First Round Tournament Preview

The Big East Tournament starts on Wednesday in New York City. Madison Square Garden will once again host the event between March 7-10. The top four seeds in the conference earned byes and will play on Thursday. There is no reseeding in the league tournament. ESPN will televise all four games on Wednesday and here's a preview of the contests.

***No. 9 Villanova (21-9) vs. No. 8 DePaul (18-12) at noon. Even with a loss to the Blue Demons, the Wildcats will probably still go to the NCAA Tournament. They have a right RPI ranking at 18 and have five wins over top-50 opponents, including Texas, Georgetown and Notre Dame. Also, a 9-7 mark in the Big East helps. Scottie Reynolds, the conference Freshman of the Year, has carried Villanova down the stretch and is as hot as anyone in the league. He's scored 18 points or more in the final five games of the year, including 40 in a victory at Connecticut. Reynolds, along with Big East first-team member Curtis Sumpter (17 PPG), provides a powerful one-two scoring punch for the Wildcats.

DePaul's road to the Big Dance is fuzzy. The Blue Demons did beat Kansas, Notre Dame and Marquette this season but still are at 18-12 on the year. More than likely, they'll need to beat Villanova and then top-seeded Georgetown to get into the NCAA Tournament. One criteria that's helping DePaul is strength of schedule, which is 34th in the nation. The Blue Demons also won five of their last six contests. Forward Wilson Chandler (14 PPG and 7 RPG) and guard Sammy Mejia (14 PPG and 6 RPG) both made the all-conference second-team. They'll need to shine at the Garden for DePaul to advance.

***No. 5 Syracuse (21-9) vs. No. 12 Connecticut (17-13) at 2 PM. In the past, this game was usually reserved for the Big East semifinals or championship. But the Huskies' young team never could get it together. UCONN lost four of their last five contests to end a season of misery for head coach Jim Calhoun. The two bright spots were sophomore forward Jeff Adrien (13.9 PPG and 9.7 RPG), who was selected on the all-league second-team, and freshman Jerome Dyson (13.6 PPG), a unanimous selection for the All-Rookie Team. They could salvage their season by crushing the Big Dance hopes of Syracuse.

All the Orange have to do is win. Syracuse should get into the NCAA Tournament with a victory over the Huskies. Their RPI is at 50 and have only three wins over top-50 teams. The Orange's non-conference schedule is 125th. But a late-season surge, which saw Syracuse win five of the their final six games, including a victory over Georgetown, puts them into the Big Dance discussion. A trip-up against UCONN could spell doom. They'll need another solid showing from unanimous first-team member Demetris Nichols, who led the conference in scoring at 18.8 PPG.

***No. 7 West Virginia (21-8) vs. No. 10 Providence (18-11) at 7 PM. This is a classic bubble contest that defines Wednesday's action. First, West Virginia did break the 20-win barrier this season but against who? In Morgantown, the Mountaineers beat No. 2 UCLA but the Bruins were without valuable point guard Darren Collison, who made All-Pac 10 team this week. They have only two wins over teams in the top-50 RPI. This time of the year, it usually comes down to who've you beat and who've you played. West Virginia's non-conference schedule was ranked 274th in the country. They do have the second best second defense in the Big East and have made the most three-pointers in the league. But it'll take one, probably even two wins, in New York City to avoid a nerve-wracking Selection Sunday.

Providence finished 8-8 in the conference, led by unanimous first-team selection Herbert Hill's fantastic season. The 6-10 senior, voted the Most Improved Player in the league, was second in the Big East in scoring at 18 PPG and pulled down eight rebounds a contest. However, the Friars stumbled down the stretch. Providence lost two of their last three games, including a heart-breaking defeat at home to Syracuse. St. John's added more salt to the wound with a 13-point win over the Friars in the regular season finale. They only beat one top-25 opponent in Marquette. The slide forces Providence to make a deep run in the conference tournament to make the Big Dance. Anything less than a championship or a runner-up achievement should made the Friars NIT bait. They have talent. In addition to Hill, sophomores Sharaud Curry (16 PPG) and Geoff McDermott (10 PPG, 9 RPG and 5 APG) add to a solid starting lineup.

***No. 6 Marquette (23-8) vs. No. 11 St. John's (16-14) at 9 PM. The Golden Eagles are a lock for the NCAA Tournament and are playing to improve their seeding. They got a big home win over No. 11 Pittsburgh in the regular season finale. Before the victory, Marquette had lost four of five. If they want to make a run in New York City or in the Big Dance, they'll have to get Dominic James going on offense. The sophomore point guard has shot 28-of-101 from the field in the past eight contests, good for just 27 percent. He still was a first-team selection. Sophomores Jerel McNeal (14 PPG) and Wesley Matthews (12 PPG) give the Golden Eagles one of the best trio of guards in the league.

St. John's has the benefit of playing on their home court at Madison Square Garden. But that's about it. The significant home victories this season came against Syracuse, Notre Dame and Providence. They'll need to win the whole tournament to get an invite to the Big Dance. Lamont Hamilton, a 6-10 senior forward, leads the team in scoring at 13 PPG while point guard Eugene Lawrence was second in the Big East in assists.


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