Checking In On… the Big East ConferencePosted by Brian Goodman on February 6th, 2012
Brian Otskey is the RTC correspondent for the Big East conference. You can find him on Twitter @botskey.
The Week That Was
- Fab Melo Returns: After missing three games due to an academic issue, Fab Melo returned to the Syracuse lineup Saturday afternoon in New York. Melo scored a career-high 14 points in 21 minutes but, more importantly, changed the dynamic of Syracuse on both ends of the floor. Melo’s return adds some rebounding, opens up the middle for others to drive and score/dish and gives the Orange a defensive anchor in the middle of their zone. Melo doesn’t block every shot, but he alters a very high number. With the Brazilian big man roaming the paint, Syracuse is a legitimate national championship contender, something that was plainly evident on Saturday. Despite a backloaded schedule coming into view over the next few weeks, I’d be surprised if Syracuse loses another regular season game.
- Pittsburgh Is Back: Oh Jamie Dixon, why did we doubt you? We should have known better. After starting the conference season 0-7, Pittsburgh has won four straight games and is actually in a position to make a run at the NCAA Tournament. The Panthers’ resurgence has been keyed by the return of Tray Woodall and better play defensively. Woodall scored a career-high 29 points against Villanova on Sunday and the Panthers held the Wildcats to 36% shooting. That’s the Pittsburgh defense we’ve grown accustomed to over the years and if it keeps up, Pittsburgh will go dancing. Pitt faces a crucial week. It must take at least one (preferably both) road game of the two at South Florida and Seton Hall between now and Sunday. If the Panthers can get both, they’ll be 6-7 with three of their final five games at home. I actually feel safe saying something that would have been considered outrageous just two weeks ago: I believe Pittsburgh will be in the NCAA Tournament.
- Order Being Restored: Pittsburgh has won four straight. Seton Hall has lost six straight. South Florida lost by 30 at Georgetown on Saturday. Louisville has turned it around. All of that tells you something, doesn’t it? The Big East is shuffling back into place as we head into the home stretch of the season. While the Pirates and Bulls were nice early-season surprises and feel-good stories, reality has set in. Seton Hall was ranked in the top 25 as recently as January 9, but hasn’t won a game since a victory over DePaul the following day. The Pirates are anemic offensively and can hardly shoot 30% against any opponent. I wrote a piece last week about what has gone wrong at the Hall, but it shows no signs of stopping this tailspin anytime soon. South Florida remains at 6-4, but four of its final seven games are on the road as the schedule stiffens. The Bulls will play Pittsburgh twice, Syracuse, Cincinnati, Louisville and West Virginia down the stretch. Expect their 6-4 record to turn into something like 8-10 rather quickly. Even if that happens, it has still been a successful season for Stan Heath and his team. Nobody expected them to win even six or seven league games.
- Syracuse (23-1, 10-1) – What a difference one player makes. Syracuse played only once last week, but Fab Melo’s return sparked the Orange to dunk-filled 95-70 win over hapless St. John’s at Madison Square Garden. The win, Jim Boeheim’s 879th, pulled him into a tie with legendary North Carolina coach Dean Smith for third place on the all-time wins list. Boeheim has this team humming right along and it shows no signs of stopping anytime soon. Syracuse scored 53 bench points against the Red Storm, once again showing off its incredible depth and talent. Michael Carter-Williams electrified the Garden crowd with this dunk while C.J. Fair, Dion Waiters and Kris Joseph also played very well for the Orange. Syracuse shot 56% for the game. The schedule gets tougher in February but Syracuse should be favored in every game from here on out. This week: 2/8 vs. #15 Georgetown, 2/11 vs. Connecticut.
- Georgetown (18-4, 8-3) – Just when I start to doubt the Hoyas, they respond with two impressive home wins. Georgetown held Connecticut to 44 points before throttling South Florida by 30 points on Saturday. UConn shot 30% while USF couldn’t manage much better (31%). The Hoya defense is rolling heading into a rivalry showdown with Syracuse at the Carrier Dome on Wednesday night. Hollis Thompson had 18 points and nine rebounds against Connecticut while Henry Sims (13/9) and Otto Porter (12 points) were the main contributors against South Florida. Georgetown held South Florida to just five points in the first 15 minutes of the game. If John Thompson III’s team can shock the world on Wednesday, the Hoyas will have an outside shot to win the conference should Syracuse falter again. This week: 2/8 @ #2 Syracuse, 2/12 vs. St. John’s.
