Checking In On… the Big East ConferencePosted by Brian Goodman on January 3rd, 2012
Brian Otskey is the RTC correspondent for the Big East conference. You can find him on Twitter @botskey.
Ed. Note – This post was written prior to Tuesday’s action, and was mistakenly removed briefly Tuesday night/Wednesday morning.
The Week That Was
- Rick Pitino’s Interesting Announcement: I was one of the folks who questioned why Rick Pitino would announce he plans to retire five years from now when his contract with the University of Louisville runs out. You would figure this will hurt recruiting, but Pitino seemed relieved and at peace with his decision. Of course, many things can change over a five-year time frame, but I’ll take Pitino at his word. As ESPN.com’s Andy Katz writes, he will leave quite the influential mark on the college game once he exits the stage.
- Conference Play Begins: At long last, Big East play is finally here. 13 conference games were played this past week and some storylines are already beginning to emerge. Pittsburgh is 0-2 for the first time under Jamie Dixon while Villanova is also 0-2 for the first time since the 2006-07 season. Syracuse has continued to steamroll through its schedule and is among the select few teams capable of winning a national championship. Slowly but surely, Connecticut seems to be finding its identity. Once the Huskies establish a leader on the floor, they may begin to take off. Georgetown and Seton Hall have surprised the conference this season, filling the void vacated by the Panthers and Wildcats in the top half of the league. While the conference is down a bit, this is sure to be another terrific Big East basketball season. Enjoy the ride over the next two months.
- Syracuse (15-0, 2-0): Simply put, this team is rolling. Syracuse blasted its two opponents this past week, obliterating Seton Hall by 26 points and winning by 19 at DePaul. Most impressive was the game against the Pirates, one in which Fab Melo recorded 12 points, seven boards, and a school record 10 blocked shots as Syracuse avenged last season’s home loss to Seton Hall. Even more amazing is that Syracuse won by 26 without Kris Joseph scoring a single point. How’s that for depth? The Orange forced 23 Pirate turnovers and held them to 31.7% shooting, including an 0-11 FG line for Fuquan Edwin. Against DePaul, Syracuse held Brandon Young to 0-8 shooting. That’s 0-19 FG against Syracuse for two guys averaging a combined 31 points. Syracuse still needs to improve its rebounding (Seton Hall was +2 on the glass) but this team is scary good and some are saying it hasn’t even reached its full potential yet. This week: 1/4 @ Providence, 1/7 vs. #13 Marquette.
- Connecticut (12-1, 2-0): The Huskies struggled for most of the game at South Florida, but managed to pull away late behind Jeremy Lamb’s 23 points on 8-11 FG. In the St. John’s game, the Huskies shot a scorching 60.4% and assisted on 21 of their 29 made field goals. Andre Drummond helped out in a big way, going for 16/11. Connecticut won both games without Jim Calhoun but the final one without their headman will be the toughest. UConn visits Seton Hall on Tuesday and won’t have their energetic coach to fire them up against a much stronger opponent than either USF or St. John’s. On the road and without its coach, Connecticut is somewhat vulnerable. This team lacks a true leader like Kemba Walker, but it slowly moving up the Big East power rankings. This week: 1/3 @ Seton Hall, 1/7 @ Rutgers.
- Georgetown (12-1, 2-0): I still have my doubts about the Hoyas, but their win at Louisville vaults them over the Cardinals and into the third spot this week. I don’t think Georgetown is as good as its results to date but you can’t argue this team’s achievements so far this season. John Thompson III has done a tremendous job with this group and is the early frontrunner for Big East Coach of the Year honors. Freshman Otto Porter was sensational this week, going for 14 and 14 at Louisville and grabbing 12 more rebounds in Saturday’s win over Providence. Markel Starks led the way with 20 points on 7-8 FG as Georgetown overcame 16 turnovers at the KFC Yum! Center, handing Louisville only its third loss in its new building. The game against Providence was painful to watch but the Hoyas made the winning plays in the final minute. JT3’s team faces two significant tests in the coming week. This week: 1/4 vs. #13 Marquette, 1/7 @ West Virginia.
- Louisville (12-2, 0-1): Most people were expecting Louisville to falter at some point and it finally happened this week (twice in fact). That said, I can’t ding Louisville too much for losing to a hot Georgetown team and a loaded rival (Kentucky) on the road. Russ Smith had another terrific game (30 points) at Kentucky, but the rest of the team was 10-42 (23.8%) from the floor. Louisville actually held UK to just under 30% shooting but couldn’t stop Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and the Kentucky forwards. UK was a stunning +21 on the boards in the game. Despite its offensive woes, Rick Pitino still has this team in good shape as the schedule lightens up considerably over the next two weeks. This week: 1/3 @ St. John’s, 1/7 vs. Notre Dame.
