Checking In On… the Big East ConferencePosted by rtmsf on December 5th, 2011
Brian Otskey is the RTC correspondent for the Big East conference. You can also find him on Twitter @botskey.
The Week That Was
Dominating the SEC: In the newly expanded Big East/SEC Challenge, the Big East came away with a decisive 8-4 victory over the SEC. Only two Big East teams (DePaul and Rutgers) lost on their home floor while four conference members snagged important road wins across the south. The most impressive was Georgetown, a 57-55 winner over Alabama at Coleman Coliseum, a victory that should put the Hoyas in the national rankings this week. Providence earned a nice win at South Carolina while Pittsburgh and Cincinnati took care of business against Tennessee and Georgia. While this event doesn’t have the buzz of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge for instance, I thought this was a success for both leagues. It’s good to get some quality games early in the season instead of fattening up on cupcakes. It’s a shame four Big East schools (Marquette, Villanova, Notre Dame and South Florida) had to sit out but that’s just the way it goes since the SEC only has 12 teams.
The Emergence of Georgetown and Marquette: As mentioned above, Georgetown knocked off Alabama, part of a 3-0 week bookended by two cupcakes. At 7-1 with a close loss to Kansas, the Hoyas look much better than originally advertised. Despite Georgetown’s admirable success, the most significant Big East win this past week came courtesy of Marquette. The Golden Eagles knocked off in-state rival and top ten Wisconsin in Madison on Saturday. The Badgers almost never lose at the Kohl Center so any team that comes out of there with a win deserves major props and earns my respect. I had my doubts about Buzz Williams’ team (ranked fifth here last week) but the win at Wisconsin is as impressive as it gets. Not to mention it was without starting point guard Junior Cadougan, suspended for the game by Williams for an unspecified violation of team rules, plus Jae Crowder was saddled with foul trouble most of the game. I’m officially on board the MU bandwagon.
Jim Boeheim Apologizes: Syracuse’s important 72-68 victory over a quality Florida team took a back seat in the press room Friday night as Orange head coach Jim Boeheim apologized to those who accused former associate head coach Bernie Fine of sexual molestation. Saying he “misspoke very badly,” Boeheim appeared somber yet nervous as he stood in front of the large media contingent. He clearly looked like a man under a lot of pressure and he admitted as much, saying how difficult of a time this has been for him, his family, and his staff. On the surface it appears the Orange players are not distracted by all that is going on but it would be naïve to think they aren’t paying attention in some fashion. With the investigation ongoing and agencies such as the FBI and US Secret Service involved, it is highly likely that more information will come to light. The Orange players have to do their best to block out the distractions as they march deeper into a season full of high expectations. Two weeks into this, there still isn’t anyone out there who can confidently say what will happen over the next few months with regards to this investigation.
- Syracuse (8-0) — Off the court issues aside, Syracuse sure is taking care of business on the court. The Orange destroyed former assistant Rob Murphy’s Eastern Michigan squad before getting by Florida on Friday at the Carrier Dome. Syracuse didn’t shoot particularly well against the Gators but managed to get to the line 21 times while out-rebounding Florida. Florida’s 20 turnovers also helped the cause. On the broadcast, Jay Bilas said Brandon Triche could become Syracuse’s best player. I can’t disagree. Triche is a solid three-point shooter who is terrific in transition and defensively on the outer flank of Jim Boeheim’s zone defense. The junior’s statistics are up pretty much across the board in five fewer minutes of game action. This week: 12/6 vs. Marshall, 12/10 vs. George Washington.
- Louisville (7-0) – The Cardinals had to rally to defeat Vanderbilt on Friday evening with Peyton Siva sealing the win in the final seconds. A lot of people think Louisville is overrated but I’m not one of them. While the Cardinals certainly are banged up, Rick Pitino always gets the most out of his players. If Wayne Blackshear is able to make it back onto the court, watch out. This team could do a lot of damage with its defense come Big East play and has just enough capable offensive players to be satisfactory on that end once they put it all together. It also helps when you have such an advantage like this team does at the KFC YUM! Center. This week: 12/7 vs. IUPUI, 12/10 vs. Fairleigh Dickinson.
