The UConn men’s basketball team is 24-2, is in contention for the Big East regular-season title and is ranked No. 1 in the country. The rigors of the conference’s sometimes murderous schedule haven’t derailed the Huskies.

The UConn men’s basketball team is 24-2, is in contention for the Big East regular-season title and is ranked No. 1 in the country. The rigors of the conference’s sometimes murderous schedule haven’t derailed the Huskies.

That didn’t stop Jim Calhoun from beginning a new campaign Thursday: Eighteen Big East games are too many, the UConn coach said, and he fears league teams will pay for it later.

“The league and the number of games, the only way is to cut it back, there’s no other way possible,” Calhoun said on the Big East coaches’ conference call. “I disagree with the 18 games. I think we’re paying too great a price of our teams. And we’re 24-2. We’re probably going to the NCAA tournament. I’m not moaning. I’m looking at it (from) an overview from a guy who’s 23 years in the league and loves the league and wants to see every team have a fair chance.

“The games are fair,” he continued. “The officiating has been very good all year. I was upset the other night (following UConn’s 76-68 loss to Pittsburgh) because it was a different type of game. But beyond that, it’s been great all year. But I want to see our teams and our coaches and our players succeed. I think the 18-game schedule is prohibitive.”

The league changed from a 16-game format to 18 games prior to last season, the same year it signed a six-year deal to have all its conference games broadcast on ESPN’s family of platforms.

After last season, in which the Big East had a record-tying eight teams qualify for the NCAA tournament, most coaches voiced their support of the change, which also gave every team a chance to play each other.

But in this season, regarded as perhaps the most competitive in Big East history, dissenters have been more common, especially after early national contenders (and now unranked) Notre Dame and Georgetown have wilted under their league slates.

Calhoun on Thursday was the most vocal.

“I personally think if one of us wins the national championship and we get maybe two teams to the Final Four, then I’ll say the (schedule) worked,” he said. “Conversely, if nobody gets to the Final Four — and we have Final Four (caliber) teams in our league — have we paid too great a price for the regular season? That’s the question I’m asking.

“It’s just an incredible league,” Calhoun later added. “But I think we have to protect ourselves. That’s my worry.”

Pittsburgh coach Jamie Dixon has expressed concern of the 18-game schedule’s impact on teams’ NCAA tournament hopes and seeding, and the results largely back him up. Since expanding to 16 teams in 2005, the league has had just one team reach the Final Four (Georgetown, 2007), and no Big East has earned a No. 1 seed in the last two years.

“It’s just a gauntlet that we go through that other leagues don’t,” Dixon said Thursday.

Louisville coach Rick Pitino agreed with Calhoun, but doesn’t expect any immediate changes.

“I think if you’re in Conference-USA or five to six different conferences, 18 games would be fine. I’m sure that Memphis enjoys that,” he said. “In the Big East, 18 games is overpowering. … But it doesn’t matter what we think. They signed a contract because of money, to play 18 games with ESPN. It’s all money-driven. So although Jim is correct and I may agree and everybody else concurs, it doesn’t matter. We’re playing 18 games.”

Rutgers coach Fred Hill said because of Calhoun’s reputation and longevity in the league, “what he has to say, people should listen to.” Furthermore, Hill cited concerns of combining an 18-game schedule with a challenging non-conference slate, creating a tight-rope Big East teams have had to walk the last two seasons.

Hill said he’s scheduled North Carolina, North Carolina State and Florida, plus two games in an exempt tournament where Rutgers will likely see “two other BCS-type teams” next season.

“That’s a very tough task,” Hill said, though he’s already seen the impact it’s had this season. “When you play within the league and beat each other up so much, I think you’re starting to see the middle of the league starting to clump together because of everybody beating up on everybody.”

Norwich Bulletin