Checking In On… the Big East ConferencePosted by Brian Goodman on January 23rd, 2012
Brian Otskey is the RTC correspondent for the Big East conference. You can find him on Twitter @botskey.
The Week That Was
- Number One Goes Down: For the seventh time, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish took down a top-ranked team in the Joyce Center, knocking off Syracuse 67-58. Despite all of that prior success, the Irish hadn’t beaten a #1 team at home in 25 years. That didn’t matter on Saturday night. Taking advantage of Fab Melo’s absence, Notre Dame slowed the pace and worked the ball inside, scoring in the paint or kicking it out to an open shooter on the wing. Notre Dame shot 50% for the game and limited the Orange to 34%. Using a +13 edge on the glass, Notre Dame was able to control the tempo and prevent Syracuse from getting out in transition where it is so lethal. I have to say I was surprised. Looking at Syracuse’s schedule last week, I thought the Orange could run the table. They had played better than any team in the nation on a consistent basis but drove into a buzzsaw on Saturday. Even if Melo had played, I’m not sure it would have made a major difference.
- South Florida On A Roll: It seems as if nobody has noticed, but South Florida is 5-2 in the Big East after a 2-0 week with wins over St. John’s and DePaul. USF has won on the road at improving Villanova and also took down Seton Hall at home when the Pirates were ranked. The Bulls also beat Rutgers, one game after the Scarlet Knights beat Florida. How has USF done it? Jawanza Poland has played very well since returning from a back injury and Stan Heath is getting timely contributions from guys like Victor Rudd and Ron Anderson Jr. However, the two main reasons for USF’s success are point guard play and defense. Freshman Anthony Collins has been fantastic at the point, averaging 5.3 APG in Big East play to go with a #28 national ranking in assist rate. Although he’s turning the ball over a bit too much, Collins has given the Bulls a huge boost at the most important position in college basketball after years of bad guard play in Tampa. On the defensive end, South Florida’s opponents average only 57.6 PPG, tops in the Big East. With a combination of defense, good rebounding and timely scoring, USF is starting to make some noise in the crowded middle of the Big East.
- Syracuse (20-1, 7-1) – The Orange remain the best team by far in the Big East and I still think they are the best team in the nation even after losing at Notre Dame. Nothing went right for the Orange against the Fighting Irish. The Orange were out-shot 50% to 34%, out-rebounded by 13, and couldn’t string stops together when they were trying to get back in the game. Should we have seen this coming? The cracks in the foundation appeared in a closer-than-expected win over Pittsburgh last Monday. The Panthers probed the Syracuse zone fairly well, getting to the free throw line area and making good interior passes. Fab Melo had 10 points, 10 rebounds, and six blocks in that game, but didn’t play in South Bend due to a mysterious academic issue. Pitt out-rebounded Syracuse 38-24, meaning the Orange were minus-27 on the glass for the week. Syracuse ranks #320 in defensive rebounding percentage, an issue that needs to be addressed immediately by Jim Boeheim, with or without Melo. Syracuse is struggling from three point land as well, tenth in three-point percentage in Big East games (31.9%). Scoop Jardine had 12 points and ten assists against the Panthers, but didn’t make a field goal (0-5) against Notre Dame. A tougher than expected week is ahead. Could the Orange lose again after winning 20 games in a row? This week: 1/23 @ Cincinnati, 1/28 vs. West Virginia.
- Marquette (16-4, 5-2) – Picking the #2 team in the Big East this year is like a game of musical chairs. This week, it’s Marquette’s turn to secure a seat. The Golden Eagles went 2-0 last week, coming back from an early 18-2 deficit to Louisville before winning on the road at Providence. With those wins, Marquette has now won four straight games after a stretch in which it lost four of six. Marquette struggled in the first half again in both games but put together solid comebacks to secure the wins. Darius Johnson-Odom and Jae Crowder are consistently leading this team, but the key to its success is contributions from the supporting case. Just last week alone, Marquette received performances like 17 points from Davante Gardner against Louisville and 16/7 off the bench from Jamil Wilson against Providence. Every Marquette opponent knows to prepare for Johnson-Odom and Crowder, but not knowing who else is going to step up makes it extremely difficult for an opposing team to prepare. It has to pay attention more attention to a wider variety of players, taking resources away from defending the two primary threats on the Golden Eagles team. Marquette shot 68% in the second half against Providence and used a 20-3 run to take control of that game. Junior Cadougan recorded ten assists in the win as well. Two tricky games await this week. This week: 1/24 vs. South Florida, 1/28 @ Villanova.
