Checking In On… the Big EastPosted by Brian Goodman on December 12th, 2011
Brian Otskey is the RTC correspondent for the Big East Conference. You can also find him on Twitter @botskey.
The Week That Was
- Crosstown Knockout: Suspensions were handed down on Sunday for the embarrassing incident at the conclusion of Saturday’s Cincinnati/Xavier game, a 76-53 Musketeers victory. Yancy Gates, Cheikh Mbodj and Octavius Ellis each received six game bans while Ge’Lawn Guyn will sit out for one game. On the other side, Xavier suspended Dezmine Wells and Landen Amos (a walk-on) for four games while Mark Lyons will sit for a pair and Tu Holloway for one. As for Gates and company, six games doesn’t seem nearly enough, especially when only one of those is a Big East game (a probable loss at Pittsburgh to begin with). Mick Cronin’s comments certainly were interesting. The UC coach waxed poetic in the postgame press conference but didn’t follow those words up with strong actions. On the other hand, Cronin told ESPN.com’s Andy Katz that the suspensions were handed down by those above him in the Cincinnati administration. Even so, it would seem hard to believe the administration wanted to go easier on the players than the head coach. If Cincinnati wanted to be serious, it would have suspended Gates and the others for a large chunk of the Big East season and the rest of non-conference play, or simply kicked them off the team. Instead, this incident is yet another example of placing sports and winning games before justice and learning a life lesson. If this happened off the basketball court, Gates would likely have been charged with battery. Instead, Gates only has to sit six games against the steady diet of non-conference cupcakes Cronin has feasted on over the last two years. From the fight itself to the way the aftermath has been handled, this has been one huge embarrassment for both Cincinnati and Xavier.
- West Virginia and Marquette Involved in Thrillers: The Mountaineers ventured to Wichita, Kansas, and took on Kansas State in what was essentially a road game despite it being played away from the Little Apple. Bob Huggins was able to defeat his student, Frank Martin, but it took two overtime periods to do so. It was a thrilling game full of big shots and lots of toughness. It was very important for West Virginia to add a quality road win to its resume and while the Wildcats may not be as good as last season, this win could make a big difference if the Mountaineers find themselves on the bubble come March. Marquette took on Washington at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday night and found itself in a dogfight with the Huskies as UW took the early lead. Marquette fought back to take a three-point halftime lead when the game really ramped up. The high level of play led to numerous lead changes in an up-and-down affair that eventually came to an end when Jae Crowder knocked down a three from the corner to win it for the Golden Eagles, one of only nine undefeated teams remaining in college basketball as of this writing.
- Big East Continues to Disappoint: It’s still very early but it’s also hard not to notice that the conference may be looking at eight NCAA Tournament teams in a best case scenario. The Big East lost six games this past week, three by the dregs of the conference but three others by teams considered to be NCAA contenders. It was an awful week for Villanova as it blew two chances for quality wins away from home, losing in New York to Missouri and across town in Philadelphia to Temple. The Wildcats have lost four of their past five games and have zero wins of note on their resume to date. If Villanova doesn’t win at St. Joe’s this coming week, it may have to go 10-8 in conference play just to even be considered for the Tournament. Meanwhile, Cincinnati sits at 5-3 after the Xavier loss with key players in trouble due to the brawl. The Bearcats’ best win is a road victory over 4-5 Georgia, a bottom-tier SEC team. With no quality wins and two ugly losses already on their resume, the Bearcats probably have to beat Oklahoma on December 29 and go 10-8 in league play to have any chance.
- Syracuse (10-0) – The Orange took care of business, fending off a late rally from a Marshall team that is better than most people think before demolishing George Washington on Saturday. Dion Waiters has come into his own as a sophomore and currently stands second on the team in scoring, a significant achievement on such a deep team. Syracuse will likely ascend to the #1 ranking in the national polls today. Looking at their upcoming schedule, it’s possible that the Orange will not lose until February. Of course, it’s never that easy in the Big East. This week: 12/17 @ NC State.
- Louisville (9-0) – This team keeps rolling along while it awaits the return of Wayne Blackshear and others. Louisville gets a lot of barbs thrown its way with regards to its lofty ranking but the Cardinals have done nothing to justify dropping in the polls. Rick Pitino has his defense ranked fourth in efficiency and that’s how they’ll have to win games this season. Louisville isn’t shooting as many three-pointers as past Pitino teams and that may be a good thing. The Cardinals are connecting on only 31.7% of their deep shots as Kyle Kuric has seen his three-point shooting percentage plummet from where he was last year. A tough test awaits this Saturday against an explosive and somewhat desperate Memphis team. This week: 12/17 vs. Memphis.
- Marquette (9-0) – Buzz Williams’ squad passed its two key non-conference tests with flying colors. After the Golden Eagles won in Madison last week, they headed to New York and dispatched Washington in what was a terrific basketball game. Vander Blue has doubled his scoring output this season while putting together plenty of highlight reel dunks. The biggest difference with this Marquette team continues to be its defense, currently ranked in the top 20 in efficiency behind strong interior defense and a great turnover rate. Williams has also done a superb job managing the playing time of a deep rotation, although that rotation is one man down after Chris Otule tore an ACL in the Washington game. There is a chance Otule may be back this season but that seems less than 50-50. This week: 12/17 vs. Northern Colorado.
