Checking In On… The Big East ConferencePosted by Brian Goodman on January 9th, 2012
Brian Otskey is the RTC correspondent for the Big East conference. You can find him on Twitter @botskey.
The Week That Was
- Top Tier Chaos: As you see in the poll question, it’s awfully hard to rank the top half of this league right now. Syracuse is the clear #1 by a wide margin, but the second spot is up for grabs between six teams: Seton Hall and West Virginia are playing the best basketball but Connecticut, Georgetown, Marquette, and Louisville remain threats. Big East teams always beat each other up in conference, play but that usually happens in the middle of the league. This year, it is happening at the top. One thing is for sure: the race for second place will be an up-and-down affair over the next two months.
- UConn Hates Jersey: Before Tuesday, Connecticut had won 21 combined games in a row against Seton Hall and Rutgers. After Saturday, the Huskies headed back up the New Jersey Turnpike with two losses to Jersey’s Big East teams. Kevin Willard has his team rolling at 14-2 and absolutely crushed the Huskies on Tuesday night in Newark while Mike Rice continued to show signs of improvement in a 67-60 win Saturday night in Piscataway. As Jeff Borzello put it on Twitter, the North Jersey road trip has become a whole lot tougher. If St. John’s can get back to where it was last year and Seton Hall and Rutgers continue to improve, New York City-area basketball could be on the verge of a renaissance.
- Seton Hall Ranked?: We will see what happens on Monday, but Seton Hall is on the verge of a top 25 ranking for the first time since January 30, 2001. That year, the Pirates were headed in the opposite direction, out of the top 25 after a preseason top ten ranking. Tommy Amaker (now at Harvard) had signed a ballyhooed freshman class highlighted by the late Eddie Griffin, Andre Barrett, and Marcus Toney-El, but it all fell apart for the Pirates as they finished 16-15 and lost in the first round of the NIT to Alabama. Seton Hall came close to a ranking in 2004, but never made it into the poll. This time around, the Pirates are 14-2 (3-1) with wins over VCU and St. Joe’s on a neutral floor and Dayton on the road, in addition to West Virginia and Connecticut at home. The Hall is in position for a terrific seed in the NCAA Tournament if it keeps up this level of play and Kevin Willard, along with John Thompson III and Jim Boeheim, has to be among the top contenders for Big East Coach of the Year. The Pirates were picked 13th in the preseason Big East coaches poll.
- Syracuse (17-0, 4-0) – Marquette put a second-half scare into the Orange at the Carrier Dome on Saturday, but Syracuse made the winning plays down the stretch to hang on. Syracuse remains a juggernaut and an easy (by Big East standards) road schedule awaits. Syracuse already went to DePaul and Providence and has trips to Villanova, Notre Dame, Cincinnati, St. John’s, and Rutgers on the schedule. Quite frankly, that sequence is a joke for a team everyone knew would be at or near the top of the league. I realize this team has a target on its back every night, but the only true road tests for the Orange could be at Louisville and Connecticut in February. Syracuse shot 61% for the game at Providence on Wednesday, placing six players in double figures. No Syracuse player took over eight shots, a testament to this team’s depth and balance. Scoop Jardine had 11 assists and only one turnover in the victory. Against Marquette, Syracuse jumped out to a huge lead but let the Golden Eagles climb back in it. Dion Waiters was the spark off the bench yet again, totaling 12 points and seven assists. The Orange shot only 39% at home against MU, but escaped with the win. This week: 1/11 @ Villanova, 1/14 vs. Providence.