- Georgetown (16-3, 6-2) – I’m still not a believer in Georgetown, and games like last week are part of the reason why. Despite winning both, Georgetown was largely unimpressive in beating DePaul and Rutgers. Without Markel Starks in the lineup, the Hoyas needed a 31-point effort on 11-14 shooting from Jason Clark to put away the Blue Demons, a bottom-feeder in this league. Georgetown shot 53%, out-rebounded DePaul 43-18 and still only won by eight points. Eighteen Georgetown turnovers was the main reason for keeping DePaul in the game, but you expect a blowout when you see numbers like that against a bad team. One guy I love on this team is Otto Porter. The freshman had 15 boards against DePaul and made the winning plays down the stretch against Rutgers, scoring Georgetown’s final six points. The Hoyas shot 29% against the Scarlet Knights but went to the foul line 36 times. Henry Sims had a nice week, scoring 16 points against DePaul and going for 12/10 against Rutgers. The Hoyas have won three straight after losing two in a row but rank #13 in turnover percentage in conference play. This week: 1/28 @ Pittsburgh.
- West Virginia (15-5, 5-2) – This team may be hitting its stride. West Virginia has won five of its last six games and looked impressive in a win over Marshall last week in Charleston, West Virginia. On Saturday, West Virginia beat a good team for the first time this season despite Truck Bryant shooting poorly. Bryant was 2-16 from the floor, but the Mountaineers beat a hot Cincinnati team in overtime after Gary Browne’s triple sent the game into the extra session. Kevin Jones had a monster 26/13 game on 11-15 shooting and is the clear frontrunner for Big East Player of the Year. Browne added 13 points and nine rebounds and Jabarie Hinds had 12 points as Bob Huggins is starting to receive better play out of his very young supporting cast. In the win over in-state rival Marshall, Jones and Bryant combined for 47 points and West Virginia broke open a tie game at the half by shooting 62% after intermission. Another good game from Hinds and a +10 rebounding edge against one of the better rebounding teams in the nation were very positive signs for the Mountaineers. One are of concern is this team’s interior defense. West Virginia ranks #207 nationally in two-point field goal defense. If West Virginia can go up to Syracuse next Saturday and get a win, the Mountaineers could find themselves in the Big East title race. This week: 1/25 @ St. John’s, 1/28 @ #1 Syracuse.
- Cincinnati (15-5, 5-2) – Winners in ten of their past 12 games, the Bearcats roll into Monday night’s matchup with Syracuse after splitting two tough road games at Connecticut and West Virginia. Amazingly, Cincinnati is on this run despite being the worst team in the Big East when it comes to two-point percentage in conference play. Additionally, Cincinnati isn’t getting to the charity stripe and ranks #274 in defensive rebounding percentage. Why are the Bearcats winning? Guard play. Mick Cronin’s four-guard lineups are working wonders as UC is taking great care of the basketball (#6 in turnover percentage) while shooting the three ball fairly well. Sean Kilpatrick made the game-winner against Connecticut while Yancy Gates added 13/12. Cincinnati placed five players in double figures against the Huskies as its offense has come alive over the past month. Cincinnati still has depth issues, but this team is definitely trending up. The Bearcats have won six of their last eight games against ranked opponents. This week: 1/23 vs. #1 Syracuse, 1/28 @ Rutgers.
