Checking In On… The Big EastPosted by Brian Goodman on January 30th, 2012
Brian Otskey is the RTC correspondent for the Big East conference. You can find him on Twitter @botskey.
The Week That Was
- A Bad Saturday for Big East Referees: It started in Philadelphia in the noon game between Villanova and Marquette. The referees made themselves the story of that game, calling three technical fouls and 45 total foul in a 40-minute game. That game lasted well over two hours as the officials used their whistles to take all the rhythm out of what was a very good game. James Breeding doesn’t have the best reputation across the conference for the quality of his calls, but apparently he has a short fuse as well. Breeding called all three techs and embarrassed himself on national television in the process. I realize the Big East and NCAA want better sportsmanship, but nothing Jay Wright, Buzz Williams, or Maalik Wayns did warranted a technical foul. It’s never good when officials make themselves the story of the game, but that’s exactly what James Breeding did. The bad officiating continued in the Syracuse-West Virginia game as the crew of Karl Hess, Gene Steratore and, Brian O’Connell blew a goaltending call that was obvious to the 28,740 Syracuse fans in attendance at the Carrier Dome, the ESPNU commentators, and anyone who was watching the game. While the proper call would have only resulted in a tie game and actually given Syracuse a chance to win it in regulation, it denied West Virginia a chance to force overtime. Too often, we see officials swallow their whistles in the final minute to “not affect the outcome of the game.” Once again, a crew of officials decided to do just that and that decision negatively affected the outcome. While there’s no guarantee West Virginia would have won if the game went to the extra session, the Mountaineers were denied that chance by incompetent officiating. My beef is as follows: I’m all for player safety, but this season it has been ridiculous how many times officials have gone to the television monitor to review elbows that may or may not have been thrown during the course of a game. If they can review every elbow that was ever thrown (not needed in my opinion) as well as end-of-half scoring plays, why can’t they review a call like that? Nobody likes slow games, but the officials should be permitted to review every call they aren’t 100% sure about. All in all, Saturday was a disgrace to the officiating profession.
- Mike Brey, Coach of the Year?: At this point, it would be hard to argue against him. The Notre Dame head coach led his team to two road wins at Seton Hall and Connecticut last week, holding the home teams to a combined 90 points. Brey’s team executed the burn offense to perfection, protected the basketball and got timely rebounds. Notre Dame, considered an afterthought after Tim Abromaitis went down with a season-ending ACL tear, is now in the thick of the NCAA Tournament conversation. Brey seems to get the most out of his teams when expectations are low, and that reputation is holding true as we head into the crucial month of February. The Irish still have work to do in order to overcome a lackluster non-conference performance but Brey has his team well on its way towards a top half conference finish.
- Pittsburgh Wins a Pair: After starting league play 0-7, Pittsburgh has won two straight. With Tray Woodall healthy and back in the lineup, the Panthers are a team nobody wants to face down the stretch. Jamie Dixon’s NCAA dreams are almost surely extinguished, but the Panthers have an opportunity to finish the season strong and end with a respectable record. Pittsburgh’s offensive efficiency improved in a big way with Woodall’s return, but its defense was outstanding in Saturday’s win over Georgetown. The Panthers posted an 86.5 defensive efficiency rating, by far their best against a quality opponent. Their season-best was 81.0 against St. Francis (PA) on December 20, their last win before beating Providence last week. With a softer schedule in February, Pittsburgh has the potential to make some noise over the season’s final nine games.
- Syracuse (22-1, 9-1) – After suffering its first defeat at Notre Dame, the Orange responded well in a win at Cincinnati two days later. Kris Joseph led the victors with 17 points on eight of 11 shooting. Still without Fab Melo, the Orange big men did an admirable job in his place. Rakeem Christmas had nine rebounds as Syracuse survived an early onslaught of Bearcat three-pointers. Syracuse then beat West Virginia on Saturday in a closer-than-expected game as the Mountaineers were able to score against the zone, mostly because of rebounding. Syracuse was out-rebounded 36-20, but committed only six turnovers as it survived the blown goaltending call in the final seconds. Brandon Triche had 18 points in the win. Rebounding has been a concern all season, but it’s obvious that Syracuse is not nearly as dominant with Melo out of the lineup. Free throw shooting came and went (33% at Cincinnati, 76.5% against West Virginia) but mental toughness is one of its biggest strengths. As we head into the teeth of the season, Syracuse is more prepared to absorb and respond to every team’s best shot. This week: 2/4 @ St. John’s.
