The Big East Basketball Tournament tips off today at noon at Madison Square Garden with the first of four opening round games. This is the initial season of the "New Big East," with 16 teams. The bottom four finishers, St. John's, Providence, DePaul, and South Florida are staying home, while the top four teams, Connecticut, Villanova, West Virginia, and Marquette have first round byes.
Predicting this year's Big East
action has often been difficult, if not impossible. However, here's an attempt at
forecasting how this year's tournament will play out:
8th seed Cincinnati (19-11, 8-8)
vs. 9th seed Syracuse (19-11, 7-9) – The Bearcats finished the
regular season with three wins in their final five games, including a
season-ending upset of #19 West Virginia.
Syracuse limps into the
tournament with a three game losing streak.
Previous Meetings –
Syracuse recorded a 77-58 road win
on January 14th, while
Cincinnati returned the favor,
drubbing the Orange in the Carrier
Dome 82-65 on February 15th.
The Bearcats' starting five is a
very solid group, led by seniors PF Eric Hicks, SF James White, and SG Jihad Muhammad. Freshman PG Devan Downey
is talented, but erratic.
Cincinnati's bench is a major
weakness with only senior guard Chadd Moore and freshman guard Connor Barwin, a
walk-on from the football team, playing any significant minutes.
Orange have been a major
disappointment. Senior SG Gerry McNamara became the Big East's all-time leader in 3 point field goals during
their loss to Villanova on Sunday.
McNamara leads Syracuse
with 16.4 PPG. However, he has not been as consistent
as in previous years. Freshman PG
Eric Deverdorf has become a more dependable overall player in the last
month. The only starter not
averaging in double figures is junior center Darryl Watkins. However, Watkins is a force on defense
and rebounding, when he's not in foul trouble. The
Orange's bench is nearly as
At Stake -
Cincinnati is a "bubble" NCAA team
and may need to win at least this game in order to guarantee an invitation. The "Andy Kennedy Soap Opera" is just
added pressure on the team. All
indications are that Cincinnati will
replace Kennedy no matter how the season ends. Kennedy, a native of the
State, is already being prominently
mentioned for the opening at
Mississippi. He could also be a strong candidate at
his alma mater, UAB, if current coach Mike Anderson leaves for a higher profile
Syracuse almost certainly has
to at least reach the final game to be a serious contender for an NCAA
Outlook – Jim Boeheim somehow finds
a way to pull this game out and keep the
Orange's flickering NCAA hopes
alive, at least for one more day.
Georgetown (19-8, 10-6) vs. 12th seed
Notre Dame (15-12, 6-10) – The Hoyas blew an opening round bye with a
stunning 63-56 loss to South Florida on Saturday, the
Bulls only conference victory. It
was their 4th loss in their last 6 games, and is reminiscent of last
season's late collapse. The Irish
rebounded from a horrible 1-8 start in conference play to win five of their
final seven games. That enabled
them to edge DePaul, St. John's, and
Providence for the final spot. Three of the Irish's losses were in
overtime, two in double-OT. Their
largest margin of defeat was just 8 points.
Previous Meeting –
Georgetown edged Notre Dame at the
Center 85-82 in double overtime on
sophomore PF Jeff Green played with an undisclosed illness against USF, and
finished with just 10 points and 4 rebounds. The Hoyas are another squad with a thin
bench, as only senior swingman Darrel Owens and freshman guard Jessie Sapp see
much playing time. That means the
starters all need to contribute.
Most of them have been erratic down the stretch, which could cause an
early exit. Green and senior SF
Brandon Bowman will be tough for Notre Dame to handle, if they play
The Irish are led by senior PG
Chris Quinn, who averages a team-high 18.2 PPG. Quinn and junior SG Colin Falls can be a
tough duo when their long-range bombs are connecting. Falls is reportedly suffering with some
leg and foot problems. If he's not
effective, the Irish's chances take a major hit. Junior SF Russell Carter has really come
on of late, scoring 20 or more points the last three games. While Notre Dame's bench isn't great, it
is better than the Hoya's.
At Stake – 23rd ranked
Georgetown looks to be a lock for
the NCAA Tournament. However, their
late season swoon could mean a middle-of-the-pack seed. They likely need a win or two to obtain
something better than a 7 seed.
Notre Dame needs to win the tournament to join the NCAA party. The NIT will be thrilled to have the
Irish once again.
Outlook – When in doubt, go with
the hotter team. In this case,
that's clearly Notre Dame. While
Falls' health is a concern, the Irish will squeak past the Hoyas.
