Checking In On… The Big East ConferencePosted by Brian Goodman on February 20th, 2012
Brian Otskey is the RTC correspondent for the Big East conference. You can find him on Twitter @botskey.
The Week That Was
- Bubble Teams Hanging On: Four Big East squads reside in the purgatory known as Bubbleville, but all are still hanging on to their projected NCAA bids. Cincinnati, Seton Hall, West Virginia, and Connecticut are all projected to be in the NCAA Tournament field as of this writing according to ESPN’s Joe Lunardi, but it’s the Pirates who are really skating on thin ice. The Hall is one of the “last four in” and has a huge opportunity this week against Georgetown. Cincinnati has a similar opportunity against Louisville while West Virginia has two excellent chances to seal the deal this week. As for Connecticut, the Huskies appear to be imploding. How UConn responds against Villanova on Monday night and Syracuse this coming Saturday will determine its fate.
- South Florida Guaranteed a Winning Record: With its win at Pittsburgh on Sunday night, South Florida won its tenth Big East game for the first time ever and is now guaranteed at least a 10-8 Big East finish. However, the Bulls have their sights set higher. Thanks in part to a backloaded schedule, USF’s best win to this point is over bubble team Seton Hall, but upcoming games against Cincinnati and West Virginia could push the Bulls towards the field if they can win. South Florida needs to finish at least 12-6 in order to have a chance at a bid. Even with that, the Bulls will likely need to do a lot of work in New York City. A 12-6 league record is usually automatic, but not when your best non-conference win is Cleveland State. How much does Stan Heath want the close losses to Southern Miss (two points) and Connecticut (three points) back now?
- Syracuse (27-1, 14-1) – I can hardly remember a year with zero change at the top of the league rankings. Syracuse is simply a cut above every other team in this league although Marquette and Georgetown have closed the gap a little bit over the last few weeks. Syracuse flirted with losses twice last week, but won gutty road games at Louisville and Rutgers. The Orange held Louisville without a point over the final 3:30 and won by a point despite shooting 1-15 from deep and Scoop Jardine going 0-8. Syracuse shot 34% for the game, but limited Louisville to 35%. Against Rutgers, Syracuse shot 50% and Jardine played much better (17 points, 7 assists). C.J. Fair had a stellar game, scoring 21 points and grabbing eight rebounds off the bench. Kris Joseph added 14 for the victors as they moved their overall record to 27-1. Rebounding remains a concern (31-26 Rutgers on the glass), but the Orange continue to roll along. Syracuse will battle Kentucky for the top overall seed in next month’s NCAA Tournament. This week: 2/22 vs. South Florida, 2/25 @ Connecticut.
- Marquette (22-5, 11-3) – Aside from Syracuse there is no hotter team in the Big East. Marquette has won 10 of its last 11 games since starting league play 1-2. Buzz Williams has embraced a smaller, quicker lineup since the injury to Davante Gardner, who is sidelined along with fellow big man Chris Otule. The Golden Eagles are the best three-point shooting team in Big East play and it showed in a win at Connecticut on Saturday. Jae Crowder and Darius Johnson-Odom combined to make eight of 15 threes and Marquette shot 46% from deep for the game. Crowder led the way with 29 points and 12 boards, his best game in what has been a criminally underrated senior campaign for the Georgia native. As Johnson-Odom said after the game, Crowder does everything for this team. Johnson-Odom scored 24 points and Todd Mayo added ten off the bench in the win. One overlooked note: Jamil Wilson is doing an admirable job playing out of position while filling in for Otule and Gardner. Smaller, more athletic forwards allow this team to play fast, maximize possessions and put a ton of points on the board. Marquette is defending fairly well this year, ranking 21st in defensive efficiency. That’s by far the best ranking in Williams’ four seasons on the sidelines in Milwaukee. This week: 2/22 vs. Rutgers, 2/24 @ West Virginia.
