It's a hard road in the Big East tourney

This was the year that the Big East became a conference. Top to (almost) bottom, teams have been competitive, even against acknowledged leaders Rutgers and UConn. St. John's and Pittsburgh have been huge surprises, clinching playoff berths four games before season's end -- and their coaches, Kim Barnes-Arico and Agnes Beranato, may share Coach of the Year honors.

Rutgers League newcomers DePaul, Louisville, Marquette, and South Florida all finished in the top half of the league standings. And then, there are Notre Dame and Villanova, just last season powers in the league, and nationally. This season, both looked like ordinary teams, fighting in the last few weeks to make the tournament that only seeds 12 out of 16 teams.

Ultimately, the Wildcats came on strong, winning seven of eight to become the number eight seed, while the Irish just managed to reach .500 in the league, and earned the right to play South Florida in the first round as the #10 seed. Georgetown, Providence, Seton Hall and Syracuse each lost on the last day, guaranteeing an end to their seasons, and allowing West Virginia, at 4-12, to back into the final spot in the tournament.

The top of the league all season, as expected, consisted of Rutgers and UConn. Both were undefeated in the Big East on Feb. 8, when the Scarlet Knights forced UConn into 30 minutes of ugly basketball, then held on to beat the Huskies at Gampel Pavilion for the first time ever. That set up Feb. 27 meeting between the two for the conference championship. UConn came in looking to tie the Knights, while Rutgers hoped to take regular season honors for the second consecutive year. The game itself was a defensive struggle, but an embarrassment for the once proud Huskies. After UConn jumped out to a 18-point lead at 7:28 of the first half, the Huskies completely collapsed under full court trapping pressure, giving up 16 points off 12 turnovers in the half, to lead just 30-25 at halftime.

They never regained their composure, and played the second half in a daze that netted just 12 points, with no field goals for the final 11:38 of a miserable loss. As a result, Rutgers (which had an offense only because Cappie Pondexter scored 30 points, and which itself went the final 6:35 without a field goal) won the regular season title outright for the second consecutive year.

The teams and their seedings were finally set after Notre Dame defeated Pittsburgh Tuesday night, and here is the rundown going into the tournament. The top four teams receive a bye for Saturday's action.

1. Rutgers (16-0 Big East; 24-3 overall) – first round bye, plays winner of Villanova-Marquette

Rutgers' second win over UConn in a month proved something about both programs: Rutgers' Cappie Pondexter has taken aggressive ownership of the team as a senior, while UConn's seniors have not been able to guide their young teammates to compete consistently. Pondexter returned to school as a fifth-year senior with hopes of leading a national championship team. What she got was a second Big East season championship, and an outside chance at a #1 NCAA seed.

Pondexter has been spectacular. She is averaging 21.6 points, shooting .501, including .484 from three-point range, and is one of just a few players in the country who can take over a game offensively at any time. She has done so regularly, none so dramatically as her 40-point shootout with BE scoring leader Jessica Dixon (38 points) in a one-point victory on Jan. 11, and her dominant performance as her team's only scoring option in the second UConn game (Rutgers II).

Unfortunately for the Knights, Matee Ajavon has shown little growth in her second year, although that still makes her a brilliant second option. Senior Michelle Campbell has disappointed regularly, although she played well in the first UConn game. Recently, much-heralded freshman center Kia Vaughn has started to show she has a huge upside. With size and athleticism, she is a nightmare in the paint when she is on her game. She has been on frequently in February, but is still not much of a scoring option.

Another starter, Essence Carson, provides strength and athleticism from the three spot. She rebounds well, is a stifling defender, and has a knack for making the key shot at the most important moments.

Rutgers, as always, plays excellent defense, and generates lots of points of turnovers. In the second win over UConn, the athleticism of the Rutgers press brought the team back from a 17-point deficit in just over four minutes, while at the same time demoralizing the Huskies so completely that they never recovered.

Rutgers' flaws? There are two: 1) the Scarlet Knights have no bench. Mariota Theodoris, who has started 17 games, is a foul machine who averages two points and four boards; and she is the best of them. Playing three tournament games in three days (after a first round bye) could take a toll on the starters. (2) Rutgers still has very little halfcourt offense. The plays exist: The team executed a few of them in the first UConn game. But C. Vivian Stringer has never been able to teach offense, and that has not changed. This is a team that scores mostly on individual skills, not cooperative play. That, too, can be a problem as the competition improves. Nonetheless, Rutgers has only three losses on the season, and the Scarlet Knights are playing their best basketball of the year. They have beaten UConn, the biggest challenge in the tournament, both home and away. If Rutgers does win this championship, the Knights will be 27-3, and it will be hard to deny the team a #1 seed in the NCAA tournament. Even if they lose in the final, they should be a lock for a #2 seed.

