Checking in on the… Big EastPosted by rtmsf on December 25th, 2008
Rob Dauster of Ballin is a Habit is the RTC correspondent for the Big East Conference.
With conference play starting next week, four teams have emerged as the favorites to win the league – UConn, Georgetown, Pitt and Syracuse. After that, it is a mess of talented but enigmatic teams. Notre Dame, Marquette, West Virginia, Louisville and Villanova have all shown flashes of dominance, but have also had their flaws exposed on national TV. By far the biggest disappointment has been Louisville. The Cardinals were a top 5 preseason team on pretty much everyone’s list, but unless Santa leaves a jumpshot under the tree for their each of the perimeter players, it could be a long year for the ‘Ville.
I’m at a cross roads right now. Is the Big East really not as good as they were made out to be, or were expectations for this conference so high that they could not have possibly lived up to them? Clearly, Louisville is not who anyone expected them to be. Notre Dame has struggled, but they are still a top 15 team. Marquette, Villanova, and West Virginia were all borderline top 25 teams in the preseason, and not much has changed six weeks into the season. I guess what I’m saying is that while the conference has hit a few bumps in the road, it is still as good as any conference I can remember. One thing is for sure – any Big East team that reaches the dance is going to be battle-tested.
PLAYER OF THE WEEK: AJ Price, UConn
AJ Price was the reason that UConn rose from a middle of the pack Big East team to a conference title contender and a top 15 team last season. But coming off of off-season ACL surgery, Price has not been himself. Going into the Gonzaga game, he had no confidence in the strength of his knee, which is why he was not penetrating like he did last year. He was playing so poorly that Jim Calhoun was actually considering benching him (the same guy that was a top 5 point guard in the country in the last three months of the ’07-’08 season) for freshman Kemba Walker. Against Gonzaga, he returned to the Price of old. He finished with 24 points and 10 assists, getting to the line eight times (three less than he had the rest of the season combined) and hitting big shot after big shot. He hit six threes, including four in the last 11 minutes of the game. UConn’s biggest knock is their lack of perimeter shooting, which combined with their quick guards and finishers inside means that a lot of teams are going to go zone against the Huskies. Having an AJ Price that can penetrate and create against a zone makes them a much more balanced team.
TEAM OF THE WEEK: Syracuse
The Orange proved a lot to me with their win over Memphis on Saturday. I’ve been up and down on the ‘Cuse team this season, mainly because of their inability to start a game strong. It happened again versus Memphis, as Syracuse found themselves down 19-9 early on before coming back to win. What was most impressive about the come back is how they did it. Eric Devendorf missed the game (but had his season long suspension reduced, maybe to as short as two games) which meant that Jonny Flynn was their only ball handler against a tough Memphis defense. Flynn, despite finishing with 24 and 6 dimes, had an up and down game where he took some ill-advised shots and made some bad passes. Neither Arinze Onuaku or Andy Rautins played all that well. Kristoff Ongenaet played just a few seconds in the first half after being benched for Rick Jackson. Outside of Jackson, no one (except maybe Paul Harris) played their best game. And Syracuse still beat a pretty good Memphis team. One more note, if Rick Jackson can emerge as another scoring threat in the post, it makes Syracuse so much tougher. Onuaku is one of the best big men in the Big East, but he has a tendency to fade during games. It almost seems as if he is pouting because of a lack of touches on the inside. Jackson has averaged 12.7 ppg and 7 rpg in the last three.
1. (2) UConn 10-0 (2, 2)
Last Week: 12/15 vs. Stony Brook 91-57, 12/20 vs. Gonzaga 88-83 OT
Next Week: 12/26 vs. Fairfield, 12/29 vs. Georgetown
For anyone doubting UConn’s credibility as a national title contender, doubt no more. It is more than just the simple fact that they came back and beat a good Gonzaga squad. You’ve heard about Price, now combine his resurgence with the return of Stanley Robinson and the emergence of Gavin Edwards (14 and 12 boards, 7 offensive, against Gonzaga), and UConn has the look of a team that can give UNC a run for its money.
2. (1) Pitt 12-0 (3, 3)
Last Week: 12/17 vs. Siena 79-66, 12/21 vs. Florida State 56-48
Next Week: Nothing
Pitt, who is notorious for playing a soft schedule before conference play, actually has put together a decent non-conference schedule. While none of their wins are eye-popping, if you combine last week’s victories with their wins over Belmont, Vermont, Duquense, Texas Tech, and Washington State, you get seven pretty decent wins. This Pitt team isn’t going to blow anyone out. They just aren’t that good offensively. Jamie Dixon has tried to combat that by looking to get out in transition much more this year (and it is working a bit). The bottom line is that Pitt is going to try and score somewhere between 65-70 points, and then bank on the fact that their defense is going to hold you in the 60s. Florida State really exposed a weakness in this squad. Pitt is big and strong up front, but they are not all that tall (6’8” Tyrell Biggs is the tallest player). Florida State has a very long and very athletic front line, and it seemed like it really caused problems for the Pitt big men inside.