- Marquette (12-2, 1-0): The Golden Eagles responded from a stunning no-show against Vanderbilt by knocking off Villanova on Sunday. Jae Crowder went for 16/10 against the Commodores but Kevin Stallings’ team punched Marquette in the mouth in the first half, a blow Marquette was unable to recover from as it shot 32.2% for the game. Marquette could have easily been down on itself and been beaten by a desperate Villanova team but Buzz Williams’ club responded very well. Davante Gardner had 13 and 10 while Darius Johnson-Odom paced the home squad with 24 points against the Wildcats. One area of concern is offensive efficiency. It took a major dive in games against LSU, Milwaukee, and Vanderbilt. A big week tough road trip is in the cards this week. This week: 1/4 @ #12 Georgetown, 1/7 @ #1 Syracuse.
- Seton Hall (12-2, 1-1): After taking one body blow after another at Syracuse, Seton Hall turned in its best performance of the year in a rout of West Virginia 48 hours later on Friday night. Going into the Carrier Dome was an eye-opening experience and a reality check for the young Pirate players but the gritty win over the Mountaineers revealed a lot about this team’s character. When West Virginia threatened late in the second half and cut the lead to six points, the Hall held the Mountaineers scoreless over the final 6:42 of the game to win by 19. Fuquan Edwin followed up his awful 0-11 FG performance at the Carrier Dome up with a game-high 19 points on 8-14 FG while Jordan Theodore posted eight assists to zero turnovers. Seton Hall held Kevin Jones and Truck Bryant to a combined 8-32 shooting. The Pirates have an opportunity to make a big statement against Connecticut on Tuesday night. This week: 1/3 vs. #8 Connecticut, 1/7 @ Providence.
- West Virginia (10-4, 1-1): It was an up and down week for the Mountaineers, handling Villanova at home behind 34 Truck Bryant points before getting shellacked at Seton Hall on Friday, WVU’s first loss to the Pirates since 2006. One area of concern for the Mountaineers is rebounding. Despite going 1-1, WVU was out-rebounded in both of its games last week. To improve, Bob Huggins’ freshmen have to take better care of the ball and learn their roles in the offense. West Virginia also needs to get tougher on the defensive end but still remains a dangerous team capable of moving up in the standings. When you have two senior leaders like Bryant and Kevin Jones, there is plenty of potential to improve. This week: 1/4 @ Rutgers, 1/7 vs. #12 Georgetown.
- Cincinnati (11-3, 1-0): Mick Cronin’s four-guard lineup has worked wonders since the Xavier game. Cincinnati has won six straight games and is now well positioned for a tournament run at 11-3 overall. In a thrilling win over Oklahoma, capped by Cashmere Wright’s winning layup, the Bearcats forced 17 Oklahoma turnovers and overcame a 12-point deficit late in the second half. Cincinnati shot 27.9% and still managed to win behind Sean Kilpatrick‘s 17/10, although it took him 16 shots to get those 17 points. In the win at Pittsburgh, Jaquon Parker scored 21 points and the Bearcats made 11 three-pointers while forcing 17 Panther turnovers. One interesting stat is this: Cincinnati won two games this week but didn’t score a single bench point in either game. This week: 1/4 vs. Notre Dame, 1/7 vs. St. John’s.
- Notre Dame (9-5, 1-0): Notre Dame gets the nod over Pittsburgh after blowing the Panthers away in the second half last week on the strength of Alex Dragicevich’s 22 points. Notre Dame shot 50.9% in that game, extending its home winning streak to 28 games. The Fighting Irish held Pitt to 1-14 from deep and committed only five turnovers all game. That’s a winning combination. Notre Dame will be able to surprise some teams at home but I’d bet that winning streak comes to an end very soon. The Irish remain a tough out but this is not going to be an NCAA Tournament team. This week: 1/4 @ Cincinnati, 1/7 @ #10 Louisville.
- Pittsburgh (11-4, 0-2): It’s time to sound the alarm in Pittsburgh. This team’s defensive performance just isn’t good enough and Jamie Dixon’s team lacks toughness for the first time I can ever remember. Pittsburgh has an incredibly brutal road schedule with games at Marquette, Syracuse, West Virginia, Seton Hall, Louisville and Connecticut still to come. With two losses already, it’s really hard to see the Panthers finishing with more than nine conference wins at best barring a major turnaround. This is looking more and more like an NIT team, something almost nobody would have said back in early November. This week: 1/5 @ DePaul.
- Villanova (7-7, 0-2): Speaking of NIT teams, Villanova will be lucky to get there. The Wildcats get a breather with two relatively easy home games this week, but six of Villanova’s next seven games after this week will be against teams rated better than it. The Wildcats, similar to Pitt, are struggling with defense and toughness. Offensively, Maalik Wayns is struggling with his shot (7-19 FG at WVU, 4-13 at Marquette) while turning the ball over six times against the Mountaineers. Markus Kennedy was a bright spot off the bench at Marquette, going for 8/12, but this team should continue to struggle. With seven losses already, it’s arguably too late for Villanova to mount an NCAA Tournament charge. This week: 1/5 vs. South Florida, 1/8 vs. DePaul.