- Marquette (18-4, 7-2) – I’m not overly impressed every time I watch this team, but it makes the winning plays when needed most. The Golden Eagles won a pair of games last week to push their winning streak to six games. Darius Johnson-Odom, Jae Crowder, and Davante Gardner combined for 47 points in a home win over South Florida on Tuesday, equaling the total points scored by the Bulls. Marquette ventured to Villanova on Saturday and was involved in one of the more bizarre games I have seen all season across college basketball. The game lasted two and a half hours and didn’t even go to overtime. 45 fouls (three technical) were called and 57 free throws were attempted in a game that wasn’t the finest moment for the officiating crew of James Breeding, Tim Clougherty, and Pat Driscoll. Breeding in particular had a short fuse, whistling Buzz Williams for a technical when the coach simply slipped and fell down. Memo to Breeding: Get over yourself, he wasn’t showing you up. Johnson-Odom had 26 points, Crowder added 20 points and 11 boards for Marquette and Jamil Wilson added 12 points off the bench. Marquette rallied from an 18-point deficit and forced 20 Villanova turnovers to key the comeback. This is a good basketball team, but one that has a ceiling. I’m not sure the Golden Eagles have the scoring depth to make a big run in March. This week: 1/31 vs. Seton Hall, 2/4 @ Notre Dame.
- Georgetown (16-4, 6-3) – I warned you about the Hoyas last week, and right on cue, they lost at reeling Pittsburgh. This is a decent team, but in no way do I believe it’s as good as its record. Despite what my gut says, I’m keeping the Hoyas at #3 because of the overall weakness of the Big East. These teams are all similar and wins and losses are really the only things that matter. The Hoyas have recorded plenty of wins, but only five players on this team can score on any kind of consistent basis. When the defense isn’t clicking, this team gets beat easily, as we saw at Pittsburgh. The Hoyas allowed the Panthers to shoot 52% in what was a really poor effort with a full week to prepare for the game. Georgetown will probably win both of its games this week and finish with a nice record, but another early NCAA flameout seems likely. John Thompson III deserves credit for turning a team picked rather low in the preseason into a contender, but I think Georgetown may have already peaked. This week: 2/1 vs. #23 Connecticut, 2/4 vs. South Florida.
- West Virginia (15-7, 5-4) – I really want to believe in this team, but just when I start to, they lay an egg. Whether it was the early season loss to Mississippi State, the blowout at Seton Hall or last week’s awful performance at St. John’s, the Mountaineers can’t quite follow up stretches of success with wins over teams it should beat. This is a team with two capable seniors (especially Kevin Jones), but its youth is holding it back from sustained success. Jones had 26 points and 14 rebounds (nine offensive) in the loss at St. John’s, further increasing his chances for the Big East Player of the Year award, but it wasn’t nearly enough as the Mountaineers shot 35% overall and lost by 16 to a team that started five freshmen. Jones continued his solid play with 20 points at Syracuse, but West Virginia couldn’t get over the hump in that game either. You can blame the botched goaltending call all you want, but all that would have done was give the ball to Syracuse in a tie game with a chance to win. It’s not fair to say this, but the referees missed a timeout called by Jones in the Cincinnati game, a timeout he didn’t have that would have resulted in a technical foul. Things in life have a way of evening out, so maybe West Virginia is right where it should be. Still, the goaltend should have been called and the Mountaineers should have had a chance to force overtime. This week: 1/30 vs. Pittsburgh, 2/5 @ Providence.
