Big East Basketball Preview Extravaganza

This is the third installment of a series of articles previewing the Big East basketball teams. This installment takes a look at Notre Dame, Pitt and Providence.

Notre Dame Fighting Irish

Mike Brey's squad finished last season with a record of 25-8, bowing out on the opening weekend of the Tourney.  They lost by twenty to Washington State in the second round, but should have the horses to potentially make a much deeper run this year.  Reigning Big East POY Luke Harangody returns to school, as does senior sharpshooter Kyle McAlarney.  The team boasts four seniors, but plenty of fresh faces that give this team an intriguing look on paper.  One player to keep your eye on is the brother of last year's national POY.  Yes, Tyler Hansbrough's little bro has transferred to Notre Dame and Irish eyes aren't crying over this one.  While Ben has to sit this year out after transferring, he will likely prove to be an invaluable leader from the bench who sees things that the players on the court can't.  And the Irish seem to be just a break like this one away from doing an Irish jig up to Detroit for the Final Four.

3 Questions for Notre Dame

·         How will they survive the schedule?  Taking a quick glance at Notre Dame's schedule, it appears the Irish will be tested early (trap game against Ohio State early) and often.  Especially as Big East play kicks in (UConn and Louisville are two of the three teams the Irish get to play twice in regular season play – talk about luck!)  Notre Dame also visits UCLA in the middle of a grueling conference schedule.  By the time Notre Dame makes it to March, they may be running on fumes.  With depth at most roster spots though, the pride of South Bend should be able to stay fresh and pick up a handful of marquee wins down the stretch (even if they do drop a few on the way).

·         If McAlarney goes on a cold streak and Harangody gets into foul trouble, can this team survive and pull out a couple of gut-check wins?  The answer obviously depends on the opponent, but Notre Dame has enough talent to hang with nearly any team in the country.  To top that off, they've got enough heart and hustle to make Gene Hackman turn (Irish) green with envy.  But Mike Brey will be looking for a third consistent scorer to step up.  He'll instead have many options that can step up on any given night.

·         Is Tory Jackson one of the more underrated point guards in the country?  Jackson flies under the radar because he's a point guard who's not afraid to play his position.  And by that, I mean, he passes first, passes second and looks for his shot third.  Jackson averaged 33 minutes last year and played the role of floor general admirably, putting up an assist-to-turnover ratio of nearly 2:1.  In a conference dominated by big men, you've gotta have a PG to dish the ball into the post and while smaller in stature, Tory Jackson more than makes up for it with his on-court presence.

Schedule Breakdown

December 6 – v. Ohio State.  When we take a look back on this college basketball season, this game will have had a much larger effect on the college basketball landscape than many realize.  Sure, Notre Dame should beat up on in-state rival Indiana (also of the Big 10) a couple weeks before and ESPN will hype that game more, but if you want to see a battle of two of the nation's premiere big men, check out ESPNU's telecast of this game.  Luke Harangody will face his first true test in the low post, as he battles B.J. Mullens, the Buckeyes' diaper dandy.  Ohio State has the size, depth and athleticism to give the Irish all they can handle inside the Joyce Center.  If McAlarney can free himself from David Lighty for a couple of treys, this could be a statement win for the Irish.

January 12 – @ Louisville.  Not only will this game pit two teams likely to be in the top 10 when they meet; it'll also kick off perhaps the most brutal one-month stretch any team will face in college basketball this season.  The eight-game stretch could easily feature games against seven ranked teams, including road tilts at Syracuse and Pitt.  As if that's not enough, the Irish also draw UConn at home in the middle of this stretch.  Beating Louisville on the road would be a huge confidence-booster for the Irish.

February 7th – @ UCLA.  Besides the fact that this game is in Pauley Pavilion and in the middle of Notre Dame's killer stretch, it also is scheduled for a 1pm tip East Coast time (that's 10am out west).  The Bruins faithful will be out in full force, as Notre Dame looks to get a big win to support the Big East's claim of potentially being the best conference ever.  This game very well could determine the difference between a 2 or 3 seed for the Irish come Selection Sunday.