- Georgetown (13-2, 3-1) – Let the controversy begin. Truth be told, ten different people could very well come up with ten different ways to rank the top seven teams in the Big East. Despite losing at West Virginia and struggling for the balance of the game against Marquette, I’m moving the Hoyas up to the second spot. Why? It has more to do with the performances of Louisville, Connecticut and Marquette rather than Georgetown itself. After all, the Hoyas did beat a good team (Marquette) this week, something none of the aforementioned three teams can say. The Hoyas overcame a 17-point deficit against Marquette, led by Jason Clark‘s 26 points. That 26 could have been 30+ if Clark made his free throws (6-13 from the stripe). Hollis Thompson also added 16 points on 6-7 shooting as Georgetown shot a sizzling 63% against the Golden Eagle defense. Against West Virginia, Georgetown allowed the Mountaineers to shoot 50% but the Hoyas couldn’t convert from deep (2-14 3FG). Thompson led the way with 20 points, but it wasn’t enough on the road. Regardless of what the rankings may have said coming into the game, I’m not going to hammer the Hoyas for losing at West Virginia, an extremely difficult place to play. Believe it or not, I don’t think Georgetown is as good as its resume. That may sound confusing but I’m not sure Georgetown is as good as its record. However, the Hoyas may not lose again until early February if they play to their potential. A relatively soft stretch begins this week. This week: 1/9 vs. Cincinnati, 1/15 @ St. John’s.
- Marquette (12-4, 1-2) – You may never see a team jump two spots in my power rankings after losing both games this week ever again. This is a unique case. Marquette played really well for the better part of the game against Georgetown but didn’t guard well especially down the stretch. On Saturday, the Golden Eagles went up to Syracuse and came within a few buckets of playing the Orange to the final possession. The transitive property usually doesn’t apply in sports, but I’m going to use it here. Marquette rallied from an early hole and played toe-to-toe with Syracuse in the second half while Seton Hall (ranked #4 with a better record) was embarrassed and showed no fight in the second half two weeks ago at the Dome. That counts for something in my book. Todd Mayo shot the ball well in the Georgetown game, but six turnovers certainly didn’t help the cause. Against Syracuse, Mayo couldn’t buy a bucket. Marquette held the potent Orange offense under 40% shooting and somehow stayed in the game despite going 6-26 (23%) from long range. Darius Johnson-Odom led the Golden Eagles with 19 points but Marquette committed 16 turnovers and received only four bench points all game. This week: 1/11 vs. St. John’s, 1/14 vs. Pittsburgh.
- Seton Hall (14-2, 3-1) – The Pirates enjoyed the best week of any Big East team and have a good chance to be ranked for the first time in 11 years when Monday’s polls are released. On Tuesday, they blew out Connecticut for their first win against the Huskies in 11 years (ironically) before getting a gritty road win at Providence. The Hall was up 21 points with just over a minute to play against the Huskies when Kevin Willard emptied his bench. Freshman Brandon Mobley provided a first half spark for the Pirates as they dug out of an early 11-2 hole. Jordan Theodore had a double-double with 19 points and 11 assists. Theodore wasn’t even among the nominees for the Cousy Award, an absolute sham that Willard has alluded to. Seton Hall’s defense shut down Shabazz Napier (2-12 FG) and held the Huskies to 30% shooting when you take out Jeremy Lamb’s contributions (19 points, 7-14 FG). Fuquan Edwin was the star against Providence with 24 points (5-8 3FG), nine rebounds and five steals. Edwin has blossomed as a sophomore and is a reliable third option alongside Theodore and Herb Pope. Theodore continued his stellar week, chipping in 14 points, nine assists and six steals on an off-shooting night. The Hall shot only 34% against the Friars, but dominated the glass and made big plays in crunch time. There’s a real chance that Seton Hall could be 18-2 or 17-3 when it entertains Louisville on January 28 at the Prudential Center. This week: 1/10 vs. DePaul, 1/13 @ South Florida.
- Connecticut (12-3, 2-2) – New Jersey wasn’t kind to the Huskies to say the least. UConn was thrashed at Seton Hall before falling victim to another Rutgers home upset on Saturday night. Turnovers are the major problem for this team right now. In conference play, Connecticut is turning the ball over an astounding 24% of the time. Led by Andre Drummond’s seven turnovers, UConn gave the ball away 20 times against the Scarlet Knights. The Huskies also can’t stop the three as they are ranked #240 in the nation. Jim Calhoun returned to the bench in the Rutgers game but his presence couldn’t spark the lethargic Huskies. Connecticut had won the last 21 games against Seton Hall and Rutgers, but has now lost two to those teams in a span of four days. Niels Giffey was a bright spot against Seton Hall, but Alex Oriakhi continues to be a non-factor. You have to wonder if Calhoun’s harsh treatment of his junior forward is the reason why Oriakhi isn’t even in the top five on his own team in scoring. Shabazz Napier had 23 points against Rutgers after a horrid game on Tuesday in Newark, but Connecticut shot only 38% at the RAC, including 4-19 from deep. It’s a big week for the Huskies as they welcome a hot West Virginia team to Hartford on Monday night before paying Notre Dame and its 28-game home winning streak. This week: 1/9 vs. West Virginia, 1/14 @ Notre Dame.