- Georgetown (20-5, 10-4) – The Hoyas continue to defend better than any team in the conference, holding Providence to 26% shooting on Saturday night. Georgetown ranks second nationally in three-point defense (27.2%) and is in the top ten in overall defensive efficiency. This team struggles to score at times, but its style of play makes a five-point lead seem insurmountable. The scary part? John Thompson III said after the last game that he expects his team to be even better defensively. Hollis Thompson posted a double-double against Providence while Henry Sims continued to play well, scoring ten points while filling up the stat sheet with seven rebounds and five assists. The Hoyas will have a target on their back when the face Seton Hall on Tuesday night. The Pirates are desperate for a quality win, but rank second-to-last in the conference in offensive efficiency. Could another stellar defensive performance be in the cards for Georgetown? This week: 2/21 @ Seton Hall, 2/25 vs. Villanova.
- Notre Dame (19-8, 11-3) – You just have to love the way this team plays basketball. Mike Brey’s players have no ego and know there isn’t a superstar on the team. They share the ball as well as any team in the conference and are absolutely brimming with confidence as the regular season winds down. Notre Dame moved its winning streak to eight games with a pair of wins against Rutgers and Villanova last week. The game against Villanova was the epitome of mental toughness and resiliency. Down 20 points late in the first half, the Fighting Irish rallied to force overtime and won by four in the extra session. Freshman Pat Connaughton continued his outstanding play, making seven three pointers accounting for all 21 of his points. Jack Cooley had yet another double-double (18/13) and Notre Dame assisted on 20 of 25 made field goals. Jerian Grant and Eric Atkins did most of the dishing, combining for 14 of those 20 assists while also scoring 27 points. The Irish had a much easier time with Rutgers earlier last week, beating the Scarlet Knights by 18 points in South Bend. Cooley went for 22/18 in that game and Notre Dame used a 32-10 edge in free throw attempts to seal the win. The Irish could be looking at two more wins this week with a home game against West Virginia and a trip to bottom feeder St. John’s. This week: 2/22 vs. West Virginia, 2/25 @ St. John’s.
- Louisville (21-6, 9-5) – Louisville almost did enough to knock off Syracuse for the eighth straight time, but it wasn’t meant to be. The Cardinals didn’t score over the final 3:30 and were done in by 35% shooting, 16 turnovers, and a 12-21 effort from the free throw line. Kyle Kuric struggled (1-8 FG) while Gorgui Dieng couldn’t get anything going inside against the imposing back line of Syracuse’s zone. I was surprised Rick Pitino played Dieng in the high post. In the second half, Syracuse backed off Dieng every time he got the ball, daring him to shoot. Kuric should have been the choice in the middle of the zone, but who am I to question a future Hall of Fame coach? Russ Smith was a non-factor against Syracuse as well, turning the ball over four times while not making a single shot from the floor. Saturday at DePaul, Louisville was down by 17 early, but roared back to force overtime, which it won by eight. Kuric and Russ Smith rebounded well with 25 and 16 points, respectively, while Chris Smith chipped in 20. Dieng had five blocks and Louisville forced DePaul into 19 turnovers. Louisville trails Georgetown by one game for the final double bye at the Big East Tournament, but would lose the tiebreaker because of the Hoyas’ win against the Cardinals on December 28. This week: 2/23 @ Cincinnati, 2/26 vs. Pittsburgh.
- Cincinnati (19-8, 9-5) – Despite a 9-5 conference record, Cincinnati is still not a lock for the NCAA Tournament. The Bearcats are going to have to overcome a horrid non-conference schedule and an RPI in the mid 70’s as of this writing. The good news? Cincinnati keeps winning. The Bearcats won twice last week with home victories over Providence and Seton Hall. Different Cincinnati players contributed in the wins with Sean Kilpatrick going for 22 points against Providence and Dion Dixon scoring 20 against Seton Hall. Cincinnati dominated the glass against the thin Friars, 41-26, including 18 offensive rebounds. It was solid defense that won the game against the Pirates, one Cincinnati pretty much had to have for its NCAA chances. Then they held Seton Hall to 35% shooting and jumped out to a 10-0 lead four minutes into the game. The Bearcats never trailed and fended off a late Pirates rally. Cincinnati has two important games this week especially on Thursday night with a chance to pick up a quality home win against Louisville. This week: 2/23 vs. #25 Louisville, 2/26 @ South Florida.
