Checking In On… The Big East ConferencePosted by Brian Goodman on January 16th, 2012
Brian Otskey is the RTC correspondent for the Big East conference. You can find him on Twitter @botskey.
The Week That Was
- Syracuse A Cut Above: With wins over Villanova and Providence this week, Syracuse has moved its record to 19-0 (6-0), equaling the best start in school history (1999-2000). On Monday night, the Orange will try to move to 20-0 for the first time ever when they host Pittsburgh, a team they have lost to five straight times. With 12 games remaining, people are starting to wonder if Syracuse can run the table. It would be a surprise if Jim Boeheim’s team lost at home to anyone, despite visits by Georgetown and Connecticut to the Dome in February. On the road, possible tough trips to Cincinnati, Connecticut, and Louisville appear to be the only obstacles standing in the way of an undefeated season. Syracuse has a 13.7% chance of going 31-0, according to the Pomeroy ratings, but I would put it higher. I think the Orange have a 40% chance to go all the way and those odds are getting better each and every day.
- Connecticut Back On Track: After consecutive losses to Seton Hall and Rutgers almost two weeks ago, some had wondered if this Connecticut team would ever live up to its preseason billing as a top-five team. While I doubt that is true, the Huskies responded in a big way this past week by defeating West Virginia and Notre Dame. UConn used a 17-3 second half run, sparked by a Jim Calhoun technical, to overcome a ten-point deficit against the Mountaineers before going on the road and snapping Notre Dame’s 29-game home court winning streak. Andre Drummond had a terrific week, but the bigger story might be Alex Oriakhi showing signs of improvement. The junior forward had been in a season-long slump but managed to score 20 points this week, including a 12/7 performance in the win against the Fighting Irish. However, there was some bad news mixed in for UConn last week. Ryan Boatright was suspended by the NCAA on Friday night for the second time over eligibility concerns.
- Pittsburgh and Louisville Embarrassed: Raise your hand if you predicted these scores at the beginning of the year: Providence 90, Louisville 59. Rutgers 62, Pittsburgh 39 (at Pitt). Two of the power programs in the conference were waxed by two perennial bottom-feeders, all part of what has been an unpredictable season in the Big East. Louisville has lost four of six while Pitt is in more dire straits having lost six consecutive games. That could easily be seven in a row after the Panthers return from Syracuse tomorrow night. The good news for both teams? They bounced back and played fairly well in games on Saturday with the Cardinals disposing of DePaul and the Panthers nearly stealing an impressive road win at Marquette. Pitt lost the game, but Jamie Dixon had to have picked up some encouraging vibes from that performance. Pittsburgh and Louisville will get together this Saturday in the Steel City.
- Syracuse (19-0, 6-0) – This team just keeps on chugging along and nobody has really threatened the Orange in a big way this season. There have been close calls here and there (Stanford, Florida, and Marquette), but Syracuse is a cut above every other team in this conference. As I mentioned above, I believe there is a good chance this team runs the table in conference play. Dion Waiters scored 20 points at Villanova, part of 47 bench points for the Orange, compared to 32 for the starters. Syracuse held the Wildcats to 33% shooting on their home floor at the Wells Fargo Center. Against Providence, it was all Orange from the start. Syracuse had 12 steals and forced 22 Friar turnovers. Scoop Jardine played like a quality point guard, scoring ten points but dishing out nine assists. The Orange blocked ten Providence shots and shot 73% in the second stanza. Syracuse continues to rank in the top ten in both offensive and defensive efficiency, but the Achilles heel for this team seems to be rebounding specifically on the defensive end. The Orange rank #307 in defensive rebounding percentage, but I don’t anticipate that being a major problem until tournament time. This week: 1/16 vs. Pittsburgh, 1/21 @ Notre Dame.
- Connecticut (14-3, 4-2) – You could easily call me a UConn doubter since I never bought the top-five team argument, but I’m rewarding the Huskies for taking care of business in a week in which most Big East teams did not. Following a technical foul on Jim Calhoun, the Huskies put away West Virginia in the second half last Monday, erasing a 10-point second half WVU lead. Andre Drummond played his best game of the season against the Mountaineers, going for 20/11 on 9-11 FG while Jeremy Lamb added 25 points. West Virginia was on fire from deep in the first half, but Connecticut held it to 0-10 shooting from beyond the arc after intermission and 32% from the floor for the game. Shabazz Napier didn’t score, but still dropped eight dimes along the way. Against Notre Dame, the Huskies held their second consecutive opponent to 32% shooting and snapped ND’s 29-game home winning streak. Drummond had another double-double (10/13) while Roscoe Smith and Alex Oriakhi enhanced UConn’s scoring depth with their first positive contributions in a while. The rest of January shouldn’t present much of a challenge for Connecticut, but the schedule stiffens come February. If Ryan Boatright’s eligibility issues can be cleared up, he’ll continue to add a spark to the Connecticut offense as the team tries to peak in the latter stages of the season. This week: 1/18 vs. Cincinnati, 1/21 @ Tennessee.
