BIG EAST TOURNAMENT PREVIEW

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:

 

OPENING ROUND

 

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.

 

The 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 threadbare as Cincinnati's.

 

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 Magnolia 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 job.  Syracuse almost certainly has to at least reach the final game to be a serious contender for an NCAA berth. 

 

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.

 

5th seed 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 Joyce Center 85-82 in double overtime on January 24th.

 

Georgetown's 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 well.

 

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 Tournament.

 

Previous Meetings – The Garden State rivals split their two games.  Rutgers won at home by an 82-78 count on January 7th while Seton Hall got revenge with a 76-67 victory on February 5th.

 

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.

 

Rutgers' 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.

 

6th seed 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 streak.  Louisville has alternated wins and losses their final eight games, including a tough 84-80 defeat at UConn on Saturday.

 

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 wins.

 

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 alive.

 

QUARTERFINALS

 

1st seed 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 intermission.

 

4th seed Marquette (20-9, 10-6) vs. Notre Dame – The Golden Eagles topped the Irish twice in the regular season, by two and eight points.  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.  Marquette's already 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 ten minutes.

 

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.

 

3rd seed West Virginia (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.

 

SEMIFINALS

 

1st seed 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 times.  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 close throughout.  

 

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.

 

FINALS

 

1st seed 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.

 

 


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