- Connecticut (14-5, 4-3) – Just when you thought Connecticut was back on track after beating West Virginia and Notre Dame, it loses to Cincinnati and Tennessee in the same week. Losing to Cincinnati is understandable even at home, but the loss to the Volunteers is inexcusable. We know Tennessee plays hard and all of that but the Vols came into the game with an 8-10 record in Cuonzo Martin’s first season. With Ryan Boatright still sidelined, Connecticut has little back court depth. Shabazz Napier is trying to pick up the slack (career-high 27 points against Cincy) but the rest of the team needs to step up as well. Against the Bearcats, Alex Oriakhi and Andre Drummond combined to shoot 3-16 from the floor. Against Tennessee, UConn shot 36% and received zero bench points. Jeremy Lamb did score 23 points in that game, but even he has been inconsistent. Connecticut sports some extreme statistical contrasts, ranking #1 in two-point percentage against but #192 against the triple. The Huskies also rank #248 in defensive rebounding percentage but are in the top ten nationally on the offensive boards. UConn is shooting 31.8% from beyond the arc in Big East play. This week: 1/29 vs. Notre Dame.
- Seton Hall (15-4, 4-3) – Having lost two consecutive games for the first time this season, the Pirates are facing some adversity heading into a crucial two game home stand. Seton Hall played only once last week, but it was an ugly loss at Villanova. Point guard Jordan Theodore was 2-16 from the floor and Seton Hall shot only 37% as a team. The Pirates took an astounding 36 three pointers against a Villanova team not known for its defense. Not attacking inside against the relatively soft Wildcat defense surely couldn’t have been Kevin Willard’s game plan, right? Seton Hall put Villanova, one of the nation’s best free throw shooting teams, on the line 41 times, recording a stunning defensive free throw rate of 80.4% for the game according to Ken Pomeroy’s statistics. The Pirates need Theodore to be the solid distributor he was earlier this month. In the last two games, Theodore has reverted to the Theodore of old with ill-advised shots and reckless drives. It’s part of a bigger trend of Seton Hall settling for jump shots. In league play, the Pirates are not getting to the line (#16 free throw rate), rank #13 in two-point field goal percentage and lead the league in three-point shooting. While the threes are falling, Seton Hall needs a more balanced attack with better interior play. The Hall would be well advised to earn two home wins this week before venturing out on a brutal three game road trip to Marquette, Connecticut and Rutgers. This week: 1/25 vs. Notre Dame, 1/28 vs. Louisville.
- Louisville (15-5, 3-4) – Losing at Pittsburgh on Saturday would have been disastrous for Louisville but, boosted by the return of Kyle Kuric (21 points, 5-9 3FG), the Cardinals put away the Panthers and avoided a 2-5 start to Big East play. Chane Behanan had a career-high 19 points and Gorgui Dieng added 13/14 for a Louisville team that can climb back over .500 in league play with two wins this week. Games against improving Villanova and Seton Hall won’t be easy but the Cardinals have a knack for winning tough games and responding well to adversity. Louisville gave away an early 18-2 lead last Monday at Marquette, but Rakeem Buckles went down with a knee injury and Kuric didn’t play in that game. Russ Smith had 20 points for a depleted team, which didn’t get anything of note from its bench. Louisville is playing good defense overall, but the Cardinals are vulnerable to the deep shot. Louisville ranks third nationally in two-point percentage defense but is giving teams lots of open looks from deep. The Cards aren’t shooting well from deep themselves either. This week: 1/25 vs. Villanova, 1/28 @ Seton Hall.
- Notre Dame (12-8, 4-3) – Lost in well-deserved praise for taking down Syracuse, Notre Dame went 1-1 last week. The Irish lost to Rutgers last Monday, burning themselves from the free throw line (5-13). There’s no shame in losing at an improving Rutgers team that has already beaten two top-ten teams in its building, but the fact remains that Notre Dame is a mediocre 12-8 team that played its best game when it mattered most. I’m not convinced the Irish can move into the top half of the league and stay there for the rest of the season. The emergence of Scott Martin last week has to be encouraging for Mike Brey. The senior has struggled mightily without Tim Abromaitis by his side. Notre Dame had great balance in the win against Syracuse and Brey’s game plan was phenomenal. Notre Dame executed well, scoring late in the shot clock and slowing the game down. Jack Cooley was a man inside, going for 17/10. Notre Dame shot 50% for the game and killed the Orange on the backboards. Notre Dame takes great care of the ball, seventh in turnover percentage. However, the #246 offensive rebounding percentage and #220 three point percentage can hurt the Irish against teams with height. That’s why beating Syracuse was almost magical. The matchups were not in Notre Dame’s favor yet they mopped the floor with the Orange. Notre Dame does rank first in Big East play in defending the three-point line. The Irish have a nice team considering the bind they were put in following Abromaitis’ injury, but the ceiling is rather low for this group. Two tough road games this week will tell us more about Notre Dame. This week: 1/25 @ Seton Hall, 1/29 @ #12 Connecticut.
