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East's basketball comeback: leagues ahead

Not since La Salle in 1955 has a college team from the Northeast won a national basketball championship. Meanwhile, literally hundreds of good players from the region have been recruited to play elsewhere.

Eastern basketball is on the rebound, though, and some anticipate it will become a stronghold of powerful teams during the '80s. The most instrumental factor in this revival may be the creation of two major conferences -- the Big East and Eastern Eight.

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Before this, independents played each other in an jumble of games that made the area a "massive athletic labyrinth," to cite one apt description. Now there's a focus to the season -- a pair of league championships that generally pave the way to entries in the NCAA's national tournament.

Recent decisions to expand the NCAA tourney field have opened the door for new conferences to corner available postseason berths. Besides these plums, other incentives for joining forces are the shared income from end-of- season conference tournaments and league TV contracts.

The Big East's shoot-out moves into Syracuse University's 20,000-seat Carrier Dome this season, while a quartet of Eastern Eight semifinalists converge on Pittsburgh's Convention Center for the fourth straight year.

The two circuits comprise some rather strange bedfellows -- big and little schools, state and private institutions all mixed together.

For example, Syracuse and Seton Hall make a Mutt and Jeff pair in the Big East, while intracity rivals Pittsburgh and Duquesne offer the same sort of contrast in the Eastern Eight.

Other Big East members are Boston College, Connecticut, Georgetown, Providence, St. John's, and Villanova. Completing the Eastern Eight are George Washington, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Rutgers, St. Bonaventure, and West Virginia.

Both leagues have taken other sports, such as golf, tennis, and cross country , under their wings, yet basketball remains their bread and butter. In fact, for the Georgetowns, St. Bonaventures, and other nonfootball-playing schools, basketball may offer the only real chance for national exposure and athletic revenue.

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Unfortunately, the search for national recognition is partly undermined by the similar conference names, an almost certain source of confusion for casual fans. The Eastern Eight has been in existence five years, the Big East two years.

For the record, Georgetown (1943), St. John's (1952), and Villanova (1971) are the only members from either conference to reach the NCAA final, and none ever won a collegiate championship.

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