Checking in on the… Big EastPosted by rtmsf on January 7th, 2009
Rob Dauster of Ballin is a Habit is the RTC correspondent for the Big East Conference.
We are just a week into Big East play, and it is already obvious how much fun this conference is going to be. UConn was supposed to be the best team in the country outside of UNC, but the Huskies lost their Big East opener to Georgetown. At home. And loss isn’t quite the right word. Embarrassed is better. Once everyone was firmly entrenched on the Hoyas jock, they went out and lost back-to-back games to Pitt and Notre Dame. Pitt is the new #1 team in the country, but the Irish were coming off a loss to … St. John’s?
No one is going to make it through this league unscathed. I’d be surprised if anyone finished the season with less than five Ls in league play. If you are one of the nine ranked teams (yes, nine Big East teams are currently ranked), then there are three things you will need to do if your plan on reaching the NCAA tourney:
1) Win your home games. With so many quality teams in the league, defending your home court will guarantee you at least a .500 record in the league. Regardless of your opponent, the top nine teams will almost universally be the favorite when playing at home which leads me to my second point.
2) Beat the teams you are supposed to beat. The top nine (and maybe ten if you include Cincy) are going to beat up on each other all season. I doubt the committee is going to want more than a quarter (8 of 31) of the at-large bids to go to one conference. So if all nine (or ten) want in, they need to take care of business against the South Floridas and DePauls and Rutgers.
3) Pray! Like I said, I doubt that the NCAA wants to have one conference send so many teams to the tourney. If nine Big East teams are going to make it, they will need to catch some breaks during the season. The top four in the ACC need to run through the league (UNC didn’t help on Sunday losing to BC – did anyone else notice that win sent BC from unranked to #17?). The top three in the Big XII need to roll. Likewise for the Pac Ten, Big Ten, and SEC (well, only Tennessee in the SEC). Teams like Davidson, Gonzaga/St. Mary’s, Butler, Xavier, and Memphis need to win their conference tournaments. Essentially, they need to hope that there are as few teams on the bubble as possible.
When it comes down to it, every Big East team is going to have an opportunity to knock off numerous top ten and top twenty teams during the conference play. If any of them finish league play below .500 and without a marquee win in conference, then frankly, they probably are not good enough to deserve a bid.
PLAYER OF THE WEEK: Jerel McNeal, Marquette
McNeal helped lead Marquette to a 2-0 start for the first time since he has been at the school. In a bit of a statement win against Villanova (the other guard heavy Big East team), McNeal had 24 points, 4 boards, and 7 assists to just 2 turnovers, but more importantly he hit a couple crucial shots down the stretch. The biggest one came with just under four minutes left, as he knocked down a three that stretched the lead in what had been a back-and-forth game to 66-58. McNeal continued with that momentum when the Golden Eagles hosted Cincinnati. In what was one of the best shooting nights of the year (for anyone), McNeal had 26 points and was 9-10 from the floor, including (get this) 7-7 from three. He also added 5 boards and 6 assists in the blow out win. I have been a fan of McNeal for a long time (even before people jumped on his bandwagon after he went for 30 against Stanford in the tourney last year), but his knock has always been a questionable shooting ability from the perimeter. This season, he is hitting 47% of his threes (42% before the 7-7 night) while hitting almost 2.5 per game (he already has set a career high for triples in a season with more than 20 games left). If he is knocking down his threes, than you could legitimately make the argument that he is the best all-around guard in the country.
TEAM OF THE WEEK: Pitt
The Panthers proved a lot of doubters wrong with their beat down of Georgetown in Washington DC on Saturday. Last week, I said that I thought Georgetown would pick up a victory if they were able to hold their own against the Panthers on the glass. Well, the exact opposite of that happened as Pitt out rebounded the Hoyas 46-21 while collecting 18 offensive rebounds along the way. DeJuan Blair was the best player on the floor that day, as he went for 20 and 17 boards (7 offensive). Georgetown simply had no answer for him on the interior and, to be honest, not many teams will. He is incredibly strong on the block, he is great at establishing position, and anything that touches his hands, he catches (it should be a lot of fun to see him go against Luke Harangody). The performance that should not go overlooked is that of Gilbert Brown. Brown was injured during the early part of the season, and has taken a while to get back into the flow of things. But he has come out strong during Big East play, averaging 10 points and 5 boards in Pitt’s two wins. Brown is an important player for the Panthers, especially if he is able to knock down jumpers (like he did against Georgetown), because he is absurdly athletic and can get out and run the floor (something Jamie Dixon has clearly put an emphasis on this year), but he is very good defensively and can guard multiple positions as well.