- Georgetown (14-3, 4-2) – The Hoyas shot 59% against Cincinnati last Monday, but couldn’t put the Bearcats away down the stretch. A season-high 17 turnovers gave Cincinnati scoring opportunities and the Hoyas were handed their first home loss of the season. I’m still not convinced this Georgetown team is all that great but you have to give it the benefit of the doubt at this point given the record it has put together. Against St. John’s, the Hoyas wore out the Red Storm in the second half at Madison Square Garden and cruised to a 69-49 win. The game was within reach, but St. John’s depth showed and it completely ran out of gas down the stretch. Hollis Thompson led the way with 20 points and made all five of his threes after halftime. Jason Clark neared a triple-double with 15/8/8 while Otto Porter chipped in with 13/10 of his own. Georgetown held St. John’s to 32% shooting and dominated the Red Storm on the glass (18 offensive rebounds). The Hoyas have a soft stretch coming up before a home date with Connecticut on February 1. This week: 1/17 @ DePaul, 1/21 vs. Rutgers.
- Marquette (14-4, 3-2) – This team has struggled mightily in the first half of late, but it flips the switch and turns up the energy in the second half somehow. Marquette actually trailed by a point at the half at home against St. John’s before blasting the Red Storm back to New York behind 68% second half shooting. Marquette shot 56% for the game and was led by Davante Gardner’s 22/15 in 34 minutes of action. It was a breakout game for the MU big man, a guy who has struggled to stay on the floor for extended periods of time. With Chris Otule out for the season, Marquette needs Gardner in a big way to anchor its front court. On Saturday, the Golden Eagles took all they could handle from a desperate Pittsburgh team, coming from behind to win that one by five points. Darius Johnson-Odom and Jae Crowder combined for 33 points while Junior Cadougan ran the offense effectively with nine assists. While looking over Marquette’s statistics, I came across these numbers for Todd Mayo. In Marquette’s 14 wins, the freshman Mayo shoots 48.1% and averages 10.4 PPG. In Marquette’s four losses, Mayo is shooting 33.3% while averaging 8.0 PPG. While the PPG difference isn’t much, Buzz Williams needs Mayo to shoot the ball well in order to take some pressure off Marquette’s primary scorers. This week: 1/16 vs. #17 Louisville, 1/21 @ Providence.
- Seton Hall (15-3, 4-2) – The Pirates received their first AP top 25 ranking in 11 seasons last Monday and looked good in a rout of DePaul the following day. However, Seton Hall blew a late ten-point lead and fell to South Florida by a point on Friday night after Jordan Theodore missed the front end of a one-and-one that could have given Seton Hall the victory. Instead, the Pirates fell to 15-3 (4-2) and failed to take control of second place in the league. Theodore had 16 points, but didn’t play particularly well. Of more concern was the play of Fuquan Edwin and Aaron Cosby. The Pirates need these players to score in order to win but they combined for only nine points. Haralds Karlis was a bright spot off the bench, scoring 12 points on 4-5 shooting from beyond the arc. The Pirates blitzed DePaul on Tuesday night behind a career-high 27 points from Edwin (24 in the first half) and 26 points/11 assists from Theodore. Kevin Willard needs better production out of Herb Pope. He’s cooled off after a hot start to the season, averaging only 10.7 points per game on 39.4% shooting in Big East play. Seton Hall’s next game at Villanova will be a good test to see if it can bounce back on the road against a team it should beat. This week: 1/18 @ Villanova.
