Checking In On… the Big EastPosted by Brian Goodman on November 29th, 2011
Brian Otskey is the RTC correspondent for the Big East conference. You can also find him on Twitter @botskey.
The Week That Was
- A Rough Week for the Big East: Conference teams lost 13 times this past week to the likes of UCF, Illinois State, Northeastern, and Richmond among others. Only three undefeated teams (Syracuse, Louisville, and Marquette) remain and of the 13 teams with at least one loss, only three (DePaul, Seton Hall and Georgetown) have not yet recorded a bad loss. As we enter December, the middle of the conference doesn’t appear to be as strong as in years past. The Big East has a handful of great teams and a host of teams that appear to be very average at this point. It’s a long season, but the chances of seeing nine or ten NCAA bids from this league are certainly not promising.
- Syracuse and Marquette Take Home Titles: The Orange defeated Virginia Tech and Stanford at their second home, Madison Square Garden, to win the NIT Season Tip-Off while Marquette took home the Paradise Jam championship, albeit against a so-so field. Both teams struggled in their respective championship games, but managed to pull it out down the stretch, the sign of a good team. Each team’s schedule ramps up this week against a pair of top ten teams as Syracuse hosts Florida on Friday and Marquette visits in-state rival Wisconsin on Saturday.
- Tim Abromaitis Tears ACL: There was awful news out of South Bend late last week when it was announced that Notre Dame fifth year senior forward Tim Abromaitis tore the ACL in his right knee during practice on Friday. The loss of Abromaitis is a huge blow to a Notre Dame team already with two neutral court losses on its resume and a pair of road games coming up this week. The Fighting Irish rotation is pretty much only seven deep now with only three or four reliable scorers. Point guard Eric Atkins has played very well, but Scott Martin and Pat Connaughton will have to step up in a big way for Notre Dame to have any chance of making the NCAA Tournament.
- Syracuse (6-0) – After feasting on four cupcakes to begin the season, the Orange were impressive late in victories over Virginia Tech and Stanford in the NIT Season Tip-Off. They struggled for the better part of both games, but the ability of this team to flip the switch and play like the top five team it is is something that will suit them well outside of conference play. However, Syracuse had better play well for 40 minutes once the Big East season arrives or else they’ll lose more games than you think. Jim Boeheim’s team ranks in the top ten nationally in both offensive and defensive efficiency, one of only four teams at the moment. Syracuse has done a great job forcing turnovers leading to easy points in transition. Dion Waiters appears to have taken his game to the next level as a sophomore with transition play being a big part of that. How this team is affected by the Bernie Fine investigation, if at all, is something to watch over the next few weeks. This week: 11/29 vs. Eastern Michigan, 12/2 vs. #6 Florida.
- Louisville (6-0) – Rick Pitino was successful last year by molding a team of role players into a cohesive unit with no superstars through an incredible focus on defense. Louisville looks to be following that same formula again in 2011-12. The Cardinals rank third nationally in defensive efficiency and only one opponent has scored more than 54 points. Of course, offense is Louisville’s biggest challenge. Peyton Siva is back, but Pitino’s rotation has been scaled back due to injuries to Wayne Blackshear and Mike Marra. Blackshear may be back but Marra is lost for the season with a torn ACL. Louisville struggled against Ohio and has another tricky game with Long Beach State on Monday. Freshman Chane Behanan (9/9) is stepping up in the absence of Blackshear while Gorgui Dieng has been a shot-blocking machine in the paint at three rejections per game. This is a big week for the Cardinals as their competition gets stronger. This week: 11/28 vs. Long Beach State, 12/2 vs. #20 Vanderbilt.
- Connecticut (6-1) – The Huskies blew a 17-point second half lead and were stunned by UCF before needing overtime to scrape by Florida State in the Bahamas. The debut of Ryan Boatright against the Seminoles was a much needed boost for a team that needs another perimeter threat to complement Jeremy Lamb. UConn leads the nation in offensive rebounding percentage as you might expect, but Alex Oriakhi clearly has not bought what Jim Calhoun is selling. Oriakhi needs to get on board quick and help out star freshman Andre Drummond in the post. There’s a lot of room for improvement here, but expect some continued growing pains from the Huskies as we move along. This week: 12/3 vs. Arkansas.
- Pittsburgh (5-1) – When was the last time you saw a Jamie Dixon team play so poorly on the defensive end? The answer is never and that’s holding Pittsburgh back in a major way. The Panthers have allowed over 65 points in four of their six games and have been flat out awful defending the paint. This team has been superb offensively behind Ashton Gibbs, Tray Woodall, and Nasir Robinson, but getting the younger frontcourt players to buy in defensively has been a challenge for Dixon and his staff. Pitt’s December schedule is rather soft, so there is ample time for the coach to shore up his team’s defensive liabilities before conference play begins. This week: 11/30 vs. Duquesne (neutral), 12/3 @ Tennessee.