I was at the Georgetown-Pitt game, and it is amazing some of the things that you pick up on when you see a game in person as opposed to on TV. For example, there may not be a player in the country that has more fun than DeJuan Blair. Literally, the entire game he had a huge grin on his face, and genuinely looked like he was having the time of his life on the court. A perfect example came early in the second half. Blair was at the free throw line, and the Georgetown student section was really getting on him, which Blair kind of played up a bit before he got to the line. He missed the first free throw, then knocked down the second with a huge smile on his face as the students got even louder. After hitting the second one, he back pedaled the whole way down the court with his tongue hanging out while clapping his hands (which was pretty clearly directed at the student section).
1. (2) Pitt 14-0, 2-0 (1, 1)
Last Week: 12/31 @ Rutgers 78-72, 1/3 @ Georgetown 70-54
Next Week: 1/11 vs. St. John’s
2. (4) UConn 13-1, 2-1 (5, 5)
Last Week: 1/3 vs. Rutgers 80-49, 1/6 @ West Virginia 61-55
Next Week: 1/10 vs. Cincinnati
I’m moving UConn back up not because they won two games and not because they beat West Virginia, but because of how they played in doing so. The Huskies looked apathetic and unmotivated in their loss to Georgetown, but they played like a different team this week, especially against West Virginia. The Mountaineers are a team that hangs their hat on their defense and their hustle, but the Huskies went into Morgantown and beat up on WVU while simply out working them. Jeff Adrien had 17 points (13 of which came in the second half) and Hasheem Thabeet and 13, 13 boards, and 3 blocks, but it was the play of Stanley Robinson that made the difference. Sticks finished the game with 15 boards (6 offensive) and 3 blocks while playing all 40 minutes. That is the dimension he brings the Huskies. It creates such an advantage for UConn when he is on the floor because he can defend any position 1-4, but since he plays the three, it creates all sorts of problems for Husky opponents trying to keep him off the glass. The biggest problem for the Huskies right now is that AJ Price still isn’t right. Kemba Walker plays hard, but he just is not ready to lead a team on this level yet as his offensive skills and his understanding of the game have not caught up with his tremendous athleticism. In two games this week, Price totaled 4 points on 1-13 shooting. He did have 7 assists against Rutgers and only turned it over three times in the two games, but the Huskies don’t need another steady PG when they already have Craig Austrie. They need a lead guard and a go-to scorer that can take pressure off of the interior players by stretching defenses.
3. (3) Syracuse 14-1, 2-0 (11, 9)
Last Week: 1/2 @ South Florida 59-54
Next Week: 1/7 vs. DePaul, 1/10 @ Rutgers
The Orange start off the Big East schedule pretty easily and should be 4-0 heading into their Gauntlet (which is probably the worst in the entire Big East as they play 9 top 25 teams in a span of 10 games). If the ‘Cuse want to come out of that stretch with a shot at winning the Big East regular season title, they are going to need to play much better than they did against South Florida. The Orange got up by as much as 16, but just could not score in the second half. Some of that had to do with the fact that they played without Paul Harris (he had a cut on his finger), and some of it had to do with the fact that Arinze Onuaku, who played so well in the first half (8 of the first 13 Orange points), struggled so mightily from the free throw line (he was 1-9). But the main reason was that Syracuse just seemed to lack some energy down the stretch, which is ironic. The knock on Syracuse this year has been that they are a terrible first half team that struggles out of the gate (against USF, they never trailed and used an 11-0 run to end the first half up 35-19), but dominates in the second half. The last note is that Andy Rautins continued his fantastic play. He went for 14 points on four 3s, and while it is a so-so game compared to his last two (27.5 ppg), each of the three’s he hit came in a big spot.