- Louisville (13-3, 1-2) – The Cardinals blasted cold-shooting St. John’s, but lost in stunning fashion to Notre Dame in double-overtime on Saturday. Louisville out-shot and out-rebounded the Fighting Irish, but Notre Dame managed to steal a road win on the strength of 18 Louisville turnovers. Kyle Kuric and Chane Behanan each went for 17/10 but Russ Smith’s 1-9 shooting day derailed Louisville in this one. Gorgui Dieng had a tremendous game against St. John’s (12 points, nine boards, and seven blocks) while Smith added 17 points and seven assists. Louisville assisted on 22 of 26 made field goals against the Red Storm, but that efficiency wasn’t there against Notre Dame. Louisville committed 37 turnovers in two games last week and that is something Peyton Siva and Rick Pitino will have to address going forward. This team is still good, but it has now lost three of its last four games. The Cardinals, uncharacteristically for a Pitino team, are shooting just 32.1% from three point land on the season. This week: 1/10 @ Providence, 1/14 vs. DePaul.
- West Virginia (12-4, 3-1) – Late Saturday, night I heard ESPN’s Andy Katz and Doug Gottlieb mention West Virginia as possibly the second best team in the Big East while giving no concrete answer as to which team actually is. Despite WVU’s better play of late, I’m not buying it. Keep in mind this team was waxed at Seton Hall just a week and a half ago and Georgetown was its first quality win in a month’s time. However, don’t be confused by the #7 ranking I gave the Mountaineers. They are closer to #2 Georgetown than they are to #8 Cincinnati, one spot below. The top of the Big East is that jumbled, the line separating WVU from Cincinnati that thick. Kevin Jones had a terrific week, posting 14/14 at Rutgers before exploding for 22/16 against Georgetown. He’s the most underrated player in the nation and the frontrunner for Big East Player of the Year in my estimation. Truck Bryant scored 29 points at Rutgers as WVU shot 57% on the road at the RAC. The Mountaineers really worked on their inside game this week, going to the line 37 times against Rutgers and 31 times against Georgetown. Jones and Bryant combined for 47 points against the Hoyas and it’s clear they’ll have to lead this team into the dog days of Big East play. Timely contributions such as Gary Browne’s 12 points against Georgetown also add valuable scoring depth for this team with so many freshmen playing important roles. If Bob Huggins’ team, now shooting the ball better, can win at Connecticut on Monday, West Virginia will gain a ton of confidence heading into a lighter stretch of games before a big road trip to Syracuse on January 28. This week: 1/9 @ #14 Connecticut, 1/14 vs. Rutgers.
- Cincinnati (12-4, 2-1) – Just as you thought the Bearcats were building some momentum, an ugly loss on Moe Harkless’ putback at the buzzer zapped the collective energy out of all Bearcats fans. Yancy Gates returned from his six-game suspension against Notre Dame earlier this week and scored six points off the bench but Dion Dixon turned in 18 points and UC’s defense held the Fighting Irish to 33% shooting and 5-28 (18%) from deep. Against St. John’s, Cincinnati shot a putrid 26% from the floor but almost won because of 19 SJU turnovers and 20 Bearcat offensive rebounds. Sean Kilpatrick scored 21 points was inefficient, needing 21 shots to do so. Cincinnati is still in position to make a NCAA Tournament run but it needs quality wins. UC’s best win is either a win over Oklahoma or a road victory at Pittsburgh, you be the judge. Either way, Mick Cronin needs better wins before it’s too late. Monday night at Georgetown would be a good start. This week: 1/9 @ #11 Georgetown, 1/14 vs. Villanova.