- South Florida (17-10, 10-4) – Two more wins last week gave USF 10 league wins, guaranteeing it a winning Big East record for the first time ever. Anthony Collins tallied a career-high 22 points in addition to recording six assists in the win. The Bulls shot 49% against a Pittsburgh defense that has been lacking all year, the same percentage they shot in a win over Villanova on Wednesday. USF doesn’t win pretty, but it wins and that’s all that matters at this point. The Bulls are still on the fringe of the NCAA picture with only one top 50 win. They went only 6-6 against Division I teams out of conference, with the best win coming over RPI #81 Cleveland State. South Florida has three losses to sub-100 teams and that’s simply not going to be enough unless the Bulls can win home games against both Cincinnati and West Virginia or steal one on the road at Syracuse or Louisville. This week: 2/22 @ #2 Syracuse, 2/26 vs. Cincinnati.
- Seton Hall (18-9, 7-8) – The Pirates could end up sweating it out all the way until Selection Sunday. The Hall has 18 overall wins, but has not beaten a Big East team with a winning record (a dubious distinction shared by Louisville and South Florida as well, among the teams in the top half of the league). Seton Hall gets one final chance on Tuesday night when Georgetown visits the Prudential Center. Win that one and the Pirates are looking good, barring a loss to Rutgers or DePaul in their final two games. Seton Hall blew out St. John’s on Tuesday before losing to Cincinnati in what amounted to a very lackluster effort in a game it really could have used. Everything was clicking for the Pirates against the Johnnies as they made 63% of their threes (62% shooting overall) and placed six players in double figures. It was a different story against the Bearcats as the Hall shot only 35% and couldn’t get anything out of senior leaders Jordan Theodore and Herb Pope. They combined to shoot 9-32 from the floor. Theodore did score 15 points, but it took him 21 shots to do so. Fuquan Edwin had a nice game, but none of the Hall’s freshmen stepped up in a big game on the road. The Pirates don’t have any “bad” losses but their resume is weak on quality wins. The Hall has beaten bubble teams West Virginia and Connecticut as well as probable NIT teams Dayton, St. Joe’s, and VCU. Beating Georgetown would be the win this team desperately needs when presenting its resume to the Selection Committee. This week: 2/21 vs. #10 Georgetown, 2/25 vs. Rutgers.
- West Virginia (17-10, 7-7) – West Virginia picked up a huge road win at Pittsburgh on Thursday. While not a “quality win,” the victory ended a slide of five losses in six games and stabilized the Mountaineers as they begin the stretch run. West Virginia is likely in the NCAA Tournament as of today, but can easily fall out with tough games against Notre Dame, Marquette, and South Florida remaining. Lose all three and they are looking at an 8-10 Big East record at best. Kevin Jones went for 16/13 against Pitt in what was the last edition of the Backyard Brawl for the time being. Truck Bryant scored 15 points coming off the bench while Deniz Kilicli added 14. The Mountaineers dominated the second half with stingy defense and solid rebounding. One win this week could be enough for the Mountaineers to lock up a bid but that’s certainly not a sure thing. This week: 2/22 @ #21 Notre Dame, 2/24 vs. #12 Marquette.
- Connecticut (16-10, 6-8) – What a mess. The Huskies are 4-9 in calendar year 2012 and Shabazz Napier questioned the team’s heart after the latest embarrassing loss to Marquette. The Golden Eagles certainly aren’t a bad team, but the way UConn lost was embarrassing. Ryan Boatright picked up a technical with the lead cut to four and Marquette converted both free throws before hitting a three to make it a five-point possession. The Golden Eagles proceeded to run the Huskies out of their own gym in a 15-point win. Connecticut has now lost seven of its last nine games and faces two big games this week. Villanova will be out for blood on Big Monday before Syracuse pays a visit on Saturday. With Jim Calhoun still out (at least for Villanova), this team is in total disarray and the locker room is sour. If UConn doesn’t pick it up starting tonight, its season may be over. This week: 2/20 @ Villanova, 2/25 vs. #2 Syracuse.