4. (t8) Marquette 13-2, 2-0 (18, 15)
Last Week: 1/1 vs. Villanova 79-72, 1/4 vs. Cincinnati 84-50
Next Week: 1/7 @ Rutgers, 1/10 vs. West Virginia
5. (6) Notre Dame 11-3, 2-1 (13, 13)
Last Week: 12/31 @ DePaul 92-82, 1/3 @ St. John’s 65-71, 1/5 vs. Georgetown 73-67
Next Week: 1/10 vs. Seton Hall, 1/12 @ Louisville
Yes, the Irish lost to St. John’s this week, but regardless of who your opponents are, if you play three games in the span of a week in this conference, with two coming on the road, and come out of it 2-1 with a win over a team like Georgetown, then no one can complain. If you are an Irish fan, what you can complain about is the way your team is rebounding. St. John’s out rebounded them 40-27 while picking up 14 o-boards and Georgetown out rebounded them 37-34 while grabbing 13 offensive rebounds. The Johnnies are not exactly what you would call a good rebounding team, while you might even call the Hoyas down right bad on the glass. The good news for the Irish is that against Georgetown, Kyle McAlarney woke up. He scored 17 points, but hit on 5-11 from deep, including a couple of ridiculous shots (one he hit from about 28 feet, the other was a pull-up, twisting, fade-away three that was literally two inches away from being blocked).
6. (1) Georgetown 10-3, 1-2 (9, 10)
Last Week: 1/3 vs. Pitt 54-70, 1/5 @ Notre Dame 67-73
Next Week: 1/10 vs. Providence
I’m going to give the Hoyas the benefit of the doubt on the Notre Dame loss. The Hoyas had to fly halfway across the country to go play a top 10 team in what is now the hardest place to win as a visiting team (44 straight at home for ND, longest in the nation) with just one day’s rest (which turned into a travel day) after playing Pitt, maybe the most physical team in the nation. Add to that the fact that they only really go about six deep, and you have all the makings for a team with tired legs. That is exactly what happened to the Hoyas in South Bend. Their defense wasn’t as tough, their cuts weren’t as sharp, and their jumpers were short all game. This is the Big East, and every team is going to have days like that. What the Hoya fans should be worried about is how poorly their team rebounded against Pitt. Granted, the Panthers are as good as anyone in the country on the glass, but on a number of the Panthers’ 18 offensive rebounds, it seemed like there were two or three Pitt players there for a tip-in with nary a Hoya to be found. The good news is that Greg Monroe has been getting better and better (he had a phenomenal game against ND, attacking the offensive glass and showing that he can be counted on as a go-to scorer as he finished with 21 and 10 boards). If he can be counted on to get the Hoyas a bucket when they really need one (a la Roy Hibbert), he makes them that much better.
7. (5) West Virginia 11-3, 1-1 (25, 22)
Last Week: 1/3 vs. Seton Hall 92-66, 1/6 vs. UConn 55-61
Next Week: 1/10 @ Marquette
While the loss to UConn hurts (they really could have won it), what hurts more is that the Huskies exposed the Mountaineers’ biggest weakness. Right now, they have no one that can create for them offensively. Their assist leader? Alex Ruoff, who also happens to be their leading scorer and a guy whose strength is to catch and shoot. So much of the Mountaineer offense right now comes from getting second chance points, and when they face a team that is going to rebound with them on the offensive end, they are going to be in trouble.
8. (7) Louisville 9-3, 0-0 (23, 21)
Last Week: 12/31 vs. UNLV 55-56, 1/4 vs. Kentucky 74-71
Next Week: 1/7 @ South Florida, 1/10 @ Villanova, 1/12 vs. Notre Dame
The UNLV loss might have been rock bottom for the Cardinals as the Rebels, a borderline top 25 team at best right now, were playing without star guard Wink Adams. Not only that, but Edgar Sosa had just played the worst two games of his career, and Rick Pitino even told the guard that he should transfer. But all it took was one shot, and it looks like Louisville may have the spark they need to turn their season around. That one shot I’m speaking of is Sosa’s 25-footer with 2.8 seconds left to beat Kentucky. Sosa finished with 18 points, and if you’re a Cardinals fan, you hope that performance will give him a boost in confidence, which he so desperately needs. Almost as important as the confidence boost Sosa will get out of it is the fact that it erased what would have been an epic collapse. Louisville was up 71-64 with under a minute left when they fouled Jodie Meeks on a three and then proceeded to throw away two inbounds passes in the next 15 seconds as Kentucky came back to tie up the score. One alarming note for Louisville is the struggles of Samardo Samuels recently. He has only averaged 9.7 ppg in his last five games. A big reason for that may be foul trouble. Samuels, who is averaging more than three fouls per game, had four games with at least four fouls (he fouled out against Minnesota, played just 11 minutes vs. Kentucky) during that stretch.
