After a month of play, the Big East has proved it's just as good as any conference in the country. Several teams have had big wins so far (Seton Hall, Syracuse, and Notre Dame), and the conference currently has an AP-record 8 teams in the top 25. Other teams have had early upsets though (Louisville, Marquette). At this point in regular season, it's a little too early to nail down each team's true identity, but there's just enough to start the conversation. Some of these points may prove to be true, others may turn out just the opposite. Whatever does happen, though, is what helps make college basketball the most exciting sport around.
Syracuse Basketball is Back
Jim Boeheim's squad is finally healthy and ready to make a deep run in the NCAA tourney. The only loss for the Orange from last year is Donte Green who made an early exit to the NBA, but Eric Devendorf has taken his place after an injury plagued 2007 campaign, and has picked where he left off in putting up 15 ppg. Jonny Flynn brings tremendous speed to the team and is very dangerous from beyond the arc, shooting 42% on the year. Arinze Onuaku and Paul Harris have provided solid play in the low post with 13.5 and 12.5 ppg, respectively. ‘Cuse has made an early statement so far in knocking off two ranked teams in Florida and Kansas to win the CBE championship. What seems to be the most impressive part of their season thus far is the win against Kansas, where the Orange switched from their signature 2-3 zone to man-to-man coverage to rally from a 13-point deficit in the second half to force overtime and take home the crown. This team has a nice balance from top to bottom, and has a great shot at a bye in the Big East Tournament.
Biggest Surprise: Seton Hall
The Pirates are off to their best start in 8 years after a solid run in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off, sporting big wins over 21st ranked USC and a Virginia Tech team that should make the dance come March. Jeremy Hazell leads the way with 21.8 points per game, 3rd overall in the Big East, and John Garcia is providing balance down low with 10 and 10 per game. The biggest improvement overall from last year? Defending the 3-ball. Seton Hall's 3-point field goal percentage on defense is tops in the Big East at 22.4%, compared to 37% last year. Despite Garcia's performance up to this point, the biggest weakness for the Pirates is rebounding (36.7 per game, 14th in the Big East). In order for this team to make any noise in conference play against physical teams like Notre Dame and Louisville, they'll have to get it done on the boards.
Samardo Samuels is Living Up To The Hype
On an absolutely loaded Louisville team, of which the other four starters consist of three juniors and a senior, Samuels has dominated, putting up 18 points per game, 6 more than the next player. At 6'8" he brings good size to play in the low post, and should improve on pulling down more than 6 boards a game. Coach Pitino's main issues with Samuels are defense and his ego, but given the Godfather's track record, he should have no problems with keeping this kid level-headed. Sure, the competition of Morehead State and South Alabama are not comparable to the Big East, and the WKU loss was a bit disappointing, but Samuels has certainly made some early noise on a very talented team with hopes of a Final Four run. Look for him to make a convincing bid for Big East freshman of the year.
Marquette is Overrated
Last Saturday's performance was the worst I've seen from the Golden Eagles in quite some time. The Dayton Flyers out-classed Marquette in every phase of the game in the Chicago Invitational. Free throws have plagued this team for several years now, and Saturday was no different. As a team Marquette shot 64% from the line, and if you exclude Wes Matthews' 14-17 stats, the rest shot a paltry 47%. Coupling that with shooting 20% from beyond the arc for a team who lives and dies by the 3-ball makes for an ugly night. Ok, let's say that they just had a bad night of shooting. Every team has an off night, right? There are still several factors ailing this team. One of these is Buzz Williams entry as head coach. He's bringing a new offensive scheme to a team of which 3 of the 5 starters played under a different system for 3 years. The other main issue is an inside presence. Having a solid big man has troubled Marquette for several years now, and after losing Ousmane Barro it's more apparent than ever before. The Golden Eagles run a 3-guard set like last year, but this year features 6'8 Dwight Burke down low, who has never averaged more than 3 points a game, and still doesn't. Buzz has even run a 4-guard set a few times this year, replacing Burke with Maurice Acker, and having Hayward on the wing looks closer to a 5-guard set. This strategy hasn't quite blown up on Marquette yet due to the lack of competition, but teams like Notre Dame, Louisville, and Georgetown will tear it apart in conference play. For this team to have any success in the Big East and the NCAA tourney this year, they need to rely on their speed to get inside looks and control the tempo through a full-court offense.
Notre Dame Will Repeat Last Season's Success
ND's only loss from last year is power forward Rob Kurz, who has been replaced by redshirt freshman Carleton Scott. The rest of the crew is back, and is unchanged from last year. What Notre Dame does well is run the half-court offense. Kyle McAlarney is one of the best shooting guards in the country, and is currently making more than half of his shots from beyond the arc. Luke Harangody speaks for himself. He's averaging more than 20 and 10 per game, and is surprisingly quick for a big man; there's no reason he shouldn't be in the final running for a second Big East Player of the Year award. Tory Jackson has improved nicely and runs the offense well with 6 assists per game. So what continues to be Notre Dame's weakness? Speed. This was very apparent against North Carolina last Wednesday. On any given full-court play, the Tarheels had scored by the time Notre Dame made it across half-court. As for Notre Dame's eventual finish, they'll have a great regular season, and should finish in the top 15 as well as the top 4 in the Big East. Come tournament time, however, a speedy team like Syracuse could send them home early once again.