- West Virginia (13-5, 4-2) – I thought the Mountaineers played really well at Connecticut, but they fell victim to cold second half shooting. WVU missed all 10 of its three point attempts in the second half and lost by seven despite 22 points from Kevin Jones. West Virginia attempted 24 threes, far too many for a team that really struggles with outside shooting. Jones was hot from deep in the first half but this team must recognize when to change its approach and get back to do what it does best, rebound and get shots inside. WVU had 16 offensive rebounds against the Huskies. The Mountaineers rebounded nicely against Rutgers, blowing out the Scarlet Knights for the second time this season. WVU was led by Jones with 24/14 and Truck Bryant’s 18 while Deniz Kilicli and Jabarie Hinds added valuable scoring depth. I mentioned the Mayo statistic in the Marquette section but take a look at the even more dramatic numbers for West Virginia’s Bryant. In his team’s 13 wins, Truck is averaging 20.1 PPG on 45.2% shooting. In the five losses he’s at 12.0 PPG on a brutal 25.4% shooting night. Bryant went 2-13 in the loss to UConn. If Bob Huggins’ senior guard isn’t shooting well, the Mountaineers have to run everything through Jones to get points. That’s not a recipe for success. This week: 1/18 vs. Marshall (Charleston, WV), 1/21 vs. Cincinnati.
- Cincinnati (14-4, 4-1) – With two wins this week, Cincinnati has now won nine of its 10 games since the brawl with Xavier. What has changed? More of an emphasis on guard play has Mick Cronin’s team scoring the ball better at a faster pace. Cincinnati overcame two bad shooting nights from point guard Cashmere Wright and won at Georgetown before taking care of Villanova at home. Improved free throw shooting down the stretch helped the Bearcats seal both games as well. Sean Kilpatrick went off for 27 points on 10-16 shooting while Dion Dixon added 22 at Georgetown. Against Villanova, UC received another 22-point effort from Dixon while Yancy Gates chipped in with 16/9. Wright didn’t shoot well but did a fabulous job running the offense and shutting down Villanova’s transition game. Cincinnati turned it over only three times in the entire game against the Wildcats. Some bad news last week was Ge’Lawn Guyn’s head injury suffered against Georgetown. Cronin held him out of the Villanova game, but is hopeful that he will be able to play Wednesday at Connecticut. The Bearcats now face a brutal week with trips to UConn and West Virginia on tap. If they can get one, they’ll be in great position heading into the softer part of their schedule in early February. This week: 1/18 @ #14 Connecticut, 1/21 @ West Virginia.
- Louisville (14-4, 2-3) – On the night his 1987 Providence Final Four team was honored, Rick Pitino couldn’t wait to get out of Providence. Louisville was waxed by the Friars, Providence’s largest-ever margin of victory against a ranked opponent. Chris Smith had 16 points, but it wasn’t nearly enough for the Cardinals, who have now lost four of their past six games. Peyton Siva was awful, fouling out in 19 minutes of action. Louisville bounced back well against DePaul behind 25 points from Russ Smith. In one of the stranger stat lines you’ll see Smith went 0-7 from three point land despite going for 25. Gorgui Dieng had 13 points and 14 rebounds as Louisville played without Kyle Kuric, sidelined by a high ankle sprain. Siva didn’t shoot well in the DePaul game but contributed with seven assists and six steals. The Cardinals play three of their next four on the road and this looks to be a key stretch in determining whether they can contend for a double bye at the Big East Tournament. This week: 1/16 @ #21 Marquette, 1/21 @ Pittsburgh.
- Notre Dame (11-7, 3-2) – Mike Brey’s team had its 29-game home winning streak snapped by Connecticut on Saturday, but the Fighting Irish are holding steady in the middle of the Big East pack. Notre Dame has an outside shot at making the NCAA Tournament, but it will likely need at least ten conference wins for that to be a possibility. The Irish held South Florida to 49 points in a win earlier in the week as Jack Cooley and Scott Martin led the way. Eric Atkins didn’t score, but Notre Dame still got the victory at home. Against Connecticut, Cooley found it more difficult to operate against the talented Huskies front line. Atkins scored 20 points and Martin had 12/9, but it wasn’t enough for the Fighting Irish against an improving UConn team. ND shot only 32% against the Huskies. The Irish will have an opportunity to start another home court streak in a big way when they host undefeated Syracuse on Saturday. This week: 1/16 @ Rutgers, 1/21 vs. #1 Syracuse.
- South Florida (10-8, 3-2) – Quietly, South Florida is 3-2 in the Big East. The Bulls had beaten Rutgers and Villanova, but their biggest win game on Friday against #21 Seton Hall. USF was down by ten points late in the second half, but used a 14-3 game-ending run to steal a win from the Pirates. South Florida frustrated Seton Hall with stingy defense and a slow pace while out-rebounding the Pirates 29-23. Ron Anderson, Jr. had 14 points for the Bulls, who have now won three of four. Against Notre Dame, South Florida assisted on only four of its 21 field goals and shot 1-13 from three-point range. Stan Heath’s team now has some confidence after knocking off Seton Hall and the Bulls could realistically be 5-2 in conference play by this time next week. This week: 1/18 vs. St. John’s, 1/22 @ DePaul.
