Checking In On… the Big East ConferencePosted by Brian Goodman on December 19th, 2011
Brian Otskey is the RTC correspondent for the Big East conference. You can find him on Twitter @botskey.
The Week That Was
- Khem Birch Leaves Pittsburgh: In what was certainly a surprising development, Pittsburgh announced that highly-touted freshman Khem Birch would be leaving the program for personal reasons. No future destination for Birch was announced. The 6’9” freshman averaged 4.4 PPG and 5.0 RPG in 15 minutes per game for Jamie Dixon, including a season-high 15 points at Pennsylvania on November 25. Birch, a Canadian, was a five-star prospect out of Notre Dame Prep. Birch’s departure will be felt by a Panthers team still trying to find its identity. Pittsburgh remains a very deep team but has to get its defense in order to be able to win consistently once conference play begins.
- Cincinnati Responds In Impressive Fashion: After losing a bunch of guys to suspensions (including Yancy Gates) stemming from the brawl with Xavier, Cincinnati somehow put together its two best offensive performances of the season. The Bearcats scored 78 in a win at Wright State before throttling Radford with 101 points on Saturday. Maybe the suspensions were just what Mick Cronin needed to get his team focused. While the competition wasn’t great, Cincinnati all of a sudden looks like an improving team after this week.
- Syracuse (11-0) — The Orange passed their first road test of the season, winning comfortably at NC State on Saturday. Dion Waiters led the way off the bench yet again with 22 points on 9-14 shooting while Kris Joseph added 21. Now that Syracuse has gotten by NC State without any trouble, the Orange could hold onto the top spot in the national rankings for quite some time. Jim Boeheim has some tricky games coming up against upstart Seton Hall, conference title contender Marquette and still-dangerous Villanova, but those are three games Syracuse should not lose. One area for the Orange to focus on in practice this week is defense. NC State shot 57.7% from the floor on Saturday. This week: 12/20 vs. Bucknell, 12/22 vs. Tulane.
- Louisville (10-0) – People keep doubting Louisville, but the Cardinals keep responding with wins, the latest being over former Conference USA rival Memphis. Russ Smith had 24 points and seven steals for Rick Pitino as the Cardinals exploded for 95 points against a the up-tempo and defenseless Tigers. The longer Louisville can win without Wayne Blackshear, the better. After this week, Louisville’s schedule ramps up in a big way with the start of Big East play and a visit to Kentucky. This week: 12/20 vs. Charleston, 12/23 vs. Western Kentucky.
- Marquette (10-0) – Todd Mayo had 22 points in the win over Northern Colorado on Saturday as MU now prepares for a significant uptick in the opposition. Seven of Marquette’s next nine opponents are inside the Pomeroy top 100 with the only exceptions being LSU, a somewhat dangerous game on the road tonight, and St. John’s. The Golden Eagles continue to play good defense and they’ll need to maintain that level of play in order to be a Big East championship contender. This week: 12/19 @ LSU, 12/22 vs. Milwaukee.
- Connecticut (9-1) – It appears Connecticut is starting to find itself defensively. The Huskies have been solid on that end of the floor in their last three games, culminating with Sunday’s suffocation of Holy Cross. UConn held the Crusaders to 26.2% shooting while Andre Drummond broke out, scoring 24 points on 11-12 FG. Jim Calhoun will sit out the first three Big East games, beginning on December 28 at South Florida. This week: 12/22 vs. Fairfield.
- Pittsburgh (10-1) – The Panthers had a hard time putting away 4-7 South Carolina State on Saturday but you have to wonder if the Khem Birch situation distracted them a bit. Pittsburgh is slowly but surely getting better defensively and that trend will have to continue into Big East play for the Panthers to remain in the top five of the league. Offense won’t be a problem for Jamie Dixon, but Ashton Gibbs has to increase his shooting percentage. This week: 12/20 vs. St. Francis (PA), 12/23 vs. Wagner.