2. UConn (14-2; 26-4) – first round bye, plays winner of South Florida-Notre Dame

UConn has lost only four games, all to teams that will be either #1 or #2 seeds in the NCAA tournament. This is a very good team, deserving of its top 10 national ranking.

But there is a caveat here: Although the Huskies have won nearly all of their games, the team's play has been frighteningly inconsistent. Syracuse, 2-14 in conference, led UConn at the half just last week, 23- 20. A major tournament contender cannot score just 20 points in 20 minutes against a very bad team. Two embarrassing losses to two teams with tall, active athletes (North Carolina and Rutgers II) showed more than anything else UConn's lack of a true go-to player. Ann Strother is one of my favorite people, and among the best Huskies of all time, but she does not have the personality or the skills to take control of her team when her teammates are lost. She is one of the great supporting players in the nation in the last four years, but she is a quiet player who will take responsibility for the big shot, but not demand the ball for that shot.

The second Rutgers loss was a 30-minute embarrassing meltdown from which UConn may or may not recover. All that said, however, these Huskies have regularly done just enough, day in and day out, to win 26 games. Freshman Renee Montgomery is developing into a top-of-the-line point guard, averaging more than 11 points, 3.5 assists and just two turnovers in the five games prior to the Rutgers' fiasco (she had 14 of UConn's 42 points but four turnovers, and innumerable judgment errors in that game). Overall, she has been more than adequate in conference games generally.

Fellow freshman guard Kalana Greene has also begun to contribute regularly, showing no fear and a decent scoring touch. With the injury to second-leading scorer Mel Thomas (high ankle sprain), Greene's minutes may increase throughout the tournament, though she was largely, and inexplicably, absent from Rutgers II.

Strother, quietly having an All-American year, had a five-game shooting slump, but looked to have recovered as the tournament approached. Then she, too, dissolved against the Rutgers pressure, missing all her second half shots, even when she got open briefly. Strother does everything for this team, including lead it in scoring andplays more minutes than anyone else, as she has for her entire career. Entering the tournament, she needs only seven minutes to become UConn's career leader for minutes played, and she has never missed a game. In fact, Strother has started all but one of the 136 games in which she has played, missing a start on senior night 2003, when five seniors started the game. She also needs just four threes to take second place in that category.

Sister senior Barbara Turner has also been on a tear as her career comes to a close. In the five games prior to Rutgers II, Turner averaged 15 points and over seven boards, shooting almost .600 from the floor. And Wilnett Crockett, long a disappointment for Geno Auriemma, has also found some focus at season's end. She has been playing up to her athletic potential since the first Rutgers loss, has averaged almost eight rebounds in the last seven games, and has moved into the starting lineup.

For the Big East tournament, however, the Huskies have several glaring problems, all exposed in the last 30 miserable minutes against the Scarlet Knights. First, Charde Houston, the most physically talented player to wear a UConn uniform in years, just cannot keep her head in the game for more than a few minutes at a time. She is alternately brilliant and clueless, but unfortunately more often the latter. Against Rutgers, she was ineffective in two games.

The Huskies also have injury problems: center Brittany Hunter's reconstructed knee is still unreliable, and her practice and game minutes have been severely limited during February. The Huskies need her inside presence, but do not know game to game whether they will have it. She almost certainly cannot play three games in a row. Mel Thomas, the sharpshooting (.454 from three-point range) guard, has a high ankle sprain, and may not be able to play. Thomas is not terribly mobile at best, and any further reduction in quickness might well make her ineffective even if she can take the floor.

UConn certainly can win this tournament, as the first ten minutes of Rutgers II showed, with the Huskies hitting on all cylinders and jumping out to a 17-3 lead. They will probably be a #3 seed (maybe a #2) in the NCAA tournament, which they have the talent to win. The season-long inconsistency of the team, however, also means they could be beaten in the semifinals of a very competitive Big East tournament, and in almost any round of the NCAAs.