- Louisville (17-5, 5-4) – Louisville is playing much better now than in the first half, and I am not sure everyone is noticing. The Cardinals have won four of their last five games after beginning Big East play with a 1-3 record. Rick Pitino’s team won two games this week in vastly different ways. Against Villanova, five Louisville players scored in double figures, led by Peyton Siva’s 16 and Gorgui Dieng’s 12 points and 13 rebounds. In Saturday’s win at Seton Hall, Louisville scored only 60 points, but held the Pirates to 51 on 28% shooting. Dieng had another solid game, recording 11 points, 14 rebounds, and five blocks while altering many more shots. Russ Smith added 14 points and Louisville overcame 24 turnovers with a +11 edge on the glass. Three of Louisville’s next four games are at home, including a date with Syracuse on February 13, so the Cardinals have a big opportunity to get back into the upper echelon of the conference and compete for a double-bye in the Big East Tournament. This week: 2/4 vs. Rutgers.
- Notre Dame (14-8, 6-3) – How good of a job is Mike Brey doing? I alluded to it after the Fighting Irish won at Seton Hall on Wednesday, but Brey and his team took it to another level with Sunday’s gritty win at Connecticut. The Irish out-rebounded the Huskies and held them to 48 points in their own building, four days after holding Seton Hall to a season-low 42 in their place. That’s 90 combined points at home for two teams that had been solidly in the top half of the conference for much of the year before struggling of late. The burn offense is back and it may be better than ever. With Jack Cooley and company controlling the boards and the Irish guards doing a tremendous job of ball protection, it’s incredibly difficult for opponents to speed up the game and get easy baskets in transition. Cooley had 13 points and 11 rebounds against Seton Hall but made a bigger mark defensively, limiting Seton Hall big man Herb Pope to a stunning two of 16 shooting. Eric Atkins had 13 points against UConn, but his most important job is running the offense and controlling tempo, one he is doing very well. Notre Dame did not get a single point from its bench against the Huskies, but held on for a huge road victory. With two big road wins this week, the Irish are in solid position to make an NCAA Tournament run. Nobody would have said that just one month ago. This week: 2/4 vs. #17 Marquette.
- Cincinnati (15-7, 5-4) – The Bearcats were the toast of the Big East after they won ten of 11 games since the Xavier fiasco, but they have lost three straight since then. Yancy Gates and Cashmere Wright played really well against Syracuse, but the Bearcats couldn’t score late in the game against an Orange defense that really tightened the screws after allowing Cincinnati to get off to a hot start. Cincinnati shot eight of 25 from deep for the game after making four in the first few minutes of the contest. Dion Dixon struggled (2-10 FG) and the Bearcats couldn’t get anything going down the stretch. A disappointing road loss to Rutgers followed on Saturday with Wright going one of seven from the floor. The Bearcats turned it over an uncharacteristic 14 times against the Scarlet Knights in a very lackluster performance. The Bearcats have an opportunity to turn it around quickly with two winnable games before a trip to Marquette on February 11. This week: 2/4 vs. DePaul.
- Connecticut (14-6, 4-4) – With a week to prepare for Notre Dame, you would have thought Connecticut would have come out strong against the Fighting Irish on Sunday. It wasn’t to be, as the Huskies scored only 48 points and now have lost three in a row and five of their last seven overall. Despite the return of Ryan Boatright (six points in 30 minutes against the Irish), this is a team lacking chemistry and leadership. I thought this would be a problem before the season, but not to this degree. The Huskies just don’t have a spark offensively and Jeremy Lamb hasn’t embraced the role of alpha dog. Lamb had 16 points against Notre Dame and Andre Drummond added 15, but UConn’s complementary pieces didn’t do much of anything, as evidenced by this tweet from Jay Bilas. A rough stretch is next and the Huskies realistically could be 15-9 (5-7) on February 11 if they don’t turn it around quick. This week: 2/1 @ #11 Georgetown, 2/4 vs. Seton Hall.