7th seed Seton Hall (18-10, 9-7)
vs. 10th seed Rutgers (17-12, 7-9) - The Pirates played themselves back into
the Tournament by winning their final two games, including a huge road win over
Pittsburgh on Friday. Those
victories broke a 3 game losing streak that appeared certain to send Seton Hall
to the NIT.
Rutgers needed to win their final two games,
including a road game against St.
John's on Sunday, to qualify for the Big East
Previous Meetings – The
State rivals split their two
Rutgers won at home by an 82-78 count on January
7th while Seton Hall got revenge with a 76-67 victory on February
Seton Hall depends on their two
starting seniors for most of their offense. PG Donald Copeland averages 15.7 PPG and
center Kelly Whitney is right behind with 15.5. The only other starter averaging double
figures is junior SG Jamar Nutter with 12.1 PPG. Embattled coach Louis Orr does an
effective job of mixing seven other players to fill out his lineup.
offense is basically junior SG Quincy Douby. The 1st Team All Big East
performer was the conference's leading scorer with a 25.1 average. Junior SF Marquis Webb at 9.6 PPG is the
Scarlet Knights' 2nd leading scorer. Rutgers could get
a huge boost if freshman PF J.R. Inman returns. Inman has missed the last seven games
with a fractured right fibula. At
last report, he's "50-50" to play.
At Stake – Most observers believe
Seton Hall's road win over Pitt clinched an NCAA berth. A victory over
Rutgers would be added insurance. Making it to "The Dance" would put a
great deal of pressure on Seton
Hall's administration to extend Orr's contract. Rutgers will
probably head to the NIT unless they can do the unthinkable and win 4 in a
row. It will be interesting to see
how the team handles having both the present and future coaches on the
bench. Gary Waters accepted a
buy-out of his contract on March 1st, while it's all but certain that
top assistant Fred Hill Jr. will take over next season.
Outlook – This is a fierce rivalry,
so anything's possible. If the
Scarlet Knights can provide Douby with some offensive support, this one could be
very interesting. However, unless
the Pirates come out flat, they should move on.
Pittsburgh (21-6, 10-6) vs. 11th seed
Louisville (18-11, 6-10) – The Panthers dropped
their final two games, costing them a vital bye. The 65-61 loss at home to Seton Hall on
"Senior Night" on Friday was especially worrisome. It ended Pitt's 16 game home winning
Louisville has alternated
wins and losses their final eight games, including a tough 84-80 defeat at UConn
Previous Meeting –
Pittsburgh recorded a 61-57 road win
on January 15th.
The 15th ranked Panthers
have been plagued by inconsistency all season. Their leading scorer, senior SG Carl Krauser, averages 15 PPG. However,
in the final two games, Krauser shot an atrocious 5-26 from the floor. If he doesn't regain his shooting tough,
some others will need to step up.
Junior center Aaron Gray is the only other Panther in double figures,
averaging 13.7 PPG. Turnovers have
been an issue all season, and poor free throw shooting has cost the team a few
The loss of sophomore center David Padgett has hurt Louisville. Sophomore Terrance Farley and freshman
Chad Millard have been splitting duty at the pivot. Senior PG Taquan Dean has struggled with
injuries much of the season, but appears to be approaching top form. Sophomore PF Juan Palacios tallied a
career-high 29 points in the season-ending loss to
Connecticut. Freshman SF Terrence Williams had a
career-high 25 in the loss to Pitt.
At Stake –
Pittsburgh is NCAA-bound, but
they've lost 3 of their last 4 games and an opening round loss to
Louisville will relegate the
Panthers to another middle-of-the-pack seed. A win would give the Panthers another
shot at hated rival WVU. The
Cardinals appear destined for the NIT, that is if coach Rick Pitino decides to
accept the bid.
Outlook – This is another game that
could go either way. The Cardinals
have plenty of offensive firepower with Dean, Palacios, Williams, and underrated
junior SG Brandon Jenkins. Huge
center Aaron Gray could be unstoppable, if Pitt's guards can get him the ball in
scoring position. Another poor
shooting performance by Krauser would be tough to overcome. Just a hunch that Pitino pushes enough
right buttons to keep Louisville
Connecticut (27-2, 14-2) vs.
