Some of the speculation circling the Big East‘s media contract negotiations sound fairly dire, but conference officials and commissioner Mike Aresco remain optimistic. While the league expected to sign off on a deal around $100 million in value, the major hits that the conference has taken in both school departures and in the restructuring of the football postseason system has left the Big East very solidly in the sixth spot, behind the other five power conferences. CBS Sports.com reported that the conference’s deal may only come out to $60-$80 million, well short of original expectations. The Big East is now trying to add value by negotiating with multiple potential media partners, and discussing structures that would pit bigger name schools against each other more often in basketball: ”The media companies really like that idea, and so do our basketball schools… It’s the kind of thing that will strengthen our conference.”
In order to teach his team the value of defense, Rick Pitino dusted off some DVDs from all the way back in the mid-2000s and showed his team the play of past Cards such as Andre McGee, Earl Clark, and Terrence Williams. Pitino seems to be stressing the zone this year, which has been a trend throughout the Big East. Obviously, Syracuse has been playing nearly-exclusive zone since the mid-90s, but Louisville has started playing more of the defense over the years, and even Georgetown has added the 2-3 to its repertoire this year (to great success). Jim Boeheim has used his zone to give his team easy offensive opportunities for years, as well as to bait opposing teams into strings of bad possessions, and other programs are catching on. Of course, Pitino isn’t the only coach adding some new weapons to the arsenal that other teams have featured. Boeheim put Syracuse in a Pitino-esque full court zone-press for virtually all of the team’s game against Eastern Michigan. Just as one might assume these old coaches can’t be taught new tricks, they steal one from their rival’s bag.
One of Connecticut‘smajor struggles this year has been generating any kind of presence down low. Enter: Enosch Wolf.The 7’1″ German center had a breakout performance in the Huskies’ loss to NC State at Madison Square Garden earlier this week, scoring 12 points and pulling down nine rebounds. While Tyler Olander and DeAndre Daniels continue to struggle, if the Huskies can get serious production out of Wolf, it takes a lot of pressure off of Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright, a duo who currently account for 47% of UConn’s total offense.
After only averaging 10.3 minutes per game in 2011-12, Michael Carter-Williams has emerged as a star for Syracuse, averaging 11.5 points and leading the nation with 9.5 assists per game this season. The rangy sophomore has flirted with a triple-double on a few occasions this year, coming one assist shy at Arkansas and three rebounds away against Eastern Michigan. “MCW” has four double-digit assist games, and also averages 3.7 steals per contest. When he was recruited, few knew much about the then-three star Carter-Williams, but he quickly shot up the recruiting boards to eventually become a McDonald’s All-American, and at 6’6″, Syracuse fans salivated at the thought of him playing at the top of the zone. That potential seems to be coming to fruition, and if Carter-Williams can consistently knock down his jumper this season, he may develop into another high draft pick for Syracuse very soon.
Coming off of a poor showing in an 82-49 loss to Florida, Marquette takes on in-state rival Wisconsin on Saturday. Wisconsin, which under Bo Ryan is known for the swing offense, has transitioned into more of a Princeton-offense style team this season, a switch which concerns the Marquette staff. The team was used to seeing the Badgers on a regular basis but will be fairly unfamiliar with how Wisconsin plays this season. They may be without Josh Gasser, but Buzz Williams still thinks that Wisconsin is an extremely dangerous team: “I think offensively, as they’ve figured out how to play without Josh and as they’ve become more accustomed to their new offensive system, I think they’re getting better.” Despite the change in system, Wisconsin still beats teams in the same ways: efficient, well-rounded shooting from three-point range, and aggressive man-to-man defense that prevents other teams from doing the same. A win in this rivalry game would really help take the bad taste from the Florida loss out of Golden Eagles fans’ mouths.
Evan Jacoby is a regular contributor for RTC. You can find him @evanjacoby on Twitter. Night Line will run on weeknights during the season, highlighting a major storyline development from that day’s games.
Is it possible for a team ranked in the Top 15 of the AP and Coaches Polls for each of the last ten weeks to be considered under-appreciated? It certainly seems that way for No. 11 Georgetown, a team that ranks third in the Big East at 12-5 and 22-6 overall yet never seems to get mentioned as an elite team. On Senior Night for Henry Sims and Jason Clark Monday, the Hoyas throttled Notre Dame by 18 points and in the process held the Irish to their lowest scoring output (41 points) in a conference game since 1993. While John Thompson III’s team is always first associated with the efficient Princeton-style offense, this year’s team also locks up defensively as well as anyone in the Big East. Their methodical approach on both ends will make the Hoyas a very difficult draw in the NCAA Tournament.