Best Case Scenario

Luke Harangody averages over 22 points and 11 rebounds per game en route to edging that kid from Chapel Hill for national POY honors.  To top it off, Notre Dame meets UNC in the Elite 8 in a titanic 1 versus 2 seed clash.  Harangody kicks to McAlarney in the closing seconds for a dagger three that sends the Irish to the Final Four.  Mike Brey is widely hailed as a coach of the year candidate.

Worst Case Scenario

Harangody gets bogged down by the big men of the Big East.  Kyle McAlarney rediscovers marijuana, while losing his shot.  Without their big two, Notre Dame's supporting cast crumbles and the Irish limp into the Big Dance as a middling seed and once again, go home on the opening weekend.

Pittsburgh Panthers

After winning four games in four days (all by single digits) to take the Big East crown, Pitt flamed out in the second round of the NCAA tournament last year.  The Panthers return three seniors, highlighted by Levance Fields and handyman Sam Young.  While the Panthers are loaded up with underclassmen, they always seem to mature down the stretch and be in the hunt at the end of the season.  Expect that to remain the same this year, as Pitt will use its tenacious defense to grind out double digit wins easily in Big East play. 

3 Questions for Pittsburgh

·         Who will step up to help Levance Fields in the backcourt?  Whether it be Ronald Ramon, Keith Benjamin or Carl Krauser, Pitt is well-known for its tradition of bruising, yet efficient guards.  Levance Fields is a bit small to fit into this mold, so Jamie Dixon snagged a couple of recruits to help him dole the ball to the big men.  Ashton Gibbs and Travon Woodall should receive fairly significant playing time this season.  It was Jermaine Dixon who received the start in the first game, but expect a youth movement to play a big role, with a possible timeshare at the 2 spot.

·         Are the depth issues as bad as they look?  Sure, Pitt has plenty of young guards, but up front, there's not much Jamie Dixon can do if Sam Young and DeJuan Blair get in foul trouble…and that could very well happen more than once in physical Big East play.  The Panthers will try to minimize their exposure to fouls by using their guards to play tough defense.  This will be a key to determining their fate this year.  Jamie Dixon always seems to make do with what he has and I expect this year to be no different.

·         Can Pitt break its streak of underachieving in the NCAA tourney?  Pitt always seems to excel in the Big East tourney, where physical play is welcome.  When they make it to the national level, they seem to wither a bit, as their physical style is less conducive.  Refs call many more fouls on them, in essence showing them out the door before the big ticket act takes the stage.  The Panthers no doubt have heart, but might need a bit more athleticism and talent to excel in the Dance.

Schedule Breakdown

The early season, out-of-conference schedule – November to December 2008.  The Panthers have done a great job setting up their schedule.  It's tailored to a young team, but does lack one big game to make a statement in.  Anyhow, if the Panthers can navigate these pitfalls they'll be well-equipped for a successful BE campaign.  Some highlights of the OOC schedule:  v. Siena, v. Akron, v. Belmont, @ Florida State.  All could prove to be stumbling blocks for this Panthers squad.  They key as always is to play every game like it's for your tournament life and never look ahead.

January 17 – @ Louisville.  This game begins a five-game stretch that will likely make or break Pitt's season.  Obviously, the matchup of big men (Blair versus Samuel) will loom large, but overall this game will likely prove a contrast in styles and showcase the Big East on national television.  This game will be followed shortly after by trips to West Virginia and Villanova, along with a home date against Notre Dame.

March 4 – v. Marquette.  This won't be a marquee game, but it could very well be a battle for the fourth seed in the Big East tournament.  This will also be an interesting clash of Pittsburgh's strength (big men) versus Marquette's bevy of guards. 

Best Case Scenario

DeJuan Blair, only a sophomore, continues to mature into his freakishly athletic body and despite being listed at only 6'7", dominates the boards.  Levance Fields makes a triumphant return and tutors the next crop of star Pittsburgh guards.  The Panthers finish right in the running for the Big East title, make a run to win the conference tourney and claw their way to the round of 16.