3. DePaul (11-5; 24-5) – first round bye, plays winner of Pittsburgh-Cincinnati

The high-octane scoring machine that is DePaul is led by likely all-American senior Khara Smith. The powerful Smith can run the floor, post up, face up, and do almost anything else on the basketball court. She averages 18.2 points and 11.2 rebounds, shooting almost 60% from the field. The only way to guard Smith is to deny her the ball. Within ten feet of the hoop, she is almost automatic, and she crashes the boards better than anyone else in the conference.

The outside complement to Smith's inside game is Allie Quigley, shooting .346 from the arc, but a capable slasher as well. Jenna Rubino is the other double-digit scorer, at 12.6 ppg.

DePaul runs and runs, scoring in transition even off made baskets. The Blue Demonss also run ten players at the opposition, keeping fresh legs on the court and wearing down the competition. While the their 77 points per game is among the nation's best (#10), they don't play a lot of defense (#141 nationally). Even so, when the running starts, very few teams can keep up with DePaul.

The Demons should win their first game, and it would not be shocking for them to meet and beat UConn in the semifinals, although it is not likely. The Demons are a lock for the NCAA tournament, probably as a #3 or #4 seed.

4. St.John's (11-5; 21-6) – first round bye, plays winner of Louisville-West Virginia

St. John's is having a  phenomenal year as Kim Barnes-Arico continues to  demonstrate that she is one of the best young coaches in the country. The Red Storm has conference  losses only to UConn (by 17), to Rutgers (by 10),  and to twice to Marquette, by three points in early December, and by a shocking 15 points last  week.

Junior forward Angela Clark continues to use  outstanding athleticism to rebound and score against players much taller and stronger. She is tenth in the league in both scoring (15.7) and rebounding (5.7). Sophomore point guard Kia Wright has improved her decision-making, plays under control much more than last season, and has seized the leadership of  the St.John's team. Her 14.1 ppg is second on the team, and she dishes out 4.2 assists to just three turnovers per game.

The Red Storm have two stars, but lots of contributors. Nine players log significant minutes, with six scoring more than 7.5 points per game. Danielle Chambers, at just 6-0, averages more than eight and a half rebounds per game, and Tara Walker, shooting .442 from beyond the arc, adds another nine points as a starter. Senior Greeba Barlow adds experience, tenacity, and nearly ten points in conference games.

The key to the team's success, however,  is obviously the leadership of their coach,  who will take this perennial loser to 20+ wins  for the second consecutive season. In just her fourth season, Barnes-Arico led her team into the rankings (at 25) for the first time in St.John's history. The Red Storm have surprised all season, and while they have not shown the ability to beat the top two teams in the league, they have beaten most everyone else, and could easily reach the semi- finals. An NCAA berth is certain with 20-plus wins and an RPI of 21. A #4 seed is a possibility.

5. Louisville (10-6; 19-8) – plays #12 West Virginia in first round (noon Saturday)

C-USA emigrant  Louisville has firmly established itself in the middle of the Big East. With the versatile interior duo of Jazz Covington and junior Missy Taylor, the Cardinals had a chance to be one of the league leaders as February began. But a recent acceptable loss to St.John's and a bad loss to Cincinnati have hurt their Big East tournament seeding and their NCAA possibilities.

Covington, a Big East first team selection, is the ultimate power forward. Strong, skilled, and fast, the only player who can stop her one-on-one is herself. Unfortunately, she all to frequently seems to drift away during games, robbing the Cardinals of their dominant player for long sequences. Center Missy Taylor gets far less press than Covington, yet her versatile game is a perfect complement to Covington's physical presence. Comfortable inside the paint and outside the arc (32%), the 6-3 Taylor can be a difficult matchup for opposing centers.

Junior guard Helen Johnson began to contribute regularly in midseason, scoring 14 off the bench in a recent contest. Connie Neal provides a serious outside threat. The X-factor for Louisville, however, is the incredibly athletic freshman Angel McCaughtry. In the last three contests, McCaughtry has averaged almost a double-double, after being an inconsistent performer for most of the year. She is lightning fast and has a reliable midrange jumper.

Coach Tom Collen has built another winner in Kentucky, and the upside of this group could surprise someone in the tournament. An NCAA berth is unlikely without at least one tournament win (RPI 39), but that should be easy against West Virginia. Call them a likely, not a bubble, team (After all, if the committee lets Notre Dame in, they cannot keep Louisville out).

