NEW YORK (AP) – The best indicator of how mighty the Big East was this season might not come from Detroit, where two of its teams are in the Final Four. It may be how well Notre Dame finishes in the NIT.

After all, the Irish were expected to contend for a national championship this season. Luke Harangody and Kyle McAlarney formed one of the nation’s best inside-outside tandems, and there was plenty of depth and experience with three seniors in the starting five. They didn’t even finish in the top half of the league.

“I’ve been in the Big East nine years, and I’ve never seen anything like it,” coach Mike Brey said. “It was off the charts.”

After losing in the conference tournament to West Virginia, the NCAA tournament long ago removed from the picture, Brey stood before his guys in the locker room and said their new goal should be to return to Madison Square Garden two weeks later for the NIT title game.

They’re one step away, playing Penn State in the semifinals Tuesday night. San Diego State and Baylor play in the other semifinal.

“I’m glad we don’t have to play any Big East teams here,” Brey said Monday, sounding not the least bit sarcastic. “Penn State could kick our butt, but I’m glad I don’t have to see any Big East teams here.”

Notre Dame (21-14) got caught in the spin cycle of one of the toughest conference schedules anyone can recall, an 18-game grind where the Irish lost seven straight, all but one of them to teams ranked in the top 20. They didn’t snap out of that funk until February, when they routed conference champ Louisville by 33.

Yes, that Louisville. The overall top seed in the NCAA tournament.

The Irish wound up playing four games against Final Four teams, including three losses to Big East standard-bearers UConn and Villanova. They played a school-record 12 games against ranked opponents, and won three times against teams ranked in the top 10.

Makes this little ‘ol NIT seem like intramurals.

“We had high hopes for the NCAAs early in the year,” said McAlarney, who grew up on Staten Island. “But to get back to New York and to win a championship would be a great thing for the program. I’ve never won a championship like this. This is the closest I’ve been.”

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