- Rutgers (10-8, 2-3) – The Scarlet Knights’ up and down season continued this week, winning at Pittsburgh by 23 points before falling by 24 at West Virginia. Rutgers went into Pittsburgh and punched the Panthers in the face right away. Rutgers held the Panthers to a stunning 21% shooting on their home floor and out-rebounded them 44-26. Against the Mountaineers, Rutgers wasn’t as fortunate. 19 Rutgers turnovers led to the second blowout loss to West Virginia in a ten-day span. Myles Mack had 15 points, but Rutgers was rather lifeless at the WVU Coliseum. Dane Miller had a fantastic week, posting 11/12 at Pitt and 12/13 at West Virginia. Rutgers has an important game against Notre Dame on Monday, one that could end up impacting Big East Tournament seeding in a couple of months. This week: 1/16 vs. Notre Dame, 1/21 @ #11 Georgetown.
- Pittsburgh (11-7, 0-5) – Pitt stays out of the bottom four in my rankings for one reason: the fight it showed at Marquette on Saturday. After hitting rock bottom with an ugly 62-39 home loss to Rutgers, the Panthers nearly knocked off the Golden Eagles in Milwaukee behind a career-high 29 points out of Ashton Gibbs. However, the Panthers were plagued by 17 turnovers, including seven from Nasir Robinson alone. It was important for Gibbs and the rest of his team to bounce back after an awful effort against the Scarlet Knights earlier in the week. In that game, Gibbs went 2-11 from the floor (0-7 3FG). Pittsburgh goes on the road to Syracuse on Monday before returning home with for a winnable game against Louisville on Saturday. The Panthers have beaten the Orange five times in a row, but getting a sixth win will be nearly impossible the way Syracuse is playing. The smart money is on Pittsburgh beating Louisville. This week: 1/16 @ #1 Syracuse, 1/21 vs. #17 Louisville.
- St. John’s (8-9, 2-4) – The Johnnies played very well in the first half against Marquette but their lack of depth and inexperience caught up to them in the second half against the Golden Eagles. Marquette outscored St. John’s by 20 points after intermission as the Red Storm surrendered 68% shooting to the home squad. God’s Gift Achiuwa had 20 points for St. John’s, but it was blown off the floor once Marquette got going. Against Georgetown on Sunday, St. John’s actually stayed within reach before the Hoyas grinded the home team down yet again. Mike Dunlap’s team got tired and lost its legs down the stretch as the Hoyas ran away with a 20-point win. St. John’s went 0-10 from beyond the arc, but Moe Harkless contributed 21/10 before fouling out. D’Angelo Harrison had an awful day, going 1-12 from the floor. St. John’s had an early lead but Georgetown switched to a zone defense which confounded the Red Storm, just as Marquette did earlier in the week. St. John’s has shown immense difficulty scoring against zone this season. This week: 1/18 @ South Florida, 1/21 vs. Villanova.
- Providence (12-7, 1-5) – It was unfortunate that Providence had to play Syracuse two times this season but the Friars did split the week with their destruction of Louisville on Tuesday. In that game, Vincent Council had 15 points, 14 assists. and eight rebounds while Kadeem Batts went for 27/10. Bryce Cotton added 22 points as well as Providence beat a ranked opponent by the widest margin in school history. PC shot 53% in that game and never let Louisville get back in it. At Syracuse was a different story. I have to give it up for Ed Cooley, though. He suspended Council for the Syracuse game for violating team rules knowing full well how his ball handling expertise would cost the team against the ball-hawking Syracuse defense. That’s a very important step in building the foundation of a program and kudos for Cooley for doing it in a spot where a lot of coaches probably wouldn’t. This week: 1/21 vs. #21 Marquette.
