Big East Tournament Preview, Part II

Providence and West Virginia are teams that could use a win (and possibly two) to completely solidify their status as tournament teams.

But they'll have to get them against Cincinnati and Notre Dame respectively, two teams who know they'll need to recapture some of the magic, the same magic that helped Syracuse win four games in four days in 2005 and allowed seventh-seeded Pittsburgh to vault from a team somewhat on the bubble to a 5 seed in last year's NCAA tournament, after an epic four day run finished with Jamie Dixon's squad being crowned the champions.

While each team has the same aspiration:  to win the tournament and the coveted auto-bid, there are only a handful of teams that have realistic expectations of cutting the nets down.  So let's profile the top half of the tournament field. 

8. Providence:  The Friars will likely get Cincy on Wednesday and it's also likely that Keno Davis' troops will need to pick up a victory in that game to get an NCAA tourney bid.  Expect his veteran-laden squad to find its way to the quarterfinals, where it will give the ‘Ville all it can handle.  However, as more teams ‘steal' auto bids and throw others into the at-large pool as the week progresses, Providence may find itself on the outside looking in if it can't add a second marquee win to its résumé. 

7. West Virginia:  The ‘Eers are a team that has risen to the occasion at MSG.  Last year, they made it to the semifinals, helping their NCAA tournament stock immensely in the process.  This year, West Virginia faces some tough matchups and would be able to rest a lot easier if it wins a game here.  Expect Bob Huggins' team to get the message, seal their candidacy for the Big Dance on Wednesday and fight tooth and nail with Pitt in a Backyard Brawl Thursday.  Unless WVU can pluck a polished big man off a tree though, it will likely bow out to the Panthers, one of the few teams that has had more recent success in this tourney than the Mountaineers.

6. Syracuse:  The Orange would need a lot of things to break right, but it has a fighter's chance to find itself playing on Friday and possibly Saturday.  SU proved its mettle back in November when it defeated Florida and Kansas on back-to-back nights.  This squad is fairly well-rested and brings many different components to the table, with adept big men (note ‘men', not ‘man'), some slashers and scoring guards.  The ‘Cuse should be able to skate into a showdown with UConn on Thursday.  While winning this one is a tall order (literally with Hasheem Thabeet in the middle), it's not out of the question.  And if SU got by the Huskies (who are notorious for recent postseason flameouts), it could find itself in the semifinals against Pitt, a team that Paul Harris has wanted a rematch against ever since the lopsided beating the Panthers laid on the Orange at the Peterson Events Center in January.

5. Marquette:  Buzz Williams' squad needs to end its tailspin before the real March Madness starts, but the bracket here didn't align too well for them.  A likely date with Georgetown on Wednesday would be an interesting matchup (also note that the Golden Eagles are 2-0 against G-Town this season) and if Marquette wins that one, a streaking and hungry Wildcats squad would await them in the quarters.  And while the two teams split the season series, Marquette will have a tough time making it past Thursday without Dominic James' valuable contributions.

4. Villanova:  Jay Wright's squad consists primarily of physical guards and undersized forwards that mesh together to form a very cohesive unit, one that can rebound and plays with intensity for all forty minutes.  The Wildcats likely get a date with a struggling Marquette squad on Thursday after their double-bye.  From there, they'd likely matchup with top-seeded Louisville in the semifinals.  While the record doesn't indicate it, Villanova should have won the one meeting it had with the Cards this season.  Nova had a lead late at home and blew it by being uncharacteristically mediocre from the charity stripe.  Nova matches up well with not only the Cardinals; it will likely give fits to any team it meets from here on out.

3. Connecticut:  The Huskies come in licking their wounds a bit after Pittsburgh thoroughly dismantled them to close out the regular season.  With Hasheem Thabeet anchoring their defense, however, UConn will rarely be out of contention in any game.  Jim Calhoun's squad poses matchup problems galore for opponents, but this Huskies team looks a bit off since Jerome Dyson's season-ending injury.  The key to beating Connecticut is attacking Thabeet.  Syracuse, who will likely meet UConn on Thursday, has some of the weapons to do it but it remains to be seen if the Orange are a tough enough squad, with the intestinal fortitude to attack and confuse Mr. Thabeet.  UConn has as good a chance as any team of winning this tourney (assuming it can get that Pitt monkey off its back), but its recent failures in postseason play gives cause to wonder if the loss to Pitt is the beginning to a maelstrom that could end the Huskies' season prematurely.

2. Pittsburgh:  When you look up ‘Big East basketball' in the dictionary, you'll find a picture of this notoriously tough and hard-nosed squad.  The Panthers have been incredibly successful in the Big East tournament in recent years and this year's draw gives them a navigable path to the showcase game on Saturday.  With Levance Fields, Sam Young and DeJuan Blair leading the way, Jamie Dixon has a deep and balanced squad built for success in situations like this.  I'd go so far as to give Pitt status as the favorite to win this tourney (by a slight margin over the ‘Ville and UConn), but when the Panthers venture out of the Big East, their style of play might not be as conducive to racking up victories like they've done all season.

1. Louisville:  Being a 1 seed just doesn't get you what it used to anymore.  Sure, the Cardinals get to sit out the first two days, but so do seeds 2-4.  The Cardinals will have a challenging path, with most likely Providence or Cincinnati to kick off their tournament.  From there, it would be a game with either Villanova or Marquette most likely.  All four of those teams have the potential to beat Rick Pitino's squad, but that's what Louisville has thrived on since the calendar turned 2009:  they've turned aside nearly every challenge.  After a few slipups out-of-conference, the athletic Cardinals got back on course.  And after last year's loss to North Carolina in the Elite Eight, Louisville entered this year on a mission:  to make the Final Four.  And while it might not be the prohibitive favorite to win it all at MSG, the ‘Ville is perhaps the team best-suited from the Big East to find itself in the Final Four at Ford Field.

The Odds:  (each team's chances of winning the Big East Tournament)

DePaul, Rutgers, USF, St. John's – 100:1

Seton Hall – 80:1

Cincinnati – 50:1

G-Town, ND, Providence – 40:1

West Virginia, Marquette – 20:1

Syracuse – 15:1

Villanova – 10:1

UConn – 6:1

Louisville – 5:1

Pittsburgh – 9:2


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