Checking In On… the Big East ConferencePosted by Brian Goodman on December 27th, 2011
Brian Otskey is the RTC correspondent for the Big East conference. You can find him on Twitter @botskey.
The Week That Was
- A Pair of Upsets: How many of you had Wagner winning at Pittsburgh? The Seahawks won their first game against a ranked team since P.J. Carlesimo was the head coach at the school in the late 1970’s, knocking off the Panthers 59-54. Even without point guard Tray Woodall, this is not a game Pittsburgh should have lost. While Ashton Gibbs certainly has to carry more of the load, his shooting has been sub-par this entire season. Against Wagner, the senior Big East Preseason POY shot 5-16 from the floor and 1-7 from deep, dropping his field goal percentage to 37.7% on the year. Usually one of the most efficient teams in the country, Pittsburgh was held to a stunning 89.2 efficiency rating against Wagner. Previously, Pitt’s season low had been 101.7 in a win over La Salle. Last Monday, LSU surprised Marquette in Baton Rouge, downing the previously undefeated Golden Eagles by a score of 67-59. While LSU isn’t an awful team, Marquette allowed the Tigers to shoot 53.5% for the game, something that has to concern Buzz Williams given how well Marquette has played defensively. If Marquette wants to contend for a conference title, it has to defend night in and night out.
- Non-Conference Play Winds Down: There are 152 games remaining with Big East teams involved and 144 of those (94.7%) will be conference games. Four of the eight remaining non-conference games will take place over the coming week, so you can bet we here at RTC are more than ready to transition into conference play. As we head into the new calendar year, four Big East teams seem to be contenders while another four or five are in contention for NCAA bids. The bottom of the conference is broader and weaker than usual, with at least four and possibly six teams incapable of mounting a run at a bid. As to who wins the league (my poll question above), I am sticking with my preseason pick of Syracuse. The Orange go a legitimate ten deep and, while they do not have a superstar, they are strong defensively and play with great energy. Connecticut may be more talented and Louisville may play harder, but Syracuse is the best team in my estimation. I would love to hear the readers’ take (on this or anything else) in the poll above or in the comments section below.
- Bob Huggins Wins His 700th Game: It took a crazy Gary Browne three-pointer to force overtime, but West Virginia was able to knock off Missouri State on Thursday night for Coach Huggins’ 700th career victory. He’s now in select company with the likes of Lefty Driesell, Lute Olson, Lou Henson, Henry Iba, Phog Allen and, Norm Stewart in the 700 club. Currently 58 years old and under contract with West Virginia through the 2018-19 season, Huggins has a chance to approach 900 wins if he stays healthy. After winning #700, he joins Jim Boeheim and Jim Calhoun as the only active Big East coaches to win at least 700 games. He is fourth on the active list of all-time wins, trailing his two Big East peers as well as Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski.
- Syracuse (13-0) – Among many other things, Syracuse has done a terrific job in turnover margin. The Orange lead the Big East by a wide margin in that department and rank in the top ten nationally in both offensive and defensive turnover percentage. Fueled by Dion Waiters off the bench, the Syracuse transition attack has been sensational. Big East play begins this week with a visit from upstart Seton Hall followed by a trip to DePaul. Surprisingly, Syracuse was out-rebounded by Tulane, including 15-9 on the offensive glass. This week: 12/28 vs. Seton Hall, 1/1 @ DePaul.
- Louisville (12-0) – It hasn’t been easy, but Louisville just keeps winning. The Cardinals trailed Charleston and Western Kentucky this week before putting those teams away late in the game. Against Charleston, Rick Pitino made a great adjustment late in the game by putting the more versatile Kyle Kuric at the free throw line to attack the Charleston zone instead of Gorgui Dieng. Dieng still had a great week, going for 14/12 against the Cougars and 13/15 against the Hilltoppers. Louisville ranks fourth nationally in defensive efficiency, but its offense continues to be a work in progress. As I said in this spot last week, the longer the Cardinals can keep winning before getting their roster back to full strength, the better. This week offers a huge test against two teams that can really put the ball in the basket. This week: 12/28 vs. #15 Georgetown, 12/31 @ #2 Kentucky.