- St. John’s (7-6, 1-1): Last week was typical of what you see from a talented but young team. St. John’s thrashed Providence on Tuesday before falling by 14 at UConn on Saturday. Moe Harkless was outstanding against the Friars, posting 32/13 on 14-17 shooting. D’Angelo Harrison chipped in with 25 for the victors, who forced 20 Providence turnovers. The Red Storm didn’t receive one point off its bench against Connecticut and allowed the Huskies to shoot 60.4%. St. John’s has talent but it could be a pretty schizophrenic winter in NYC. This week: 1/3 vs. #10 Louisville, 1/7 @ Cincinnati.
- Providence (11-4, 0-2): The Friars were competitive at Georgetown on Saturday after getting crushed by St. John’s earlier in the week. That has to be a good sign for Ed Cooley, except for the fact that his team could only manage to score 40 points in a 40 minute game. Gerard Coleman had an awful day, going 1-10 from the floor and 1-8 from the charity stripe. LaDontae Henton (13/11 vs. GU) continues to be a bright spot but Providence shot a putrid 25.5% against the Hoyas. The Friars have two chances for an upset this week, welcoming in the nation’s top-ranked team on Wednesday before Seton Hall pays a visit on Saturday. This week: 1/4 vs. #1 Syracuse, 1/7 vs. Seton Hall.
- DePaul (9-4, 0-1): DePaul committed 18 turnovers against Syracuse’s stifling defense on Sunday in its only game of the week. The Blue Demons are showing some progress but they remain a team stuck at the bottom of the league. Brandon Young didn’t make a shot against Syracuse and that simply can’t happen if DePaul is going to pull any upsets. Cleveland Melvin did have 23 points against the Orange. DePaul has an opportunity at home to really put Pittsburgh into panic mode this coming Thursday. This week: 1/5 vs. Pittsburgh, 1/8 @ Villanova.
- Rutgers (8-6, 0-1): It was a week filled with joy and disappointment for Mike Rice. On Thursday, his young Scarlet Knights knocked off Florida at the RAC, a stunning double overtime win that was one of the biggest upsets to date in all of college basketball. Rutgers forced 18 Gator turnovers, including seven from stud freshman Bradley Beal. The Scarlet Knight defense held Erving Walker to nine points as well. However, Rutgers gave it right back by losing at South Florida on Sunday. Eli Carter had an outstanding week, scoring 31 points against the Gators before dropping 23 on the Bulls. Rutgers allowed USF to shoot 51.9% from the floor. Two more upset opportunities present themselves at the RAC over the next week. This week: 1/4 vs. West Virginia, 1/7 vs. #8 Connecticut.
- South Florida (8-7, 1-1): Stan Heath’s team hung tough with Connecticut for most of the game, a positive sign in what has been a rough season. The Bulls followed up that decent showing with a win over Rutgers on Sunday afternoon at the St. Pete Times Forum. Ron Anderson Jr. led the Bulls with 15 points on 7-8 FG. USF assisted on 21 of its 27 made field goals, an outstanding number for a team with poor guard play. Anthony Collins had 10 of those assists but also turned it over seven times. USF is one of two Big East teams with only one game this coming week. This week: 1/5 @ Villanova.
- Tuesday, 1/3: #8 Connecticut @ Seton Hall – Connecticut’s final game without Jim Calhoun on the sideline is tougher than it appeared when the schedule originally came out. Seton Hall has lost 11 games in a row to Connecticut and 25 of the last 27 meetings dating back to December of 1993. Is this the year the Pirates break the hex and pull the upset? If they do, it just might result in a top 25 ranking next week.
- Wednesday, 1/4: #13 Marquette @ #12 Georgetown – The first of two very tough games for Marquette comes in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday night. It’s a very important contest because two losses this week would give the Golden Eagles four losses in six games. Marquette must shoot the deep ball well in order to win this one on the road.
- Saturday, 1/7: #12 Georgetown @ West Virginia – This won’t be an easy game for Georgetown. While the Mountaineers aren’t a vintage Bob Huggins team in terms of defense and toughness, winning at the WVU Coliseum is never a sure thing. The Hoyas need to rebound well and keep Kevin Jones in check in order to grab a road win.
- Saturday, 1/7: #13 Marquette @ #1 Syracuse – Marquette is tough as nails, but Syracuse is firing on all cylinders right now. This is a game many have circled as Syracuse’s first loss but I just don’t see it happening. The Orange should be able to wear down Marquette with their depth and talent. To pull the upset, the Golden Eagles have to limit turnovers, make threes and hit the offensive glass hard.
Player of the Year Stock Watch
Jeremy Lamb, Connecticut (18.9 PPG, 51.8% FG, 41.6% 3FG, 1.8 SPG) – While much of the POY speculation has centered on Kevin Jones and Herb Pope, Lamb has quietly gone about his business for Connecticut. He’s scored in double figures in every game this season and ranks second in the league in scoring for a top 10 team. He ranks fourth in the league in field goal percentage among guards and wing forwards as well. An all-around player just oozing with potential and athleticism, Lamb is the kind of guy who can explode at any time and put a team on his back. If he puts it all together for this Connecticut team, look out.