- Marquette (6-0) – Behind the #3 two-point percentage in the land, Marquette has remained undefeated. The schedule hasn’t been tough, but the Golden Eagles were put to the test by upstart Norfolk State in the Paradise Jam championship game. Darius Johnson-Odom and Jae Crowder have predictably led this team but the emergence of sophomore Vander Blue (10.7 PPG) and point guard Junior Cadougan (7.7 PPG/6.3 APG) have this team primed for success. Marquette appears to be better defensively, but keep in mind that all statistics have been compiled against a very weak schedule to date. Two upcoming games against Wisconsin and Washington (both away from the Bradley Center) will be key acid tests to see where the Golden Eagles are really at. 12/3 @ #7 Wisconsin.
- Georgetown (5-1) – The Hoyas had a successful trip to Maui, winning twice in three days with the one loss being a competitive effort against Kansas. Henry Sims was terrific in the overtime win over Memphis while Hollis Thompson is showing he can be a dependable second scorer behind Jason Clark. The key for Georgetown going forward will be continued contributions from freshman Otto Porter. I’m not sold on the Hoyas because this is not a deep basketball team by any stretch. However, increased production from Sims and consistency from Porter could push the Hoyas higher in the standings than most originally thought. A stiff test looms this Thursday at Alabama. This week: 12/1 @ #11 Alabama, 12/3 vs. NJIT.
- West Virginia (4-1) – They’ve played the fewest games of any Big East team to date and the jury is still out on whether or not the home loss to Kent State was a fluke or a sign of things to come. Kevin Jones leads the Big East in both scoring (21.8 PPG) and rebounding (12.3 RPG), but this is another team that could be impacted by depth problems down the road. West Virginia’s top four scorers form a potent combination, but Bob Huggins is going to need production out of freshman Gary Browne and solid minutes out of others for the Mountaineers to stay in the top half of this conference. This week: 12/3 @ Mississippi State.
- Villanova (4-2) – It was an ugly trip to southern California for Villanova, losing two out of three games at the 76 Classic. Against Santa Clara on Sunday, the Wildcats blew a nine-point lead with three minutes remaining and allowed the Broncos to shoot 40.7% from the three point line. Jay Wright has his work cut out defensively in order to move this talented team higher up in the standings. Improvements by Dominic Cheek and James Bell are great signs but the Wildcats have to defend better in order to be an upper-echelon Big East team. This week: 12/3 vs. Pennsylvania.
- Notre Dame (5-2) – I may have the Fighting Irish rated too high given the loss of Tim Abromaitis, but nobody below them has done anything to warrant jumping Notre Dame just yet. Jerian Grant has done a nice job for Mike Brey, but Scott Martin is the player who needs to make the biggest step up with Abromaitis out of the lineup. Martin hasn’t been a great shooter over his career (39.9% FG) but he will be getting more opportunities now. Notre Dame wasn’t a great team before Abromaitis went down and now it looks like they’re headed for a sub-.500 finish in conference play without him. This week: 11/30 @ #19 Gonzaga, 12/4 @ Maryland (Washington, DC).
- Seton Hall (5-1) – The Pirates struggled, but got by Yale and St. Peter’s last week after returning home from a successful second place finish at the Charleston Classic. Herb Pope is making his case for first team all-Big East with impressive early statistics. He is third in the conference in scoring (20.5 PPG) and second in rebounding (11.7 RPG). Pope leads all active Big East players with 24 career double-doubles, including five in six games this season. Along with Jordan Theodore and Fuquan Edwin, the Pirates have enough talent to surprise and maybe crack the top eight if other teams falter. However, depth remains a concern for Kevin Willard as the Pirates play only seven or eight men regularly. The rest of its non-conference schedule is light so expect the Hall to enter conference play with a gaudy record before a key opening stretch against Syracuse, West Virginia and Connecticut sandwiched around the start of the new calendar year. This week: 12/2 vs. Auburn.
- Cincinnati (3-2) – Two home losses to Presbyterian and Marshall have raised major red flags in the Queen City. Marshall isn’t a bad team, but it’s inexcusable for Cincinnati to follow up the shocking loss to the Blue Hose with another home loss six days later. The Bearcats’ problem is not on defense, it’s their anemic offense averaging 66.4 PPG at a tempo rated near the bottom of Division I. Outside of his top four scorers, Mick Cronin has little offensive talent. With two losses already, Cincinnati can’t afford losses to Georgia and Xavier coming up in early December. This week: 11/29 vs. Miami (OH), 12/2 @ Georgia.
- DePaul (4-1) – Oliver Purnell has done it before and he appears to be doing it again as he slowly brings the DePaul program back to respectability. The Blue Demons still have a very long way to go, but they took care of business against Texas Tech and Arizona State at the Old Spice Classic while only losing by one point to a Minnesota team that still had Trevor Mbakwe on the court. Cleveland Melvin and Brandon Young have blossomed into reliable scorers, but DePaul is still lacking on the defensive end. Getting a win against Ole Miss on Thursday would be another step forward. This week: 12/1 vs. Mississippi.
