Big East Report Cards, Part IV

In Part IV, we'll take a look at Connecticut, DePaul, Villanova and Cincinnati.

Connecticut Huskies (24-2, 12-2 BE)

After a disappointing first-round loss to San Diego in last year's NCAA tourney, some were questioning if Jim Calhoun had lost his touch as a big-game coach.  However, the Huskies started this season off like a house on fire, winning their first eleven and then stringing a thirteen-game win streak together, consistently finding themselves in the top five in the polls throughout.  UConn ran the table in twelve non-conference games, getting some quality résumé-builders over Gonzaga (virtual road game), Miami (neutral), Wisconsin (neutral) and Michigan at home.

Calhoun's squad got a rude awakening to Big East play, dropping a 74-63 contest at home to Georgetown.  However, when you take away the first four minutes of the game, you'll see that the Huskies were the top dog, outscoring the Hoyas 63-59.  From there, Connecticut only ascended, racking up wins on the road (where they're still unbeaten) over West Virginia, Notre Dame (snapping the nation's longest home winning streak in the process) and Louisville.  As a matter of fact, their closest contest in a true road game came back in December when they beat Buffalo by four.  The nation's current #1 squad, UConn has been nearly as dominant at home in conference play with wins by thirty-plus over Rutgers and Providence, as well as a recent 63-49 triumph over Syracuse.

With tonight's loss to Pitt, though, UConn begins a tough five-game stretch to close the season that could allow Louisville to pass them for the Big East regular season title.  The Huskies were outmanned in the Pitt game, with DeJuan Blair absolutely posterizing Hasheem Thabeet in the low-post (If those two aren't your top two for Big East POY at this point, I'm not sure what you've been watching this year).  And for UConn, it'll have five days to stew on that second loss before it hosts the USF Bulls.  The Huskies, however, close the season with a home date versus a desperate Notre Dame team sandwiched in between road trips to Marquette and Pittsburgh.  However, UConn has a worthy résumé to earn the #1 top seed overall in the NCAA tourney if it loses just one more game in between now and Selection Sunday.  With the talent the Huskies have though, one might wonder if it's better for them to not tire themselves out in three straight days of grueling play in MSG.  Either way, this team is a legitimate threat to cut down the nets at Ford Field in April, even with the loss of Jerome Dyson.

Grade:  A

DePaul Blue Demons (8-18, 0-13)

Jerry Wainwright's squad started off at 8-5, giving fans a reason for optimism.  While the Blue Demons didn't have any noticeable out-of-conference triumphs, they basically held par the course, topping Indiana State and Liberty.  However, the young squad did struggle in some early contests, losing to the likes of Morgan State.  Nevertheless, the Blue Demons showed promise, putting up a solid performance at California, falling by ten in the closest thing to a ‘quality loss' for a team like this.

Since Big East play has started, DePaul has suffered nothing but losses and none of them have been remotely ‘quality.'  Of their thirteen losses so far in conference play, only four of them have been by single-digits.  DePaul has been overmatched in this conference, having to recruit against many traditional Midwest powers in order to compete in arguably America's toughest conference and definitely, the deepest.

DePaul has likely one chance at a win in conference play this season and that will come on Saturday the 28th when it welcomes St. John's to Allstate Arena.  Besides that game, the Demons have a brutal finish to the regular season with road games at Pitt, West Virginia and Georgetown, along with a home game against Villanova.  While this team is very young and has shown a few signs of improvement this season, this lackluster campaign has put Jerry Wainwright squarely on the hot seat and the Blue Demons might need a few more wins and a respectable finish to the season for him to keep his job.  Whether or not Wainwright is back next year, DePaul should hopefully be a more competitive team, as it returns five of its top six leading scorers from this year, including sophomore Dar Tucker.

Grade:  F

Villanova Wildcats (20-5, 8-4 BE)

The jury was out on the ‘Cats entering this season, as they were one of last season's bigger surprises.  Riding the momentum of a win over Syracuse in the Big East Tourney to an at-large bid in March Madness, Nova pounced on a weak sub-regional, making it to the Sweet 16 as a twelve seed and hanging tough with eventual national champ Kansas for a while.  However, Nova quickly put any doubts to rest as it cruised through its non-conference schedule and started the season 8-0.  While the OOC schedule was a bit light, it did include wins over Niagara (a possible Tourney team and Cinderella as well), Temple and St. Joseph's.  The team's lone slipup came at MSG when it lost 67-58 to Texas.

Conference play started shakily for the Wildcats with a road loss to Marquette.  Jay Wright's squad then alternated wins and losses in its next four, before going on a six-game winning streak in conference play to establish itself as a legitimate contender for a top four seed in the conference tourney.  This mini-streak included a road win at the Dunkin' Donuts Center.  Nova also defended its home court well, toppling three ranked teams in Pitt, Marquette and SU. 

With a balanced scoring attack and a schedule that isn't overly difficult (given the propensity to get a one-month stretch of hell in the conference this season, many teams would take this), Nova has a shot to easily rack up more than 25 wins before tourney time and could find itself somewhere around the four seed line when the Big Dance rolls around though.  First things first, however;  Wright's team still has some potholes to navigate in conference, with trips remaining to the Carrier Dome and the Joyce Center, two of the toughest places to play in the nation.  Nova also has home dates with Georgetown and Providence, but if you're Nova, those are the types of games you can't afford to lose if you want a high seed in the tourney.

Grade:  A-

Cincinnati Bearcats (17-9, 7-6 BE)

Cincy found itself facing many questions as it entered this season, but it has managed to answer most of them with a resounding ‘Yes, we can' attitude so far this season.  The Bearcats took on a fairly ambitious out-of-conference schedule; it featured wins over UAB, Mississippi State and UNLV (all borderline tournament teams).  The Bearcats also were challenged by traditional rivals Memphis and Xavier, but couldn't quite pull out the marquee win over either. 

The Big East season has been an up-and-down roller coaster ride for Mick Cronin's squad, as it dropped its first three games in conference play, but has recently rallied to put together a three-game winning streak.  One thing has remained constant thus far, however, and that's Fifth Third Arena being a tough place for opponents to go in and get a victory.  Cincinnati has dropped just three games there (none by more than ten points and two of them to top-fifteen squads in Connecticut and Xavier).  The Bearcats will need to hope that homecourt edge continues; they have three remaining games there that will be absolutely critical to their NCAA tournament candidacy, against Louisville (this is the one crack they get at their rivals this year), West Virginia (a game a tourney team needs to win) and one against Seton Hall (one they can't afford to lose).

Cincy also has two intriguing road games with SU and USF to close out the schedule.  A split would be par for the course for the Bearcats, who likely need to win, at the least, four more games before Selection Sunday to be on the right side of the bubble.  Cincy will be a most interesting case on Selection Sunday, though, as it could be the final (and perhaps ninth or tenth) team from the conference to make the tourney.  Cincinnati swept the season series against Georgetown and also beat Notre Dame by ten, so that could place it above those schools that it'll likely be competing for tourney bids against.  However, Cincy did lose both its games against Providence this year and would love a first-round rematch at MSG, which isn't out of the question.  However this season finishes, Cincinnati has been a pleasant surprise that has been able to mold some young talent around leading scorer Deonta Vaughn; the future looks very bright in Cincinnati, as the basketball team hopes to recapture the city's heart.

Grade:  B+

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