- South Florida (13-9, 6-3) – After a 1-1 week, the Bulls are tied for third (yes, third!) place in the Big East at 6-3. Stan Heath has resurrected a program that looked dead in the water in December. The Bulls are getting solid point guard play out of Anthony Collins and guys like Toarlyn Fitzpatrick (19/10 at Marquette) and Ron Anderson, Jr. (7-9 FG vs. Providence) are stepping up at the right times. While USF committed 20 turnovers and lost by 20 points at Marquette, that was expected. The Bulls could realistically have nine Big East wins a couple weeks from now and actually be in the discussion for an NCAA bid. South Florida placed five players in double figures and shot 51% against the Friars on Sunday. Keep an eye on this team because because while most expect them to falter the upcoming schedule is favorable. This week: 2/4 @ #11 Georgetown.
- Seton Hall (15-6, 4-5) – The Pirates are in a free-fall of epic proportions and things won’t get any easier in the coming week and a half. Seton Hall embarks on a three game road trip to Marquette, Connecticut and Rutgers having lost its last four games after starting the season 15-2 (4-1). A seven-game losing streak is a distinct possibility, one that would take the Pirates completely out of the NCAA Tournament picture if it happens. Just a few weeks ago, this team was in the top 25 and projected to receive a favorable seed in the tournament. The Hall is hanging by a thread right now and absolutely needs a win or two on this road trip just to stay afloat. While its defense has been solid, Seton Hall’s offense has reverted to the levels of ineptitude seen last year. The Pirates shot 26% and 28% in home games last week against Notre Dame and Louisville, respectively. Herb Pope has been awful in Big East play after actually finding himself on some National Player of the Year lists in the non-conference portion of the season. Fuquan Edwin and Aaron Cosby have disappeared and Jordan Theodore is trying to do too much by himself. The Hall hit just three of 18 shots from deep against Louisville. Its defense came up with seven consecutive stops against the Cardinals, but the Hall could not convert on the other end. This team is now playing a lot like the squad picked 13th in the preseason Big East coaches poll. This week: 1/31 @ #17 Marquette, 2/4 @ #23 Connecticut.
- Rutgers (12-10, 4-5) – Has there been a season more bizarre than the 2011-12 Rutgers Scarlet Knights? I’m really not sure. Rutgers has losses to the likes of Richmond, Princeton, LSU, and DePaul and wins over teams such as Florida, Connecticut, Notre Dame, and Cincinnati. Every stretch of success is seemingly followed by a loss to a bad team. Myles Mack had 22 points and went 5-9 from three-point land in the mind-boggling loss to DePaul last week, a game in which Rutgers blew an 11-point lead with about ten minutes remaining. Eli Carter was two of ten from the floor in the game but responded well with 17 points (15 in the second half) in a win over Cincinnati on Saturday, coach Mike Rice’s 100th career victory. The Scarlet Knights are about as unpredictable as any team in the nation as they head out on the road for five of their next seven games. This week: 2/1 @ Providence, 2/4 @ Louisville.
- Pittsburgh (13-9, 2-7) – Last week was a rousing success for a Pittsburgh team that now has Tray Woodall back at full health. Woodall recorded 19 assists in two games this past week, both home wins over Providence and Georgetown. With Woodall back in the fold, the Panthers are trending upwards. Pittsburgh held Providence to 3-17 from distance and Georgetown to 60 points. With both the defense and offense picking up, this team will not be a pushover for the rest of the season. Nasir Robinson had an awesome game against the Hoyas, scoring 23 points on a perfect 9-9 shooting. Pitt shot 52% in that game and never trailed in addition to out-rebounding Georgetown by 11. Look out, Big East. Pittsburgh appears to be back. This week: 1/30 @ #22 West Virginia, 2/5 vs. Villanova.