- Connecticut (8-1) – I’m still not sold on the Huskies. This team may very well peak in March again as many folks have been saying but I’m certainly not as high on them as everyone else seems to be. Don’t get me wrong, this is a very good basketball team. However, I’m not convinced it is a top five team capable of contending for a national championship. Connecticut has lots of talent but the team chemistry isn’t quite there yet. Ryan Boatright has added the necessary spark alongside Jeremy Lamb but Connecticut’s big men have to step up offensively. Defensively, the Huskies haven’t been good by Jim Calhoun standards. Although UConn is ranked in the top ten in two-point percentage defense and block percentage, both trademarks of the Hall of Fame coach, the Huskies are abysmal defending the three and their defensive rebounding leaves a lot to be desired. Until UConn solidifies its perimeter defense and rebounding, the Huskies will remain a good, but not great, team. This week: 12/18 vs. Holy Cross.
- Pittsburgh (9-1) – Slowly but surely, Pittsburgh seems to be coming together. The Panthers still don’t defend nearly as well as they should but another win away from home without point guard Tray Woodall is a good sign. Ashton Gibbs has been a consistent scoring presence but his overall shooting percentage has dipped under 40%, the lowest of his career to this point in the season. Whether or not that is due to Woodall being out or something else remains to be seen but the Panthers should be able to emerge from Woodall’s absence in a strong position given their schedule. I’d be surprised if this team doesn’t get better and better as the season progresses. This week: 12/17 vs. South Carolina State.
- Georgetown (8-1) – The Hoyas actually struggled against Howard before pulling away in the second half. While Georgetown is another team I’m not completely sold on, the improvement of Henry Sims and Hollis Thompson has vaulted this team solidly into the top 25. In addition, freshman Otto Porter has contributed right away for a Georgetown team that is very efficient on both sides of the ball. The Hoyas should finish non-conference play at 10-1, provided they can beat Memphis for the second time this season. We’ll find out a lot more about this team when the Hoyas open Big East play with three of their first four league games against Louisville, Marquette and West Virginia. This week: 12/17 vs. American.
- West Virginia (6-2) – It was a fantastic week for West Virginia, winning in double overtime at Kansas State before successfully navigating a tricky home game against Miami. 6-2 is a lot different than 5-3 at this point in the year with two tough games against Missouri State and Baylor in Las Vegas coming up in ten days. Kevin Jones has been a beast, averaging 20/11 including 30 points on 12-17 FG in the K-State win. While West Virginia’s freshmen may be shaky at times, they’re providing important depth to a team with only four returnees from a year ago. West Virginia is not a great team but Bob Huggins will keep it in the thick of the Big East throughout the year with its defense and rebounding. This week: 12/17 vs. Texas A&M Corpus Christi.
- Seton Hall (8-1) – As good as Kevin Jones has been for West Virginia, Herb Pope has been better for the Pirates. Pope has put up a double-double in seven out of nine games and leads the league in scoring at 21.9 PPG. He’s also second in rebounding, 0.1 boards behind Jones. Seton Hall continues to roll through a weaker schedule, taking care of business in an impressive way. It’ll be interesting to see what this team can do against better teams given its short bench. Kevin Willard plays only six guys regularly but Jordan Theodore and Fuquan Edwin have done a nice job complementing Pope. Freshman Brandon Mobley is close to being cleared after suffering a preseason shoulder injury but nobody knows how big of a factor he will be. Seton Hall opens Big East play at Syracuse before returning home for two huge games against West Virginia and Connecticut. If the Pirates can get one or two of those, they’ll have to be considered serious players in conference. Given where it is at now, a 9-9 league record will put Seton Hall in the NCAA discussion. This week: 12/18 vs. Mercer.
- Villanova (5-4) – If it isn’t red alert time for Jay Wright yet, a loss to St. Joe’s this coming Saturday would set off alarm bells up and down the Main Line. Villanova has a lot of work to do and looks like an NIT team at best right now. Ranked #127 in defensive efficiency, the Wildcats have really struggled to win games despite putting up 75 PPG. Villanova has given up at least 69 points in six of its nine games to date, three of them losses. The Wildcats can be a factor in the league if they defend better and JayVaughn Pinkston increases his level of play but it’s starting to look like a rough year in Philadelphia. Maalik Wayns has taken his game to the next level as many had thought, but he needs to cut back on 3.3 turnovers per game. This week: 12/13 vs. Boston University, 12/17 @ St. Joe’s.
- Cincinnati (5-3) – This is turning into a huge mess. Given what happened on Saturday and the team’s lackluster start, things are unraveling quickly for Mick Cronin. The first priority is getting control of the team and determining who should be there going forward. Cronin still reserves the right to make roster changes but I won’t hold my breath. Going forward, it’s imperative that the chemistry improves. After that’s done, Cincinnati needs to find a way to put the ball in the basket. Only four Bearcats average more than five points per game and one of them, Yancy Gates, won’t be around for the next six games. I’d be very surprised if Cincinnati is in NCAA Tournament contention come February and March. This week: 12/14 @ Wright State, 12/17 vs. Radford.