3. (5) Syracuse 12-1 (17, 14)
Last Week: 12/17 vs. Canisius 82-60, 12/20 @ Memphis 72-65, 12/22 vs. Coppin State
Next Week: Nothing
4. (3) Georgetown 9-1 (12, 9)
Last Week: 12/20 vs. Mount St. Mary’s 69-58, 12/23 vs. Florida International
Next Week: 12/29 @ UConn
I’m not completely sold on this Hoyas team yet, but from what I have seen they are much better than I expected them to be. They are very good defensively, holding their opponent’s to 34% shooting and 58 ppg. While they are going to have problems rebounding the ball on the defensive end, they make up for it with the number of turnovers that they force (16 per). I think I have finally settled on the fact that Greg Monroe is not going to be a game changer, and can now embrace him for what he is – a versatile forward who can do a lot of things well on the offensive end and will make plays on the defensive end (1.9 spg and 2.3 bpg). We will find out who the Hoyas are in their next six games. Look at this gauntlet – @ UConn, Pitt, @ Notre Dame, Providence, Syracuse, @ Duke. Yup, they play five top 15 teams in six games, three coming on the road.
5. (6) Notre Dame 9-2 (8, 11)
Last Week: 12/20 vs. Delaware State 88-50, 12/22 vs. Savannah State 81-49
Next Week: Nothing
Notre Dame is one of those teams that I think I am coming down to hard on. Their two losses are to UNC (no shame in that) and Ohio State (a top 15 team on a neutral court). They boast a win over Texas and have blown out everyone else except for Boston University, who is not a terrible team. Their biggest issue right now is getting Luke Harangody and Kyle McAlarney back on the same page. In the three games the big fella was sick (including the UNC game), K-Mac averaged 32.7 ppg and shot 26-48 from deep. In the four games since, he has averaged 11 ppg and shot 10-27 from deep.
6. (7) West Virginia 9-2
Last Week: 12/20 vs. Miami OH 82-46, 12/23 vs. Radford 89-54
Next Week: 12/27 @ Ohio State
Ok, so you don’t think that Joe Mazzulla and Alex Ruoff mean a lot to this West Virginia team. Neither of them are really all that spectacular. But look at this. West Virginia struggled mightily against Davidson (an OT loss) and Duquense (a five point win) without them, looking terrible on the offensive end. Miami OH is a team that nearly knocked off both Xavier and UCLA, beat Temple, and is known for their tough defense. What happened when these two teams played? West Virginia was up 47-17 at the half. Mazzulla, Ruoff, and Da’Sean Butler are the only three guys on this team that are anywhere near polished on the offensive end, and missing two of those guys meant that WVU was without a shooter, without a point guard, and forced to play with a bunch of guys known for their athleticism. WVU gets a good test against Ohio State on Saturday with those two back and healthy.
7. (8) Marquette 9-2 (NR, 25)
Last Week: 12/19 vs. Western Carolina 94-77, 12/22 @ NC State 68-65
Next Week: 12/28 vs. Presbyterian
I was all set to write about how Dominic James has been underperforming all season and broke out of it against NC State (where he went for 18, 4 boards, and 6 dimes, hitting the game winning shot with 0.4 seconds left on the clock). But after looking at his numbers on the season, I think I’ve been too harsh on James. Yes, his scoring is way down from his freshman year, but Jerel McNeal, Wesley Matthews and Lazar Hayward have all become excellent scorers at this level. At the same time, his assists are as high as they have ever been while his turnovers are at their lowest level. He is also shooting the ball as well as he ever has (except from the line – 51%, really?), hitting on 36% of his three’s. The more I think about it, the more I believe that this is exactly who Marquette needs James to be. A PG that can get the talented scorers on this team the ball when and where they need it to be effective while not turning the rock over. But they also need him to be a guy that can step up and hit a big shot for them when they need it (something he did against NC State, but not against Tennessee). The icing on the cake? It is exactly what NBA scouts are looking for out of James as well.