- Connecticut (10-1) – While Connecticut is a very good team, there seems to be something missing. The Huskies remain incredibly strong inside defensively, but this team is highly vulnerable to the trifecta. That could cause major problems against better three-point shooting teams like Syracuse, Georgetown, Seton Hall, and Pittsburgh. Alex Oriakhi’s disappointing junior season to date could be the missing piece but I haven’t heard anyone talk about Roscoe Smith’s drop in production. Smith adds depth to a team that would only go seven deep without him. If Smith’s production increases, you may see UConn take off. Smith’s minutes are down this season but he is often the fifth option on the floor. I would work to get him more involved if I was Jim Calhoun. Speaking of Calhoun, Wednesday night will mark the start of his three-game suspension stemming from recruiting violations, and he will not be coaching on the sidelines until January 7 at Rutgers. George Blaney will coach the team in Calhoun’s absence. This week: 12/28 @ South Florida, 12/31 vs. St. John’s.
- Marquette (11-1) – The loss to LSU was surprising, but not completely unforeseen. That had trap game written all over it coming just before Christmas and just after final exams. LSU has some good talent, too. That said, I’m not putting too much stock into that game. Marquette has defended very well and I’ll give it the benefit of the doubt because of the overall consistency shown on that end. In the following game against Milwaukee, Buzz Williams’ team held the Panthers to 26.7% shooting, pushing their record against their intra-city rival to a perfect 39-0. If the Golden Eagles remain committed to the defensive side of the basketball, this is a team capable of doing big things in March. Marquette will play its third home game in four years on New Year’s Day (second against Villanova) this coming Sunday. This week: 12/29 vs. Vanderbilt, 1/1 vs. Villanova.
- Georgetown (10-1) – The Hoyas wrapped up non-conference play with a comfortable 70-59 win over Memphis, led by Hollis Thompson’s 17/9. Georgetown’s second win over the Tigers punctuated an out of conference performance that was a rousing success. Expected to be a bubble team at best, Georgetown has solidified itself as an NCAA contender as conference play begins. A 9-9 Big East record should be enough for the Hoyas to go dancing for the sixth time in seven years under John Thompson III. This week: 12/28 @ #10 Louisville, 12/31 vs. Providence.
- Pittsburgh (11-2) – The loss of Tray Woodall has hit Pittsburgh harder than most thought. Woodall is listed as a game-time decision for tomorrow night’s game at Notre Dame after sitting out five games with an abdominal injury. Although defense wasn’t a major problem against Wagner, it’s almost surreal to see a Jamie Dixon team struggle so much defensively over a span of 10+ games. Ranked #151 in defensive efficiency, the Panthers have somehow managed an 11-2 record. If the defense doesn’t improve significantly, Pitt may be a bubble team in a few months. This week: 12/27 @ Notre Dame, 1/1 vs. Cincinnati.
- West Virginia (9-3) – West Virginia won twice this week and lost in overtime to a solid Baylor team so you have to be pretty happy if you’re Bob Huggins. Although the Mountaineers needed overtime against Missouri State, they ended up with the win. Kevin Jones was outstanding this week (more on him later in the POY stock watch) but it was stunning to see him barely touch the ball in overtime against Baylor. West Virginia ran some really questionable offensive sets late in regulation as well as the overtime session against the Bears. The coming week is a big one as it is important to get off on the right foot against Villanova before a tough road test at Seton Hall this Friday. This week: 12/28 vs. Villanova, 12/30 @ Seton Hall.
- Seton Hall (11-1) – It was a very good week for the Pirates, who won on the road twice. The Hall showed it is for real by picking up a solid road win at Dayton before finishing off one final cupcake at Longwood on Friday. In the win at Dayton, Patrik Auda and Aaron Cosby combined for 31 points on 12-20 shooting. If Seton Hall can get consistent production out of those players, this team will likely make the NCAA Tournament. A tough week is ahead with a trip to top-ranked Syracuse and a visit from always tough West Virginia in the cards. Protecting the ball and making threes will be key for the Pirates if they are to have any chance of winning at the Carrier Dome, two things they do fairly well (they did both last season in a surprise blowout win at the Dome). The match-up between Kevin Jones and Herb Pope this Friday night is appointment viewing for anyone who likes players who battle for every rebound and can extend their games to the three point line if necessary. Seton Hall is off to its best start since the 1992-93 season, a year in which the Pirates won both the Big East regular season and tournament titles. This week: 12/28 @ #1 Syracuse, 12/30 vs. West Virginia.
