Ten Games to Watch in Big East Play This SeasonPosted by Chris Johnson on September 6th, 2012
Christopher Johnson is an RTC columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn.
Conference schedule releases, no matter how far in advance of their realization on the court, inevitably spawn anticipatory discussion and analysis of teams and the relative difficulty of their matchups at hand. The excitement prompts some to pencil in their sports-watching travel arrangements, while others pull out calendars and simply mark down designated college hoops viewing days. This year’s Big East docket is not at all different. Of the 135 games on this year’s regular season Big East slate, 75 will be nationally televised, 100 will feature at least one NCAA Tournament team from last season and 37 will match two such opponents. It’s arguably one of the best leagues in the sport, so it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that most Big East competition is defined by high-quality matchups between nationally successful programs. Still, it’s refreshing to see the specifics of league play – not just in the Big East, but for most of the sport’s high-major conferences – in plain view and know that those gritty, high-stakes conference matchups aren’t too far off. What follows is a list of my 10 most intriguing games on this year’s Big East slate. The vagaries of nonleague play can alter each team’s outlook before they begin conference games, but from my distant vantage point, these are the fixtures (in chronological order) that inspire the most competitive draw.
Cincinnati at Pittsburgh (Monday, December 31 – ESPN2). The first game of league play sets up as one of the most entertaining, a match-up of two hard-nosed teams with established track records and fervent fan bases. The Oakland Zoo has long held a reputation as one of the sport’s most raucous and rowdy courtside environments. Cincinnati brings back its starting backcourt of Sean Kilpatrick, Jaquon Parker and Cashmere Wright from last year’s Sweet Sixteen team, while Pittsburgh hopes to rebound after missing the NCAAs for the first time in 10 seasons with fifth-year senior point guard Tray Woodall, a vaunted frontcourt tandem in Talib Zanna and Dante Taylor and a promising batch of new recruits. The stylistic contrast between the Bearcats’ talented backcourt and the Panthers’ ferocious low block duo should make for an interesting strategic chess match. A must-see showdown of league contenders to send us into the new year: What could be better?
Georgetown at Marquette (Saturday, January 5 – Big East Network). Both teams lose large swaths of minutes and production after earning #3 seeds in last year’s Tournament. The Hoyas do return Otto Porter, a potential league player of the year candidate poised to make an impressive freshman-to-sophomore leap, and welcome in four star-recruits Stephen Domingo and D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera. All the eyes will be fixed squarely on Porter in this one, but the Golden Eagles may have a star of their own in junior guard Vander Blue, an explosive 6’4″ scoring dynamo who should see his shot opportunities increase with the departures of Jae Crowder and Darius Johnson-Odom. These two programs are in the midst of semi-rebuilding projects, but both have more than enough talent and depth to make return runs to the NCAA Tournament. Plus, whenever Buzz Williams takes the floor, it’s always must-see viewing.
Cincinnati at Rutgers (Saturday, January 12 – Big East Network). This could be the year when head coach Mike Rice’s unprecedented recruiting success in New Brunswick culminates in a favorable postseason destination. Guards Eli Carter, Myles Mack and Jerome Seagers submitted strong freshman seasons, while forward Kadeem Jack showed promise as an interior scoring presence. The Scarlet Knights knocked off Florida, UConn, Notre Dame and Cincinnati at the RAC last season, and this year’s team is undeniably better. The Bearcats will approach this game with some measure of trepidation after last year’s slip-up, but Rutgers’ young backcourt should matchup well with Cincy’s vaunted guard rotation. Rice’s squad will need a few home upsets to make some noise on Selection Sunday; this is as good an opportunity as any. The on-court matchup is the main attraction, but the strategic battle waged between two of the sport’s best young coaching minds – Mick Cronin and Rice – will be equally riveting for college hoops junkies.
Georgetown at South Florida (Saturday, January 19 – Big East Network). There are few teams that employ uglier stylistic gameplans than South Florida. Last season, Stan Heath’s crew stymied opponents with swarming half-court defense, but their exploits on the other end of the floor were far less admirable. Possessions were quite predictable: Waste away 20 to 25 seconds of shot clock on two or three different actions, set countless ineffective screens, then stand idly by as point guard Anthony Collins frantically dribbled in circles and singlehandedly attacked defenses off the dribble. Scoring wasn’t a huge concern for the Bulls, mostly because their defensive prowess rarely demanded they notch more than 65 points. It’s not aesthetically pleasing, but the formula largely worked, and Georgetown will have to fight hard to avoid getting caught up in one of USF’s trademark 59-58 tempo-killing eyesores. The loss of shot-blocking force Augustus Gilchrist to graduation should hurt the Bulls’ interior defense, but with Heath’s philosophy firmly entrenched in his players’ collective psyche, expect another year of doctrinal boredom.
Syracuse at Pittsburgh (Saturday, February 2 – ESPN). This series will continue in the confines of ACC play in 2013-14, but its final hurrah in Big East play is certainly worth the watch. The Orange, per usual, reload after losing much of their starting rotation from last season, including first round picks Dion Waiters and Fab Melo and floor general Scoop Jardine. Brandon Triche is back alongside scantily-used sophomore wing Michael Carter-Williams, stretch four James Southerland and emerging big man Rakeem Christmas. It requires no huge stretch of the imagination to think Syracuse can contend for a Big East title and top-four Tournament seed, even with some considerable roster turnover. Pittsburgh, too, could return to familiar territory among the conference elite, but will rely on two highly-touted freshman – seven-foot New Zealander Steven Adams and point guard James Robinson – for significant minutes and scoring. A win over a purported league juggernaut could mark a favorable chip in the Panthers’ return mission to their customary postseason destination.