- Rutgers (12-15, 4-10) – Sunday’s loss to Syracuse was actually a positive step for Rutgers. Mike Rice’s young team competed well and went toe-to-toe with an elite team, but couldn’t close the deal down the stretch. Rutgers got within two points late, but Scoop Jardine’s dagger three sealed the deal for Syracuse. Gilvydas Biruta tied his career high with 21 points in the loss while Mike Poole added ten. However, Eli Carter struggled and Rutgers shot only 3-18 from three-point land. The Knights did hold a 31-26 edge on the boards against a Syracuse team that struggles to rebound, though. Dane Miller wasn’t a big factor against Syracuse, but had 11 points and 12 rebounds in a loss to Notre Dame earlier in the week. Rutgers has a pair of road games this week before returning home to close the season. The Scarlet Knights have a good chance to finish the season with a 6-12 mark in the Big East, one game better than last season’s 5-13 mark. Rice is taking baby steps with a young team, but he’s making pretty good progress in building up this perennial doormat. This week: 2/22 @ #12 Marquette, 2/25 @ Seton Hall.
- Pittsburgh (15-13, 4-11) – If you didn’t realize it already, the Panthers just aren’t any good. Dreams of a miracle NCAA run have been shattered with four straight losses, games in which the Panthers averaged only 53 points per game. Pitt turned it over 17 times against West Virginia on Thursday and shot 35% against South Florida on Sunday as Tray Woodall was saddled with foul trouble. Ashton Gibbs didn’t help matters, shooting 3-18 over the last two games. The preseason Big East Player of the Year has seen his production drop off across the board in what has been a lost season for Pitt. There are problems on the defensive end as well. Pitt ranks 145th nationally in defensive efficiency, a far cry from every other year under Jamie Dixon. J.J. Moore was a bright spot against South Florida, scoring 21 points on 8-14 FG. This week: 2/26 @ #25 Louisville.
- Villanova (11-15, 4-10) – Playing without two key cogs is never easy, but Villanova did just that last week. Maalik Wayns was out with a sprained knee while James Bell sat with a sprained ankle. Similar to Pittsburgh, this has been a lost season for Villanova. The Wildcats shot 30% in a loss to South Florida and JayVaughn Pinkston was a complete no-show, shooting 1-13 from the floor. Pinkston redeemed himself against Notre Dame (24 points) but the Wildcats blew a 20-point lead in that one. Villanova did hold a strong edge on the glass but they couldn’t hold on to the lead without Wayns and Bell in the lineup. Villanova has a chance to spoil UConn’s season with a win on Monday night at the Wells Fargo Center. This week: 2/20 vs. Connecticut, 2/25 @ #10 Georgetown.
- St. John’s (11-16, 4-10) – It was a bipolar week for St. John’s. On Tuesday, the Red Storm lost by 30 points at Seton Hall. St. John’s allowed the Hall to shoot 62% for the game and a scorching 63% from beyond the three point line. Against UCLA on Saturday, St. John’s actually beat the Bruins thanks to 19 offensive rebounds. D’Angelo Harrison (22 points) and Moe Harkless (10/12) led the way yet again for Mike Dunlap as the Johnnies overcame a frosty 37% shooting effort. At 11-16, St. John’s is playing out the string and is reduced to a team trying to play spoiler. The Red Storm can do that on Saturday when they host Notre Dame. This week: 2/20 vs. DePaul, 2/25 vs. #21 Notre Dame.
- DePaul (11-15, 2-12) – Despite a blowout loss at Connecticut, the Blue Demons move up one notch thanks to a competitive showing against Louisville on Saturday. DePaul was actually up by 17 points, but couldn’t close the deal against the Cardinals. Brandon Young had an outstanding game scoring 27 points (10-13 FG) and helping his team to a 49% shooting performance against a very strong defensive team. DePaul forced Louisville to play its style of basketball and forced plenty of turnovers. Unfortunately for the Blue Demons, they turned it over 19 times themselves, negating any advantage gained through style of play. Cleveland Melvin recorded a double-double in the loss as well. This week: 2/20 @ St. John’s, 2/25 vs. Providence.
