Handicapping the Field

Cam Huffman takes his annual shot at handicapping the outcome of the Big East men's basketball tournament.

1) Connecticut
Current Record: 25-2 (12-2)
Odds: 3:2

Choosing between the Huskies and Jay Wright's Villanova club is not an easy task, but I have to use history in making my decision.

Connecticut has won more Big East Tournament crowns than any other school (6), and Jim Calhoun has done enough to convince me that he knows the magic formula to leaving the Big Apple with the hardware.

History and coaching cannot win a title alone, but Connecticut has plenty of other weapons to help it along its path. The Huskies are scoring 81.4 points per contest, more than three points higher than the Big East's No. 2 team Notre Dame, and they have outscored their opponents by more than 17 points this season.

As much as UConn's potent offense, which from score in the paint just as easily as it can from the perimeter, means to that statistic, its defense may be equally important.

The Huskies are allowing teams to convert only 37 percent of their shot attempts — the lowest number in the league — while Calhoun's troops are knocking down shots nearly 48 percent of the time. On the rare occasion that one of those shots misses the mark, UConn often gets a second chance, as they are outrebounding opponents by 11 boards per game.

As names like Hakim Warrick, Ben Gordon and Julius Page have proven in the last three tournaments, though, a team needs some star power to win the conference's top prize, and Connecticut has plenty of that as well.

Sophomore Rudy Gay is as good a player as there is anywhere in the league, and Josh Boone and Hilton Armstrong are not bad in the middle either.

As WVU head coach John Beilein explained after his club fell to the Huskies earlier this season, "every player they put on the court can make a big play when they need it." That type of firepower is difficult to argue with.

2) Villanova
Current Record: 22-3 (12-2)
Odds: 2:1

Doubting the Wildcats has gotten analysts in trouble all season long. Although I am not ready to name them the favorite, I also know it would be a mistake to put them any lower than No. 2.

Not only is Villanova both talented and experienced, it is also likely to receive the tournament's No. 1 seed, making its path to the final round simpler than that of any of its competitors.

Nova has proven already this year that it can compete with the best in the league — its only conference loss coming early in the season to West Virginia — and it is close to the top in nearly every statistical category the Big East has to offer.

The Wildcats rank third in scoring offense, putting up 75.7 points per game, they are also third in scoring defense, allowing opponents just 62.3 points per contest, and they are currently ranked second in turnover margin with a mark of +4.22.

Just like Connecticut, Villanova has plenty of star power as well. Randy Foye, Allan Ray and Kyle Lowry make up one of the best trios in the country, and there is a reason that Wright's team has been ranked among the nation's five best teams for most of the year.

Villanova has what it takes to capture the tournament, and putting any team ahead of the Wildcats may only be a way to add even more fuel to the fire that has kept it up and running all season long. Nova loves to prove doubters wrong, and the Big East Championships could provide another opportunity to do just that.

Still, I am convinced that Connecticut's total package is just a little better. Sorry Mr. Wright.

3) West Virginia
Current Record: 19-8 (10-4)
Odds: 5:1

Because of the risk of being labeled a homer — not that I have never worn that title on my back before — I debated a long while about where to put the Mountaineers.

There was a time this year when I would have put WVU's odds right up there with UConn's, but it is no secret that Beilein's club is not playing its best basketball down the stretch.

But after much studying, I could not find a team that I thought deserved to be ranked third more than the boys from Morgantown.

I am firmly convinced — although I could easily be eating my words by the time this publication finds itself in your mailbox — that the Mountaineers have a better overall club than their neighbors to the North, Pitt, and I believe that the top four teams have a distinct advantage in the tournament because of the first-round bye.

Barring a complete collapse, WVU should grab one of those byes. That, combined with the adversity this team has faced and overcome already this season, as well as the fact that the Mountaineers finally have some confidence playing in The Garden, leaves me no choice but to put West Virginia in the three-hole.

The odds for the men in Blue and Gold are not nearly as high as the top two, but WVU's chances may be slightly better than any of the other 13 Big East teams.

4) Pittsburgh
Current Record: 21-4 (10-4)
Odds: 13:2

Pitt is another one of those teams that continues to win, but just cannot seem to shake its critics. Many predicted it would be a rebuilding year in the Steel City, but Jamie Dixon has his team playing better basketball than a more talented Pittsburgh squad displayed a season ago.

The key to Pitt's success has been its ability to play both inside and on the perimeter. Aaron Gray's dominance in the paint has helped Pitt to the second-best rebounding margin in the conference (+7.7), and those easy put-backs are a big reason why the Panthers are fourth in the league in field goal percentage, knocking down 46 percent of their shots.

Helping to keep opponents from simply overloading the paint is one of the best guards in the league, senior Carl Krauser. The Pitt guard can score, he averages almost 16 points per contest, but he also knows how to feed the open man. He is eighth in the league, dishing out 4.46 assists per contest. Pitt, largely because of Krauser, is second only to West Virginia in that category.

That bad news for the Panthers is that they have yet to face many of the best teams in the conference. Villanova was not on Pitt's schedule at all, and the only meeting with Connecticut ended with a loss. A cupcake schedule early in the season may not have Dixon's squad prepared for the basketball it will see in New York, but it is hard to argue with a 20-4 record.

5) Syracuse
Current Record: 19-9 (7-7)
Odds: 8:1

A second glance may be necessary for many of you after seeing the Orange in the fifth position, but as I mentioned earlier, I am a firm believer that experience can be a major factor.