- Marquette (19-5, 8-3) – The Golden Eagles again got off to a slow start against Seton Hall, trailing the slumping Pirates at halftime at the Bradley Center before using a Vander Blue-sparked 16-2 second half run to put the Hall away. Blue had 16 points and eight rebounds on 7-10 shooting for the home team. Jae Crowder went for 20 points and 12 boards in that game but was a non-factor in MU’s loss at Notre Dame on Saturday. Crowder went 2-7 from the floor and his team couldn’t buy a bucket from deep (2-13 3FG). More concerning was the fact that Marquette didn’t guard well against the Irish. Notre Dame shot 50% for the game. While that happens to many ND opponents at the Joyce Center, Marquette is one of those teams that must guard well in order to contend. This team has done a much better job this season than in past years under Buzz Williams, but the Golden Eagles need to defend better on a more consistent basis to do well in March. This week: 2/6 @ DePaul, 2/11 vs. Cincinnati.
- Notre Dame (15-8, 7-3) – Look what team is in position for a Big East Tournament double-bye: None other than Mike Brey’s Fighting Irish. Notre Dame has won four straight games and looks to be a solid NCAA Tournament team at this point. With home games remaining against DePaul, Rutgers, West Virginia and Providence, the Irish are pretty much assured of 10 or 11 conference wins no matter what they do on the road. Pat Connaughton scored 23 points and grabbed 11 rebounds on 9 of 12 shooting against Marquette. Connaughton made five three pointers and has added yet another spark to an already white hot team. Eric Atkins added 18 points as the Irish shot 50% and went 11-23 from deep in the easy victory. This is a dangerous team brimming with confidence, one that nobody in this conference wants to play right now. This week: 2/8 @ #25 West Virginia, 2/11 vs. DePaul.
- Louisville (18-5, 6-4) – After losing five of seven games from late December to mid January, Louisville has righted the ship. The Cardinals have won four straight games as they head into a tough three-game stretch against UConn, West Virginia and Syracuse. Louisville beat Rutgers, 78-66, on Saturday behind Chane Behanan’s career game. Behanan made 11 of his 12 field goal attempts, scoring 23 points while pulling down 11 rebounds. Chris Smith added 13 boards for the Cardinals, who dominated the glass 40-22. Louisville shot 49% and got to the foul line 32 times against the Scarlet Knights, helping to erase 18 Cardinals turnovers. At 6-4, Louisville is in a stable position in the middle of the conference. If the Cardinals can win two of their next three games and take care of business down the stretch, they’ll be in prime position heading into March. This week: 2/6 vs. Connecticut, 2/11 @ #25 West Virginia.
- West Virginia (16-8, 6-5) – Barring a collapse, West Virginia will be in the NCAA Tournament. However, it’s becoming increasingly likely that the Mountaineers will finish either 9-9 or 10-8 in the conference. After escaping Providence for an important win on Sunday (one that snapped a three-game losing streak), West Virginia enters the toughest portion of its schedule. The Mountaineers have to win at least two of their next five games against Notre Dame (twice), Louisville, Pittsburgh and Marquette. No easy task. WVU lost the Backyard Brawl to Pittsburgh last Monday in Morgantown despite 21 points and 13 boards from Kevin Jones. Against Providence, Truck Bryant was the hero. Bryant hit the game winning triple in overtime, three of his game-high 32 points. Jones went for 20 points while Deniz Kilicli scored a career-high 22 for Bob Huggins. The Mountaineers overcame a poor defensive performance and rallied to beat the pesky Friars. West Virginia must protect its home court this week. This week: 2/8 vs. Notre Dame, 2/11 vs. Louisville.
- Cincinnati (16-7, 6-4) – Cincinnati was able to hold off an upset-minded DePaul team on Saturday at home. The Bearcats were in a dogfight most of the game before pulling away down the stretch. Cincinnati placed five guys in double figures against the porous DePaul defense, including Justin Jackson’s 14 points on 5-5 shooting off the bench. Cashmere Wright provided a spark late, scoring all 11 of his points in the second half. Cincinnati used 17 DePaul turnovers to its advantage in the win. Two tricky road games await this week. Lose both and Cincinnati will be 6-6, putting pressure on its final six games. Poor computer numbers will keep the Bearcats on the bubble unless they win 11 Big East games. This week: 2/8 @ St. John’s, 2/11 @ #14 Marquette.
