Despite a long and impressive career, Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw has never won a Big East tournament championship. This could be her last chance with the top-seeded Fighting Irish possibly leaving the ever-changing conference as soon as July.
The Big East football and basketball schools are working toward finalizing a divorce that could lead Notre Dame to hasten its move to the Atlantic Coast Conference. Or maybe the Irish will compete for a season with the basketball schools next season in a conference that is expected to keep the name Big East.
Regardless, this Big East tournament, which begins Friday in Hartford, Conn., will be the last of its kind.
"This has a different feel to it," McGraw said. "It's kind of like you're a senior in college. This is the last time we're seeing this team and that team."
McGraw has cherished the Irish's time in the Big East since the school joined in 1995.
"I've always said joining the Big East was the best thing to happen Notre Dame women's basketball," she said. "It got us into a league that has catapulted us into the national limelight. One of the main reasons our program has had the success we've had is because of this conference."
Rutgers, which joined the Big East went it first started playing football in 1991, is slated for at least one more season with the football schools before moving to the Big Ten.
"It's sad because at one point I think the Big East Conference was the most powerful conference in the country bar none," Rutgers coach C. Vivian Stringer said. "By the time we added Miami and Virginia Tech, who could ask for anything more? We had to be the envy of the world. I don't think we necessarily knew that."
Notre Dame (28-1 and ranked No. 2 in the nation) went undefeated in the conference, including a thrilling triple-overtime win over Connecticut on Monday night. The Irish, led by All-America point guard Skylar Diggins, will now try and win an elusive conference tournament title. They have made the championship game six times and lost each one to the Huskies, including the past two.
That's the Irish's only loss to UConn in the past seven meetings. A run that no team has been able to muster against UConn since the Huskies won their first national championship in 1995.
"That was one of our goals to win the tournament title," McGraw said. "That would be a great way for Sky to end her career to add that to her resume."
McGraw admitted she didn't talk about winning titles this year as much with her young team because she didn't want to add undue pressure on the Irish. She just wanted them to play their best basketball in March.
It may seem a foregone conclusion that UConn and Notre Dame will meet in the championship game for a third straight year since they were 28-0 against the rest of the conference this season -- winning by an average of 32 points. Still, Notre Dame was taken to overtime by eighth-seeded South Florida, which the Irish could meet in the quarterfinals Sunday, while UConn only beat St. John's by six points.
"I think a lot of the tournament depends on your bench," McGraw said. "You need to be prepared for the three games. We're going to face somebody good in each one. I've played a short bench for the last few games."
Besides the top two seeds, Louisville and Syracuse also earned byes to the quarterfinals.
The Red Storm finished fifth under rookie coach Joe Tartamella.
"This really has been a special conference," said Tartamella, who was a long-time assistant at the school before taking over this season. "I remember playing the tournament at Rutgers and certainly it's been great in Hartford. But everyone will land on their feet and play somewhere next season."
Villanova and DePaul also earned first round byes.
Jose Fernandez's South Florida squad pulled off probably the two biggest upsets of the season, knocking off Louisville and Syracuse in consecutive games. The Bulls will face Rutgers in their opener. Stringer got her 900th career victory against Fernandez's team last month.
Marquette, Georgetown, Seton Hall, Cincinnati, Providence and Pittsburgh will play Friday in the opening round. Pitt will try and snap a 34-game conference losing streak when the 15th-seeded Panthers play Marquette on Friday.
Pitt has gone 0-16 in the conference the last two seasons. The Panthers last beat a Big East opponent in the opening round of the 2011 tournament.
Follow Doug on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/dougfeinberg