- Villanova (8-10, 1-5) – The nightmare season continues for Villanova after losing another pair of games last week. The Wildcats were completely worked over by Syracuse before falling at Cincinnati in a close game. Maalik Wayns absolutely went off against the Bearcats, scoring a career-high 39 points, grabbing 13 boards and dishing out six assists. Unfortunately for the Wildcats, he had little help. Despite out-rebounding Cincinnati 41-26, Villanova turned the ball over 16 times to only three for Cincinnati. Wayns had gone 0-7 from the floor against Syracuse so a game like this was a welcomed surprise. Mouphtaou Yarou had a rough time dealing with Syracuse’s length as he shot 20% in that game. As a team, the Wildcats made only a third of their shots. Villanova has an opportunity to get out of the basement this week with winnable games vs. Seton Hall and at St. John’s but those are two games Villanova could easily lose as well. This week: 1/18 vs. #21 Seton Hall, 1/21 @ St. John’s.
- DePaul (10-7, 1-4) – It was a rough week for the Blue Demons as losses at Seton Hall and Louisville dropped them to 1-4 in league play. DePaul made a second half charge against both of last week’s opponents but couldn’t sustain it against the more talented Pirates and Cardinals. Against Seton Hall, Brandon Young and Cleveland Melvin combined for 30 points, but needed an inefficient 30 shots to do so as DePaul shot 34% for the game. Against Louisville, Oliver Purnell’s two big guns shot a combined 8-27 (29.6%). The Blue Demon defense was atrocious last week, giving up 59% and 51% shooting to the Pirates and Cardinals, respectively. One bright spot was Worrel Clahar who had a nice week. Clahar scored 14 points at Seton Hall and nine at Louisville, including three of three from deep. After losing twice to ranked teams this week, DePaul has now dropped 34 consecutive games to ranked opponents. This week: 1/17 vs. #11 Georgetown, 1/22 vs. South Florida.
- Monday, 1/16: #17 Louisville @ #21 Marquette – The Cardinals have lost four of their last six games with three of their next four on the road starting here in Milwaukee. This former Conference USA rivalry is always intense and it’ll be interesting to see how Marquette comes out in front of its home crowd. The Golden Eagles have struggled in the first half of their last three games.
- Wednesday, 1/18: Cincinnati @ #14 Connecticut – Cincinnati is now in the teeth of its Big East schedule. The Bearcats played (and won) at Georgetown last week before being challenged at home by Villanova on Saturday. This week, Cincinnati goes to UConn and West Virginia before returning home to face top-ranked Syracuse next week on Big Monday. This stretch will make or break the Bearcats as contenders for the #2 spot in the league. Connecticut seemed to have turned the corner with wins over West Virginia and Notre Dame last week.
- Wednesday, 1/18: Marshall vs. West Virginia – This rivalry usually brings about a close game regardless of records. However, Marshall is better than it has been in a very long time. The Thundering Herd won last year’s meeting but WVU has taken four of the past five meetings.
- Saturday, 1/21: Cincinnati @ West Virginia – Bob Huggins has been at West Virginia for four full seasons now but WVU vs. Cincinnati always reminds you of Huggy Bear’s time with the Bearcats. This is always a physical, grind it out game and I wouldn’t expect anything different this time around. If Cincinnati can get at least one win at UConn or West Virginia this week, it will be a successful stretch for the Bearcats.
Pittsburgh’s Struggles: With six losses in a row and a probable seventh coming up on Monday night at Syracuse, the Panthers are off to their worst Big East start by far under Jamie Dixon. Why exactly is that? In Thursday’s conference call with reporters following the embarrassing loss to Rutgers, Dixon actually cited his team’s shot selection and lack of a point guard as reasons why, in addition to not doing “what we needed to do…defensively.” I’d like to focus on that last quote. While I shouldn’t be one to criticize a coach who has done a fabulous job over the years, defense is the most obvious reason why Pittsburgh isn’t winning games. While Pitt undoubtedly misses point guard Tray Woodall, the Panthers are averaging only two PPG less than last season while shooting is only down only one percentage point. Rebounding remains the same at 40 RPG. The one big difference offensively is the team’s three-point shooting, down from 39.5% to 34.9% in 2011-12. When you really break it down, defense is the overwhelming issue with this team. Pitt ranks #188 in defensive efficiency, down from #25 in 2010-11. This team simply isn’t guarding people and that is by far the biggest reason why the Panthers haven’t won a Big East game yet. Pitt ranks over #200 in two and three point percentage defense while its effective field goal percentage defense is 50.1% (#216). While the offense isn’t clicking like it used to, the Panthers still rank #1 in offensive rebounding percentage and are in the top 50 in offensive efficiency. The difference is defense and intangible toughness. Only with improvement in those areas of the game will Pitt begin to win some games.