- Connecticut (15-7, 5-5) – After hitting rock bottom offensively against Georgetown, Connecticut responded with a critical win over reeling Seton Hall on Saturday. Ryan Boatright sparked the Huskies after George Blaney went with a three-guard lineup for the first time this season. Blaney will coach indefinitely as Jim Calhoun recovers from spinal stenosis. Boatright scored 19 points on 8-12 shooting while recording five assists and four steals. Jeremy Lamb added 17 and eight but went just 3-10 from the floor. Another positive sign was Alex Oriakhi’s 10 points and eight boards. If Oriakhi can somehow break out of his season-long slump, the Huskies could still make some noise. However, UConn must be careful. It is only 5-5 and its backloaded schedule takes full effect this week with two tough road games. The Huskies could easily be 5-7 this time next week and in need of a strong finish just to make the NCAA Tournament. That’s why Saturday’s win was so important. This week: 2/6 @ Louisville, 2/11 @ #2 Syracuse.
- Pittsburgh (15-9, 4-7) – It’s amazing how one player’s return can turn a season around. That’s exactly what Tray Woodall has done for Pittsburgh. The Panther point guard scored 56 points last week in wins over West Virginia and Villanova while his wingman, Ashton Gibbs, is playing much better as well. The Panthers are the hottest team in the Big East outside of Syracuse and South Bend and are making a strong push towards a miraculous NCAA berth. There is still a ways to go, but it’s hard to say this team won’t make it given its level of play and a lightened February schedule. The Panthers were 21-26 from the charity stripe at West Virginia and held the Mountaineers to 40% shooting. They did even better against Villanova, limiting the Wildcats to 36%. Pitt is defending again and that may be even more important than its offensive improvement. This week: 2/8 @ South Florida, 2/12 @ Seton Hall.
- South Florida (13-10, 6-4) – After getting pasted at Georgetown on Saturday, South Florida’s faint NCAA hopes are just about extinguished. Despite a 6-4 conference record, USF lacks the resume heft needed to contend for a bid. A win at Georgetown would have provided that, but the Bulls were thoroughly embarrassed. South Florida did not score a single point for a 10:52 stretch in the first half. USF had only five points with five minutes to go in the first stanza and scored only 45 for the game on 31% shooting. The Bulls turned the ball over 17 times as starting point guard Anthony Collins was saddled with foul trouble. Augustus Gilchrist scored 15 points but it wasn’t nearly enough. USF must win twice this week in order to creep back in the discussion. This week: 2/8 vs. Pittsburgh, 2/11 @ Providence.
- Seton Hall (15-8, 4-7) – Wow. How do you start a season 15-2 and lose the next six games? I’m not sure, but Seton Hall has done just that. The Pirates are fading fast and their NCAA hopes are now officially on life support after a 69-46 shellacking at UConn on Saturday. Seton Hall actually played well for the first 25 minutes in the game against Marquette earlier in the week, but couldn’t overcome Jordan Theodore’s 3-14 shooting night. Herb Pope scored 16 points (8-14 FG) in his best game since December, but bruised his ribs and didn’t even make the trip to Connecticut. The Pirates shot 26% and were out-rebounded 40-29 against the Huskies. Coach Kevin Willard was ejected after getting T’d up twice by referee Gene Steratore late in the game. Afterwards, Willard didn’t name Steratore but made his displeasure known, saying the officials were enjoying the blowout. It was an embarrassing day for the Pirates and perhaps the nadir in this epic fall from grace. This week: 2/8 @ Rutgers, 2/12 vs. Pittsburgh.
- Rutgers (12-12, 4-7) – Seemingly following in the footsteps of his New Jersey counterpart Kevin Willard, Mike Rice was tossed out of Rutgers’ game at Louisville in the first half, a mere three hours after Willard was sent packing in Hartford. It was an ugly 0-2 week for the Scarlet Knights, with road losses to the Cardinals as well as Providence. Eli Carter tried to keep Rutgers afloat at the KFC Yum! Center with 24 points but it wasn’t enough. Against Providence, Rutgers couldn’t stop the Vincent Council-led Friars. Providence shot 52% and won easily despite Myles Mack’s 16 points and Mike Poole’s 13 on six of nine shooting. Rutgers plays only one game this week, but it’s against in-state rival Seton Hall on Wednesday night at the RAC. This week: 2/8 vs. Seton Hall.
- St. John’s (10-13, 4-7) – The Johnnies were involved in two playground games last week, one a win and one a blowout loss which had about a million dunks. St. John’s knocked off DePaul in Chicago in what was an up-and-down game filled with matador defense. D’Angelo Harrison had a great week, scoring 29 points against the Blue Demons and 23 against Syracuse on Saturday. God’s Gift Achiuwa was a perfect 7 of 7 against DePaul as St. John’s overcame a poor 2-15 FG night from Moe Harkless. The Red Storm should use the final eight games of its season to build some momentum towards next season. This week: 2/8 vs. Cincinnati, 2/12 @ #15 Georgetown.