Taking that into account, and evaluating how Jim Boeheim's club has been playing in recent weeks, I actually wanted to place the Orange third or fourth in my predictions. Syracuse has a great coach, it has talented players like Gerry McNamara and Darryl Watkins, and it looks as though it is peaking at the perfect time. If this team gets on a roll, anything in its way could be flattened like a penny on a railroad track.

That momentum, though, does not outweigh the fatigue that comes from playing four straight days in the tournament, and Syracuse is out of the race for the bye. Since the conference expanded its tournament to a four-round affair in 1983, no team that has played in the opening round has ever left New York with the championship trophy. Don't expect Syracuse to be the first, but you shouldn't be surprised to see it pulls off an upset or two either.

6) Georgetown
Current Record: 19-7 (10-5)
Odds: 9:1

The Hoyas have the history. Unfortunately for John Thompson III, none of its recent history is good.

With Thompson's legendary father at the helm, GU dominated the 80s, winning six Big East titles during that decade with names like Patrick Ewing and Alonzo Mourning leading the way. The Hoyas, though, have not won a league tournament since they downed Syracuse 88-79 in 1989.

It appears as though Georgetown may be headed back to prominence, but it may still be a few years before it is standing on the winners' platform again. This year's team is very talented and is playing well down the stretch, but it is simply not on the level of the teams at the top just yet.

A stingy defense, a disciplined offense and talents like Jeff Green and Brandon Bowman could carry the Hoyas as far as the semifinal round, but an appearance on Championship Saturday is unlikely.

7) Seton Hall
Current Record: 16-10 (7-7)
Odds: 11:1

Like all of the teams mentioned so far, it would not be all that difficult to make an argument that Seton Hall should be closer to the top of this list. After stumbling a little bit in the season's early weeks, the Pirates have caught fire down the stretch and are playing their best basketball at the right time.

The Hall has played so well, in fact, that they are now considered to be an NCAA bubble team, and head coach Louis Orr, who was considered to be as good as gone a month or so ago, may have worked himself down from the hot seat.

The bad news for Orr and company is that just being an NCAA Tournament-worthy club does not put a team among the best in the Big East. Instead Seton Hall is right where it belongs, in the middle of the pack.

The Pirates do a lot of things well, but nothing great. They are in the middle of the pack in almost every conference statistic, and in the middle of the pack is likely where they will finish in New York.

An upset or two from Seton Hall would not be surprising but don't expect a run very deep.

8) Marquette
Current Record: 19-8 (9-5)
Odds: 13:1

The good news for Marquette is that it is probably the best of the new Big East teams this year. The bad new is that this league is being controlled by the mainstays.

Marquette, however, has played well down the stretch and has all of the tools to make some news. Steve Novak is the best three-point shooter in the entire league, and he has an inside game to go with it. Freshman point guard Dominic James is one of the most exciting young stars to come into the conference in recent years, and he does not play like a rookie. James can go one-on-one and score at almost any time, but he is also discipline enough to give the ball up to the open man. His development as a player is a big reason why Marquette is hot right now and why it could cause some damage in New York.

With all of that said, playing in "The Garden Party" for the first time can be an intimidating thing for any squad, and a very youthful MU team could struggle to handle the atmosphere.

9) Cincinnati
Current Record: 18-10 (7-7)
Odds: 15:1

Although there are some teams that I will place lower than the Bearcats that I think could have a better shot – Louisville and Notre Dame among them – I cannot put UC anywhere but No. 9 because, much like Marquette, they have come together and are now playing some of their best basketball of the year.

Bob Huggins' former club will also have plenty of motivation in The Big Apple, as they are sitting on the tip of the NCAA bubble ready to slide off at any moment. A win or two in the Big East Tournament would go a long way in helping the ‘Cats reach the field of 65, and that will certainly be on their minds as they get to Manhattan.

As I mentioned with Marquette, however, the allure of the Big East Tournament could be overwhelming for a first-year team, and Cincinnati will have to fight off those demons if it hopes to stay in New York very long.

Eric Hicks' ability in the paint could be enough to help the Bearcats live until Thursday, but I would be shocked if they ended up going much further.

10) Louisville
Current Record: 17-10 (5-9)
Odds: 18:1

Louisville could be a very dangerous team. Taquan Dean is among the Big East's top players, and his supporting cast is starting to come around as well. Pitino commented after the loss to West Virginia that he is happy with the way his team is playing now, and college basketball has seen before just how far a good Pitino club can go.

Without injured center David Padgett, however, one win may be the best that Louisville can do, and its NCAA Tournament life will still be in question on Selection Sunday.

11) Notre Dame
Current Record: 13-12 (4-10)
Odds: 20-1

It has certainly been a disappointing year for the boys in South Bend, but with shooters like Chris Quinn and Colin Falls — as well as a rebounder the caliber of Torin Francis — anything is still possible with a little luck of the Irish.

Only Connecticut is scoring more points per game than the sharpshooters from Notre Dame, but its defense has definitely let it down. Only Providence has allowed more points against it this year, and the struggles on defense will be a big reason why the trip to New York — should it even occur — will be a very short one for the men wearing blue, green and gold.

12) Rutgers
Current Record: 16-12 (6-9)
Odds: 25:1

Once it arrives, all of the attention will be only junior guard Quincy Douby, who leads the conference in scoring with an average of 24.8 points per contest. Douby can play, and he is the main reason why the Knights are still hoping to be a part of the Big East's biggest event.

Unfortunately for fans of New Jersey's state institution, Douby does not have much surrounding him. Rutgers is 14th in the league in team assists, as Douby has done most of the scoring, and it is turning the ball over nearly 13 times per game.


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