- Notre Dame (10-6, 2-1) – The Fighting Irish followed up a loss at Cincinnati with a massive road win at the KFC Yum! Center against Louisville. Somehow the Fighting Irish overcame 32% shooting and a disadvantage on the glass to beat the Cardinals on their home floor in double-overtime. Jack Cooley was the player of the week for Mike Brey, going for 15/11 against Cincinnati and 18/10 at Louisville. The emergence of Cooley could be key for a Notre Dame team that seems, slowly but surely, to be gelling without the injured Tim Abromaitis. Ken Pomeroy projects the Irish to finish 9-9 in the Big East, but another conference win or two could actually put Notre Dame in NCAA Tournament contention. It’s unlikely and there is a long way to go, but I think that’s something to keep an eye on. The Irish have plenty of chances for quality wins and they’ll certainly need them after putting together a dismal non-conference resume. After hosting Connecticut this Saturday, four of Notre Dame’s next six games will be on the road. The two home games, however, are monster opportunities against Syracuse and Marquette. That stretch will make or break ND’s season. This week: 1/10 vs. South Florida, 1/14 vs. #14 Connecticut.
- St. John’s (8-7, 2-2) – St. John’s was awful against Louisville, but rebounded nicely with a hard fought road win at Cincinnati on Saturday, highlighted by Moe Harkless’ game winner. St. John’s is talented so no Big East team should take it lightly. However, freshmen make mistakes and there is a ceiling for this team. They will pull an upset or two along the way but it’s really hard to see St. John’s winning more than six or seven league games. With Steve Lavin likely out for a while (and maybe the rest of the year), Mike Dunlap will have to continually motivate this young and thin group every single day. D’Angelo Harrison had a terrific week for the Johnnies, scoring 24 points against Louisville and 18 at Cincinnati. The schedule gets tougher in the upcoming week. This week: 1/11 @ #21 Marquette, 1/15 vs. #11 Georgetown.
- Pittsburgh (11-5, 0-3) – Pittsburgh is not going to make the NCAA Tournament. There, I said it. It’s normally blasphemous to doubt Jamie Dixon but Pittsburgh’s loss at DePaul was an absolute back-breaker. Pitt has now lost four straight games for the first time in the Dixon era. With a ridiculously tough road schedule (especially compared to Syracuse!) in front of them, the Panthers will have a very difficult time getting to .500 in league play by March. Pitt is ranked #195 in defensive efficiency, a mind-blowing number when you consider no Dixon team has ever finished worse than #54 in that statistic. With Tray Woodall still out, the offensive is sputtering as well. Ashton Gibbs is shooting 38.7% from the floor, the worst number of his four year career with the Panthers. Pitt dominated the glass against DePaul and put five players in double figures including Talib Zanna’s 16 points on a perfect 8-8 shooting, but the Panthers surrendered 84 points and 48% shooting to the Blue Demons. Dixon simply hasn’t gotten his younger guys to buy in defensively and it is hurting Pittsburgh in a huge way. This week: 1/11 vs. Rutgers, 1/14 @ #17 Marquette.
- Rutgers (9-7, 1-2) – Go ahead and try to predict Rutgers this season. Win, dumb freshman mistakes, loss, win, talented freshmen making big plays, loss might be a good way to go. This is as up-and-down team as you’ll ever see, never more so than this week. Rutgers was shredded by West Virginia at the RAC but defeated Connecticut on Saturday, the second top 10 win for Rutgers at home this year (Florida). Eli Carter scored 19 points in both games and has become the go-to guy for second year head coach Mike Rice. Carter has averaged 23 points over his last four outings but the Scarlet Knights have posted a 2-2 record in those games, illustrating how unpredictable this team can be. Rutgers held UConn to 38% shooting but couldn’t stop West Virginia (57% FG). It comes down to defense for Rice and his team. This week: 1/11 @ Pittsburgh, 1/14 @ West Virginia.