- Marquette (7-0) – As you can see, I’m high on Marquette after its win at Wisconsin. In last week’s check-in, I said the games with Wisconsin and Washington will give us a great idea of where this team is at. Well, consider that done after just one of those games. Darius Johnson-Odom and Jae Crowder will carry this team but the emergence of sophomore Vander Blue and freshman Todd Mayo have added important scoring depth. As impressive as Marquette has been offensively, the big difference this year is defense. Buzz Williams’ team is ranked #14 in defensive efficiency, a huge improvement from rankings in the 50’s and 60’s in Williams’ first three years in Milwaukee. If the Golden Eagles can sustain that level of play, they are a legitimate Big East title contender and a major threat to go very deep in the NCAA Tournament. This week: 12/6 vs. Washington (Madison Square Garden), 12/10 vs. Green Bay.
- Connecticut (7-1) – Winning is always the most important thing, and UConn has done that, but I’ve been left with a feeling of wanting more from this team after many of its games against inferior competition. The Huskies are allowing teams to hang around before using their talent and athleticism to eventually pull away. That’s not going to cut it against better teams. A solid 40-minute effort is what this team needs more than anything. Part of that is having a leader on the floor and I think that’s something Connecticut is lacking at this point. Will Jeremy Lamb develop into that vocal type of leader who will be necessary if the Huskies want to win the Big East? This is a very good team, but I actually think it is a bit overrated at this point in the season. Continued quality play from Ryan Boatright (18.5 PPG, 63.2% FG) can change that. This week: 12/8 vs. #25 Harvard.
- Pittsburgh (7-1) – The recent injury to point guard Tray Woodall (8.3 APG) is a big blow to this team but the schedule lightens up significantly in December. Pittsburgh arguably doesn’t have a game it should lose until January 14 at Marquette. The Panthers got by a pesky Tennessee team in Knoxville on Saturday on the strength of 16/12 from forward Nasir Robinson. A flagrant one call on Ashton Gibbs combined with a pair of missed front ends of one-and-ones almost cost Pittsburgh the game but Gibbs redeemed himself with a clutch steal in the final seconds. Given the softer schedule over the next month, I expect Pitt to sure up its holes defensively and gain a lot of confidence heading into conference play. This week: 12/6 vs. VMI, 12/10 vs. Oklahoma State (Madison Square Garden).
- Georgetown (7-1) – Hollis Thompson’s game-winning three-pointer against Alabama last week could end up being the most significant play of Georgetown’s season. Let’s say the Hoyas end up 9-9 in Big East play. The win over Alabama, thanks to Thompson’s shot, could be the quality road win that puts them over the top and into the NCAA Tournament. Of course that is three months away from now but the thought occurred to me right after the game. Quality road wins are hard to come by and that was one of the better victories of the season to date in all of college basketball. This week: 12/10 vs. Howard.
- West Virginia (4-2) – After Georgetown, the strength of the Big East starts to wane. West Virginia is in a tenuous position given its upcoming schedule and results to date, including a disappointing setback at Mississippi State on Saturday night. The Mountaineers have trips to Kansas State and Las Vegas (two games against Missouri State and Baylor) in the month of December before beginning conference play. As expected, WVU has struggled to knock down perimeter jump shots. Kevin Jones has been terrific (averaging a double-double) but he needs help. Outside of his top four scorers, Bob Huggins doesn’t have much depth to work with. This week: 12/8 @ Kansas State (at Wichita, KS), 12/10 vs. Miami.