- Cincinnati (9-3) – Since the brawl against Xavier, Cincinnati is 4-0 while averaging 93.8 points per game. Although the schedule has been full of teams at the bottom of Division I, those statistics have to be encouraging for Mick Cronin. Sean Kilpatrick and Cashmere Wright have picked up their play since the Xavier game as Cincinnati prepares for an interesting game against a surprising Oklahoma team this week before heading on the road at Pittsburgh. The Bearcats rank #19 in three-point shooting, something not many people would have expected after last year’s 33.8% mark from deep. This week: 12/29 vs. Oklahoma, 1/1 @ #17 Pittsburgh.
- Providence (11-2) – Nobody wants to buy in to Providence given its stunning lack of depth and weak schedule but the Friars are 11-2 with a nice pair of road wins on their resume (Fairfield and South Carolina). The rest of the schedule has looked like an exquisite pastry shop at Christmas time but this team has taken care of business. Ed Cooley’s team will be tested immediately with two road games, followed by a brutal stretch that includes a pair of games with Syracuse. Vincent Council had 17 points and 12 assists against New Hampshire while LaDontae Henton (13.1 PPG, 8.8 RPG) has been perhaps the best freshman in the Big East. This rank may be too high but I’m giving the Friars the benefit of the doubt for now before conference play sets in. This week: 12/27 @ St. John’s, 12/31 @ #15 Georgetown.
- Notre Dame (8-5) – It’s hard to get a good read on the Fighting Irish because they have destroyed pretty much every bad team they have played while they have not been too competitive with the good teams on their schedule. Jack Cooley had a terrific game against Sacred Heart, making all seven of his shots en route to a 19/8 performance. The Irish will remain tough at home and will take a 27-game home winning streak into Big East play, starting tomorrow against Pittsburgh. Notre Dame doesn’t turn the ball over much at all and doesn’t foul often, a very good combination especially on its home court. This week: 12/27 vs. #17 Pittsburgh.
- Villanova (7-5) – With five losses on its resume already, Villanova needs a huge Big East season in order to have a chance at the NCAA Tournament. If the Wildcats don’t win at least ten conference games, Jay Wright’s streak of seven straight tournament bids will likely end. Maalik Wayns had 12 points and nine assists in VU’s win over American last week, a game in which Villanova turned the ball over only five times. The Wildcats have not defended well but they really struggle to make threes. For a team that attempts over 20 triples per game, Villanova is an awful shooting team from beyond the arc (31.6%). With two tough road games this week, the Wildcats could be looking at 7-7 (0-2) rather easily. This week: 12/28 @ West Virginia, 1/1 @ #11 Marquette.
- DePaul (9-3) – The Blue Demons are off to their best start since 1999-00, but a brutal start to conference play awaits. Home games against Syracuse and Pittsburgh, followed by three consecutive road games and a visit from Georgetown could bring DePaul back down to earth in the blink of an eye. DePaul does a great job forcing turnovers at its ultra-quick pace but this is clearly the worst defensive team in the Big East. Opponents get an astounding 62.1% of their points inside the arc against DePaul going up against a defense that allows over 50% shooting from two-point range. Cleveland Melvin and Brandon Young form an impressive scoring tag-team but Oliver Purnell doesn’t have the scoring depth to execute at a high level every possession. The Blue Demons will upset some teams along the way but a four to five win conference season should be considered another step forward in Purnell’s rebuilding process. This week: 1/1 vs. #1 Syracuse.