- South Florida (12-8, 5-2) – I discussed the Bulls in the headline section above but am I crazy to think this team could be 9-4 in conference play in the middle of February? Assuming the Bulls lose to Marquette and Georgetown, that gives them four losses. But the other four games are very winnable (Providence twice, Pittsburgh, and Villanova). Even after that, USF goes to Pittsburgh and could realistically win that as well. Stan Heath is getting contributions from everybody. Victor Rudd had 24 points (all in the second half) against St. John’s while Jawanza Poland added 16 off the bench. Against DePaul, Augustus Gilchrist scored 22 points on seven of eight shooting. USF shot 56% against DePaul and assisted in 18 of 22 made field goals against St. John’s. While the competition wasn’t tough, USF is gaining confidence and taking care of business. This week: 1/24 @ #20 Marquette, 1/29 vs. Providence.
- Rutgers (11-9, 3-4) – Rutgers almost had a 2-0 week, falling to Georgetown in the final minutes on Saturday after taking care of Notre Dame earlier in the week. Against the Irish, Austin Johnson gave the Scarlet Knights 10 points off the bench while Eli Carter added 13. In the Georgetown game, Rutgers nearly pulled it off. Despite being whistled for 29 fouls which sent the Hoyas to the line 36 times compared to seven for Rutgers, the Scarlet Knights held a late lead. Carter had 14, but Myles Mack shot only one of eight. Rutgers held Georgetown to 29% shooting, its fourth strong defensive effort in five games. Mike Rice was upset with the foul differential, but his team’s aggressiveness is reflected in the numbers. Rutgers is #311 in defensive free throw rate and #16 in defensive turnover percentage. To me, that shows this team gambles a lot and either gets called for a foul or creates a turnover. Rice said the foul calls, specifically in the final two minutes, were “interesting.” For his team’s sake, let’s hope the officials don’t hold a grudge. This week: 1/25 vs. DePaul, 1/28 vs. Cincinnati.
- Villanova (10-10, 3-5) – The Wildcats had a terrific week, going 2-0 with wins over Seton Hall and St. John’s. JayVaughn Pinkston broke out against the Pirates, going for 23/11 in the win as Villanova righted the ship after losing 10 of its previous 14 games. Pinkston followed that performance up with 13/12 in the St. John’s game. The Wildcats went to the foul line 41 times against the Hall with Maalik Wayns making 15 of 16 shots. James Bell added 18 points, bringing his total to 39 in his last two games against the Pirates. Villanova is getting to the line and rebounding very well, something that’s very important for a team that can struggle defensively. Villanova is #15 in free throw percentage nationally and holds the best free throw rate in Big East play. Villanova turned the ball over 23 times against the Johnnies, but was able to win in overtime. Wayns had 28 points and Dominic Cheek went for 20 as well. This week: 1/25 @ Louisville, 1/28 vs. #20 Marquette.
- St. John’s (8-11, 2-6) – This may be too high of a ranking for a St. John’s team that has lost six of its past seven games and is among the worst three-point shooting teams in the country. However, the Red Storm’s blowout of Providence last month keeps it in front of the Friars for now. St. John’s lost twice last week, limited to 49 points and 2-13 from deep against South Florida before falling to Villanova in overtime on Saturday. D’Angelo Harrison had 28 points before fouling out, but St. John’s was out-rebounded 46-30 by the Wildcats. It doesn’t get any easier this week with a visit from West Virginia before a trip to Durham to face Duke. This week: 1/25 vs. West Virginia, 1/28 @ #8 Duke.