- St. John’s (9-12, 3-6) – Despite the 1-1 week, it was a good one for St. John’s. The Red Storm blasted West Virginia and showed terrific poise in almost coming all the way back against Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium. St. John’s shot 48% against the Mountaineers as Moe Harkless led the way with 23 points and 13 rebounds. D’Angelo Harrison added 19 and Phil Greene had eight assists to only one turnover in the win. Against Duke, Harkless was even better (30/13). Harrison scored 21 points at Cameron but the Red Storm shot itself in the foot by going 11 of 21 from the charity stripe. This week: 2/1 @ DePaul, 2/4 vs. #2 Syracuse.
- Villanova (10-12, 3-7) – 14th is probably too low of a ranking for a team that is showing signs of improvement. Still, Pittsburgh and St. John’s have done a bit more than Villanova at this point. The Wildcats lost twice last week but were competitive at Louisville and home against Marquette. James Bell had a terrific week, averaging 13.5 points over the two contests. Villanova is getting contributions from more players as evidenced by the five players in double figures against the Golden Eagles. Maurice Sutton had 11 points and ten boards off the bench with the Wildcat bigs in foul trouble while JayVaughn Pinkston chipped in with 17 points of his own. Villanova committed 20 turnovers, but almost hung on for the win after blowing an early 18-point lead. This week: 2/5 @ Pittsburgh.
- DePaul (11-9, 2-6) – The Blue Demons stunned Rutgers on Wednesday in their only game of the week. Freshman Jamee Crockett continued his solid play, scoring 17 of his 20 points in the second half as DePaul overcame an 11-point road deficit. Crockett was five of seven from deep en route to his career-high point total. DePaul assisted on 19 of its 24 made field goals. This team is still a major work in progress, but Oliver Purnell is doing a nice job establishing the culture and making the Blue Demons competitive in his second year at the helm. This week: 2/1 vs. St. John’s, 2/4 @ Cincinnati.
- Providence (12-10, 1-8) – Unfortunately for the Friars, they were just what the doctor ordered for Pittsburgh in snapping the Panthers’ eight game losing streak. Vincent Council nearly had a triple-double in that game (26/10/9), falling one assist short. Bryce Cotton had 20 points but Providence allowed 86 points to the previously offensively challenged Panthers. PC ‘s three of 17 shooting from beyond the arc didn’t help matters either. In Sunday’s loss at South Florida, LaDontae Henton went off for 24 first half points, finishing with 33 for the game. Cotton added 16 but Council struggled to shoot (4-15 FG) despite dishing out 10 assists. The Friars have a chance to get back on the winning track with two upcoming games at the Dunkin Donuts Center. This week: 2/1 vs. Rutgers, 2/5 vs. #22 West Virginia.
- Monday, 1/30: Pittsburgh at #22 West Virginia – The Backyard Brawl is always a war and the Panthers are coming into the game brimming with confidence. With Woodall back, this game may be a lot closer than you might expect.
- Wednesday, 2/1: #23 Connecticut at #11 Georgetown – The Huskies are mired in a slump and it doesn’t get any easier on the road at Georgetown. If the Hoyas defend, they should be able to pick apart and easily frustrate a team severely lacking in chemistry and leadership.
- Saturday, 2/4: South Florida at #11 Georgetown – Could history repeat itself? The Bulls won in DC two seasons ago, their 15th win of a season that eventually resulted with an NIT bid. This would be USF’s 14th win this season (its seventh in conference) and one that could launch them into NCAA contention.
- Saturday, 2/4: Seton Hall at #23 Connecticut – They should call this one the “Desperation Bowl.” Nothing is a given in this year’s Big East, but if you assume Seton Hall loses at Marquette and Connecticut loses at Georgetown this week, these teams will have lost a combined 11 of 13 games heading into this one. The loser of this one could very well end up on NCAA Tournament life support.
- Saturday, 2/4: #17 Marquette at Notre Dame – The Irish have almost an entire week to prepare for this game as they return to South Bend after a road trip that couldn’t have gone better. Marquette is the hottest team in the conference not named Syracuse but this would be another huge win for the Irish at home.
Caught On Film
Watch the West Virginia bench erupt as the officials blow the obvious goaltending call in the final seconds of a two-point game.