- St. John’s (6-5) – Amir Garrett was able to suit up for St. John’s last week, scoring three points in 15 minutes of action in his debut against Texas-Pan American. St. John’s needed a late rally to defeat the Broncs, one of the worst teams Division I has to offer. The Red Storm continues to struggle shooting the three (26.1%) and, even with Garrett’s addition, depth will still remain this team’s biggest issue by far. St. John’s plays seven guys but they are talented. Steve Lavin’s club may pick off a few wins here and there, but I have a hard time seeing St. John’s improving. This week: 12/27 vs. Providence, 12/31 @ #8 Connecticut.
- Rutgers (7-5) – The Scarlet Knights actually trailed NJIT by 8 points with 17 minutes to play but they rallied and outscored the Highlanders by 32 points in those final 17 minutes. Rutgers has a tough time offensively but this team may marginally improve as the year progresses. Mike Rice has a lot of young talent on his roster with freshmen Eli Carter and Myles Mack averaging double figures along with sophomore Gilvydas Biruta. Rutgers welcomes Florida and former Scarlet Knight Mike Rosario back to the RAC on Thursday night. This week: 12/29 vs. #9 Florida, 1/1 @ South Florida.
- South Florida (7-6) – By most standards, the Bulls had a successful week. They went 1-1 against two good mid-major teams, defeating Cleveland State while losing at Southern Miss by a bucket. South Florida continues to average an anemic 61 PPG at one of the slowest tempos in all of college basketball. The win over Cleveland State was a surprise as Stan Heath’s team placed four guys in double figures. Against Southern Miss, South Florida could only manage to make one out of 15 shots from three point range. This week: 12/28 vs. #8 Connecticut, 1/1 vs. Rutgers.
- Wednesday, 12/28: Seton Hall @ #1 Syracuse – It’s asking quite a bit for the Pirates to win this game on the road, but a respectable showing will further legitimize Seton Hall’s hot start. Kevin Willard comes from the Rick Pitino coaching tree and the Pitino system has worked in the past against Syracuse. The Pirates destroyed the Orange last year in the Carrier Dome but it is hard to imagine Syracuse not being ready this time around.
- Wednesday, 12/28: #15 Georgetown @ #10 Louisville – The surprising Hoyas can start conference play on the right foot with a win here. Louisville has struggled with inferior teams but may not be able to overcome Georgetown if that happens again. The Cardinals are the better team, but I have a feeling this will be a very close game.
- Thursday, 12/29: Vanderbilt @ #11 Marquette – The Golden Eagles can’t afford to take this game lightly. Vanderbilt is the type of team that can come in and knock them off if they don’t bring it defensively. Despite its slow start, Vanderbilt is dangerous because it is a talented and somewhat desperate club. This is still a very good win for Marquette, if it gets it.
- Friday, 12/30: West Virginia @ Seton Hall – It’s not often you can call a game in late December a bubble battle but this could very well end up being one. Regardless of what happens on Wednesday at Syracuse, this is a massive game for Seton Hall. With Connecticut coming in early next week, the Pirates need to get at least one of their first three conference games to feel good heading into the rest of the schedule. For the Mountaineers, a quality conference road win would do wonders come Selection Sunday for a team with three losses to date.
- Saturday, 12/31: #10 Louisville @ #2 Kentucky – This annual rivalry game has it all from Pitino and Calipari to the hatred each fan base has towards the other. If Louisville can somehow win this one, all the Cardinals’ skeptics will have to eat crow.
- Sunday, 1/1: Cincinnati @ #17 Pittsburgh – Cincinnati has rolled through its cupcake schedule since the brawl with Xavier but it will quite a challenge to do that in the Petersen Events Center without Yancy Gates, even against a Pitt team that isn’t a vintage Jamie Dixon group. A win here could really get Cincinnati’s season back on track.
Player of the Year Stock Watch
Kevin Jones, West Virginia (21.0 PPG, 11.9 RPG, 56.5% FG) – Jones had a monster week, averaging 23 PPG and 14.7 RPG over three games, including a 28/17 performance against the massive and talented Baylor front line on Friday night in Las Vegas. His performance this past week vaulted Jones into top spot in scoring and rebounding in the Big East. For the moment, one could argue Jones has surpassed Seton Hall’s Herb Pope and Connecticut’s Jeremy Lamb as the frontrunner for POY honors as conference play begins.