Syracuse – The top-ranked Huskies will get a #1
seed in the NCAAs even if they lose this game. But that will not happen. UConn is simply much too deep and
talented for the Orange, who they
defeated twice during the regular season including a 73-50 thrashing on February
8th. The insertion of
senior SG Denham Brown into the starting lineup in place of freshman Craig
Austrie has been a savvy move by Jim Calhoun. Senior swingman Rashad Anderson (13.3
PPG) is the highest scoring bench player in the country. This one could be over at
Marquette (20-9, 10-6) vs. Notre Dame – The
Golden Eagles topped the Irish twice in the regular season, by two and eight
Marquette has an interesting
mix of seniors and freshmen, with a few talented sophs and juniors as well. Senior forward Steve Novak is their
leading scorer, averaging 17.4 PPG.
Fellow seniors swingman Joe Chapman and center Chris Grimm are solid
performers. The Golden Eagles have
three very talented freshman guards.
Dominic James is an outstanding PG, while Jerel McNeal and Wesley Matthews have done a fine job at SG and filling in for James.
impressive depth was further improved with the return of juniors Jamil Lott and
Mike Kinsella. Both had been out
with illnesses, but returned for the win over
Providence on Saturday.
Marquette somewhat backed
into a first round bye when both Pitt and
Georgetown were upset in their final
games. However, the Golden Eagles
have the talent and depth to make some noise both in NYC and the NCAAs. I look for
Marquette to pull away in the final
2nd seed Villanova (24-3, 14-2)
vs. Seton Hall – The 2nd ranked Wildcats are another sure bet for
a #1 seed, even with a loss. Their
only loss in their last 14 games was at UConn. In their only meeting on January 17th,
Villanova topped the Pirates at home 73-64. Villanova's two senior guards, Randy Foye and Allan Ray, are their leading scorers averaging 20.2 PPG and 19.1
respectively. Their other two
starting guards are also averaging in double figures, junior Mike Nardi and
sophomore Kyle Lowry both with 11.6 PPG.
Villanova makes up for their lack of size with incredible quickness and
accurate shooting. Unless they
experience a terrible cold spell, they have too much for the Pirates.
(20-9, 11-5) vs.
Louisville – The
19th ranked Mountaineers have faded of late, losing 4 of their final
6 games. The season-ending loss at
Cincinnati may not have been their
best effort, since they'd already clinched the #3 seed. West
Virginia may also be a tired team, as they rarely go
more than 7 deep. Their only
double-figure scorers are seniors Kevin Pittsnogle (19.7 PPG) and Mike Gansey
(17.4). 6th man senior
guard Patrick Beilein is the Mountaineers only consistent bench scorer. Patrick's dad, coach John Beilein, has
been deviating from his standard 1-3-1 zone lately, playing both a 2-3 and some
man-to-man. WVU's strengths are few
turnovers and few fouls. If either
are missing, or if their usually accurate shooting is off, they are a very
beatable team. The Mountaineers
likely need to reach the finals to get a top 5 NCAA seed. In their only game with
Louisville, WVU prevailed at home
68-64 on February 25th.
This game could be closer than many expect, but look for the Mountaineers
to move on.
Connecticut vs. 4th seed
Marquette – You
can be sure Huskies' coach Jim Calcoun has watched the tape of their shocking
94-79 loss to the Golden Eagles in the Big East opener on January
3rd. Probably several
Marquette is one on the few
teams than can match UConn's depth, if not their overall talent level. If the Huskies are looking ahead to
Saturday night, an upset is quite possible. It will require an outstanding game from
freshman PG Dominic James and another monster performance from senior forward
Steve Novak, who torched the Huskies for 41 points and 16 rebounds. I have to stick with
Connecticut, but expect to be
2nd seed Villanova vs.
3rd seed West Virginia – The key in this game is whether the
Mountaneers can play solid defense against the ultra-quick Wildcats without
getting anyone in serious foul trouble.
The second key is if West
Virginia can keep their turnovers below
double-digits. If both occur, this
will be a whale of a game. My
suspicion is that the Mountaineers are starting to wear down a bit and chasing
Villanova all over the court will take its toll. In their only meeting back on January
8th, WVU handed host Villanova their first loss of the year by a
91-87 score. The Wildcats will get
their revenge, possibly by double-digits.
Connecticut vs. 2nd seed Villanova –
There will be no Cinderellas in this tournament. The top two teams will decide the title
in their rubber game. Each team
scored regular season home wins.
Villanova topped UConn 69-64 on February 13th. The Huskies returned the favor with an
89-75 win on February 26th.
This is the classic match-up of a big, deep team vs. a small, extremely
quick team with limited depth. With
both teams virtually assured of #1 seeds in the NCAA Tournament, this game will
be decided by "who wants it more."
I've got a hunch that team will be the Wildcats.