- Villanova (5-2) – The Wildcats have struggled in Big Five play, needing overtime to beat La Salle while struggling most of the game with Pennsylvania on Saturday. A tough week looms with games against red hot Missouri and another Philly tilt at Temple. If the Wildcats are 5-4 at this point next week, alarm bells will be going off on the Main Line. This is a crucial week for Villanova because it needs to pick up a quality win out of conference. This is its last chance to do so. Either of these games would suffice but Jay Wright’s team must get better defensively in order to do that. This week: 12/6 vs. #13 Missouri (Madison Square Garden), 12/10 @ Temple.
- Seton Hall (6-1) – You could probably say the Pirates are flying under the radar at this point despite being relatively unproven against solid competition. Seton Hall has done nothing to hurt itself at this point while taking care of business in impressive fashion against the teams it should beat. The Hall destroyed Auburn in the second half on Friday, putting up 81 points in the process. Herb Pope (20.9 PPG, 11.7 RPG) looks like a sure-fire first team all-conference selection and has an outside shot at POY honors if Seton Hall can win some games and sneak into the top half of the league. To do that, Kevin Willard needs continued contributions out of freshmen Aaron Cosby and Haralds Karlis. Cosby starts while Karlis has been a spark off the bench not necessarily for his statistics but for the energy he brings on the floor. It’s still very early but the Pirates look to be the surprise team in the conference that finishes better than expected. This week: 12/6 vs. NJIT, 12/10 vs. Wake Forest.
- Cincinnati (5-2) – Winning at Georgia was a big lift for the Bearcats. They played an awful first half against the Bulldogs but settled down and focused in the second stanza to pull out the win. A loss to Georgia would have sent Bearcat fans into an early season panic. It seems most prognosticators, myself included, glossed over the depth issue on this team. After its top four scorers, Cincinnati doesn’t have much at all. Justin Jackson has to become a somewhat reliable scorer for the Bearcats to reach their preseason expectations. This week: 12/10 @ #12 Xavier.
- Notre Dame (5-4) – Things are coming apart quickly for Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish have lost four of their past five games and lost Tim Abromaitis to a torn ACL in the process. Two ugly losses to Gonzaga and a down Maryland team left a sour taste in Mike Brey’s mouth this week. Eric Atkins has struggled with turnovers at the point guard position and that’s just not something the Irish can afford at this point. They need to be hitting on all cylinders but even that likely won’t be enough to escape the bottom third of the Big East. Jerian Grant has been a bright spot, but Scott Martin is having a rough go of it shooting the basketball (34.9% FG). This week: 12/8 vs. Maine, 12/10 vs. Dartmouth.
- DePaul (4-2) – It’s hard to rank the bottom of the Big East but I’ll give the edge to DePaul based on its close loss to Minnesota and taking care of business wins over Arizona State and Texas Tech. The Blue Demons have two very good players in Cleveland Melvin and Brandon Young, both averaging over 18 PPG, but they need a third option to put up double figures. Additionally, DePaul is really bad on the defensive end. DePaul’s defense is highly porous inside and the team is fouling at an extremely high rate. Teams can score at will in transition against DePaul but Oliver Purnell does have some offensive talent at his disposal. This week: 12/5 vs. Milwaukee, 12/7 @ Loyola (IL), 12/10 vs. Chicago State.
- St. John’s (4-4) – The Johnnies were rocked by Kentucky last week but God’s Gift Achiuwa and Moe Harkless managed to record double-doubles against UK’s stacked front court. Unfortunately for St. John’s, the rest of the team combined for just 25 points and 15 rebounds on 9-33 shooting. The Red Storm has a tricky game tonight against Detroit before a 12-day break for final exams. St. John’s has lost four of its past five games and is among the worst three point shooting teams in the land. This week: 12/5 @ Detroit.
