious contention for the national title, and its only BCS berths have been the automatic ones. As for that revenue-rich title game that was behind the ACC's push to add Miami, Virginia Tech and one more school (which turned out to be Boston College), well, let's just say it's a work in progress. The idea was Florida State-Miami in the winner-take-BCS game, not so much the back-to-back Boston College-Virginia Tech matchups of 2007-08.

Last year's game drew 27,360 to Tampa's Raymond James Stadium. There are spring games in the SEC with bigger draws.

But Swofford, who was looking for long-term stability for a conference that only had nine teams then, still sees the move as an overall success. And Tranghese insists he doesn't spend a moment tallying the ACC's wins and losses.

'He's never come to me and said 'How are you guys doing?' I've never gone to him and said, 'How's it working out for you?' Tranghese said. 'I honestly don't know.'

All Tranghese needs to know is the Big East is on solid footing and not alongside the Southwestern Conference in the trash bin of history, as many originally feared.

'I've never dealt with anything even close to it,' Tranghese said. 'Very, very difficult. It's a heck of a burden when you're sitting there and you're going to be the one who's going to usher in the demise of schools and programs.'

SideBar: Final Four

Where: Ford Field, Detroit

Semifinals:

Saturday

· Michigan State (30-6) vs. Connecticut (31-4), 6:07 p.m.

· Villanova (30-7) vs. North Carolina (32-4), 8:47 p.m.

National Championship

Monday

· Semifinal winners

TV: CBS