- Georgetown (9-1) – With a second match-up with Memphis on the horizon this week, John Thompson III needs Henry Sims, Markel Starks and Hollis Thompson to continue playing at a high level. Starks had 18 points against American while Thompson and Sims are second and third on the team in scoring, respectively. Memphis took Georgetown to overtime earlier this year in Maui, but the Hoyas should have the edge at home, although Georgetown’s relative lack of scoring depth could be a cause for concern. This week: 12/22 vs. Memphis.
- West Virginia (7-2) – WVU begins a three-game week in Morgantown before heading to Las Vegas for games on Thursday and Friday. This upcoming two week stretch could be big for the Mountaineers’ NCAA Tournament chances as they face Missouri State, Baylor, Villanova and Seton Hall. Only one of those games is at the WVU Coliseum so there is an opportunity for Kevin Jones (20.3/11.0) and company to pick up quality wins away from home or be put in a dire situation to start the new calendar year. This week: 12/19 vs. Tennessee Tech, 12/22 vs. Missouri State (Las Vegas, NV), 12/23 vs. #6 Baylor (Las Vegas, NV).
- Seton Hall (9-1) – Similar to West Virginia, the Pirates begin a two week stretch that could make or break their season. The Hall will be on the road for its next three games after scraping past a pesky Mercer team in overtime on Sunday afternoon, led by Herb Pope’s 24/17. Seton Hall heads to Dayton this Wednesday before going to Longwood and then to Syracuse to open up conference play. While Dayton is important, the key games for SH will be against West Virginia and Connecticut sandwiched around the New Year. If the surprising Pirates strike out during this stretch, it’ll be hard for them to recover and mount an NCAA charge. Kevin Willard needs to pay extra attention to his team’s defense after it was picked apart by Mercer. This week: 12/21 @ Dayton, 12/23 @ Longwood.
- Cincinnati (7-3) – What a difference a week makes. As mentioned above, Cincinnati played its two best games of the season, albeit against weak competition. That said, the Bearcats gained a lot of confidence this week and the team seemed to be on the right page chemistry-wise. Cincinnati shot 60.3% from the field against Radford and Cashmere Wright scored 25 points. The Bearcats won’t get Yancy Gates back until January 4 against Notre Dame, but taking only one loss during his suspension would be a success for this team. Cincinnati needs a strong conference season since its non-conference resume lacks significance. This week: 12/21 vs. Arkansas Pine Bluff, 12/23 vs. Chicago State.
- Notre Dame (7-5) – The Irish started out hot against Indiana but couldn’t hold off Cody Zeller (21 points), Victor Oladipo and the Hoosiers on Saturday in Indianapolis. With five losses already and no Tim Abromaitis, Notre Dame has a slim chance of making the NCAA Tournament. This team has to get much better defensively if Mike Brey wants to make any noise in the conference season. Notre Dame has a great home court advantage but their 26-game winning streak at Purcell Pavilion will come to an end once Big East play begins. This week: 12/19 vs. Sacred Heart.
- Villanova (6-5) – After getting blown out by Big 5 rival St. Joe’s, Villanova is in dire straits. Maalik Wayns had 19 points against the Hawks but received no help from his teammates. Jay Wright has his work cut out for him with this group, now looking seven losses right in the eye as the open up Big East play at West Virginia and Marquette after a cupcake (American). With Mouphtaou Yarou hobbled by a bum ankle, Villanova desperately needs someone to step up inside. This week: 12/22 vs. American.
- Providence (9-2) – Providence did not play this past week resulting in some much-needed rest for a thin basketball team. The Friars are back in action tomorrow against New Hampshire before a rivalry game at Rhode Island. The Rams are terrible this year but Providence has to be careful not to let down its guard. This game will be Rhody’s Super Bowl and it won’t be an easy win for the Friars despite URI’s 1-10 record. This week: 12/20 vs. New Hampshire, 12/23 @ Rhode Island.