9. (t8) Villanova 13-3, 1-1 (18, 17)
Last Week: 1/1 @ Marquette 72-79, 1/6 @ Seton Hall 89-85 OT
Next Week: 1/10 vs. Louisville
Coming off of a close loss to Marquette, Villanova barely hung on against Seton Hall. The Wildcats needed a big game out of Scottie Reynolds, and they got it as the senior went for 40. The 40 point outburst is a little bit out of character coming from Reynolds this season. He has slid into more of a distributor’s role, running this team more than anything. He has been much less aggressive in attacking to basket this year, as he is shooting almost a full free throw less this year than he did the previous two. That was not the case against Seton Hall, as Reynolds shot 15-16 from the line. As much as Reynolds wants to be able to play a point guard’s role, the Wildcats are going to be a better team this year when he plays as aggressive as he did tonight.
TWO TEAMS ON THE BUBBLE?
10. (11) St. John’s 10-4, 1-1
Last Week: 12/31 @ Providence 54-75, 1/3 vs. Notre Dame 71-65
Next Week: 1/11 @ Pitt
St. John’s? On the bubble? Really? Yes, really. Let’s say St. John’s wins all of their games again teams that are not in the top nine (seven games). Add those seven to the win that the Johnnies already have against the Irish, and that is eight wins in conference play. Let’s say they pull two more upsets (West Virginia and Villanova). That puts the Johnnies at 19-11 and 10-8 in conference play with three quality wins. They at least would have an argument to be let in.
11. (10) Cincinnati 10-4, 0-1
Last Week: 1/4 @ Marquette 50-84
Next Week: 1/7 vs. Providence, 1/10 vs. UConn
After looking horrendous in back-to-back games, I probably should not even have the Bearcats listed this high. Cincy has no offense whatsoever. If Deonta Vaughn does get them a basket, either by scoring himself or by setting up a teammate, the Bearcats only hope for a score is a fast break or an offensive rebound.
12. (12) Providence 10-4, 2-0
Last Week: 12/31 vs. St. John’s 75-54, 1/3 vs. DePaul 62-54
Next Week: 1/7 @ Cincinnati, 1/10 @ Georgetown
The Friars have gotten off to a good start in league play. If they can get the win against Cincinnati Wednesday night, they set themselves up great for a run at a bid.
WHO IS THE FIRST TO GET A WIN IN LEAGUE PLAY?
13. (16) South Florida 5-8, 0-1
Last Week: 1/2 vs. Syracuse 54-59
Next Week: 1/7 vs. Louisville, 1/10 @ DePaul
I’m giving USF credit because they only lost the Orange by five.
14. (14) Rutgers 9-6, 0-2
Last Week: 12/31 vs. Pitt 72-78, 1/3 @ UConn 49-80
Next Week: 1/7 vs. Marquette, 1/10 vs. Syracuse
Rutgers is finally done with their streak of playing top five teams. Next week, they get two games against … top 15 teams?
15. (15) DePaul 8-7, 0-2
Last Week: 12/31 vs. Notre Dame 82-92, 1/3 @ Providence 54-62
Next Week: 1/7 @ Syracuse, 1/10 vs. USF
Dar Tucker and Mac Koshwal are both quietly having great seasons.
16. (13) Seton Hall 9-6, 0-3
Last Week: 1/3 vs. West Virginia 66-92, 1/6 vs. Villanova 85-89 OT
Next Week: 1/10 @ Notre Dame
The Pirates lost their first three in Big East play. Two were in embarrassing fashion, and two were at home.