Big East Basketball: The Stretch Run
With only two weeks left, there's still plenty to talk about in the Big East. Some teams have been pleasant surprises (Providence, Marquette) and others not so much (Georgetown, Notre Dame). But to those of you who need to catch up on the action, here's what you need to know about what's happened and what to look for down the road.
The Good: UConn, Pitt, Louisville, Marquette, Villanova, and Providence
The Huskies are back at a familiar spot, being a top-tier team and a potential 1-seed come March 19. The loss of Jerome Dyson was a major hit to their perimeter play, and it certainly showed in their home loss to Pitt, but this is a very talented team capable of making a deep run in March.
Pittsburgh, wow, I haven't seen a team this mentally and physically tough in quite some time. My favorite play of the season thus far came against UConn when DeJuan Blair threw Hasheem Thabeet over his back and to the ground, showing just how tough the Big East is. The Panthers currently lead the country in offensive efficiency and offensive rebounding %.
After stumbling out of the gate, Louisville looks like the pre-season team they were hyped to be, with quality wins over Villanova and Pitt. The Cardinals are certainly getting things done in the post and on the wing, with Earl Clark, Samardo Samuels, and Terrence Williams all putting up 12+ ppg, but the main weakness in this lineup is the point guard position. Edgar Sosa tends to have emotional problems that overcome his performance during games, a factor that can kill any tournament run.
Marquette's experience has given them several big conference wins this season, and has a great shot at a 4-seed in the Big East Tournament. This group of players is turning out to be one of the best in Marquette history, as Jerel McNeal is the all-time leader in points and steals, and Dominic James is second all-time in assists. The Golden Eagles are sitting pretty at 12-2 in conference play, but their last 4 games (vs. UConn, at Pitt, at Louisville, vs. Syracuse) will be their toughest test of the season by far.
‘Nova has quietly gone on a tear with Big wins over Pitt and Marquette, and is showing how incredibly tough they are at home, their only loss in Philly being to Louisville where the Wildcats missed three shots under the rim before time expired. Like Marquette, they're undersized but have great guard play, and can utilize both a zone and man-to-man defense. Getting blown out in Morgantown last week was a painful loss, but with Pitt, UConn, and Louisville all out of the way, Villanova will be putting up a good fight for the fourth seed in the Big East Tournament.
Keno Davis has already made a splash in his first year as Providence's head coach. After an abysmal 6-12 record in BE play last year, the Friars have a great shot at going at least 9-9 with a game at Rutgers left on the schedule. Their only quality conference win was against Syracuse, but they haven't lost to anybody worse then themselves. They're shooting over 50% from inside the arc, and are third in the conference in scoring with 79 ppg. Plus, if any serious conflict should arise during a game, Jeff Xavier's brother John will make sure it gets resolved by storming the court and arguing with the refs.
The Bad: DePaul, Rutgers, South Florida, St. John's
This article from The Daily Targum sums up the cellar dwellers the best:
The Ugly: Notre Dame, Georgetown, West Virginia, Cincy, Seton Hall, Syracuse
What happened here? More than half the teams from this grouping were supposed to be what made the Big East an absolutely brutal conference this year. Instead, they all got beaten up. After losing 7 of their last 9 conference games, Notre Dame looks like they just don't want to play anymore. After their big road win at UConn, Georgetown has fallen off the map. Did anybody predict these two teams wouldn't make the dance?
Syracuse is right on the cusp of being a good team, but you can't skate by on a .500 record (7-7 now) and label yourself as a good team. However, their quality non-conference wins over Florida and Kansas will look very nice on their resume in front of the tournament committee. If Arinze Onuaku stays healthy, this team can become very dangerous in March.
West Virginia is a very solid team fundamentally, and is a top-tier team in terms of both offensive and defensive efficiency. Like Providence, they've beaten everybody that they should beat, but the difference is their lack of experience has caused them to come up short in big games (two of their major contributors, Devin Ebanks, and Darryl Bryant, are both freshmen). Watch for this team in the Big East Tournament and the NCAA Tournament, as they're very capable of pulling off a big upset.
As for Seton Hall and Cincy, they're hovering right around mediocrity. Cincy is a young team and shoots poorly, but they're getting better, and have beaten Georgetown twice this season (for whatever that's worth). After a brutal start, the Pirates ripped off 5 wins in a row, and can potentially finish at 8-10 if they beat South Florida and Cincinnati (yes, I'm already chalking up the games against Pitt and Louisville as losses). Seton Hall forces a lot of turnovers, but they're a horrendous rebounding team, and rarely get to the free throw line, two major factors of a great team.
Big East Tourney Preview:
This year marks a major change in the Big East Tournament, as all 16 teams are invited (At least DePaul fans now have something to cheer about, right?). Seeds 1-4 receive a double-bye and seeds 5-8 a single-bye. Clearly there's plenty of time for the standings to change, but here's my initial projection:
8. West Virginia
10. Notre Dame
12. Seton Hall
13. South Florida
14. St. John's
Projected Winner: Pittsburgh
A couple reasons for Pitt winning it all. One, their toughness. Any team that can rattle off multiple wins in a row against tough competition needs the mental and physical capacity to do so. To those who are skeptical of this, last week's Pitt/UConn game tells you all you need to know. The other reason? Track record. The Panthers have gone to the title game 7 of the past 8 years. The main reason for this success, other than talent, is that a lot of Pitt players tend to come from the NYC-Metro area, making the BE Tourney feel like a semi-home game. This year is no different, as 3 major contributors, Levance Fields, Tyrell Biggs, and Brad Wanamaker, all live within shouting distance of Madison Square Garden.