Louisville at Notre Dame (Saturday, February 9 – ESPN/ESPN2). No team is safe when entering the Joyce Center. Then-No. 1 Syracuse learned that lesson last season. Louisville may very well tout a top-three ranking into this match-up and – like so many of the fallen foes that have left South Bend in perplexing defeat – it will be vulnerable to the Irish’s challenging style, a guard-heavy system predicated on hot three-point shooting (at home, those long-range bombs – no matter how strong the defensive forces working against them – always seem to fall). Mike Brey returns a coterie of talented guards (Jerian Grant, Pat Connaughton, Eric Atkins) and will incorporate incoming small forward Cameron Biedschied into that deep rotation. With Jack Cooley crashing the boards and supplying double-digit scoring on the low block, Notre Dame also has the size to bang around with the likes of Chane Behanan and Gorgui Dieng. In recent years, the Irish have weathered significant disadvantages in talent and depth to topple superior opponents. This season, they have the size, experience and the confidence to protect homecourt against the most elite programs in the nation. Louisville has all the pieces in place to contend for a national championship, but it’s still vulnerable against the plucky Irish. Cardinals beware.
Cincinnati at Connecticut (Thursday, February 21 – ESPN/ESPN 2). Thanks to the NCAA’s stringent academic standards and UConn’s failure to meet them, there will be no NCAA Tournament for the Huskies next season, no matter how many RPI top 50 wins or nonleague upsets they muster. A young and depleted roster – the Huskies return guards Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatwright, but little in the way of frontcourt talent or rotational depth – may have mailed it in at this late date. Without postseason motivation, the ultimate meaningless of their season may temper their competitive drive and Jim Calhoun could be left with a lethargic and negligent group. There is no Kemba Walker-type leadership personality to prevent a sense of despondency and indifference from fomenting in practices and games. Just two years removed from a national championship, the Huskies face an enduring road ahead. Unless Calhoun can ignite his inexperienced roster and create some kind of effective motivation, the Huskies could end up with a bottom half-league finish. There wasn’t much talent to begin with; the penalty represents added negative momentum. If there is any fight left in this group, any pride, playing spoiler for likely Tournament-bound Cincinnati requires an inspired performance.
Louisville at Syracuse (Saturday, March 2 – CBS). Two league front-runners meet at the back end of the league schedule in a potential championship-defining match-up. The Cardinals feature one of the nation’s deepest and most talented rosters, while Syracuse – despite losing several key players from last season’s Elite Eight team – returns a youthful but promising core. Most expect Louisville will challenge for a #1 or #2 seed in next year’s Tournament, and avoiding a late-season upset at the Carrier Dome might be necessary to keep those hopes alive. Syracuse may shatter the 30,000 attendance mark for this putative conference title bout, particularly if Boeheim can morph his refurbished rotation into a cohesive and potent group in time for a league title push. This very well could be the last time a top-five Big East opponent invades the Carrier Dome. Syracuse eked out a 52-51 win there last season in a game where Louisville matched the Orange’s trademark zone with its own unique cast of defensive tactics. This time, the Cardinals should be favored, but beating the Orange in their seemingly impenetrable home fortress has proven difficult for even the most formidable opponents in recent years.
Villanova at Pittsburgh (Sunday, March 3 – Big East Network). With Pitt bolting for the ACC soon, this marks the last meeting of the long and storied Pittsburgh-Villanova rivalry (unless the two Keystone state hoops competitors decide to meet up in the non-conference slate). There have been great moments – Scottie Reynolds’ last second game-winner in the 2009 Elite Eight comes to mind – but the match-ups have always produced a healthy dose of college hoops antagonism, and it’s a shame these teams won’t be settling their differences on the court beyond next season. On paper, the Panthers have the edge, but Villanova won’t take well to ending this historic series on a sour note. If highly-touted point guard Ryan Arcidiacono arrives as advertised, the Wildcats could send their western Pennsylvania adversaries into a new league with a bad taste in their mouths. If this is indeed the final meeting between these two teams, let it be thrilling… and full of competitive antagonism.
Syracuse at Georgetown (Saturday, March 9 – ESPN). Another historic rivalry derailed by football-motivated conference realignment. Many a tear will be shed as the Orange and Hoyas conclude their hate-based relationship at the Verizon Center. On the final day of league play, both teams could be vying for a Big East title, not to mention seeding implications for the conference and NCAA Tournament. The Orange appear the deeper and altogether more well-rounded outfit, but it remains to be seen whether they can match the hyper-versatile Porter. Here’s to an epic swan song of one of the sport’s best and most exciting adversarial relationships. And rest assured, the Hoyas – who have been overshadowed on the national stage for the better part of the last decade – will fight to the death to ensure they serve up a lamentable parting shot for the ACC-bound Orange and come away with a series-ending victory in tow. If there’s one rivalry worth preserving beyond its post-realignment destruction date, it’s this one.