- St. John’s (4-3) – It doesn’t matter how talented this team might be because it is impossible for a team so thin and so young to win with any kind of consistency. St. John’s has very little coming off its bench and the tired legs will catch up at some point if they haven’t already. The Red Storm allowed Northeastern’s Joel Smith to drop 29 points and grab 10 rebounds en route to a Huskies win on Saturday in Queens. Given their play to date combined with Steve Lavin’s ongoing recovery, the Red Storm appear to be in for a long season. St. John’s is not an efficient team on either side of the ball and will suffer greatly against teams they can’t overwhelm with pure athleticism. The upcoming game against Kentucky won’t be pretty. This week: 12/1 @ #1 Kentucky.
- Rutgers (5-3) – It’s been a tough few weeks for the combustible Mike Rice. Already with three technical fouls on the season, Rice has to be pulling his hair out every night dealing with a roster full of young players. Rutgers has some talent but it’s going to take a year or two for them to put it all together. As the losses pile up, you have to wonder how long the players and fans will tolerate Rice’s sideline act. Gilvydas Biruta is averaging 12/6 but he needs others to step up and help him for the Scarlet Knights to be successful. This week: 12/3 vs. LSU.
- South Florida (5-2) – The Bulls had an awful trip to Mohegan Sun, losing to Old Dominion and a bad Penn State team. Anthony Collins starting playing this past Wednesday and immediately contributed, dishing out six and seven assists in his first two games. The Bulls need Collins to be a steady presence at the point because their guard play was atrocious last year. A solid Collins can also help Augustus Gilchrist improve on his 11/7 average in the post. He needs to play at a higher level for South Florida to move up. 11/30 @ VCU, 12/3 @ #14 Kansas.
- Providence (4-2) – Ed Cooley inherited a mess, but he’s doing the best he can to dig Providence out of the hole they’re in. Vincent Council is one of the better players most folks don’t know about but the Friars have no depth after Council, Gerard Coleman, Bryce Cotton and LaDontae Henton. Bilal Dixon has seen his minutes cut and PC can’t seem to stop anybody defensively. It’s a long rebuilding project, but Cooley has a nice recruiting class lined up for next year. This week: 11/29 vs. Holy Cross, 12/1 @ South Carolina.
Wednesday, 11/30: Notre Dame @ #19 Gonzaga: Notre Dame faces a very tough test in its first significant game without Tim Abromaitis. Freshman Kevin Pangos has been outstanding for Gonzaga, but I worry about what Gonzaga will do to the Irish inside. It could be a long night for the Irish in Spokane.
Thursday, 12/1: Georgetown @ #11 Alabama: This is a terrific test to see if Georgetown’s play in Maui was a fluke or not. The Hoyas will be facing a defensive juggernaut that plays at a slower pace and loves to grind an opponent down as the game goes on. I’m not sure Georgetown has the depth and stamina to win this game but it should be closer than expected because the Crimson Tide struggle to score at times.
Friday, 12/2: #6 Florida @ #3 Syracuse: For me, this is the non-conference game of the year in the Big East. The match-ups here are fascinating from Jim Boeheim against Billy Donovan to Florida’s talented guards trying to shoot over the Syracuse zone at the Carrier Dome and more. The X-factor in this game could be Florida’s Patric Young. How will he react against the bruising Syracuse interior players?
Friday, 12/2: #20 Vanderbilt @ #9 Louisville: The Cardinals are terrific at the YUM! Center and they’ll be welcoming in a Vanderbilt team still trying to find its identity without Festus Ezeli. Louisville has a strong edge defensively in this game, the only question is whether they can score enough points to win even with a strong defensive effort.
Saturday, 12/3: #17 Marquette @ #7 Wisconsin: This rivalry has grown nationally over the past few years as both programs have produced consistent winners. Playing in Madison will be an incredibly difficult challenge for Marquette this early in the season. It will take a tremendous effort to defeat the highly efficient Badgers in their own building.
Jim Boeheim. How ironic is it that I highlighted Boeheim’s future in this spot in my Big East Primer at the beginning of November? Little did we know back then how quickly speculation and uncertainty would envelope the Syracuse coach for an entirely different reason. Syracuse Chancellor Nancy Cantor fired Bernie Fine on Sunday night amid multiple allegations of sexual abuse. Ten days ago, Boeheim launched into a spirited defense of his friend of almost 50 years and called out the accusers. Now, Boeheim has publicly reversed his position and supported Syracuse’s decision to terminate Fine’s employment. It would be highly prudent for everyone to wait for all of the facts to come out but make no mistake, this story will get bigger and bigger as the evidence mounts. The key question will be whether Boeheim knew about what Fine was doing. Nothing has been proven yet but I can’t rule anything out at this point. At the very least, Boeheim may now have less of a say in choosing his successor after he decides to hang it up as pointed out by ESPN’s Andy Katz and Doug Gottlieb on their weekly podcast. This story is lurid and disturbing, but it certainly bears watching as everything begins to play out.