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.