The Hoyas Have Been Strong on Defense All Season Long (AP Photo/R. Lipski)
Georgetown has been a surprise team all season, consistently sitting in the top four of the Big East after being picked to finish 10th in the preseason by conference coaches. But the surprise factor is gone, as the Hoyas were initially ranked in the polls on December 5 and have not dropped out since. This is a classic JTIII team that features a passing big man in the high post (Sims), a bevy of wing players that take and make smart shots in the flow of the offense, and a collective bunch that thrives in a zone defense with their length. While a team like Connecticut has superior NBA talent and big-name scorers, the Hoyas are a far more effective group on both ends of the floor. Monday night’s 59-41 victory over the once-streaking Fighting Irish proved once again that this team is a pain to play against.
Evan Jacoby is an RTC columnist. You can find him @evanJacoby on Twitter. Night Line will run on weeknights during the season, highlighting a major storyline development from that day’s slate of games.
Amidst all the disappointing results coming out of the Big East Conference so far this year, the Georgetown Hoyas are the league’s most pleasant surprise, quickly developing into an impressive team on both ends of the floor. After playing well in its first six games, John Thompson, III’s team officially confirmed its status as a legitimate Top 25 team with a hard-fought win at Alabama on Thursday night. Thanks to the tremendous improvement of center Henry Sims, the Hoyas look like one of Thompson’s teams of old, running a crisp Princeton offense with a go-to big man in the high post, a la Greg Monroe or Roy Hibbert. A team that was picked to finish 10th in the Big East preseason poll, Georgetown suddenly looks like a legitimate contender in the league.
Georgetown Outlasted Alabama, Adding to Its Impressive Early Season Record (AP/R. Sutton)
Thursday’s road win at No. 11 Alabama should open plenty of eyes across the country, in case they weren’t focused on the Hoyas during their solid run last week in the Maui Invitational. With his team down by one, Hollis Thompsonsank a game-winning three-point shot with two seconds to play for the win. In the process, Georgetown snapped the nation’s fourth-longest home winning streak, 24 wins in a row for the Tide in Tuscaloosa. The Hoyas are now 6-1 with two wins over top-15 opponents away from home, the other coming against Memphis in Maui. Their only loss was a slim defeat to Kansas in that same Maui tournament. Georgetown’s resume is shaping up nicely, and Hoya Paranoia is most definitely back in action.
WYN2K. The Sun Belt is a league that has seen better days in the eyes of the basketball world. In the 80s and early 90s, the conference was a top ten league that regularly sent multiple teams to the NCAA Tournament (10 times from 1980-95), peaking at four bids in 1986. Since 1995, however, the league has been exclusively a one-bid conference, as its corresponding seed average has dropped from a #10.9 (1985 to present), to a #12.6 (1995 to present), to a #13.8 seed in the last five years. In other words, the Sun Belt is trending downward (and league officials know it). What was once a proud mid-major league is now clearly a low-major (albeit near the top of that heap), despite its relatively robust 167-208 (.445) record against OOC opponents in the last three years. Some of this may be attributable to a loss of league identity, as the conference expanded away from its mid-South roots and has swelled to thirteen schools that span three time zones in locations that often have very little in common with each other (i.e., Boca Raton, FL, Bowling Green, KY, and Denver, CO).
Predicted Champion.Western Kentucky (#13 seed NCAA). Darrin Horn’s Hilltoppers have been a bit of a hard luck team over the past few seasons, averaging 20.5 wins over his four year tenure and winning one regular season championship, but having no NCAA appearances to show for it. Guards Courtney Lee, Tyrone Brazelton and TyRogers comprise a returning perimeter corps that is among the most experienced and talented in the league, and three other significant contributors return from a 22-11 (12-6) team. If WKU is to slip up, it will probably be because of its sometimes porous defense that has a tendency to give up easy baskets (allowing an eFG% of 52.6% – #272 nationally) and foul a lot (43.2 FTAs given up per game – #284 nationally). We believe this is the year that the Toppers get it done. Check the nasty follow dunk from C-Lee below.