- Providence (6-2) – The Friars are out of the basement for now after surviving Holy Cross and winning at South Carolina. Providence hasn’t lost to anyone bad and a very favorable schedule beckons before Big East play begins. It’s very possible that PC enters league play with an 11-2 record. At worst, they should be 10-3 on December 27 when they open up at St. John’s. Ed Cooley has four players averaging double figures, including freshman LaDontae Henton, but those four guys account for 85.3% of Providence’s scoring. This week: 12/5 vs. Brown, 12/8 vs. Boston College, 12/10 vs. Bryant.
- Rutgers (4-4) – Losing a winnable game at home to LSU was a very disappointing result for the Scarlet Knights. Some folks had pegged this team as a possible contender to make a big jump in the standings but, barring a major turnaround, that is not going to happen. Rutgers’ freshmen just aren’t contributing as much as necessary for this team to make any kind of jump. Sophomore Gilvydas Biruta is the only player averaging double figures. The future appears bright for Rutgers but there will continue to be plenty of growing pains in 2011-12. This week: 12/7 vs. Princeton.
- South Florida (5-4) – Watching some of the USF at Kansas game this past Saturday, I thought for a moment that the Bulls could hang with the Jayhawks before setting my mind straight. Kansas used a 30-8 second half surge to put the game away as USF simply had no answer for Tyshawn Taylor and Thomas Robinson. Earlier in the week, the South Florida was ripped apart by VCU in Richmond. Stan Heath’s team still can’t shoot or guard people making it difficult to be competitive against any semblance of quality competition. This week: 12/11 vs. Florida A&M.
- Tuesday, 12/6: Villanova vs. #13 Missouri (at New York, NY): Missouri has arguably been the most impressive team in the nation to date. The Tigers have throttled each of their seven opponents this season by an average of 27.9 PPG. To avoid becoming Missouri’s eighth victim, Villanova must limit explosive Tigers guards Marcus Denmon (20.3 PPG) and Kim English (16.9 PPG). Defense hasn’t been a strength for the Wildcats, currently ranked #124 in efficiency.
- Tuesday, 12/6: #17 Marquette vs. Washington (at New York, NY): Game two of the Jimmy V. Classic is one in which Marquette needs to avoid a letdown coming off the big win at Wisconsin. Washington is a team that plays at a very fast pace and has tremendous athletes. The Huskies are the type of team that can give the Golden Eagles some trouble. Defense will be very important for Marquette in this one.
- Thursday, 12/8: #25 Harvard @ #8 Connecticut: Undefeated Harvard should be brimming with confidence heading into this game as it is a huge opportunity for them to get noticed if they aren’t already. The Crimson play a very deliberate pace and have already knocked off Florida State, a team UConn needed overtime to defeat. Connecticut shouldn’t lose this game at home but a win is far from a sure thing against Tommy Amaker’s team.
- Thursday, 12/8: West Virginia @ Kansas State (at Wichita, KS): This is a very important game for West Virginia. The Mountaineers already have two losses on their resume with difficult games against Missouri State, Baylor and Marshall still on the non-conference schedule. Four or five non-conference losses would necessitate a very good Big East season for WVU to entertain NCAA thoughts. Kansas State is still undefeated after knocking off Virginia Tech on Sunday in Blacksburg. Frank Martin’s team isn’t all that talented offensively but they are a strong, physical defensive unit that could give West Virginia lots of headaches.
- Saturday, 12/10: Cincinnati @ #12 Xavier: The Crosstown Shootout is Cincinnati’s only chance to get a quality road win out of conference. Mick Cronin loaded up on guarantee games yet again but the Bearcats already have a pair of losses less than a month into the season. Winning at Georgia last week was big for confidence but it’s not a win the Selection Committee will look at and say “Wow, that was impressive.” A win at Xavier would be just that.
Caught on Film
Jim Boeheim’s press conference on Friday night was different from any other we’ve seen from the Syracuse head coach, usually not afraid to take on reporters and give them a piece of his mind. In this clip, Boeheim appears stressed and at the mercy of the reporters in the room in between a few questions about the game against Florida.