- South Florida (9-7, 2-1) – Who had South Florida winning at Villanova this week? I hear crickets. The Bulls did just that, winning their only game of the week at the Pavilion. USF was led by Jawanza Poland’s 20 points off the bench and Augustus Gilchrist wasn’t even a factor. Villanova coach Jay Wright started four freshmen, but that backfired and the message was never received. Stan Heath has his team at 2-1 in the Big East, something nobody saw coming just 10 days ago. This week: 1/10 @ Notre Dame, 1/13 vs. #21 Seton Hall.
- Villanova (8-8, 1-3) – As mentioned above, Wright’s experiment with four freshmen starters failed miserably against South Florida. Fortunately for the Wildcats, the message was received on Sunday against DePaul. Despite an astounding 28 turnovers, Villanova breezed to a 16-point win over the Blue Demons. Villanova shot 56% against the worst defense in the league and was +18 on the boards, able to overcome all the giveaways. Maalik Wayns put up 21 points after scoring 17 off the bench against USF. Dominic Cheek posted 20 points against DePaul, but the enigmatic junior had only four against South Florida. Villanova’s chances at an NCAA berth are gone, but the Wildcats can save face with a solid second half run. Two big games loom in the coming week. This week: 1/11 vs. #1 Syracuse, 1/14 @ Cincinnati.
- DePaul (10-5, 1-2) – DePaul fights hard every game but the talent level still isn’t where Oliver Purnell needs it to be. The Blue Demons have two terrific players in Brandon Young and Cleveland Melvin (46 combined points against Pittsburgh and 41 at Villanova) but the supporting cast isn’t deep. DePaul went 10-22 from deep against Pitt, overcoming a second half deficit and a 46-28 disadvantage in the rebounding department. The Blue Demons forced 28 Villanova turnovers on Sunday but sent the Wildcats to the charity stripe 34 times. DePaul has a tough week ahead of itself with two road games against a pair of top tier teams. This week: 1/10 @ Seton Hall, 1/14 @ #17 Louisville.
- Providence (11-6, 0-4) – The Friars fought hard in two home games against Syracuse and Seton Hall but lost both with a lack of depth and lack of timely scoring. Providence couldn’t stop Syracuse as the Orange shot 61%. LaDontae Henton played well against the taller Syracuse front court, recording a double-double with 10/13. Against Seton Hall, the defensive effort was much better, holding the Pirates to 34%. Providence blocked a stunning 17 shots against the Pirates but couldn’t make a run when Seton Hall went into an extended scoring drought late in the second half. It seems nobody knows about Friar point guard Vincent Council (23 points, 9 assists vs. Seton Hall) but he is truly one of the better point guards in the conference. The future remains bright for Ed Cooley but this will continue to be a rough season. This week: 1/10 vs. #17 Louisville, 1/14 @ #1 Syracuse.
- Monday, 1/9: #21 West Virginia @ #14 Connecticut – This may be a bad match-up for the Mountaineers because of their struggles shooting the three but they’re hot and have a chance to pick off a struggling UConn team. If WVU can hit some deep shots against Connecticut’s bad perimeter defense, it will have a chance for a big road win.
- Monday, 1/9: Cincinnati @ #11 Georgetown – The Bearcats need to get back on the winning track after losing at home to St. John’s. Cincinnati had won seven in a row before slipping up against the Red Storm. With three of their next five games on the road, this would be a terrific win for the Bearcats to steal.
- Saturday, 1/14: #14 Connecticut @ Notre Dame – Can Notre Dame become relevant in the middle of the conference? This game will tell us a lot. Assuming Notre Dame beats South Florida at home on Tuesday, the Irish will put a 29-game home winning streak on the line against the defending national champions. If Notre Dame can get this win, it could go a long way towards determining Notre Dame’s postseason fate.
- Saturday, 1/14: Pittsburgh @ #21 Marquette – If the Panthers are going to get back on track, winning this game would be a great place to start. Ashton Gibbs needs to shoot the ball well on the road but, more importantly, the Pitt defense has to wake up. It simply can’t allow Marquette to have a good shooting night on its home floor because the Panthers will get run out of the gym. A Pitt win would at least give it some confidence before heading up to Syracuse next Monday.
Caught on Film
Check out this dunk (not embeddable thanks to ESPN) from Connecticut’s Andre Drummond early in this highlight from Rutgers’ 67-60 win over the Huskies.