***Game of the Weekend: No. 12 Marquette (21-4, 8-2) at No. 23 Georgetown (17-5, 7-2. In a pretty good weekend of Big East games, this one stands head and shoulders above the rest. The winner assumes second-place in the conference behind Pittsburgh. Some could argue that the winner of the game might actually be the best team in the league right now. Tip-off is at noon on Saturday and ESPN will have the television coverage.
The Golden Eagles are as hot as anyone in the nation. After starting out 0-2 in the Big East, Marquette has rolled off eight straight conference wins. They're led by the dynamic backcourt duo of Dominic James and Jerel McNeal. Both are quick and can shoot from the perimeter. More importantly, they can drive on defenses, creating easy scoring chances for themselves and teammates. If the Golden Eagles win this weekend, their resume keeps looking better for a great NCAA Tournament seed. They are the only team to win at Pittsburgh this season. A victory also could set up a titanic showdown in the regular season finale at home versus the Panthers.
As for Georgetown, they are finally playing like all the pundits expected them to when ranking them in the preseason top-10. After losing back-to-back contests in mid-January, the Hoyas have rolled off six straight league wins all by eight points or more. They are first in the Big East in scoring defense, holding teams to 56 points a game. On offense, Georgetown plays a deliberate, slow down style but it translates into high quality shots. They're first in the conference in field goal percentage and first in stat-guru Ken Pomeroy's adjusted offensive efficiency rankings. 6-9 Jeff Green can do it all on the court, creating mismatch problems for opposing defenses. 7-2 monster Roy Hibbert is tied with Green for the team-high in scoring at 12.6 PPG. He's scored in double figures in five of the past six contests and should be a handful on Saturday for Marquette.
The storylines for this game are everywhere. How can James and McNeal solve the stingy Hoya defense? Can Hibbert continue his solid play? Both these teams are hot and the winner will keep the ball rolling, maybe all the way to a Big East title.
***Other storylines to follow: How will the Big East fair in two big non-conference tilts this weekend? This will be the second time in less than a month when two league teams step out of conference play. On that weekend, the Big East went 1-1 when Villanova downed Texas and Indiana defeated Connecticut.
In this instance, it might be another split. No. 2 UCLA travels cross country on Saturday to play West Virginia. Tip-off in Morgantown is at 1 PM and CBS will have the television coverage. On Sunday, ACC-member Georgia Tech goes up north to play at Connecticut. CBS will also carry this contest and tip-off is at 1 PM.
After eight teams in the NCAA Tournament and two No. 1 seeds last year, the Big East is currently seventh in the conference RPI ratings. It would be a much bigger impact if the Mountaineers could pull the upset over the Bruins. Icing on the cake would be a Husky victory over the Yellow Jackets.
Expect a low scoring affair between West Virginia and UCLA. The Mountaineers are second in the Big East in scoring defense while Ben Howland's Bruins play defense as good as anyone in the nation. If West Virginia can use the home cooking and three-point shot to their advantage, the upset is possible. The Mountaineers make 10 baskets from behind the arc a contest, which is first in the conference.
***Who has a better shot of reaching the NCAA Tournament: Providence or Syracuse? Both teams are on the bubble. The Friars escaped with a 71-70 home win over last place Cincinnati this week to improve to 15-7 overall and 5-4 in the Big East. The Orange have lost four of five, including a 67-60 defeat on Big Monday at Connecticut. Syracuse now stands at 16-8 overall and 5-5 in league play.
Let's compare these two teams. Providence is 48th in the RPI while the Orange are at 63. Both have five wins over the RPI's Top-100 teams but Syracuse's road win at No. 12 Marquette stands out as the biggest among the two. The Friars have played the harder schedule and hold a half game lead on the Orange right now.
Both these teams have some work to do. Providence can really help themselves this weekend. They travel to face No. 6 Pittsburgh on Saturday night. Tip-off is at 6PM and ESPN will have the television coverage. A huge road win over a top-10 team would rev up the NCAA Tournament talk for the Friars. The Orange have an easier contest, playing host to St. John's on Sunday. Tip-off is scheduled for 2 PM.
This debate might be decided on February 24th. That's when Syracuse travels on the road to face Providence. The Big East won't get eight teams in the Big Dance this season. These two programs, along with Villanova, will be scratching and clawing for these final few at-large berths.