Others Considered. Should WKU falter, the next best teams we see are Louisiana-Monroe and Florida Atlantic. Monroe returns all five starters from an 11-7 team that lost in overtime in the conference finals against North Texas last year. They were nearly unbeatable at home (14-0) and seemed to win all the close games (5-0 in games decided by <6 pts in conference) last year. Because of this, they were considered one of the “luckiest” teams in America last year (#10 via Pomeroy), earning 2.7 wins more than expected by their overall profile. Notwithstanding their luck, we’re just not comfortable picking a team that has nobody taller than 6’8 on their roster. Florida Atlantic is another team that returns substantial experience including the league’s best big man Carlos Monroe, a burly 6’8, 245 lb. beast who shot nearly 60% from the field and pulled down over a quarter (25.8%, #18 nationally) of his team’s defensive boards last year. The Owls also finished strong, winning six of their last seven games and pestering WKU in a tough quarterfinal matchup in the conference tourney before bowing out. New Orleans is also intriguing simply because the Privateers have a new coach in former Cal assistant and Bob Knight disciple Joe Pasternack, but they also have the league’s best player in Bo McCalebb, a Wooden Award candidate who averaged mind-numbing numbers last year (25 ppg, 6.8 rpg, 3.3 apg, 2.0 spg). Did we mention that he was the team’s leading rebounder as a 6’0 guard? There are three other starters returning from a 9-9 team that was #4 nationally in 3fg% (41.4%), #5 nationally in stl% (7.1%) and #11 nationally in to% (17.0%). The Privateers shoot well, take care of the ball, and have a fantastic player – if any team was going to make a huge improvement with a new coach, it would be this team. Quick note: last year’s regular season and tourney champs simply lost too much to be considered as a contender this year – South Alabama lost three starters and its head coach, John Pelphrey, while North Texas lost its top two scorers.
Games to Watch. The top of this league should be exciting to watch this year, as there are several excellent players (Courtney Lee, Bo McCalebb, Carlos Monroe) who could singlehandedly influence the conference race. With the unbalanced schedule in this league, New Orleans appears to be the most likely beneficiary (only three games against the other three, two at home).
RPI Booster Games. Given its location (spanning 2000+ miles from Denver to Miami), the Sun Belt takes on a full complement of SEC and Big 12 teams every year. Last year the league was 2-30 (.063) against BCS teams (WKU 70, Georgia 67; Ark-Little Rock 67, Minnesota 66), and there are a similar amount of games scheduled this year. Here are some highlights.
Louisiana-Monroe @ Kansas (11.09.07)
Florida Atlantic @ Boston College (11.12.07)
South Alabama @ Mississippi (11.13.07)
New Orleans @ NC State (11.18.07)
WKU @ Gonzaga (11.22.07)
Nebraska @ WKU (12.05.07)
Middle Tennessee St. @ Memphis (12.05.07)
Mississippi St. @ South Alabama (12.15.07)
WKU @ Southern Illinois (12.22.07)
Louisiana-Monroe @ Arkansas (12.29.07)
Odds of Multiple NCAA Bids. We’re a long way removed from the Sun Belt’s glory years, so none this year.
Neat-o Stat. Joe Scott is returning to Colorado to take over as head coach at Denver, just a few clicks down the road from where he revitalized the Air Force program in the early 2000s. What should we make of this guy? Using the Princeton offense that he learned under Pete Carril in the 80s as a player and 90s as an assistant, he successfully built the Air Force Academy into a Mountain West champion and NCAA Tournament team in 2004. So how do we explain how he went back to Princeton in 2005 and orchestrated two (out of three) terrible seasons and an overall record of 18-24 in the Ivy League (2-12 in 2007) during his time there? He has yeoman’s work ahead of him, as Denver ranked in the bottom five teams nationally in defensive efficiency (#330) and four other defensive statistics, as well as in the bottom dozen two-point fg% (42.8%) teams in America. Work on layup drills, perhaps?
64/65-Team Era. The Sun Belt is 11-32 (.256) in the NCAA Tourney during this era, but due to the severe drop in league cachet over the last ten to fifteen years, those numbers are somewhat skewed for present consideration, especially when you consider that the league’s last NCAA victory was in 1995 (#8 WKU defeated #9 Michigan 82-76). Despite ten trips to the second round (most trips: WKU with 4), only one team has broken through to the Sweet 16, Ralph Willard’s #7 Western Kentucky squad in 1993. In fact, that Hilltopper team was an overtime loss away (Florida St. 81, WKU 78) from meeting Rick Pitino’s Kentucky team in the elite eight.
Final Thought. We’d love to be able to say that the Sun Belt contains solid mid-major material at the top, but recent history belies that position as only once in the last four years has a Sun Belt team so much as tested its first round NCAA opponent (2005: Louisville 68, Louisiana-Lafayette 62). The other three years the Sun Belt team got blitzed by an average of 16.7 pts, and we’re not sure we see a way for this league to turn things around. It’s uncertain if there’s been any talk to this effect, but perhaps going the WAC/Mountain West route and drafting a few more teams, only to split into two leagues, is the way to re-focus itself.