- Providence (12-8, 1-6) – Providence isn’t that bad a team – it just has very limited depth and lots of inconsistency on the defensive end. The Friars looked great defending Georgetown, Louisville and a few other teams this year but they rank #167 in defensive efficiency. Providence can score the ball but depth usually rears its ugly head late in the game. Ed Cooley is doing a good job laying the foundation for his program, but the Friars are going to have to write this year off. Providence played once last week, losing at home to Marquette by seven points. The Friars allowed the Golden Eagles to shoot 68% in the second half and Vincent Council shot only two of 13 from the field. Bryce Cotton did have 26 points in a losing effort. This week: 1/25 @ Pittsburgh, 1/29 @ South Florida.
- DePaul (10-9, 1-6) – Only their three-point home win over Pittsburgh is keeping the Blue Demons out of the Big East basement. DePaul is very likely the worst team in the league, but I’m giving them the benefit of the doubt over the Panthers because of Pitt’s failure to win a game in league play yet. DePaul plays at the fifth fastest pace in the nation but is by far the league’s worst defensive team. DePaul allows 53.1% shooting inside the arc and is among the worst teams in the country in defensive rebounding percentage. Oliver Purnell’s team does have a good turnover margin but this team can’t do anything if it doesn’t defend. Against South Florida on Sunday, Brandon Young and Moses Morgan combined to shoot 1-23 FG. Morgan had 17 points off the bench in a loss to Georgetown last Tuesday. The play of Jamee Crockett (15 points) was a positive for Purnell against South Florida. This week: 1/25 @ Rutgers.
- Pittsburgh (11-9, 0-7) – I thought Pitt would finally win a game on Saturday against Louisville. After a promising start, the Panthers folded and went back to their lazy defensive ways. Pitt allowed Louisville to shoot 55% despite a good game from Lamar Patterson (14/5/7) and the return of Tray Woodall (0-5 FG in 21 minutes). While this team has dropped off offensively in conference play, poor defense has remained a constant throughout the season. Pittsburgh remains the best offensive rebounding team in the country but is allowing opponents to shoot almost 50% inside the arc and just short of 35% from beyond it. The Panthers could very well get their first league win this Wednesday against Providence, but nothing is a given with this team. This week: 1/25 vs. Providence, 1/28 vs. #10 Georgetown.
- Monday, 1/23: #2 Syracuse at Cincinnati –There’s a chance Syracuse could fall again, but you would have to figure Saturday’s loss was a wakeup call for the Orange. Cincinnati will have to work through the middle of the zone in order to get quality looks from deep, as well as inside.
- Tuesday, 1/24: South Florida at #17 Marquette – South Florida would really catch the nation’s attention with a win here. The Bulls have been terrific on the defensive end but that will be put to the test against Marquette’s efficient offense. USF is 2-5 in true road games this season.
- Wednesday, 1/25: Notre Dame at Seton Hall – How will Notre Dame respond on the road after its biggest win of the season? Notre Dame will be up against a Pirates team looking to get back on the winning track after two straight road losses. The Irish have won eight of their last nine meetings with the Hall.
- Saturday, 1/28: #22 West Virginia at #2 Syracuse – Before Syracuse’s loss at Notre Dame, some had this game circled as the one Syracuse might lose. While West Virginia is very good, it’s going to take a monumental effort to beat the Orange at the Carrier Dome.
- Saturday, 1/28: Louisville at Seton Hall – This is the second of two very important home games for the Pirates. With a brutal road trip to Marquette, Connecticut, and Rutgers coming up, Seton Hall doesn’t want to slip up at home against two teams it will be favored against, but could easily lose to as well. With a couple of home games coming up after this, Louisville would put itself in a nice position with a quality road win here.
- Sunday, 1/29: Notre Dame at #23 Connecticut – If Notre Dame (1-3 in true road games) can win either here at Connecticut or Wednesday at Seton Hall, it will be a successful week coming off the upset of Syracuse. As for the Huskies, they have lost four of their past six games entering this one but have a week to prepare for the Irish.
Caught On Film
RTC at Notre Dame: Irish fans rush the court after knocking off top-ranked Syracuse, Notre Dame’s seventh all-time home win against a #1 team.