- DePaul (8-3) – Since losing at home to Milwaukee, Oliver Purnell has feasted on a steady diet of cupcakes and pastries. DePaul’s last three opponents have been among the worst teams in Division I, but now the competition stiffens with a solid mid-major in Cal Poly making the trek to Chicago on Wednesday. After that, five of DePaul’s first six Big East games are against teams in the top eight of the league. This week: 12/21 vs. Cal Poly.
- St. John’s (5-5) – The Red Storm used only six players against Fordham on Saturday with the starters playing all but four of the 200 minutes available. St. John’s won but it wasn’t easy. With Nurideen Lindsey gone, St. John’s can barely field a team. Steve Lavin might have Amir Garrett eligible this week but that will be little consolation for a roster with six scholarship players. This week: 12/21 vs. Texas Pan American.
- Rutgers (6-5) – Led by 22 Myles Mack points on 7-8 shooting, Rutgers was able to get by Stony Brook on Saturday at Madison Square Garden. The Scarlet Knights are treading water at the bottom of the league but there are signs of improvement. Rutgers does a great job forcing turnovers as well as rebounding its own misses, ranking #12 in both categories. However, this is still a highly inefficient team on both ends of the court. A reasonable expectation for Mike Rice would be improved chemistry and ball movement and consistent improvement throughout the Big East season. This week: 12/22 vs. NJIT.
- South Florida (6-5) – When a team goes on the road and loses by 12 points to Auburn, that’s bad. When that same team does that and scores 40 points in the process, that’s an abomination. South Florida has lost three of its past four games, including that disgraceful display of basketball at Auburn on Wednesday night. The clock may finally run out this season for Stan Heath as this program has regressed significantly since Dominique Jones led this team to the NIT two years ago. This week: 12/19 vs. Cleveland State, 12/22 @ Southern Mississippi.
- Wednesday, 12/21: Seton Hall @ Dayton – While this is not a must-win game for the Pirates, winning at Dayton would raise some eyebrows and give the Hall a decent road win as they try to build an NCAA resume. The Flyers are 3-0 against power conference opponents, beating Wake Forest, Minnesota and Alabama.
- Thursday, 12/22: Memphis @ Georgetown – These teams met in Maui one month ago with the Hoyas winning a high-scoring affair in overtime. The Tigers have four losses already and will really want this game since it would be a quality road win out of conference. Georgetown has to be prepared while trying to not let the pace of the game get out of control. Jason Clark and Henry Sims combined for 50 points in the first meeting between these two teams.
- Thursday, 12/22: West Virginia vs. Missouri State (at Las Vegas, NV) – This is a tricky game for West Virginia, the first of two in Las Vegas against teams named the Bears. The Mountaineers should be able to win this one but a lackluster effort (looking ahead to Baylor?) will result in a loss against what should be a fired up Missouri State team. Stopping Kyle Weems will be priority number one for Bob Huggins.
- Friday, 12/23: West Virginia vs. #6 Baylor (at Las Vegas, NV) – West Virginia should be able to give Baylor problems with its strong defense and rebounding. However, the Bears are more talented and have the potential to blow West Virginia away with their offensive firepower. The Mountaineers have to force turnovers and keep this game in the 70’s to have a good chance.
Player of the Year Stock Watch
Herb Pope, Seton Hall (22.1 PPG, 11.9 RPG) – No Big East player has been more consistent than Seton Hall’s senior big man, finally displaying the talent that made him a top recruit out of high school several years ago. He had 24 and 17 in Seton Hall’s win over Mercer on Sunday and now has eight double-doubles in ten games this season, adding to his active Big East-leading total. If Pope continues to put forth this type of production and Seton Hall can find its way into the top half of the league, Pope will be one of the favorites to take home POY honors. If the Pirates can’t build on their hot start, it’s hard to see the league coaches giving the award to a player on a team in the bottom half no matter how good his statistics may be.