- Notre Dame (7-4) – Mike Brey’s teams have never been stellar on the defensive end but this version of the Fighting Irish has struggled mightily to defend the three. Offensively, Notre Dame simply doesn’t have enough. Scott Martin has not stepped up after the loss of Tim Abromaitis as the Irish have put up mediocre offensive numbers. This team isn’t as bad as some clubs below it but it just isn’t deep enough or talented enough to contend for a middle of the pack finish. Expect the Irish to be stuck in and around this spot for the entire season. This week: 12/17 vs. Indiana (Indianapolis, IN).
- Providence (9-2) – As Jim Donaldson mentioned in the Providence Journal (h/t @friarblog), the Friars have to be among the worst 9-2 teams in the country. Providence hasn’t beaten anyone of note, although it has two nice road wins at Fairfield and South Carolina to its credit. Ed Cooley has four players averaging double figures but an astounding lack of depth is going to rear its ugly head once Big East play begins. Four or five conference wins would have to be considered a “successful” season given the limited roster Cooley has to work with. Hopefully Providence’s impending struggles do not overshadow Vincent Council, one of the better players in the nation that almost nobody knows about. This week: No games scheduled.
- DePaul (6-3) – The Blue Demons played three times this week, losing to a good Horizon League club in Milwaukee before taking down Chicago rivals Loyola (IL) and Chicago State. To win games, DePaul must play at an incredibly quick pace without much regard for defense. Oliver Purnell is trying to maximize possessions as much as possible with defense clearly not a priority. Brandon Young and Cleveland Melvin have been terrific but DePaul looks to be headed for another bottom four finish unless it can somehow figure out how to play defense. This week: 12/14 @ Northern Illinois, 12/17 vs. Arkansas Pine Bluff.
- St. John’s (4-5) – It’s getting really bad for St. John’s. The Red Storm was not expected to be good this season but not many people imagined it losing to teams like Northeastern and Detroit. Steve Lavin’s team took another hit this week when Nurideen Lindsey announced he will be transferring at the end of the fall semester. His departure will put St. John’s at a razor-thin seven scholarship players with only six of them seeing major minutes. It’s going to be a very, very long winter in New York. This week: 12/17 vs. Fordham.
- Rutgers (4-5) – Speaking of bad, Rutgers has lost four of its past five games heading into tonight’s tilt with Monmouth. The Scarlet Knights are young and immature with a large freshman class still trying to find its way at this level. Rutgers has some talent but the preseason predictions of this team possibly surprising are going to turn out dead wrong if they haven’t already. I’m not sure the volatile Mike Rice is the right guy to inspire confidence in this group, either. This week: 12/12 vs. Monmouth, 12/17 @ Stony Brook.
- South Florida (5-4) – If you thought Providence, DePaul, St. John’s and Rutgers weren’t good, South Florida is arguably worse. The bottom of the Big East is unusually awful this season and South Florida is a big part of that. The Bulls play at a very slow pace but don’t defend well, giving up an average of 59 PPG with a tempo of 61.8 possessions per game. While 59 PPG may seem good, it certainly isn’t when your team only averages 61 PPG at a snail’s pace. Ron Anderson Jr. is making 62.7% of his shots, but he needs a lot more help if USF is to climb up the ladder a bit. The Bulls have a disgusting 0.86 assist to turnover ratio, indicating a painful lack of guard play yet again for Stan Heath. I’m not sure he can survive this season. This week: 12/14 @ Auburn.
- Saturday, 12/17: Memphis @ #11 Louisville: Memphis will be fired up after losing to Murray State on Sunday. This old Conference USA rivalry heats up again for the first time since 2005. Louisville shouldn’t lose this game at home but Memphis’ athleticism could cause the Cardinals some issues.
- Saturday, 12/17: Notre Dame vs. Indiana (at Indianapolis, IN): Will this be a letdown game for Indiana coming off its incredible win over Kentucky on Saturday? Notre Dame better hope so because it’s hard to see the Irish being in any kind of position to win this game. Still, it should be a fun game between schools from the basketball-crazed state of Indiana.
- Saturday, 12/17: #1 Syracuse @ NC State: Syracuse will have a target on its back when it enters the RBC Center on Saturday night. NC State has pulled upsets in that building before so the Orange better be prepared. This won’t be as easy of a game as you may think.
- Saturday, 12/17: Villanova @ St. Joe’s: As I mentioned above, this is an absolutely crucial game for the Wildcats. Villanova has already lost four games and a fifth loss would pretty much put the Wildcats out of NCAA contention, barring an incredible turnaround complete with double digit wins in conference play. Carl Jones and C.J. Aiken will cause big problems for the Wildcats.
Caught on Film
Well, this section of the Big East Check-In is pretty easy this week. The brawl between Cincinnati and Xavier was a surreal scene and an utter embarrassment for everyone involved.