8. (9) Villanova 11-1 (18, 16)
Last Week: 12/22 vs. Navy 78-68
Next Week: 12/29 vs. Temple
After falling to Texas on December 9th, Villanova has struggled the last three games against St. Joe’s, La Salle, and Navy. It’s not Dante Cunningham’s fault. He’s been sensational. It’s not on Scottie Reynolds either. He has averaged 18 ppg in the last three and seems to have finally found his stroke (10-21 from deep in that span). Corey Stokes, Reggie Redding, Antonio Pena, Shane Clark – its been business as usual from these guys. The only player that really struggled all three games was Corey Fisher, but he has been off all of December (he is 0-for-the-month from three). Maybe Villanova just isn’t as good as their ranking suggests.
9. (4) Louisville 7-2 (19, 19)
Last Week: 12/18 vs. Mississippi 77-68, 12/20 vs. Minnesota 64-70
Next Week: 12/27 vs. UAB
I think it is now safe to say that Louisville has officially become the biggest disappointment in the Big East. I know what all you Cardinal fans are going to say: “We lost to Minnesota because we played a Thursday neutral site game in Cincinnati then had to travel to Arizona to play another neutral site game that Saturday”. You know what I say to that? Boo-hoo. Minnesota has had a great start to the year and looks like they are a legit NCAA tourney team, but they are still probably the fourth or fifth best team in the Big Ten. And the Gophers simply outplayed the Cards. Ole Miss is a bottom half SEC team that has been devastated by injuries and was playing the same day their coach got arrested for assaulting a cab driver. And they came back from 17 down against the ‘Ville. The bottom-line is that this squad just has the look of a mediocre team right now. Just look at their back court. Jerry Smith is their shooter (but he isn’t all that good at shooting). Preston Knowles is a defensive stopper, but not all that much on the offensive end. Edgar Sosa is so far in Pitino’s dog house that I doubt he will ever get his confidence back. Andre McGee just isn’t that good. Until this team finds a playmaker in their back court and con consistently knock down perimeter jumpers, they look like a borderline top 25 team to me.
BUBBLE YOUR PLEASURE, BUBBLE YOUR FUN
10. (11) Cincinnati 10-2
Last Week: 12/18 vs. Mississippi State 75-63, 12/20 vs. Eastern Kentucky 85-77 )T, 12/22 vs. Arkansas Pine-Bluff 79-49
Next Week: 12/29 @ Memphis
This Cincinnati teams deserves more credit than they are getting right now. Their two losses are two Florida State (who looked like a tourney team against Pitt) and to Xavier and they have wins on the road against UNLV and at home against UAB (before their team was blown up) and against Mississippi State. A win at Memphis on Monday, and they will put themselves in great position to make a run at an at-large bid come March.
OH, LOOK. THERE’S MY FOOT. I THINK I’LL SHOOT IT.
11. (13) St. John’s 9-2
Last Week: 12/20 vs. Marist 65-44, 12/21 vs. Virginia Tech 67-81
Next Week: 12/27 vs. Miami FL
The Johnnies really missed an opportunity when they lost to the Hokies. Their nine wins have come against fluffer-nutter, and their two losses have come to teams outside the top six in the ACC.
12. (12) Providence 8-4
Last Week: 12/17 vs. Jackson State 85-71, 12/20 @ Boston College 76-81, 12/22 vs. Bryant
Next Week: Nothing
The Friars really needed that win against BC. Now, their best win is against 4-6 Charlotte.
13. (10) Seton Hall 8-3
Last Week: 12/20 vs. IUPUI 65-67, 12/22 @ James Madison 64-70
Next Week: 12/27 vs. Farleigh Dickinson
What is the best word to describe what this week did to the Pirates’ at-large hopes? Disastrous? Catastrophic? How about fatal.
IF YOU READ THIS FAR, LEAVE A COMMENT. I SOMETIMES WONDER IF ANYONE ACTUALLY CARES ABOUT THESE TEAMS.
14. (14) Rutgers 9-3
Last Week: 12/20 vs. Bryant 67-37, 12/23 vs. New Jersey Tech 78-52
Next Week: 12/28 @ UNC
The Scarlet Knights are riding a four game winning streak – against Princeton, Bryant, NJIT, and Delaware State.
15. (16) DePaul 7-5
Last Week: 12/17 vs. Liberty 64-63, 12/19 vs. Southern 83-46, 12/22 vs. St Louis 65-61, 12/23 vs. Creighton 75-83
Next Week: 12/28 vs. Alcorn State
The Blue Demons bounced back with a decent little 3-1 week.
16. (16) South Florida 4-7
Last Week: 12/20 vs. Murray State 73-64, 12/21 vs. Wright State 43-60, 12/22 vs. Oral Roberts 86-63
Next Week: 12/27 vs. Iona
The Bulls are terrible. Period.