WYN2K. The Am East has a tendency toward top-heaviness, with a couple of good teams in a given year that are competitive with mid-major and (sometimes) high-major teams while the rest are relegated to the morass of low-major fiefdom. Over the last several years, the three sentinels of America East basketball have been Vermont , Boston U. and Albany, the three of which have won the last six regular season and conference tourney championships of the league (although only once in the same year – Vermont in 2005) . Led by these programs, the conference has gone 119-176 (.403) against nonconference opponents over the last three seasons, which is a clear step up in success from the conferences below it. We expect the same three programs to battle it out for this year’s crown.
Predicted Champion. Vermont (#16 seed NCAA). Choosing UVM here was an extremely close call, as we fully expect BU and Albany to make a push for the league crown as well. Despite the losses of rebounding fiend Chris Holm (#3 in oReb% nationally) and rising star Joe Trapani (transfer to BC), the Catamounts return probable Am East POY Mike Trimboli at the point guard slot. We feel that his heady play, combined with the losses at the other schools will allow Vermont to hang on to the top spot.
Others Considered. BU is rising quickly, led by a quartet of precocious sophomores who surprised the league by finishing 8-8 in the conference last season. The most interesting of these players is Tyler Morris, reigning Am East ROY who also has the distinction of being the HS teammate of Greg Oden and Mike Conley, Jr. See if you can find him in the video below (look very closely for the white kid in green). Two-time defending NCAA entrant Albany must also be dealt with, despite losing Am East POY (twice over) Jamar Wilson. Brent Wilson and Brian Lillis (Am East DPOY) have more than enough support to make another run at the title. A final consideration goes to Binghamton, who hired Georgetown assistant coach Kevin Broadus to bring the Princeton offense to upstate NY. Considering that Binghamton was already one of the most sure-handed offenses in the nation (#9 in oStl%), we think this group will be ready for the transition. It also doesn’t hurt that the 2008 conference tourney will be located in Binghamton. Watch out for the Bearcats as a darkhorse.
Games to Watch. As a one-bid league, only one game will matter to most people.
America East Championship Game (03.15.08). ESPN2.
RPI Booster Games. The America East shies away from playing numerous BCS conference teams (18 games scheduled last year; 16 this year), but it makes up for it by playing quite a few winnable games against mid-major teams. For example, last year Albany defeated Utah to go along with the league’s three wins vs. BCS opponents (Vermont 77, BC 63; Binghamton 79, Miami (FL) 74; Stony Brook 59, Penn St. 51). There are several such opportunities this season.
Vermont @ George Mason (11.09.07)
Vermont @ Virginia (11.11.07)
Boston U. @ George Washington (11.14.07)
Maryland-BC @ Wichita St. (12.04.07)
Albany @ Duke (12.17.07)
Boston U. @ UMass (12.29.07)
Albany @ Iowa St. (12.30.07)
Odds of Multiple NCAA Bids.Zip. Even with Vermont going 15-1 in the league last year and losing to Albany by one point in the conference tourney final, they were relegated to the NIT (losing to Kansas St. 59-57). This year will be a more competitive race, which leaves no opportunity for multiple bids.
Neat-o Stat. We have several today. The Am East is a league where coaches get their starts – names like Jim Calhoun, Rick Pitino, Mike Jarvis, Mike Brey, and Jay Wright all earned their chops in the league before moving onto bigger and better things. Will Binghamton’s Kevin Broadus be the next coaching star from the America East? Also, just call Maryland-Baltimore County’s Brian Hodges the Human Cannon this season – he ranked sixth in the nation in shots attempted, taking 37.4% of his team’s shots while on the floor. Finally, everyone thinks UVM stands for University (of) Ver… Mont, right? Well, no – it actually is latin (Universitas Viridis Montis) for University of the Green Mountains. Go figure.
64/65-Team Era. The America East is 3-23 (.115) over this era, with three first-round victories from 1989 (#14 Siena over #3 Stanford), 1996 (#12 Drexel over #5 Memphis), and 2005 (#13 Vermont over #4 Syracuse). #13 Albany was blitzed last year by #4 Virginia, but in 2006 the Great Danes were leading #1 seed UConn 60-48 with eleven minutes remaining before Marcus Williams took over and finished them off down the stretch (34-9 run by the Huskies). And who can forget the Sorrentine and Coppenrath show vs. Cuse in 2005?
Final Thought. The Am East is one of our favorite low-major leagues. In the few games we see involving these teams, the fans seem to be incredibly rowdy and into the games. The level of basketball as a rule is decidedly below the rim, but teams make up for it in execution and shooting. And how can you not like resident Am East cheerleader (and former UVM coach) Tom Brennan doing studio work for ESPN all winter.
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Dick Vitale is perhaps ESPN’s most easily-recognized personality ever on the college basketball scene. Watch some fellow ESPNers do their best Vitale in celebration of his 35th year with the network.