As the Big East finishes up its second season with the conference tournament in New York this week, to be followed by an NCAA tournament in which the league is expected to receive six bids, it's easy to figure things had to turn out this way for the new alliance of schools who remained faithful to basketball.

"I think those within the league are not surprised. We knew it would shake out like this, and that, once the smoke cleared, the Big East would be one of the best basketball conferences," Georgetown coach John Thompson III said. "I always felt people talked about who was gone, but, at the end of the day, look who's still here. We're not going anywhere."

Thompson is entitled to that opinion and certainly has the bloodlines to be defiantly proud of the conference's traditional place among the hoops elite, but he and all the other Big East coaches know the sincere debt they owe to Villanova for sticking a flag in the ground these last two seasons.

It's one thing to put together a new league and tell everyone the league is good. It is quite another to have a team that places itself among the top of the national rankings and lifts the other schools in the process.

If the Big East had begun with most of its better programs on a downtick, which happens sometimes, that first impression would have been hard to shake. Villanova was ranked No. 6 in the country in the final poll a year ago, with a 28-3 regular-season record. The Wildcats and Creighton were the only nationally ranked teams, and their status allowed conference opponents to be pulled along in their wake. Four Big East teams were awarded NCAA tournament bids.

This season, Villanova enters its opening game of the Big East tournament on Thursday with a 29-2 record and the No. 4 ranking in the nation. Some other schools have had good years - Butler is No. 22 and Georgetown No. 23 in the final poll - but the Wildcats have once again been the anchor store in the mall.

"As well as Villanova has played all year, they've not only been our flagship, but the level at which they've played has proven the depth of the league and the talent of the league and given us a chance to highlight all the good teams in the league," Kevin Willard, the Seton Hall coach, said. "That's very important, and the way they've played is very important."

The formula for establishing credibility isn't complicated, but it isn't easy to pull it off, either. Schools have to be willing to play difficult nonconference schedules prior to the league season in order to establish their own solid RPI and ranking going into the rest of the year. For the most part, the Big East schools accepted that principle and, this year, five teams have nonconference RPI's ranked among the top 30 in the country. Once that profile is in place, then wins and losses in the conference really do mean something.

Wright is diplomatic when it comes to crediting the Villanova program for either saving or legitimizing the new Big East with its two highly ranked teams in the league's first seasons.

"I think that's important, but what's more important is having a number of teams in the top 25 and having a fourth or fifth team around 30 or 32," Wright said. "Then you have every team getting a shot at not just great RPI wins, but great crowds and great exposure. Us being in the top 10, we didn't play many places all year that wasn't sold out and a crazy environment. When Seton Hall beat us early this year, they went right into the top 25. That's good for the league."

Six bids for the 10-team conference would be a real validation, particularly considering the list of strong defections in recent years that included Connecticut, Syracuse, Pitt, Louisville, Notre Dame, West Virginia, and Cincinnati - schools that went off to chase the golden gridiron. It was only four years ago that the Big East received 11 bids to the NCAA tournament, a record that will never be broken.

The little guys left behind were expected by some to drift to a middling level, but that hasn't been the case. The Big East is ranked behind only the Big 12 for overall conference RPI this season, and Villanova has a good chance to emerge from that cauldron with a No. 1 seed in the upcoming NCAA tournament.

"Villanova has done what it was supposed to and then some," Creighton coach Greg McDermott said. "The way they've been able to dominate games in a league that is very good is very impressive."

"Obviously, the success that Jay and 'Nova have had with quality teams the last two years has helped the conference without a doubt," Thompson said. "But the other nine programs have done their job, too."

Maybe so, but not quite as well, and not quite at the very time the Big East needed a school to step up and prove the league was very much still alive. Eventually, the other guys might thank Wright, but they'll start this week by trying to kick his butt in the conference tournament.

That's always been the way in the Big East, too, and it is one more thing that didn't change in the last two seasons.