6. Pittsburgh (9-7; 18-9) – plays #11 Cincinnati in the first round (8 p.m. Saturday)

Pittsburgh is the other positive surprise in the Big East, as a key transfer and an agile group of freshmen have arrived to support the amazing sophomore center Mercedes Walker, who is virtually unstoppable if she can set up near the block. Walker, who should have been freshman of the year last season, has taken up where she left off, but even better. This season she averages 17.3 points, 9.2 rebounds, and almost 50% from the field through double teams on every possession.

Coach Agnes Beranato, contrary to my predictions, has done a remarkable job of molding a team that plays hard for 40 minutes a night, and is competitive with every team in the league. She has done it largely by recruiting. Pardon us all for not expecting junior transfer Mallorie Winn to become a super star. Winn played for Beranato as a freshman at Georgia Tech, from which she transferred after two adequate seasons. But Winn has been superb running the point for the Panthers, and has scored 15.4 points per game, shot 36% from outside, and dished out four assists on average. Her quickness has left many a defender looking at her back, and she has taken charge of the team on the floor.

The next three leading scorers on the team are freshmen, and all average more than 24 minutes. Xenia Stewart, Maddy Brown and Shavonte Zellous are quick (Zellous was a regional 100 meter dash champion in Florida), long, and play smart basketball most of the time. With all this youth, Beranato and her staff have Pittsburgh playing as a team. Seven players log major minutes, and four of them average more than five rebounds. Every player is aggressive (Shea Ralph is an assistant coach at Pitt), and defends well.

An unexpected last game loss to Notre Dame dropped Pittsburgh to the #9 position, and seriously damaged Pittsburgh's NCAA chances. It also matches them with Rutgers in the second round. Probably they become a WNIT team unless they manage three wins, a near impossibility once they lost the chance to be the #6.

7. South Florida (9-7; 19-10) – play #10 Notre Dame in the first round (6 p.m. Saturday)

The University of South Florida, another C-USA newbie, has the distinction of the nation's leading scorer in Jessica Dixon. A spindly, average-height wing player, Dixon hardly looks like a 21-point scorer. She simply manages to find a way to get open, and her hard work in the offseason extended her shooting range. In recent weeks, however, the constant pounding and double teams seem to have affected her, as she has been below her average in five of her last seven games.

South Florida entered the league with a well-deserved reputation as a physical, good- defense team. It may be, however, that having a genuine star may have subtracted by addition. Too often, the team seems more intent on getting Dixon the ball than on running offense for those who are not double-teamed. Dixon has taken over 30% of the team's shots in conference, leaving others with fewer opportunities, and opponents with a simpler defensive assignment. During that period she has shot .378. In an admittedly less competitive non-conference schedule, Dixon shot .474.

Support for Dixon comes from a variety of players, but rarely from the outside. Jessica Jackson,  averaging just 12 minutes and 4.3 points, is the only other player with any real success from outside. Shantia Grace contributes 11.3 points, and three others eight-plus apiece. Overall, however, USF has scored just over 65 points a contest in conference. The team has been outrebounded by more than three a contest.

The Bull's have, as their record shows, been just above average in their first season in the conference. If USF wins its first round game, 20 wins and a decent 32 RPI will make an NCAA tournament berth pretty certain. 

8. Villanova (9-7;18-9) – plays #9 Marquette in the first round (2 p.m. Saturday) Villanova had a front-loaded schedule, and the Wildcats looked like they could miss the tournament in early February. By winning six out of their last seven games, the Wildcats finished the season in a three-way tie for seventh in the league.

That spot, however, does not fairly indicate how difficult this season has been for coach Harry Paretta. Villanova is, as usual, among  the nation's leaders  in fewest turnovers, but the scoring has changed. The team was missing the balanced attack that made the Wildcats successful in taking the air out of the ball, passing for 28 seconds, and hitting a three. Now, the leaders are clearly Jackie Adamchick and Liad Suez-Karni, and Villanova has seemed lost offensively when teams limited those two. Suez-Karni is having a superb year, and has done everything a senior should do: score, defend, and lead.

In the glory years, almost half of Villanova's field goals were threes. Now, closer to a third are from beyond the arc. In the last two games of the conference schedule, however, Villanova began to look like Paretta teams of old, spreading the court, passing the ball, and hitting the open shot. If that continues in the tournament, the Wildcats will be a tough out, and probably the matchup Geno Auriemma least wants in the second round.

The ‘Cats have experience and their seeding is just right: they have lost to everyone above them, and beaten everyone below them. This team, which still can limit possessions, will continue to be a pain to play, but a major tournament upset is not likely. It will probably take two wins, however, to get Villanova into the NCAAs. A WNIT berth is far more likely.