- Villanova (10-13, 3-8) – Jay Wright has to be highly frustrated. This team has talent but it just can’t get anything going. The Wildcats lost at Pittsburgh on Sunday, falling to 3-8 in conference with four very difficult games still remaining. VU shot only 36% despite placing five players in double figures against the Panthers. Maalik Wayns went only 1 of 10 from deep in the game. Mouphtaou Yarou’s double-double was a plus but this is pretty much a lost season on the Main Line. This week: 2/7 vs. Providence.
- Providence (13-11, 2-9) – It was nearly a wildly successful week for the Friars, but they fell in overtime to West Virginia on Sunday. Providence has proven it can score but Ed Cooley must continue to work on this team’s defense. PC got 16 points and nine assists from Vincent Council, 30 from Gerard Coleman and 17 from LaDontae Henton but didn’t win. Against Rutgers earlier in the week Council had 14 assists, a huge part of the Friars’ 52% shooting. Bilal Dixon had a season-high 18 points and 10 boards against Rutgers. Cooley received some good news this week when Arizona transfer Sidiki Johnson committed to the Friars. Cooley is building a nice foundation for the future in Friartown. This week: 2/7 @ Villanova, 2/11 vs. South Florida.
- DePaul (11-11, 2-8) – The Blue Demons competed well against both St. John’s and Cincinnati but fell short in both games. DePaul continues to get some contributions from someone other than Brandon Young and Cleveland Melvin but it hasn’t been enough to overcome this team’s shoddy defense. Moses Morgan had 19 points against St. John’s while Jamee Crockett had 17 to go with Melvin’s 18/13 against Cincinnati. Melvin also had 22/11 in the St. John’s game and remains one of the more underrated players in America because of the team he is on. Young had 11 points and 14 assists as well against the Red Storm. DePaul faces rival Marquette on Monday, a game the Golden Eagles shouldn’t take for granted. This week: 2/6 vs. #14 Marquette, 2/11 @ Notre Dame.
- Monday, 2/6: Connecticut @ Louisville – A Huskies win would silence the doubters (for the time being) and put Connecticut firmly in the NCAA Tournament. A loss makes a 5-7 conference record a real possibility by the end of the week. Connecticut’s guards must be ready to handle Louisville’s press.
- Wednesday, 2/8: #15 Georgetown @ #2 Syracuse – This is the only meeting of the season between these longtime rivals and there’s a chance it could be the last unless the Big East sticks to its public stance that the conference’s 27-month notification period for departures will be enforced. Georgetown has a chance to pick up the biggest win of any team in the conference in this game.
- Wednesday, 2/8: Pittsburgh @ South Florida – This is a must-win game for both teams. Pittsburgh can’t afford to drop to 4-8 with a deflating loss at fading South Florida and another road game coming up on Sunday. The Bulls need this game to keep any faint NCAA hopes alive.
- Wednesday, 2/8: Notre Dame @ #25 West Virginia – The Irish could very well do it again. West Virginia has looked very shaky over the last two weeks and seems ripe for the picking in this one. Still, the Mountaineers are at home and should be favored.
- Saturday, 2/11: Connecticut @ #2 Syracuse – A huge opportunity for the Huskies but really, who could see them winning here? I certainly can’t, not with Melo back in the Orange lineup. Anything is possible in college basketball, though, and this would be quite the scalp if UConn can get it.
- Saturday, 2/11: Cincinnati @ #14 Marquette – A sneaky-good game between two hard-nosed teams. Cincinnati can shoot the three ball and is one of the few teams that can match Darius Johnson-Odom from long range.
Player of the Year Stock Watch
Kevin Jones, West Virginia (20.9 PPG, 11.5 RPG, 53.9% FG) – Jones remains the clear front-runner for Big East POY as his non-conference statistics have held up in conference play. Jones leads the Big East in scoring and rebounding in all games as well as conference games. Playing for a team that will likely make the NCAA Tournament, Jones has just about locked up this award. It’s been a stellar senior season for a player who many thought would break out last year. It took him an extra year but Jones’ talent is finally on display for the nation to see. He’s being mentioned by some for All-American honors but remains one of the more underrated players nationally. Quite simply, Jones isn’t being talked about enough by the national media and that’s a shame for terrific player putting up some huge numbers in a big time conference. While he isn’t on the level of a Thomas Robinson or Jared Sullinger, Jones deserves some consideration for National Player of the Year and, at the very least, All-America honors.