Worst Case Scenario

Pitt finds itself plagued by foul issues, as their lack of height on the frontline comes back to bite them.  Levance Fields struggles to return to form, as the Panthers wallow in the second tier of Big East teams.  Jamie Dixon's coaching is unfairly called into question, but Pitt ekes into the NCAA tourney after winning two games in MSG.

Providence Friars

The Friars' most important change from last year may not come on the court.  They welcome rising coach Keno Davis to the fold.  He earned numerous national coach of the year honors last year after guiding Drake to a Missouri Valley Championship and a 5 seed in the NCAA tourney, after being picked to finish second-to-last in the conference.  Davis doesn't have a bare cupboard to work with in Providence, but in the Big East, nothing will come easy.  Provy missed the postseason last year, finishing 15-16 after a first round loss in the Big East tourney.  They return much of last year's team, including tongue-twister Weyinme Efejuku. 

3 Questions for Providence

·         Let's start with the obvious one first:  what impact will Keno Davis have on the Friars?  The process is likely to be a bit laborious with Providence, especially in a ‘megaconference' such as this one.  However, they have depth and size to play with and are in a conference that tends to rely more on defense, a Keno specialty.  There will be pitfalls early, but expect Provy to put up double digit wins by the new year and surprise a couple of heavyweights in BE play.

·         Randall Hanke and Sharaud Curry, what shall we expect from you?  Hanke has the chance to excel in the low post, but more often than not finds himself lost in the shuffle of Big East big men.  Sharaud Curry is explosive, but sometimes forgets that he's a point guard.  Curry could become a very dangerous weapon if Keno can channel his aggression more into passing in defense, rather than making highlight reels.  Expect both to make improvements this year.

·         Who's going to establish himself as the alpha male in the low post on this team?  In Jonathan Kale, Hanke and Geoff McDermott, the Friars have many threats down on the blocks.  Hanke, a perennial underachiever, could lift this team into the top half of the conference by owning the post.  However, it appears he'll continue to play a supporting role alongside Efejuku, McDermott and maybe even Kale.

Schedule Breakdown

December 6 – v. Rhode Island.  This in-state battle highlights a compelling slate of non-conference games for the Friars, who've been struggling in the past few years.  The Rams, on the other hand, are making great strides in the recruiting race, following last year's breakout campaign in the A-10.  Expect Keno to put emphasis on this rivalry game, as well as a road trip up to Chestnut Hill to tangle with the Eagles.

January 17 – v. Marquette.  This game will be nationally televised and will be a great measuring stick to see how far Keno's squad has progressed.  Providence has enough athleticism to contain Marquette's guards and could exploit them inside.  This could be an upset-in-the-making, but who knows?  By then, maybe Providence over Marquette won't be that big of a stretch.

March 5 – @ Villanova.  This contest concludes the Big East season and could be a battle for position in the final standings, if Providence lives up to their sleeper billing this year.  This is an understated rivalry in the Big East, but one that always features hard-nosed basketball and close games.  This would be an excellent résumé-building win to impress the Selection Committee also.

Best Case Scenario

Keno Davis works his magic once again.  Sharaud Curry averages seven dimes a game and one of Provy's big men steps up to be a legitimate double-double threat night in and night out.  The Friars get to twenty wins and are on firmly on the bubble on Selection Sunday.  They instead settle for the NIT and lay waste to the field en route to a championship in Madison Square Garden.

Worst Case Scenario

Providence continues to underachieve, as the players begin to lose faith in themselves, expecting a miraculous turnaround just because of Keno Davis' presence on the sidelines.  Efejuku and Curry try to one-up each other, fostering a ‘me-first' attitude in the locker room.  Providence struggles to score, defend and rebound.  They finish with a record a couple games worse than last year's and only make it to the Big East tourney because of the new rule that sends every team to MSG.

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