9. Marquette (9-7; 18-9) – plays #8 Villanova in the first round (2 p.m. Saturday)

Marquette has done just fine in this first year in the Big East, though a back-loaded schedule made the Golden Eagles look great until they started playing the league's better teams. Nonetheless, Marquette is one of four teams with a 9-7 record, and is playing tenacious team ball.

Forward Christina Quaye has led the team all season in scoring (14), rebounds (6.1), and field goal percentage (.518), but senior Carolyn Kieger is the team leader, as a point guard should be. She is also the Big East leader in assists per game at 6.5, which also ranks her fifth nationally. Lately, Kieger has been sharing minutes with freshman Krystal Ellis, who is a better scorer.

The strength of the Marquette team is its balance and precision. The Eagles run their sets, and they spread the work, with six players averaging over seven points per game. Four players also shoot over .333 from outside, including 6-3 sophomore Svetlana Kovalenko, who is shooting nearly 50%. Her steady improvement is a big plus for coach Terri Mitchell moving into the postseason.

Marquette needs at least two big wins in the tournament to have a chance for an NCAA berth, but even then, some luck will also be necessary. This is a strong WNIT team.

10. Notre Dame (8-8; 17-10) – plays #7 South Florida in the first round (6 p.m. Saturday)

Fame is such a blinding thing that many will simply not believe Notre Dame is the #10 seed in the Big East tournament, with a .500 record in conference. The truth is the Irish simply are not a very good basketball team.

Senior point guard Megan Duffy is an all-conference performer, but her supporting cast has been ordinary at best. Fellow senior Courtney LaVere has been a real disappointment, and has not been able to anchor the interior with any consistency. Never a real back-to-the-basket post, LaVere is second in scoring, but cannot control the paint defensively. Sophomore Charel Allen either has not fully recovered from her knee injury of last postseason or she is having a sophomore slump. At times as a freshmen she appeared to be an unstoppable slashing scorer and able defender. This year, like her team, she has been an ordinary shooting guard. Freshman guard Lindsay Schrader has played increasingly well. A tough and fearless player, she defends adequately, and shies away from no one.

Muffet McGraw has won 516 games by molding teams that play great zone defense, run a precise offense, and make their free throws. This team does none of these things well. Probably the most frustrating aspect is those free throws. Duffy is first in the Big East (11th nationally) at .894. After that, however, things are dismal: Schrader shoots .483, LaVere .545, Allen .596, and center Melissa D'Amico .526. The Irish also have been outrebounded on the year.

There is still talk about Notre Dame being an at-large NCAA team, but the Irish do not belong there unless they win this tournament, which is highly unlikely. Given their reputation and a 41 RPI, the committee might let them in with two wins. Their seed forces them to play UConn in the second round, if they can beat Villanova. This game will be between two teams on the bubble, and could be one of the best in what looks like a very good tournament.

11. Cincinnati (7-9; 17-10) – plays #6 Pittsburgh in the first round (8 p.m. Saturday)

Cincinnati plays by committee, or perhaps the Bearcats are just a deep team. Nine players get significant minutes, although two starters each average over 30.

Treasure Humphries and forward Shelley Bellman have connected on 114 and 109 shots, and the two average 12.8 and 10.6 points per game. Karen Twehues has hit 38 threes at a .463 pace, and has scored only nine additional hoops (probably with her foot on the line). Micah Harvey provides a solid game from the guard spot, with 4.1 assists per game to go with almost six points. Her return from a brief injury helped the Bearcats to be competitive.

Cincinnati has been up and down, with a decent win over South Florida, and an embarrassing loss to Providence. From the 11th seed, the Bearcats have little hope of beating Pittsburgh for the pleasure of  losing to DePaul in the quarterfinals. An NCAA berth is not in the cards for the Bearcats. The WNIT would be a positive end to their season, and is a possibility if they can get to 18 wins with a first-round victory in the BE tournament.

12. West Virginia (4-12; 12-15) – plays #5 Louisville in the first round (noon Saturday)

Meg Bulger tore her ACL in a Jan. 29 loss to St.John's. After an emotion-driven upset of DePaul two days later, the Mountaineers have lost eight straight, although a few players have stepped up, most notably Chakia Cole and Ashley Powell.

In the regular season's final game, the Mountaineers played Villanova tough for 35 minutes, but lost by 13. It will be one and done for West Virginia without its best player and the third leading conference scorer. No postseason is in the cards.

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