- Providence (13-15, 2-13) – The Friars will battle for the basement this Saturday when they visit DePaul. Providence lost a pair of games last week, falling to 2-13 in conference play. It’s been a rough season for Ed Cooley, but he has the pieces to build for next year and beyond, highlighted by a highly-ranked recruiting class. A late Providence rally fell short at Cincinnati earlier in the week while the Friars couldn’t quite get one going against a tough Georgetown team on Saturday. Bryce Cotton and LaDontae Henton were off against the Hoyas and Providence shot only 26% for the game. Henton played much better against Cincinnati (24 points) and Vincent Council scored 29 against the Bearcats. However, only three Friars combined for 64 of their 66 points against Cincy. No bench player scored a point either, showing you just how thin this team really is. This week: 2/25 @ DePaul.
- Monday, 2/20: Connecticut @ Villanova – More on this below, but the Huskies pretty much have to win this game.
- Tuesday, 2/21: #10 Georgetown @ Seton Hall – The Pirates have solid computer numbers but the resume is lacking. A win here would likely put Seton Hall in its first NCAA Tournament since 2006.
- Wednesday, 2/22: South Florida @ #2 Syracuse – South Florida is on the outside of the NCAA picture, but an upset in the Carrier Dome would put them on the map. USF can muck it up and slow it down, but a win in Syracuse would be an absolute shock.
- Wednesday, 2/22: West Virginia @ #21 Notre Dame – The Mountaineers have a tough week, starting here. ND almost never loses at home and beat West Virginia in Morgantown earlier this month. A win in South Bend likely locks up a bid for West Virginia but two losses this week would make its situation murky.
- Thursday, 2/23: #25 Louisville @ Cincinnati – Cincinnati’s record is solid, but the computer numbers are horrid. The Bearcats need quality wins and this would certainly be one.
- Friday, 2/24: #12 Marquette @ West Virginia – Another opportunity for West Virginia to all but wrap up its case. Beating Marquette is not easy for a team that can’t shoot from the outside but Kevin Jones could cause major matchup problems for the Golden Eagles.
- Saturday, 2/25: #2 Syracuse @ Connecticut – Similar to the other teams on this list, UConn is in with a win. Easier said than done but the Huskies did play fairly well for 30 minutes in the first meeting.
- Sunday, 2/26: Cincinnati @ South Florida – This is a must-win for South Florida and an equally important game for Cincinnati. If the Bearcats can’t beat Louisville on Thursday, this essentially amounts to an elimination game. South Florida still would not be in with a win against the Bearcats.
Spotlight On …
… Connecticut: If Shabazz Napier’s comments are any indication, this team’s chemistry has been poisoned and the Huskies are dead men walking. Even though UConn plays Providence and Pittsburgh in the last week of the regular season, the Huskies are in a tailspin that can only be corrected by someone other than Napier taking responsibility and leading the team on and off the court. At 6-8 in the Big East, Connecticut must get to 9-9 in order to have a good chance at the NCAA Tournament. That means Monday night’s game at Villanova becomes the biggest game of its season. If you assume a loss to Syracuse and wins against Providence and Pitt, the Huskies have to win in Philadelphia. Despite its record, Villanova has some talent and can easily beat Connecticut at the Wells Fargo Center. Just ask Notre Dame. The Irish needed a furious 20-point comeback just to force overtime against a Villanova team playing without Maalik Wayns and James Bell. We keep hearing members of the media say things like “They went 9-9 last year, of course they can make a run.” I have got news for those folks: Kemba Walker is on the Charlotte Bobcats’ roster. His jersey does not say “UConn” on the front of it. While Jeremy Lamb certainly contributed to last year’s NCAA run, that title belongs to Kemba. Connecticut can certainly still make the NCAA Tournament but anyone banking on this team turning it around and making a deep tournament run is just setting themselves up for disappointment.